Special Care is needed for Scared Dogs

Question:
We have a lab mix 2 years old. She’s had issues with trust but has done well, always sleeping inside. While my friend was pet sitting her daughter hid behind the door and when our dog came in she shut the door, scaring the dog. Now she will come up to the door but will not cross the threshold. We have tried coaxing her with treats and toys to no avail. We miss her terribly! The weather will be getting cold and I am fearful for her to be outside.

Dr. Nichol:
I too am sad for your sweet girl but I am also hopeful. Fearful dogs need special consideration; anything that might startle them should be carefully avoided. Forget the cajoling and luring. Nervous Nellie (May I call her Nellie?) can abandon her fear by earning an immediate reinforcer that is unrelated to that scary doorway.

Nellie can learn to “target”, meaning that she will touch her nose to a stick you hold for her. Start by smearing a little peanut butter (none with xylitol, thank you) on the end of the stick. When her noses touches it say, “Target”.

You can also teach the kid that a clicking sound will function as an immediate reinforcer. You’ll click your clicker right after she touches her nose to the stick, and then give her a treat. Email me at jnicholdvm@gmail.com for full instructions. Your dog will love this stuff.

When Nellie is veritably reveling in the excitement of her new skills you can bring her near the door and have her target, and then click and treat her. When she’s having fun performing a few feet from the formerly dreaded doorway you can move a little closer, a few days later, a little closer. Continue playing the game when Nellie is fear-free at the doorway and then just over the threshold. We want coming inside to be a non-event. Praise Nellie very quietly to avoid arousal that might awaken old fears.

Sound easy? You dog will buy this plan if you repeat it hundreds of times and take it slow (over a couple of weeks). Prevent relapses by always closing the door gently. Nellie can improve but she will never be cured.