Canine Behavior/Skittish shiba
I have a male Shiba inu about 4 years old and just recently, has become VERY skittish! Like within the last couple of months. He hides all of the time or sits on my feet shaking and staring like he sees things. The cat jumping off of counter or opening a closet door sends my poor little guy running for cover. When he runs around trying to hide, his heart is beating out of his chest and no matter how I try to calm him, he just won't calm down. What can I do? What causes this? Is this normal? I don't like this new behavior.
*****You may want to discuss running titers rather than just vaccinating out of hand. There is a growing push to extend out how frequently we vaccinate our pets as most vaccines actually protect for several years, not just the one year that we have all lived with as "typical." There's also growing evidence that over vaccinating can cause health issues ranging from health issues to cancers to other undesired side effects. Many vets now are recommending doing a blood draw and running titers to see if immunity is at preferred levels, and if they are, noting the chart and avoiding the vaccine. The titer test does cost a bit more than just getting the vaccine, but this way we can prevent unnecessary medical treatment and better protect the health of our pets. Just a thought so you can discuss with your vet. Good luck! *****
Thank you for your question. I would say 'no' this is not normal to suddenly become terrified of innocuous things that have never before upset him.
Whenever we see a sudden behavior change, especially a dramatic one like you're describing, the first order of business is a complete medical checkup. This should include a complete blood panel as well as a full, detailed thyroid panel. There are a number of medical ailments from injury to illness to chronic conditions that can manifest with all sorts of odd behaviors from fear, heightened startle response even aggression. So we must first ensure that he's healthy.
Only after the vet clears him of any health or physical conditions can we assume this is strictly behavioral.
But, as part of your investigation to try to determine what has set this off, I encourage you to reflect on your life and his for the last couple months. Think back to when you first noticed him react in a way that felt 'off' to you. Try to recall if anything happened in that first incident - did a car backfire outside your window? Did the cat knock a frying pan off the counter as it jumped, was there wind or rain or lightning/thunder or other inclement weather? Had someone new (human or animal) just moved in or out of your home? Had your work schedule changed? Personal relationships? Had you just had an argument with someone? Get bad news? Did someone close to you (human or animal) die? Did someone (human or animal) close to your dog die? Had you just rearranged furniture, painted, remodeled? Was there construction happening anywhere within a 2-block radius of your home?
Even things that you think shouldn't bother him could be at the heart of this - did you change perfume or deodorant? Laundry detergent? Begin using incense or air fresheners (or change the aroma)
If he had an initial startle response that occurred simultaneous or immediately following some normally innocuous event, then the innocuous event could become associated with the scary thing and then each time the formerly innocuous event happens, it now causes the same fear response as that first time. Example: Let's say he saw your cat jump off the counter, and just as the cat landed (or just after the cat's feet hit the floor), a door slammed behind him or a car backfired or there was a loud thunder clap, and one of these sudden, loud noises scared him, then he can now associate the cat's jumping off counters with the loud, scary noise and so the cat's behavior is now just as scary as if that noise were happening.
If there's a smell that's agitating to him, it could be making him uncomfortable enough that his threshold for other agitating events is lower - which is why I asked about aromas such as perfume and laundry detergent or cleaning supplies and incense.
If there was increased stress in your life the week this first happened, and he heard/saw you slam your closet door while in the middle of an argument or while you were upset about something, then the action of that event could make him concerned about your emotional state/behavior to follow. Or, since it's opening the closet door, did you open it one day and everything came tumbling out or open it to find that a roommate had borrowed something without permission and got you angry?
These all seem like rather inconsequential things that he should be well past, but dogs are funny little creatures. And they make connections sometimes very quickly - especially the ones that scare them. And then, unfortunately, each time the event happens again, even though the original scary trigger isn't present anymore, he's practicing his fear response to that associated action.
The very best way to help him through this (if it's not medical) is to counter condition him by pairing these currently scary things (closet door, cat moving) with something truly wonderful. If he's food driven, then you should use a high-value treat such as chicken breast or string cheese or whatever dog-safe human food he would walk on the ceiling to obtain. Start slow and at a distance and build up his courage and his association as you work with him (example below). If he's not food driven, then you may try his favorite toy or game as the association.
Example (food driven):
Closet door opening freaks him out.
So, start on the opposite side of the room with the closet door closed. Encourage him to look at the closet door ("look at that" as you point to the door). When his head turns even a nanometer toward the door, mark his behavior (CLICK!) and give him a bite of his very favorite food. Pause for about 10 seconds, then repeat.
**CLICK - if he's not clicker trained, you can easily teach him to use one, or you can just use the word CLICK in a slightly-higher-than-your-normal-speaking-pitch to make it unique from your regular speaking voice. The idea is to teach him that the sound of a clicker (or the word CLICK) reliably predicts the arrival of awesomeness. To do this, simply click the clicker (or say CLICK), then present him a bite of food. Repeat a couple dozen times. The order is important here. The click/CLICK must happen BEFORE
the food appears. So keep the stash of food behind your back or on a counter up out of reach. Click - food, Click - food, Click - food.
If you ensure that the click happens before the food appears, he will quickly learn that the sound/word reliably predicts food. I usually encourage doing 10-12 repetitions, then put it all away for 10-30 minutes. Then do another 10-12 repetitions and put it away again. About 10-30 minutes later, while he's not looking at you, click the clicker or say CLICK (whichever you're doing). He should immediately turn to you in anticipation of the food. This is when you know he understands what the sound means. If he doesn't respond, then do another 10-12 reps and test again.
Note: If you click at the same time as the food appears, or if the food comes out before the click, he will not make the association. You MUST click BEFORE the food appears in order to make this association: CLICK = FOOD.
Now, back to the exercise...
Once he's readily looking at the closet door from across the room and happily anticipating the goodies from you, you'll move a bit closer. Let him tell you how much closer he's ready to go. It may be just a couple inches, or he may be comfortable going a foot or two closer.
Always give him the freedom to move away. Allowing him to create more distance when he feels he needs it is important as it gives him the opportunity to take in that he didn't die and nothing bad happened. Then, when he's ready, he'll approach again. When he does, mark it CLICK and reward him. At this point, I'd toss the rewards AWAY from the door. This way we actually help him retreat and then give him the opportunity to approach again. So, you can drop some treats right near him, but make sure that 1/3 to 1/2 of the treats are tossed in such as way that he has to move away from the door to get them.
As he's comfortable, he'll go closer and closer to the door. Once he's willing to go directly to the door and take treats from your hand or the floor right there, you're ready to add in a bit more.
Touch the door handle, immediately CLICK and toss a treat away from him. Do this a dozen times. Then touch the door, CLICK and drop the treat right there next to the door a dozen times. We want to make sure he sees you touch the door/knob. Note: You're not opening the door, just touching it.
When he's clearly comfortable with you touching the door, then you can just crack it, CLICK and reward him by tossing the treats just behind him. After a dozen repetitions of treats behind him, then do a dozen repetitions of cracking the door, CLICK and drop treats right there next to the door. Build up from here until you can open the door all the way.
NOTE: the number of repetitions is AT LEAST a dozen, but pay close attention to him. If he's still nervous, do more reps until he's clearly comfortable and then do 5 or 6 more reps on top of that before increasing the criteria.
Once he's comfortable with you opening the closet door completely, and especially if it makes a noise when you do this, start randomly opening the door when he's in another room, but near enough to hear it. Have treats ready. If this has worked correctly, he should come charging into the room looking for the goodie. This is when we know we've completely changed his emotional reaction from fear to happy anticipation. At that point, you can drop down to just randomly giving him a treat on average one out of every 8 or 10 times you open the closet door in order to maintain that the door opening is a good thing.
You can do similar for the cat and any other thing that is scaring him. This process is called Classical Counter Conditioning. We're not asking him to do any obedience or anything. We're simply pairing the closet door opening with something great, and in doing so, changing his emotional reaction to it. I did this very exercise with my sound-sensitive dog who was afraid of our in-door ice maker. He loves ice cubes, so I helped him learn that the noise of the ice maker reliably predicts that he will get an ice cube or 3. Now he'll come running from a dead sleep in another room (or in from outside) if he hears anyone getting ice. :-)
There's a great little primer called The Cautious Canine: How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears
by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D. that will walk you through in a little more detail than I can do here exactly how to do this protocol.
But, remember, the first order of business is determining that your dog is not suffering from any physical or physiological conditions (injuries, illnesses, chronic conditions, etc).
I hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist