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Canine Behavior/Dog suddenly fearful of kitchen

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QUESTION: The cellar door has a kitty portal so they can eat down there. The dog is a 2 and a half year old black lab collie mix. She used to play with the cats at the portal, then within the last year, became wary of it and began to avoid going past it. Within the past few months, she has tended to startle very easily, especially in the kitchen, which has a tannish tile flooring. She has always been fearful / leery  of objects she doesn't recognize, such as the power cord (to a laptop) going from the kitchen table to the outlet in the vicinity of her food dish.

Within the past month, she has been hesitant to come back in the house via the kitchen door, as if she is afraid of the floor. She is never hit and rarely seriously scolded. There is often company here - kids as well as adults - and she loves company and thinks she is one of the kids. This is all very bizarre - reminds me of the visuals hallucinations some people with dementia get.

Anything sound familiar?

Oh, almost forgot - several months ago, she became suddenly incontinent in the absence of any physical trauma. She would be sound asleep and urine would just run out of her, then she would be mortified when she realized what had happened. We were afraid it was a permanent development, and we started her on some blood pressure med prescribed by the vet. The incontinence stopped after two or three weeks and we discontinued the med (there were no obvious signs of UTI).

ANSWER: Incontinence in sleep is a symptom.  Since the beta blocker SEEMS to have stopped it, we can assume that this behavior was/is fear related.  There should be NO scolding AT ALL for any reason.  Let's put it this way: suppose my young son "wets his bed".  We know, now, that this is a fairly "normal" reaction at a certain place in life for boys (in particular).  Yelling and getting irritated is not going to extinguish his problem, is it?  In fact, it will harm the parent/child relationship I have with him.

So:  Put her back on the beta blocker, first (but check with your veterinarian).  The beta blocker is the first line of "defense" in fearful behavior, it cuts down the automatic fight/flight response and allows the dog (or even Human for that matter, it is used to treat complex post traumatic stress disorder) to engage cognition.

Now: take a look at that kitty portal.  Far more "things" can enter (or attempt to enter) through such a portal (a skunk, for instance, can squeeze under the steel bar at the bottom of a cyclone fence line!)  It is possible that the dog saw/heard/smelled such an attempt by an animal seeking asylum from winter (which, by the way, may very well be in your home, especially if it was a small intruder such as a field mouse or vole).  I had a client whose doggy door was used by a burglar.  AND, cats are indoor companions.  They do NOT belong outdoors.  Not only can they (and WILL they) bring in fleas, but they are also exposed to feline leukemia that may be in the area, rabies, cars, crazed people who steal cats to use as bait when training dogs to fight, and they do a great deal of damage to the environment (by targeting other animals, such as rabbits and birds).  Get RID OF THE KITTY PORTAL.

There's no dementia here (and btw, Human dementia is very, very difficult to spot in its early stages unless one is a specialist).  The dog is reacting with fear to THAT DOOR so you must make going through THAT DOOR a VERY BIG DEAL.  As you approach the door with her (do not allow her out by herself until you've accomplished this trial at least 30 times), stop.  Do nothing, say nothing, for a minute or two.  The dog will most likely be in fight/flight mode if she has a strong conditioned fear response to that door.  Wait until she voluntarily SITS OR SNIFFS THE GROUND (these are "displacement" behaviors showing that she is "confused" and that cognition is now engaged.)  AS you grab the door knob and open the door, dangle a tasty treat (and I mean tasty treat: chicken, cheese, hot dog bit, cooked bacon, baked liver) in front of her (so her scent acknowledges its presence) and "have a party", laugh, "Oh look at this great door, oh wow look at this treat you're getting", etc.)  She will voluntarily go through the door (the donkey following the carrot on the stick!) and be rewarded WITH THE FOOD the MOMENT SHE PASSES through the door.  After a few trials, when she is clearly not as fearful and is more focused on the food and goes through the door, have favorite people sitting on the floor inside, all holding a treat, and have a real "party".  Do this a few times, then forget the food through the door but keep up a random "party" with at least one of her favorite people sitting on the floor at the other side of the door with a treat.  Report back using the followup feature.


---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Of course, the description I provided was very clear in my mind :) The kitty portal is merely a small square hole in the wooden cellar door - otherwise the dog eats their food. The outside kitchen door is fifteen feet or so from the cellar door, on opposite sides of the room. Whereas a mouse could certainly go through the portal, Poppy has killed mice with impunity in the past.

The dog has never been scolded for being incontinent. She;s a cuddlier and gets lots of affection.

We live on a country road; both cats arrived as young strays. They and the dog all go in and out of the house several times a day. The dog has an invisible fence and a huge yard to run around in. All are up on their shots and get wormed as needed.

Anyway, your suggestions should work - we'll give them a try. I should note that right now we have an extended-family Christmas gathering with 30-plus people. She has been going past the cellar door without hesitation during all the hubbub.

Answer
She has been going past the cellar door without hesitation during all the hubbub.

YOUR MAJOR CLUE.  Something about your anxiety or response to your perception of her anxiety is involved here.  WHY she developed this avoidance behavior is something I cannot even guess.  Let's hope that as the next week or two pass, it is self extinguished.

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Jill Connor, Ph.D.

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I have spent my entire professional life rehabilitating the behavior of the domestic dog and I can answer any question regarding any behavior problem in any breed dog. I have answered more than 5,000 QUESTIONS on this site in the past (almost) eight years. If you are a caring, committed owner and need advice, I'm here for you. I am personally acquainted with my colleagues (Turid Rugaas, Ian Dunbar, etc.) who were members of an elite group in EGroups that I founded: K9Shrinks. THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES for serious behavioral issues; not only is it unprofessional to offer same, it is also unethical. IF I ASK YOU SUBSEQUENT QUESTIONS, I NEED YOU TO INTERACT WITH ME. More information equals more credible answers and a more successful outcome. If you want ANSWERS THAT WORK, participate in any way I request. I'm quite committed to working on this site for YOUR benefit and the benefit of YOUR DOG. Help me in any way you can.

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30 years of solving serious behavior problems in domestic dogs; expert in dog to human aggression; Internet columnist for ThePetChannel.com for 5 years; former radio talk show host, WHPC.FM, Garden City, NY "Bite Back" (1995 through 2000). List owner, international animal behavior experts, K9Shrinks@egroups.com. Seminar leader: "Operant Conditioning and Learning"; "Aggression in The Domestic Dog"; "Solving Problem Behaviors" -- conducted for various training facilities on Long Island from 1993 through 2000. Former clinical director of "Behavioral Abnormalities" in conjunction with Mark Beckerman, DVM, Hempstead, New York.

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Member, APDT (UK); Psychologists in Ethical Treatment with Animals

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Harcourt Brace Learning Direct: "The Business of Dog Training" "The Fail Safe Dog: Brain Training, not Pain Training"

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Ph.D., UC Berkeley

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Board of Directors: Northeast Dog Rescue Connection; The Dog Project; Sav-A-Dog Foundation; etc. Pro Bono counselor: Little Shelter Humane Society My practice is presently limited to forensics. I diagnose cause of dog bite, based upon testimony before the Court, for attorneys and insurance companies litigating dog bites, including fatal injuries. I also do pro bono work for bona fide rescue organizations, humane societies, et al, regarding such analysis in an effort to obtain release for dogs being held for death in municipal shelters in the US.

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