Canine Behavior/Puppy Fearful/Agitated near Inanimate Objects
Hello! I have a 10-month old German Shepherd/Black Lab mix named Sadie. Lately (within the past three weeks) Sadie has become fearful of a tarp that has been in our backyard since the day we got her 8 months ago. Suddenly she began barking at it, growling, the hair on her back standing up. I very slowly, over the course of a few days, got her to walk closer and closer to it, lifted it so she could sniff it, and walked on it so she could understand that it was not going to attack her or me. She is since comfortable with the tarp. However, this behavior has shifted to all sorts of inanimate objects: a plastic bag blowing in the wind across the street from our home, a bush rustling in the wind, a fire hydrant and a mailbox which were both doing nothing at all. I can understand how the first two would make her skittish; a sudden movement, a rustling sound. I do not understand her fear of the non-moving objects at all. But my main concern is how to make her comfortable while outdoors so that she does not become agitated and/or terrified while outside.
Thank you for your question. It is actually quite common for dogs around 10-12 months old to suddenly show fear of things in their environment.
We make an effort to socialize our dogs when they're young, but most of us forget that socialization is not just playing with other dogs and meeting people. It's also introducing them to every single thing they may come across throughout their entire life from different ground materials to sights/sounds/smells of the city in which we live. If we live near a grocery store, we should spend time letting our dogs see/hear shopping carts rattling and associate those things with favorite treats. If we live near a car wash or train station, we should spend time there and associate the sights/sounds/smells with yummy food. This helps our dogs learn that strange sights/sounds/smells are interesting but not scary. Around 6 months of age, most of us relax on the socialization because our dogs are getting along with other dogs and are people friendly. And this is exactly the same time that the dog's natural wariness of the world is increasing. But socializing is like any other "muscle" in that we need to use it or risk losing it. And, since most of us fail to introduce our dogs to the more mundane things in this world (e.g. mail boxes), the dog never actually gets that socialization. So, as the dog pushes toward adulthood, what happens is they suddenly become aware of something they've never encountered before (or at least never noticed before). And because they've never encountered it, it is sufficiently strange and rare that it is worth being wary of it. It's a natural survival instinct. Some people believe this is a "second fear imprint stage". I believe it's just a falling off of continued socialization that occurs at the same time as a normal increase in wariness about the world.
Your approach to take your time over a few days to help your dog get closer to the tarp, and then for you to interact with it first and then encourage Sadie to interact with it is absolutely in the right direction to help her overcome these concerns.
I adopted a dog years ago when she was 6 months old. I'd missed out on the opportunity to do the bulk of her socialization. We were walking in my neighborhood one day and suddenly she stopped, hackles up, ears forward, body weight forward on her toes and she's barking a nasty offensive bark (stay away from me!!!!). It took me about 30 seconds to figure out she was focused on a fire hydrant across the street and I suddenly realized she'd never seen one before (or at least she'd never engaged with one before). So I took her across the street and approached it from an angle. I squatted next to the hydrant and pet it like it was a dog. I spoke sweetly to my dog and invited her to come over and "meet" the hydrant. As long as I was touching it without fear, that dog was willing to approach and sniff/lick/investigate anything that made her nervous. So for 14 years, when she saw something that was super unusual to her, we just took a minute to introduce her to it and she was fine.
Not all dogs are quite so comfortable and so you may need to work more slowly with your dog. And you may find that some objects make her more nervous than others. A great way to help her feel better about these kinds of objects is to incorporate favorite treats into the introduction. I'd drop a couple treats on the ground near the scary item, then place some treats on the scary item. I'd interact with the scary item as if it's a friend - pet it, pat it, just quietly leave a hand resting on it where your dog can approach and sniff/lick your hand in close proximity to the scary object, talking to it, etc. If you can pick up a canister of Easy Cheese (the cheese in a can), you can spray a little directly onto objects which may not easily hold a other kinds of treats. Liverwurst is another great spreadable treat that dogs love that you can smear onto a scary object to help her overcome the fear enough to get close and sniff it.
The key is that we don't force her to interact, but rather help her feel safe enough that she is willing to engage with the object on her own. If she's only comfortable going as close as 10 feet from the object today, that's OK. Tomorrow, when she's had time to reflect on the fact that she didn't die the previous day, she may be willing to go as close as 8 feet or 6 feet. If it takes a few days to actually interact, that's fine. And you should interact with the scary thing several days in a row once she's willing to. And then a few days later, then a week after that and a week after that and periodically after that going forward. This will help her feel better about that thing, and also help maintain that sense of security so even if it's been a couple months, she won't be so frightened the next time she sees it.
And if it's a seasonal thing that only comes out in Summer or winter, then when you first bring it out, lay it on the ground and let her have some time to reacquaint with it each year.
There's a great book called The Cautious Canine - How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears
by Patricia McConnell that walks you through a basic counter conditioning protocol for extreme fears. You may find some of the techniques in this book helpful for the various things that are concerning Sadie at this point. The book uses a single situation as an example, but the process is the same no matter the circumstance. If Sadie is only a bit nervous, you may be able to work through the process in an afternoon. If she's downright terrified of something, it may take days or weeks to help her work through it.
Pick one item to work on at a time. Work through the fear of that item, and then when that item is no longer a concern to her, move on to another item. Pick something she's only a little concerned about to start with, and build her confidence there and then work up to the things that scare her more. As she builds confidence with the less scary items, you'll probably see that she works through the scarier items faster than she might otherwise have done.
I hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Los Angeles Behaviorist