By Victoria Schade
Spending time in the great outdoors seems like a natural part of dog-hood, but for some cautious canines, the world outside the front door can be a scary place. Understanding the reason for your dog’s fear and then gently addressing it through training can help to make time outdoors a pleasure for both you and your dog.
Recognizing Your Dog’s Fear
Your dog’s fearfulness might manifest in obvious ways, like an outright refusal to walk or pulling hard on the leash to try to get back in the house. However, a dog in distress might signal his fearfulness in more subtle ways, like crouching and walking low to the ground, keeping the tail tucked, panting that isn’t related to temperature or activity level, frequent yawning or trembling. Forcing dogs who are exhibiting these kinds of stress signals to “face their fears” will only exacerbate the problem, so punishment and intimidation have no place in the rehabilitation process.
Why is My Dog Afraid to Go Outside?
Dogs might be afraid to venture outside for a number of reasons, including:
- New puppy panic: Transitioning to a new home can be overwhelming for puppies, which means your pup might slam on the brakes the first time you try to take him for a walk. Plus, the unfamiliar sensation of wearing a collar and leash can make going outside an extra frightening experience.
- Negative experiences: Some dogs become reluctant to walk after having a scary experience outside. Whether getting startled by a noisy garbage truck or a having a run-in with a barking dog behind a fence, these dogs make a connection between going for a walk and confronting stressful situations.
- Insufficient socialization: Dogs who miss out on the critical socialization period during puppyhood might end up afraid to take walks. In order to view the world as a welcoming place, puppies need to be gently exposed to novel situations, places and beings in short, positive sessions before they hit 14 weeks old. Those that don’t receive this type of exposure are at risk of being overwhelmed by unfamiliar experiences.
- Never leash walked: Adolescent and adult rescue dogs can come from a variety of circumstances that might not have allowed them the opportunity to acclimate to leash walking. Dogs who move from a rural setting to a city environment might find the noise and crowds around them particularly challenging to navigate.
- Pain: Dogs who are reluctant to go for a walk, or who suddenly refuse to walk, might be suffering from undiagnosed pain. Everything from overgrown toenails to muscle stains to arthritis can impact a dog’s willingness to walk.
- Electric fence fear: Training a dog respond to an electronic containment system includes a session during which the dog gets shocked, and for some, the sensation is all it takes to make the yard a place where pain happens. Rather than associating the shock with the specific boundary, these dogs generalize pain to the entire yard.
- Sound sensitivity: Some dogs pair a frightening sound, like a gun shot or fireworks, with the location they’re in when they hear it, which can result in the dog trying to avoid that location. Some dogs generalize sound sensitivity, so a noise like a car backfiring can become stressors as well.
How to Help Your Dog
The most effective way to help dogs feel more confident outside is to change their association to the great outdoors through a combination of desensitization and counter-conditioning training.
The first step is desensitization training, which allows the dog to experience the scary stimulus at a level that doesn’t evoke stress. For example, a dog who is nervous about encountering garbage trucks could be exposed to a truck that’s several blocks away, parked and silent, so that he can see it, but he’s far enough from it that he won’t react to it.
Counter conditioning, which works in tandem with desensitization, helps the dog form a new association to the stressor through positive associations. With the garbage truck at a distance, feed your dog a series of high value goodies when he notices the truck, like bits of cheese or hot dogs, so that your dog starts to make a connection between the scary garbage truck and the wonderful goodies. Then, gradually bridge the distance between your dog and the garbage truck, always rewarding him with the goodies for his calm responses. In time, your dog should be able to pass garbage trucks without a fearful reaction.
Using a training process called “shaping” can help dogs that are afraid to go into their own yard. This type of training breaks down the process of walking outside into manageable pieces and rewards the dog for successfully navigating each one.
Pet parents can begin the process by standing just outside the door with a handful of treats. When your dog takes a step towards the door, mark the behavior with a click from a clicker or verbal marker like “good!” then toss a treat to your dog where he’s standing. Don’t force your dog to come to you to get the treat or try to lure him to come to you with it. Allow him to make his way out at his own pace, and mark and reward each step of the process until he’s confident crossing the threshold.
Keep in mind, any dog that suddenly balks at walking or going into the yard can benefit from a medical evaluation. Ensuring your dog’s physical wellbeing and taking steps to train him to increase his confidence can help make outside time a joy for both ends of the leash.