Hiding from Life’s Problems: A Good Strategy

dog waiting at door

Fourth in a series

Koko’s fear of her backyard and its airborne threats were making her crazy. There would be no point in applying human behavior solutions; she wasn’t a little person in a furry suit. She was a dog: a denning creature. Her species can find security in a snug enclosure. Her well-meaning people tried putting her in a wire crate which, unfortunately, felt like a cage to her.

There’s an easy fix for this common error. I advised Jan and Marty to use a sheet to cover the top and all sides of the crate except the bottom 4-5” of the door. Now Koko would have a private lair where she could peek at the world while taking refuge from any storm, real or imagined. Only the element of choice was missing.

Crates can trigger panic. A dog who thrashes and bites the bars while frantically trying to escape is sending an obvious message. Some freak-outs are less dramatic. Nobody should feel trapped. The solution is to never close the crate door.

Koko still needed to relieve herself. Sadly, every time her folks tried enticing her into the backyard, the site of past celestial horrors, she balked and trembled. The front yard, on the other hand, had never been associated with aerial monsters (balloons and lighting and fireworks, oh my!). A dog door provided unfettered access to this safe space. Wow. Another choice.

But if Koko’s fears were triggered in the front yard too, a distinct possibility, our best laid plans would collapse, causing the whole family to move underground and live like moles. To avoid this inconvenience, and the attendant stigma, I advised a bathroom break prior to early morning balloon theatrics and Independence Day explosions. I encouraged Jan and Marty to form an addiction to a weather app so they could plan Koko’s outdoor time to avoid thunderstorms.

Beyond simple kindness there was a physical consideration: “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” If Koko’s brain were never again exposed to her fear triggers, or if she could sidestep the worst parts, her unhealthy neural circuits would weaken from disuse. Significant changes in her brain’s anatomy wouldn’t happen overnight but Jan and Marty were patient pet parents. Koko is better now – but she’ll always need careful management.

Next week: Nudging, pacing, paw wringing.

For help with behavior problems, you can sign-up for a Zoom Group Conference on my website, drjeffnichol.com.

Dr. Jeff Nichol is a residency-trained veterinary behaviorist. He provides consultations in-person and in groups by Zoom (drjeffnichol.com). Each week he shares a blog and a video to help bring out the best in pets and their people. Sign up at no charge at drjeffnichol.com. Email pet behavior or physical questions to or by US Post to 4000 Montgomery Blvd. NE, Albuq, NM 87109.