Canine Behavior/Dog refusing to go outside
QUESTION: Dear Jody,
I'm currently safekeeping (with the help of my family) my girlfriend's rough collie male, who is nearly 8 years old, while she's out of the country. Up until recently we have been walking him 4 times a day, around 4-5 hrs total, as was the arrangement when he was living with her and her family. However, now that the day is shorter (at the moment, here in Serbia, the sun is up from around 7AM till 4PM), he has started boycotting his afternoon and evening walks. The morning walks are mostly ok, from 7:30 to 8:30, and from 10AM to 11:30AM. However, in the afternoon hours he goes into passive mode, sleeping around the house and seems comfortable with not going outside until around 10/11PM. Even then he'll go out only with at least two people, which is often difficult to realize. Even then he might just stop during the walk for no apparent reason, completely refusing to budge an inch in any direction except home. He is very stubborn and capable of standing in one place for a long time until I give in. Today he was indoors from 01PM to 11PM, at which time we barely managed to get him outside to pee once before he decided it is best to turn back home. He just freezes and refuses to move until we comply and start walking in the desired direction. This is a big problem since we are living in an apartment and he is not house trained. I have no idea how unhealthy it is for him to keep it in that long (a lot, I suppose), but he doesn't seem to mind seeing he never did his "business" indoors.
His fear of firecrackers only makes things worse, because every time he hears such a noise he starts running towards home. In this time of the year it is a huge problem, as they can be heard several times a day, more and more often as we are nearing New Year's Eve. As far as I know, he always had these problems, only this time it is worse since he is more persistant then ever.
I think he is accustomed to me since he knows me for almost four years, and I have walked him alone many times in the last two, however my family is new to him. Is there a way to help him feel more secure in walks with us? Also, how dangerous is it for an senior male dog to spend around 10 hours without going to the bathroom?
Sorry for such a long question, but I wanted to include everything important about him that I could remember.
ANSWER: Thank you for your question.
First, I'd like to point out that if she is in fact holding it for 10 hours, then she clearly IS house trained. Being house trained/potty trained simply means that the dog understands that inside is not the place for doing her business and so she holds it until she's in the "right place."
Is it unhealthy to hold it that long? Not specifically, unless she has a health condition. But it's probably not comfortable. So, I agree, we should be aiming for a walk in the late afternoon/early evening so she's not going more than about 6 or 7 hours between potty breaks.
If she's sleeping through much of the late afternoon, this may account for her ability to go so long between potty times as when the dog is sleeping, the organs slow their functioning and so she may not produce as much urine as when she's awake and active.
You mentioned the fireworks that have been happening at this time of year. I suspect that is the main culprit in your dog's fear of evening walks right now. If I were having this problem, I'd address in the following way.
First, you may want to try putting on a snug t-shirt. In the US there's a product called a Thunder Shirt. I'm not sure if that would be available to you, but often a snug t-shirt will work just as well. The consistent sensation of the snug shirt can help to calm and reduce the anxiety of many dogs. The best way to use it is to have it on her for one or both of her morning walks, as well as a period of time while hanging out at home, relaxing or playing or snuggling with humans. This way, we enhance the natural calming factor by also associating it with pleasant things. She should wear it for 1-2 hours at a time, and then take it off for 2-3 hours in between wearings. The reason for this is that after an hour or so, she'll habituate to the sensation and the calming effect will wear off. So taking it off for a few hours and then putting it back on will reestablish that calming effect for another round of an hour or so.
In the evenings, put it on about 5-10 minutes BEFORE you leave for the walk so she doesn't associate putting it on with doing something scary. This also gives it a chance to begin having a calming effect on her before she heads out into the night. Leave it on for about 10 minutes after you return, again so she doesn't associate it directly with the scary event.
Second, I'd spend time with her sitting near an open window - in the safety of the apartment - with super tasty treats (cooked chicken breast or beef or cheese - anything that she thinks is the very best food that ever came across her plate). Have the food in a dish out of her reach, but easily accessible to you. Each time there's a boom or crack of a fire cracker immediately follow it with "yummy!" and hand her a bite of the tasty treat. You can use whatever word you like, but it should be a happy word/tone. Do this (word and hand her/toss her a treat) no matter what she's doing. If she's on the other side of the room, toss the food to her as you say it. If she's engaged with a toy, go ahead and hand or drop the food right near her.
After a couple dozen repetitions, you should start to see that when the firecracker noise happens, she looks to you promptly to see if there's a tasty bite coming her way. Continue "Yummy!" and hand her 3 or 4 bites one at a time. This will drive home that looking to you is exactly what you want her to do.
Essentially, this process is called Counter Conditioning. It means that we're changing her current "Oh no! Those noises may kill me!!!" reaction to "Oh goody! Those noises mean CHEESE!!!!!" We are turning the scary thing into a happy thing for her. We start in the safety of your apartment.
Then, when she's clearly looking to you for a bite to eat each time there's a crack or pop. go to the building's front door. Stand in the doorway or just outside the door if you can't keep the door open. Continue as you did in the apartment - every time you hear a crack/pop, say "Yummy!" and give her a bite to eat.
The evening walks for the next week or two may not go very far. It may only be out far enough to potty and hang out for 5-10 minutes doing the counter conditioning. But as she learns that even when she's outside, those noises mean something good and not something dangerous, you'll likely see her courage increase and her curiosity begin to move her further from the apartment building. The evening walks don't need to be long - just long enough to potty and go back inside. Indoor games can be used for enrichment - mental exercise is much more exhausting than just a long walk.
Just be sure that when you go out for the walk, you bring along about 4 times as many treats as you think you'll need. This way, if she decides to walk further than you expected, you're covered. Or if a firecracker goes off much closer to you than expected, you can shower her in treats (dropping them one at a time in quick succession to the ground right near her) - as many as 15 or 20 bites if she's nervous. This way you won't run out before you get back inside.
NOTE: refusal to eat a favorite treat is a red flag that she's over her fear threshold. If you find that she suddenly won't take the treats that she's been eating, then you've pushed her a little further than she was ready for. Go closer to your building. Or move further away from the scary noise and try again. Make sure she's eating the treats again before you head back inside and take note of how far was too far so that you can stop before that on the next walk and build up to that distance/location a little more slowly.
INDOOR GAMES - You can play Tug if she likes that game or Fetch. Brain games that involve getting food out of food dispensing toys is a great way to engage her. If you don't have any of those available, you can play Find It with her kibble. Hide kibbles around the room and then bring her into the space and tell her "Find it". Initially, you'll hide them in plain sight so it's easy for her. Dogs search wit their nose and so you may see her pass right over a kibble if the odor is being pushed to another part of the room due to air currents. Then, when she finds the odor, she'll follow it back to the source (the kibble) and eat her prize. If you walk around and say "Find It" every time you're near a kibble, you'll help her learn how to search for food. Then, you'll see that any time you say "Find It", she'll start searching the floor because she assumes there's something there for her.
As she gets good at finding the kibbles in plain sight, you can start getting creative - tucking them in corners, under the edge of furniture, on furniture if she's allowed to get up, under blankets or pillows, etc. so that she has to work a bit harder to locate and access the food.
Or you can use boxes and put food in just one box, but have several boxes/containers out. Then, she learns to search the containers to find the ONE that has food in it. Remove her from the room after she finds and eats the food and then reset - food in the same box every time, but move the boxes around so that it's always a new search for her. Once she's taking the food, you can praise her and tell her what a great dog she is.
Dinner can be served this way and can take a long time if you use just one kibble at at time, or it can be quick if you use several kibbles at a time. But brain games such as this can go a long way to mediating a shorter walk at night.
I hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: Thank you for your answer.
Firstly, I have to correct you: it is a he, not a she. I don't know if that makes a difference regarding his bathroom habits, but I suppose it does have some relevance in this issue.
I will try the firecrackers habituation technique you suggested. Unfortunately, we've been having increasing problems in the past few days. I will illustrate by giving a detailed description of this morning's walk:
he came to my room around 7AM, started sniffing me as I was laying in my bed, and whining, as he always does when expecting a walk. As I was getting dressed, he was doing his usual routine, in every way demonstrating that he's up for a walk: stretching, following me around etc. We got out of our apartment and down to the park (it's just outside and I live in a fairly quiet area) easily, and after a few minutes of walking and sniffing around he just stopped.
So now even the morning walk is a problem: even if he seems to want to go out, and be excited about it, he has a fear in going outside that I cannot determine. I don't remember anything happening which could be that terrifying for him (like I already said, firecrackers always scared, but never like this, also they were rarely heard in the past few days).
If you have any suggestion on fixing this, or at least an idea as to why this could be happening, I would be most grateful. It is all very frustrating for us (and we are trying not to let it show) and everyone is worried about him.
Thank you for your followup. I apologize for the gender error in my first reply. It actually isn't relevant to his current issue as I don't think he's having a potty issue so much as a fear issue.
You didn't indicate how long the dog has been living with you. But he may be feeling stress at having his person absent. Then, with the shorter days and the scary noises, he's experiencing what we call "trigger stacking." This is when multiple stressors are experienced either at the same time, or close enough together in time that he hasn't had a proper chance to recover from the previous stressor before he's experiencing the next one. This process - trigger stacking - can significantly shorten the "fuse" for a dog and cause a fearful dog to be more fearful, more quickly and to less overtly scary things. It can cause a dog who is prone to offensive displays to react to less obvious triggers as well.
It's also important to know that a stressor causes stress hormones (adrenalin and cortisol) to pump through the body. It can take anywhere from 6-72 hours to recover from that hormone surge and come down to a "normal" baseline level of those hormones again.
So, if this dog is fearful and stressed by the noise at 8pm, it's entirely possible that the next evening he's still not fully recovered and so it takes a less intense exposure to cause him the same or greater fear response, and you effectively create an increasing/escalating sense of fear, with a shorter and shorter fuse to feeling frightened, until the dog doesn't want to leave the apartment at all, no matter the time of day.
So, helping him recover by putting on a snug t-shirt* can help. Doing the counter conditioning and take it slow so that you're not pushing him to a point of being actively frightened, will go a long way to helping him feel better about this whole thing. If he's willing to take treats, you can even toss treats a few steps ahead of you (one or several) and allow him to essentially move through the walk with his nose to the ground, sniffing for excellent treats.
But, it may be that for a week or two, he doesn't really go for walks. He may just go outside your building to potty and then back inside and do the counter conditioning work inside or at the front porch, etc.
*The shirt concept is believed to work by creating a subtle, constant external stimulation, which activates the part of the brain that processes external stimuli, and in so doing, helps the dog process other external stimuli without becoming so overwhelmed by it. Also, because it's comforting, it may in fact help to lower those stress hormones, bringing them back to a more "normal" level, which in turn increases the dog's threshold for fear, making it harder to trigger it.
I hope this clarifies my earlier response. Good luck. Please let me know how it's going after a week or so. If necessary, I may be able to help you refine the exercise to get more improvement.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist