Canine Behavior/Frightened Dog
My dog, Riley, ( a toy mini golden doodle) has been acting very unusual. The other day I took her on a walk and she saw two policemen on horseback. We were a few blocks from home and she began dragging me towards our house. She was pulling so hard that my son had to come pick us up. She was also panting very heavily and shaking. It took her a long time to calm down.
Now, she is frightened every time we go out to go to the bathroom or for a walk. She will go to the bathroom but then go right to back to the house. She also seems depressed. Previously she would get very excited to go in the car and sit on the center console; very alert. Now she curls up under the dash or on the back seat; she shakes slightly. At home, she has more of a tendency to sit under the desk.
Today, we saw geese, which would normally excite her but she was very blah. She seems down.
Thank you for your time and advice.
Thank you for your question. I'm sorry your Riley is having such a hard time right now.
From your question it sounds like the mounted policeman (and most likely the horses they were riding) scared the bejeezus out of her. If she has never seen horses up close before, it is possible that this is the root of all you are seeing right now. Dogs (like humans) sometimes do experience a fright so intense that it effects them profoundly and bleeds into other aspects of life.
A human comparison might be if someone got mugged while taking a shortcut through a familiar alley (a shortcut they've taken a thousand times, but this time there was a bad guy in the alley). Now, the person finds they are not comfortable going into that alley. And then they stop going through any allies at all. And maybe that become uncomfortable walking outside after dark - no matter where it is, even in well-lit areas and with someone they trust and feel safe with, they're still frightened. In this human comparison, we see a singular event cause a severe fright which then generalizes to all similar places and then generalize further to any outside area after dark, when it's no longer well lit.
It's possible that the horses scared Riley so deeply that she is fearful of being outside because those horses were so unexpected, that she can't be sure they won't pop out from behind a bush at any moment, from anywhere. The lethargy you're seeing could be a direct result of that fear. Intense and ongoing fear can cause depression.
But, before we head down the emotional rabbit hole too far, we need to rule out any physical medical ailments. It is entirely possible that there is a physical or medical issue (injury or illness or even seasonal allergies) that happened to crop up at the same time. Coincidence of timing happens all the time, and whenever we see a major shift in behavior, our first order of business is to make sure the dog is healthy. If the dog is not healthy, no amount of behavior modification will make a difference.
So, my first recommendation is to make an appointment with the vet ASAP for a complete medical work-up. Make sure there is nothing going on that can be treated medically.
Once we know the dog is healthy, we can begin to address the fear response, and there very likely is a fear component even if there is also a medical issue. We can say this because you've described that you're seeing the fear in specific contexts - when going outside and for car rides. Now, if it's seasonal allergies, that could explain a displeasure of going outside right now - so we need to rule that out.
If it really is all rooted in a severe fright from the horses, then we want to help her feel safe. I would start in your back yard. Don't take her off property for 2 weeks (except to the vet exam). Give her time to recover and let her stress hormones (cortisol, adrenalin, corticosterone) return to her normal baseline. It can take several days after the fear is gone for those hormones to fully reduce back to "normal". So, keeping her on your property and having all potties happen in the back yard will give her body time to recover.
Then, we can embark on a program of building her confidence again. If you and she are not familiar with clicker training, and if she's not overly sound sensitive, you can use a clicker to teach her that the sound of the click reliably predicts her very favorite treats. We do this by clicking the clicker and then immediately presenting a pea-sized bite of her favorite food. Then repeat. A bunch, until she shows anticipation when she hears the click (the sound of the click will prompt her to look at you or move toward you if she wasn't already looking at you before the click). In order to ensure that she learns the click predicts food, it's crucial that the CLICK happens BEFORE the food appears. In other words, keep the food in a dish on the table. Click the clicker and then immediately reach for a treat. Pause, then repeat.
If the food is readily present when you click, or if you reach for the food before you click, then the click cannot predict the food because the food is already there. So, the CLICK must happen FIRST and then the food appears. Also, you will want to repeat this a lot of times. Be sure that you vary how long you pause between clicks. You might do 3 or 4 back to back and then pause for 30 seconds, then click once and pause for 15 seconds, then click/treat two times in a row and pause for 3 minutes.... This variation in duration is important so that the dog can clearly learn that it is the SOUND of the clicker that predicts the food, and not the passage of a particular amount of time.
Now, that the dog understands that CLICK = Food, you can begin using this to help your dog change her emotional response from "Oh no, it's scary" to "Oh Yea! These things mean Awesome!!!"
We do this slowly and at her pace. You can't really work too slowly at building up her resilience, but you can push her too quickly and undermine your success. So if she's frightened just going out your front door, I'd start by just opening the front door and sitting there near it. When she looks toward the door, CLICK and toss food to her such that she has to move away from you and the door to retrieve it. This is important because you're encouraging her to move away from the scary door to retrieve the goody. And this sets her up to make the choice to come closer. Whether she moves closer or just looks out the door from the new location, CLICK and toss a treat again. With time (and often in just a few minutes) you'll find that she's willing to approach the door and even stand in the doorway with you - even if she won't go outside. This is great. You will continue to CLICK/Treat as she's showing a willingness and comfort at being near the door.
Once she's standing at the door, you don't need to toss the treat away from her every time. You can hand them to her or drop them at her feet. But I would toss the treat away every 4th or 5th time you click so that you can reset her at a distance and give her the choice to move toward the door again. Make it a game. And quietly cheer her on when she shows bravery enough to move to the door.
NOTE: you should put her harness and leash on if you're doing open-door work, just in case she does decide to dart out the door, you have something to grab hold of. In fact, I encourage you to use a 10-20 foot long lead for this so that you can have hold of one end the entire time, but she will not feel tied to you. This way you won't have to scramble for the leash if she does decide to run out the door. I also encourage using the long lead during outside walks when you get there. You can keep it gathered most of the time, but you want to have the option to give her enough freedom that she can move with ease if she feels she needs to make more space between herself and some thing that might make her nervous.
Once she is good in the doorway, you can move onto the porch and then your front yard. Let her tell you when she's ready to venture off your property. Click and Treat for her willingness to explore and to move toward the neighborhood. Reassure her that everything is OK and that she doesn't have to do anything she doesn't want to do if she checks in with you or if she heads back to the house.
NOTE: All of these sessions should be no more than 10 minutes per session, but you can do multiple sessions per day. As she gets comfortable walking off your property, you'll be able to extend the duration as you'll be moving further from home.
When she's first ready to walk off property, don't be surprised if she's only comfortable going next door and then she wants to head back. That's OK. Practice just walking from your driveway to the one next door and back. Giving her the space to take in the environment and the power to decide if she wants to go further or not.
You can do this same type of exercise with the car as well to help her get comfortable again being in the car and going for car rides.
I encourage you to read through a couple of books which will likely prove very helpful to you.
Grisha Stewart's book Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0: New Practical Techniques for Fear, Frustration and Aggression
I also like Emma Parson's Click to Calm: Healing the Aggressive Dog
. I realize that Riley is not aggressive, she's fearful, but the techniques are essentially the same - see the thing that triggers the emotional response, CLICK for noticing it and reward.
Along with getting a 10 or 15 foot long lead to allow Riley a greater sense of freedom, while still being attached to you, I encourage you to try a ThunderShirt. This is a pressure wrap that can help reduce the experience of stress, fear and anxiety. More than 80% of anxious dogs who wear this shirt will show a reduction in those obvious fear-related behaviors such as trembling. You can get the shirt at PetSmart and PetCo as well as most smaller pet stores these days.
I encourage introducing the shirt to her, paired with goodies. Put the shirt on and then feed a regular meal or play or cuddle and then after about 10 minutes, take the shirt off. Repeat that a couple times (maybe breakfast and dinner). Put it on for happy and neutral events in the house. Put it on 2-10 minutes before working on going outside or any outside time. Leave it on for 2-10 minutes after you've finished these exercises/returned home. This extension beyond the actual activity will help prevent the shirt becoming a cue of the stressful activity. And wearing the shirt may help reduce her fear sufficiently that new coping skills can be learned.
Now, if Riley's health checks out, and you're having trouble implementing the program on your own (with the books), I encourage you to enlist the help of a local professional trainer or behavior specialist who uses force-free and fear-free training methods. Someone who is well versed in classical counter conditioning and desensitization and who uses positive reinforcement and no aversives (no choke chains, shock collars, prong collars and not compulsion - forcing the dog to 'face her fears' before she's ready).
You can research trainers through one of the below websites, or ask your vet (and other local vets) for referrals.
NOTE: If her fear is really severe, such that these methods even with a professional's help to get the timing right, are not making a dent in her fear, then you will need to consider medication to help calm her fear enough that learning can take place. This would be temporary and potentially even situation specific, rather than daily dosing. This would be done under the supervision of your regular vet or a vet behaviorist who would prescribe the medication and monitor her dosing.
Association of Professional Dog Trainers
Certified Professional Dog Trainers
Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists
How to select a trainer:
I wish you the best of luck. Please feel free to followup if I can be of any further assistance.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Worcester, MA Behavior Specialist
Masters Candidate - Animals and Public Policy (Animal Behavior)
Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine