When your fearful dog has an elephant memory

Five tips to help your dog get over a scary experience

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Photo credit: vicart26/Pixabay

The minute I saw her fall to the hardwood floor and down the side of my bed, my shoulders slumped. I already knew she had a long memory, and she wasn’t going to let this moment go. While I wasn’t initially thrilled with the idea of a dog sleeping with me, this wasn’t the way I wanted to avoid it.

As a dog boarder, I always put crochet blankets on my couches and over my comforter for dogs that are used to jumping on furniture. (It is an absolute waste of time to try to convince a dog who has jumped on his family’s furniture to not jump on yours. You’d spend the entire boarding assignment trying to un-train the dog. Good luck with that.) My crochet and knitted blankets “catch” fur in a way that cotton blankets simply don’t and save me a lot of vacuuming and sweeping time once the dog leaves. Throw the blankets in the washer and dryer on delicate, and voila, my home is back to normal.

Oddly, my favorite dog is the one who made me give up on my dogs-off-of-beds rule. I found out she was a warm, furry pillow — who hogs covers — and that was it for me when it came to housesitting. Now sleeping with dogs in my own bed was the one rule I was stubborn about — until I wasn’t. However, the same dog who made me shrug my shoulders at this habit was the only boarding of several who refused to sleep in my bed. Here’s why.

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This is one of many homemade crochet blankets I own, courtesy of Ada’s Student. (Photo credit: Gwen Y. Vaughn)

Crochet blankets have small loops in them. If a dog’s claws get caught in them, it can tangle in their paws. Without a firm grip, they slide down instead of being able to jump forward. Imagine what a rope net looks like in the forest. That is about what happened. Her paw and nails got trapped. She slid down and promptly took off running. Mind you, this is the same dog who has flopped down next to me countless days and who ran right into my home and took off to lay in my bed — in the dark. But one fall, and that was it for her. While it appears to be a perfect trick to keep dogs off of your bed, in this case, it was unintentional.

Dogs have elephant memories. Once they’re scared, they usually remember why they were scared and avoid getting themselves into that situation again. I remember watching a dog go flying through a screen door before it was fully open. She got caught in the screen door and never again would she go out of the door unless I fully opened it, held it and stood close by.

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Photo credit: PetDoors/Wikimedia Commons

There was another dog who I house sat who was terrified of dog door flaps. Although his dog mate (same breed, same age, same size, but not related) would quickly hop through the flap, release himself, stroll around in the backyard and then hop back in as desired, the first dog refused to. He would go out of the door without hesitation but would not come back inside on his own. Even shaking treats by the door didn’t work. He would whine and bark endlessly until someone came downstairs to either open the door or hold the flap completely up so he could hop through. At night when he had to release himself, he would sneak and pee in various spots inside the owner’s home because he knew no one would wake up to open the flap. My suspicion is that he hit himself with the flap one time and decided it would never happen again. No matter how many times his dog mate jumped in and out of that flap all day long, the first dog convinced himself it was still too risky.

While there are a select group of people who are terrified of dogs, what dog owners know is that dogs are scared of things too — sometimes it’s people, sometimes it’s random objects. So what can we do to change that?

Tips and tricks to make your dog less scared

Be understanding, instead of angry, regarding your dog’s fear. My own German Shepherd (Faith) slipped down my family’s attic steps one time and refused to go into the attic for the rest of her life. She lived to be nine. No matter how much my parents cleared the stairs, she wouldn’t move. (I didn’t live with them by the time they got this dog.) My mother tried holding her collar, and she wouldn’t budge. I tried making funny faces and poking my head over the side. She just looked at me. To her, it simply wasn’t worth it.

Some fears make sense: One dog was scared of a crochet blanket because she got tangled in it, and another was scared of attic steps because she fell down a bunch of them. Other fears are harder to understand: What dog is scared of dog doors? However, fears are not meant to be rational. I’m scared of mice and bushes, but I have strolled within a few feet of multiple rats, skunks and raccoons. Guess which two of these five could do the least damage to me? It still doesn’t make me any less fearful of them, and anyone bullying me isn’t going to change my mind.

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Photo credit: Nicooografie/Pixabay

Food works — sometimes. The Crochet dog was not only scared of jumping on my actual bed. She was scared of the entire bedroom after that, the same bedroom she’d been in plenty of times. I slept for hours peacefully and dog-less. Even when I called her name, she ignored me. So I shamelessly did what often works with dogs. I already knew she was the kind of dog who runs at full speed anytime I open a bag in the kitchen. While she’s not overbearing, she’s definitely not above an initial begging in order to get a treat of her own. So I grabbed a couple of bags of things she likes and walked right back to the bedroom.

And I sat down at my desk and opened them. The smell of the food and curiosity was too much. It didn’t take more than 60 seconds for me to see a tall body tiptoeing in the hallway and hazel eyes peering at me. She glanced at the bed three times, turned around, changed her mind and walked away. She stopped. She swiveled back. And then she tiptoed further into the room and toward me sitting at a desk chair. I gave her nothing. (It was human food.) What I wanted to prove to her was that entering this room was not going to harm her. She sighed loudly and squeezed under my desk to sit on my feet. At least I got her into the bedroom.

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Photo credit: StillWorksImagery/Pixabay

Repetition helps diminish fears. The Screen Door dog and the Dog Flap Door dog knew that eventually they had to go out. Sometimes if the dog doesn’t think too much about it, she will go about her day without hesitation. Sometimes I could stand behind the Screen Door dog and then just open the screen door a little. She’d walk through out of habit. Other times she stood firmly in place until I welcomed her in and out like a bellboy.

Every blue moon, the Door Flap dog would psych himself out and he’d barge in. Other times he would pace in front of the door and whine, including when I shook treats in front of the door. I often found that if I forgot about the fear and didn’t put too much effort into a big show of knowing what the feared reaction would be, the dog did, too.

As with any fear, if you don’t put a lot of thought into it, you can go about your day. The handful of times I had to deal with musophobia, my childhood home once had a pregnant mouse. And that horrendous situation almost made me get over my fear of mice. If you see the same thing you’re terrified of enough, you have no choice but to just “get over it.”

Sometimes ignoring works, sometimes it doesn’t. My house was once flooded after a pretty bad thunderstorm. It left my basement with at least three or four feet of water. My poor dog Shep (German Shepherd/Labrador Retriever mix) sat on his “favorite” diagonal step along the basement stairway. He knew as the water rose, he’d have to move. But so far, so good. By the time we got home from work and school, he was planted on that step and staring down at all of that water in horror.

From that point forward, he was terrified anytime there was rain or lightning and would scratch the basement door excessively to get us to let him upstairs. He lived to be 13, and he never stopped doing that anytime he heard thunder. All we could do to get him to knock it off was open the door and let him lay on the floor, or be the “bad guys” and ignore him while he whined on the other side of the door. We always hoped he’d stopped fearing rain once he saw that it didn’t all lead to floods. He never did.

Training can often work. One of the coolest tricks I’ve seen several dogs do is stand by the door with a “slap five” paw up. It immediately lets me know that their owners wipe their paws when they walk in the door. The especially clever dogs do a whole dance — right paw, then left paw, then spin around and kick up right hind leg and left leg. I don’t even have to ask. They do it automatically. One in particular knows she gets a treat for doing this, so she sits in place while I take off the leash, her coat, wipe her paws and then does not move until she gets a treat. I tried one time to sit on the couch and see if she’d move. She still sat there, staring at the treat jar until I got up again.

Once again, repetition can make a dog reevaluate past behavior. Dogs just don’t naturally do a two-step when they walk into a home. When they can associate something good (positive reinforcement training) with a particular action, they’ll often oblige. Consider whatever the “fear” is, and use positive reinforcement to figure out how to get the dog to reconsider the concern. If a dog can both connect that a treat is the happy ending of a certain type of behavior and the fearful thing that happened doesn’t repeat itself, ideally the dog will stop fearing that thing.

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Shamontiel is a dog lover to her core: 430 completed walks with 76 dogs, eight dog-housesittings and four dog boardings at the time of this publication. Would you like to receive Shamontiel’s Weekly Newsletter via MailChimp? Sign up today!

Doggone World

For dog lovers, dog walkers and dog owners.

Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Written by

Check out her five Medium publications: Doggone World, Homegrown, I Do See Color, Tickled and We Need to Talk. Visit Shamontiel.com to read about her.

Doggone World

Let’s discuss all bark-related, (mostly) feel-good content for dog lovers, dog walkers and dog owners.

Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Written by

Check out her five Medium publications: Doggone World, Homegrown, I Do See Color, Tickled and We Need to Talk. Visit Shamontiel.com to read about her.

Doggone World

Let’s discuss all bark-related, (mostly) feel-good content for dog lovers, dog walkers and dog owners.

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