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Ask a Trainer Question Answered

Author: Katie Moody | Date: May 15, 2012

Here’s the next round of answers for our Ask a Trainer feature on our new website. It’s your chance to get dog training advice from the pros at AnimalSense. Stay tuned for more questions & answers, and if you have a burning dog training question, just “Ask a Trainer”!

Please note this question has been edited for brevity.

I just adopted an 18 month old female Blue Heeler. She came from a home where the gentleman would confine his dogs strictly to the home, she was not allowed outdoors and therefore relieved herself inside the home. I have multiple issues that are somewhat conflicting when trying to train her. Because she has only ever known the indoors, she is very overwhelmed and fearful in an outdoor setting. So when I try to take her outside to potty, she stands right next to me and will not explore or move really. If I try to leave her side she follows. She only relieves herself maybe 1-2 times a day. She has gone potty both inside and outside, when she has gone outside, its after we have stood out there for 15-20 minutes. She just wont go! Often she just eventually lays down outside. she wont explore or sniff around or look like she might consider pottying.She is very fearful and skittish with some things, but only certain noises scare her.Anyone moving at her quickly or trying to play with her scares her and causes her to panic. I am not sure where to start with this dog, please help me!

We are so sorry to hear about your new dog’s fear issues.  From what you have described, it sounds like your dog has been very under-socialized.  Dogs have a critical learning period when they are young during which they create a “mental file” of things that are safe and good.  Dogs that are not exposed in a positive way to lots of different people, places, sights and sounds can turn into fearful adults because they don’t have much in their “mental file cabinet.”

Your dog is now trying to cope with a huge change in her environment.  Your first order of business is to develop a trusting bond with her, so try to limit the pressure you put on her to interact with you.  It is important to let her build trust by not doing anything that she might find scary, but remember that her definition of scary may be much different than yours. Things you may think of as showing affection or playing, to her may seem like terrifying advances by a potentially dangerous alien!  Let her come to you to solicit interaction.  Petting should only be done if she shows no signs of discomfort such as looking away, yawning or licking her lips and then never over the top of her head.  Gentle scratches under the chin or chest are likely to be better received.

Make sure your dog sees you as the source of all good things, particularly food!

Try having her eat her meals out of your hand, rather than putting the food in a bowl.  Teaching her to respond to some simple cues can help to build your bond as well. The website has great videos showing some training games for shy dogs and many other resources for helping your scaredy dog.

Also understand that since your dog hasn’t spent time in the outdoors previously, it is a scary new environment.  In addition, no one has ever taught her that outside is the proper place to go potty so when you take her outside, she has no reason to think, “Oh, now I’m supposed to go!”

First of all, we need her to enjoy outdoor time.  A couple of times a day, I would take some very high-value treats (chicken, cheese, hot dogs, etc.) outside with you and feed them to her.  She doesn’t have to do anything at all but be outside and eat the treat.   If you recognize that she is starting to get stressed from being outside, take her back in.  We want her to start associating short bursts of being outside with good things happening to her. If while you are outside, she goes potty – jackpot!!  Feed her treat after treat and lots of praise (do not be too loud or exuberant or include any physical contact like petting that she might find scary).  If she goes potty inside, simply clean it up without comment and go on with life.  You want her to start realizing that the party only happens when she goes outside.  And especially at this early stage, never leave her unsupervised outside!  Newly re-homed dogs, particularly ones that are fearful, are at a high risk of running off and becoming lost.

In addition, you may want to consider some natural anxiety remedies that we have seen be effective for other dogs.

A Thundershirt can help dogs with lots of anxieties, not just thunder.  You can put it on her before you go for your outdoor visits.  It works on the same theory as swaddling a baby.  They seem to find the constant, gentle pressure to be soothing.  DAP collars contain a pheromone that mimics those released by nursing mother dogs.  Rescue Remedy is a flower essence formula that can be used to reduce stress.  You can’t hurt your dog with any of these remedies, but they may help her, especially in combination, to deal with some of the stress that she is feeling.

Finally, when dealing with a fearful dog, go slow and have patience.  Don’t push her to do things too fast.  Let her set the pace and notice the small victories.  Progress can be slow and frustrating, but it can also be extremely rewarding as you watch your scaredy dog come out of her shell.



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