I've had my pup since she is 5 weeks old. She was crate trained as a puppy and stopped going into her crate at about 1.5 yrs old. She is now 3 years old. Over the past year she has gotten progressively worse about going on walks. She goes outside and goes to the bathroom (most of the time) and then crouches low to try and pull me back inside. If I force her to stay out she will lay in the grass and shake so badly. She acts as if she is afraid. She goes to the park regularly and is very social so I'm confused about this behavior. Some days she crawls under my bed and will stay there all day and Some days she is perfectly fine and happy to go outside and will walk for an hour. I've tried to find a commonality in the times she doesn't want to be outside but there is none. Please help. Some days I literally force her to just to go out and pee. It makes me feel bad and I know she is stressed as well.
Thank you for your question. I'm sorry that your pup is sometimes showing signs of extreme fear when outside.
If this were happening to one of my dogs, the first thing I'd do is schedule a veterinary exam. I would want to make sure that blood work (including thyroid levels) is normal. And I might discuss the possibility of fluctuating thyroid levels since the behavior is intermittent. But my main concern that I'd be discussing with the vet is pain. Pain can cause dogs to be hesitant to do things they normally are comfortable doing. And if pressed to do something that is painful, you will often see fearful responses that may range from cowering, avoiding, trembling to becoming defensive and trying to bite. So, the first thing I need to do as the pet parent in this situation is rule out intermittent pain.
Along with vet exam, I'd be looking at things like weather and temperature. Is she particularly sensitive to the heat of the concrete? I'd also want to look at my walking equipment. Am I putting the leash on a collar? What kind of collar - regular flat collar, choke chain, prong collar? Am I using a harness? Is it pinching anywhere? Is it pressing on a shoulder joint funny so it's causing soreness?
Once I've addressed these things - given a clean bill of health, including pain free (this may take a couple of appointments, with a same-day appointment when she is acting fearful so that the vet ca examine her when it's happening - and made sure I'm using a body harness to connect leash so there's no pressure on the sensitive neck bones and tissues, and make sure the harness isn't pinching. I've ensured the ground is not too hot, or made sure she can walk on grass or dirt, and I'm still seeing this intermittent behavior... then I'm going to start looking at the environment for things that are triggering her fear response.
I'd take note of the time of day, the weather, what she was doing just prior to the walk (playing, sleeping, eating, resting but still awake, chewing on something but not active play). I'd take note of the types of cars driving by and how loud they are. If she's OK at the start of the walk, but becomes fearful, I'm going to look at the houses we're near and try to determine if it's always near the same house/s. Is there a dog that lives there? Is there construction happening? Is there a strange smell? Anything that might make that house stand out to your dog.
Then I will have to acknowledge that fear is a powerful survival skill and dogs (like people) can learn to fear something with a single exposure. So, it's possible that something scary happened near that house 3 months ago (e.g. motorcycle blew past her and it was thunderous as it went by) and instead of connecting just the motorcycle to the fright, she connected the 3rd house from the corner, and so now every time she approaches that 3rd house from the corner, she's bracing for that terrifying noise again - even though it hasn't happened in 3 months.
Sometimes we will just never know what is causing our dog fear. If that's the case, you'll just have to start from your house and try to make your yard feel safe and exciting (I'll get to that in a second). If she's comfortable at the park, then drive her to the park for the run-around exercise and don't force her to go on neighborhood walks until you've worked out what's going on and helped her through it.
Now, one way to test to see if it's walking or is it something about your neighborhood would be to drive to another neighborhood, 10-20 minutes from your house, park and take her for a walk in that brand new neighborhood. Is she fine and relaxed and enjoying her walk there? But fearful of walking at your house? That would be very telling that this is neighborhood specific.
If we determine that this is behavioral and not physically medical, then you can begin a program of counter conditioning to help her reassociate the currently scary situation with something pleasant. This can be a reasonably quick process, or it can be tediously slow - it is entirely up to the dog and the level of fear she's experiencing and you cannot rush her.
Classical Counter Conditioning is the process of pairing the something scary to something awesome. We want to make sure she is never exposed to the scary at a level of intensity (nearness, volume, etc) that causes her fear. Instead, we want her to be near enough to be aware of it (see it, hear it, smell it) but far enough that she doesn't much care, and then from that distance pair the scary with a food that she loves.
If her fear sometimes starts literally in your front yard, then I would start with simply opening the front door so she can see outside, giving her 2-3 tiny pea-sized bites of her favorite human food, then closing the door and walking away from it. Then repeat. At first, you may need to open the door and then give her the treats practically in another room if she moves away from the door. Indeed, if she goes to hide, I'd go to her and give her the treats in her hiding spot. As she gets comfortable, she'll stop hiding and eventually start coming closer to you. Once she's readily coming to the front door comfortably, on her own, when you open it, then I would move to the front porch and invite her there.
Naturally, she'll need to be harnessed and leashed if she's going to go outside, so you might even need to back up and start with just showing her the leash/harness. I might even just lay it on the floor, and not even try to put it on her at first. Then, continue the process as you make your way off your porch, through your yard and then out into the world. The world may initially just be steps off your property and immediately back. Then building to going next door and back.
The purpose of these outings is not exercise. Take her somewhere she's comfortable for exercise. These walks are about quality, not quantity. In other words, our aim is for her to be super relaxed and comfortable. It's not at all about how far you travel. I would initially do sessions that last just 2-5 minutes to avoid stressing her. Then, build up from there as she's getting more comfortable to maybe 10 minutes just on your property before starting to move off your property. Then, the off property practice (going from your property, stepping off and coming back, would be just 2-5 minutes added to another 5-10 minutes on your property. Building up as she's showing she's comfortable.
I encourage you to read a couple of books as they may help you greatly.
Patricia McConnell's The Cautious Canine - How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears
This book uses a single scary thing as the example throughout, but the premise is the same no matter the thing you're working on. The details will change because the trigger is different, but the process is the same.
Another great resource is Grisha Stewarts, Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0: New Practical Techniques for Fear, Frustration and Aggression in Dogs
This protocol does not use food as much. It focuses on empowering the dog to make choices about engaging or not engaging, and in giving them the space to make those decisions to investigate in ways that make them feel safe, most dogs will gain confidence and slowly become less and less fearful of the things that were causing them fear.
Working on these issues is relatively simple, but that doesn't necessarily means it's super easy. In other words, the concepts are fairly straight forward, but there does require some nuance to get timing right and to ensure distances are appropriate so we're not forcing the dog to be closer than they're comfortable. With that in mind, you may find it highly useful to enlist the aid of a knowledgeable trainer or behavior specialist in your area who is familiar with positive reinforcement, force free/fear free training, and who is skilled at recognizing subtle signs of fear and stress in dogs. You can ask your vet or other local vets for referrals, or you can search the following websites. Don't be afraid to ask questions and make sure you feel comfortable with the potential professional. And, if at any time you feel they are pushing your dog in a way that is making your dog's fear worse, do not hesitate to advocate for your dog and end the session and stop working with a particular trainer.
Certified Professional Dog Trainers (CPDT)
Pet Professional Guild (PPG)
Association for Professional Dog Trainers (APDT)
Please do start with a vet visit to rule out any medical or physical issues. Also, please feel free to followup if I can be of any further assistance, or just to update as you progress.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Worcester, MA Behavior Specialiast
Masters Candidate - Animals and Public Policy (Animal Behavior)
Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine