Canine Behavior/scared of vents and wont come from corner
Hello, I have a 2 yr. old German shepherd/ Husky mix from a rescue. She is so scared of the air vents she wont come out of her safe little corner. She wont eat or drink until I cut the air off and then it takes a while for her to come out. When the weather was good and I didn't have the air on she came out and ate and drank and played. If I call her and the vent isn't even on she will look at me and look up at the vent then look back at me and just lay there. she doesn't even want to come out and wrestle with or play tug-o-war. If she does come out and the air comes on, she will pin back her ears, drop her tail and almost at a run go back to her corner. I worry about her not getting enough food or water, but it doesn't seem to be a physical problem yet. Is there something I can do to get her to not be so afraid of noise. Tanks for your time,Dwain
Thank you for your question. I'm so sorry your girl is having such a hard time with the AC vent.
I encourage you to read through a couple of books on counter conditioning (links/descriptions below). And also think about seeking out a local professional who is skilled in force-free, fear-free counter conditioning techniques to help her feel less fearful of the air when it kicks on.
I have a couple of questions, which will help direct the nuance of the counter conditioning work. Is the vent up high near the ceiling and blowing air toward the floor, or is it down low, blowing air up (where she can actually go up and sniff/interact with the vent when the air isn't blowing?
Do you think it's the sound of the air blowing through that scares her? Or do you think it's the sensation of the air blowing on her that is upsetting her?
Counter conditioning - briefly:
This is the process of changing her emotional/visceral response from "Oh no, it's going to kill me!!!!" to "Oh, goody! Something wonderful is about to happen!!!"
It can take time and patience, but it is a tried and true method that works fantastically when done correctly. The key is that the scary thing (in your case, the air kicking on) must RELIABLY PREDICT
the appearance of her favorite thing. Ideally, we use her most favorite treat in all the world for this. Food works especially well for this process because it's easy to give repeatedly as needed (unlike throwing a ball, which requires the dog to chase, catch, bring back and be willing to let you have it again). For the time being, the very favorite food (let's say her favorite is string cheese), should be diced up and kept in a small container near by. Each time the AC kicks on, you will rain some string cheese down on her. In the beginning, it'll be a couple dozen small bites of cheese dropped one at a time, but immediately as one lands, the next one falls. Then as long as the AC is on, you'll continue to drop one or two bites every 5-10 seconds. These bites can be the size of a pea, they need not be large. As she starts to make the connection that the cheese happens ONLY when the AC is on, and at no other time ever, she will start to look for the cheese when she hears the AC. Then you can reduce the amount to 1 dozen instead of 2 dozen bites. And instead of raining them down on her over just a few seconds, you can drop one treat at a time every 10-20 seconds. And then build from there over a few weeks until it's just one treat when it first kicks on and then one treat when it kicks off. And then one treat only every 3rd or 5th or 8th time it kicks on - just to maintain that the sound/sensation of the AC kicking on means good things for her.
But here's the thing - right now, she's so terrified that food won't work. So you need to set up to practice this when you know the AC is about to kick on and have her as far from it as possible. This may mean that you sit with her just outside the house with a door open so she can hear it but can't feel it. Or you may need to close the vent in the room you're working on so she hears it from another room, but it's not as loud and she can't feel it. Or take her out of the house altogether and then have someone record the sound of it coming on/off and then play the recording of it for her sitting in your car or the back yard or at a park - giving her goodies each time you play the sound of it kicking on while you're well away from the house and then work closer and closer to the house before actually going inside.
You'll have to do some detective work to see how much distance she needs physically or how low the volume of the sound must be so that she notices it, but can still think straight and is not sent into a panic - that is where you start.
To help walk through how we do this kind of work, I think you will find these books very helpful to you.
The Cautious Canine - How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears
, by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D.
Help for Your Fearful Dog: A Step-by-Step Guide to Help Your Dog Conquer His Fears
, by Nicole Wilde
These books explain exactly how counter conditioning works and will help you break down the pieces of what is currently scaring your dog so that you can work on them at a level that doesn't panic your dog and thus build her confidence. As she gets comfortable with each bit, you'll be able to build her up to being comfortable with the whole thing.
For now, I know it's hard as the weather warms, but I would encourage that you don't leave the AC set to cycle. Instead, use some fans if they don't bother your dog, to keep the air moving and then a couple times per day (or every hour if you need it), set yourself and the dog up so that you can be prepared to do the work that goes into helping her feel better about that scary sound/sensation. This might be going into a room that doesn't have the vent open or turning on the AC, but taking her out back to play for 20 minutes so that she doesn't hear it click on or click off while it cools the house for you. The reason for this management is because if you're doing really great work and helping her feel better about, say, the sound of the AC played on your phone and she's getting happy about that sound, and then the real AC kicks on and scares her, it can undo all the progress you're making. So until she's had a chance to get past the fear, we want to avoid exposing her to the scary thing if it's at all possible. She needs that time to let her stress hormones come back down to baseline (which can take as long as 4 or 5 days) with no stress to spike it back up.
You can also think about trying some calming aids such as a Thunder Shirt (available at PetSmart and PetCo). These shirts are not meant to be worn 24/7. The effect wears off after about 60-90 minutes of continuous wearing. They are meant to be worn for an hour or two, then taken off for a few hours and then put back on. Many dogs will show a significant reduction in their anxiety behaviors while wearing the shirt - and with regular wearing, some dogs will show a reducting in anxiety behaviors (and bolstered confidence) even when the shirt isn't on. But again, this can't just be put on her and left on all the time. It needs to be worn periodically with a few hours gap in between wearings to keep it really useful. And if it only ever goes on jut before the AC, then we essentially "poison" the shirt by making the shirt a reliable predictor of something scary.
Other calming aids you might try include Dog Appeasing Pheromone - a synthetic pheromone that is chemically identical to one produced by nursing mama dogs. Some dogs find this a very comforting thing to have nearby. They make a plug-in diffuser or a spray (I'm not a fan of the collar because the dog can't choose to move away from it if they want to). They recommend keeping the plug-in plugged in all the time. I think that's wrong. I expect the dog habituates to it the same way they would the Thunder Shirt, and so plugging it in for a couple hours and then unplugging it for a couple hours will have a great effect in the long run. The spray can be sprayed on bedding or the floor where she likes to be. It comes in an alcohol medium and so you'll want to spray 10-15 minutes before the dog will be spending time in that area, otherwise they're overwhelmed by the rubbing alcohol smell (gross).
You can also try aroma therapy options such as lavender which some dogs find as soothing as some humans.
I usually encourage trying one thing at a time so that you know if it's making any difference by itself before trying combinations of things. Sometimes these things have a synergistic effect in that they work better together than by themselves. But sometimes one thing is doing NOTHING and those sprays/diffusers are expensive. If they're not doing anything, then you shouldn't keep buying them....
I hope some of these options prove helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of any further assistance - or just to let me know how things are progressing. Good luck with your girl.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behavior Specialist