Teaching Fun Tricks can Desensitize & Heal the Emotional Wounds

Question:
Our 8 year old hound-spaniel mix (rescued at age 1) is afraid of new shoes/boots. She runs away from us and hides. She shakes, emits a horrible smell, and now checks out what’s on our feet. She won’t accept treats when we are wearing the shoes. We have never abused her.

Dr. Nichol:
Your dog gets so terrified that her anus puckers, causing her anal sacks (similar to a skunk’s scent glands) to release a vile-smelling fluid. Her fear-based association with footwear may date back to an accidental startle. It’s also possible that as a puppy in her first home she was hit with a new shoe that she chewed.

Set your hound-spaniel (houniel? spound?) up for success by reinforcing her with petting and food as she learns new tricks near old shoes.  Repeat 3-4 minute training sessions, no more than twice a day, until she ignores the shoes. Reinforce yourself with a pet on the head.

Next, saunter around in old shoes as your highly engaged pupil earns reinforcers, followed by the appearance of new shoes parked in a corner. If your footwear phobic dog reacts badly, use only one shoe, covered with a towel. Completely ignore it as you two enjoy your work across the room, gradually moving closer. The next step will be exposing a small portion of a shoe. Progressing to a fully visible brand new pair will prepare your girl for boots walking.

You’ll need an assistant to sit quietly, in full footwear, as your dog earns hors d’oeuvres at a distance. Gradually raise the bar, always petting and feeding quietly. To avoid the emotional letdown of reaching nirvana you can apply the same technique to teaching other skills like associating a positive emotional state with nail trimmers or even a visit with her veterinarian, who really is a charmer.