When we first got Tasha, she was anxious and too nervous to do something wrong that she would always wait for instructions on how to behave and exactly what to do. Although this can be really helpful for a trained dog in new situations, she was too anxious to do the things that dogs do: explore, play, sleep. We had an active dog that was very people oriented that didn’t want to play. As time went on and she didn’t get enough instructions for her liking, which probably would have included exactly where to place all of her paws when each particular leaf blew in the wind, she reverted to her old habits that she had at the rescue, including fear aggression. A dog using her senses in the following order: smell, sound, sight, touch, taste. Tasha rarely used smell, if at all. Instead her order was: sight, sound, touch, smell, taste. This bizarre order means the dog is really out of balance and not acting as a dog should. It is like a person suffering from an anxiety disorder and never truly feel like themselves. I know that is how I felt during much of my middle school and high school years (and I’ll admit even into the beginning of college). The thing is: dogs can’t just talk out their feelings and get better.
Over the past month, I have really been working with Tasha on her fear of water. It is one of her biggest fears besides people. Every time we would give her a bath, she would go into shock. She would even refuse to eat cheese, her favorite thing ever especially if it is mozzarella. I will say outright that I am not a dog trainer or behaviorist. I am not saying what is right for your dog. I have been working with Tasha using my own instincts and taking bits and pieces of advice from different articles and books on how to help a fearful dog gain confidence. I have always been able to sense the energy of the people and animals around me more than most people. It really helped when I would be training horses and helping them through their fears and behavior problems. I have been applying the same to Tasha, making sure to work at her current limit and not over. Knowing how far to push her in one session has been a major challenge and when I think I have pushed her too far I make sure to take her back to basics so that she can feel “the win.” When first starting out, I had Tasha in the bathroom with me during my showers. She started out with this being her limit. She would cower in the corner and we would repeat the process every day including when I just brushed my teeth until she could comfortably lay down with the shower on in the room. Next, we upped the ante. She had to lay down on the mat in front of the sink while I showered. She took to this quite easily as the mat is about 3 feet away from the shower and it is not the noise she feared, but the water itself.
When she started believing that when on the sink mat during shower time was Tasha nap time, it was time to up the ante again. Every time I was in the bathroom except to shower, she had to go into the shower stall area and wait for me there. The first time in the shower area took about 45 minutes for her to fully relax and the floor was completely dry. I waited with her to be her rock as she worked through her own anxiety. I have to say, those 45 minutes were tough but all I could do was stay calm and support her while she did it (and of course take ibuprofen afterwards because after 40 minutes of sitting on a shower floor my back wasn’t the happiest). I would praise her every time she showed the smallest hint of curiosity rather than fear. The next time took only 15 minutes. After that, it was smooth sailing, each time being less of a challenge than the previous one. This was over the course of several days. After this “win” of conquering her fear of the shower stall area itself, she was more playful. Last night, she was so happy to play with us that she was running around the house acting like a total puppy for at least 45 minutes. Her fun was absolutely contagious and LD and I eventually collapsed on the couch in total exhausted happiness.
Today was a new challenge. She would lie on the bathmat while the shower was running. This proved to be her hardest hurdle yet. We were sitting on the floor of the bathroom for probably half an hour before she stopped shaking. Then I would once again praise her for any kind of curiosity. If she turned her ear to listen to the water, praise and scratches. If she sniffed in the direction of the shower, praise and scratches. If she even looked toward the shower without her tail tucked between her legs, praise and scratches. I think the experts would call this flooding and most trainers who use purely positive reinforcement methods frown on this, several dog behaviorist suggest it as long as it is done correctly by a professional. Should I have tried it on my own without at least the advice of a professional trainer? Probably not, but Tasha was already so far into her fear that “a win” would be huge in her world and a failure would not mean much. And oh boy did she get her win.
After the initial session with praise and scratches, we waited an hour to have her cool off and do something else that does not involve much thinking…relaxation time. Then we used her breakfast as an added motivation for working with the running shower. Making sure we were working at her edge and not over, she would get a piece of kibble here and there for being curious about the shower area, whether it was the bathmat or the shelves next to it or the ledge of the shower area itself. Every time she pushed herself a bit farther, she got her food. As she became comfortable with the mat, I started putting kibble on the edge of the shower area on the outside of the curtain for her to motivate and self reward. After a while, she started going after the pieces that she accidentally bumped into the shower area itself using the curtain to block water and only putting a paw or two into the area at a time. I took her lead and started putting kibble at the bottom of the shower area where the water barely reaches and only when it splashes off the floor. We both pushed her and as the meal went on, her confidence continued to grow. By the end, she was putting three paws into the shower area to get the kibble. She also started pushing some of the food by the edge intentionally in farther to challenge herself.
She is not all the way over her fears of the shower yet and her biggest fear with the shower is still to come, but we will continue to play the kibble game until she is confident with it from the beginning. When we went outside today so that she could use the bathroom, she didn’t immediately become alert as soon as we stepped outside the door like she often does, she was infinitely more relaxed. She even played some fetch with me and tried a new game called “find it” where I hide her squeaker tennis ball and she has to search for it. Let me tell you, she will not be a search and rescue dog anytime soon, but she is being more creative with her puzzles. Next, I want to try playing with a box with her again, she might have the confidence to be creative with it instead of waiting for directions on what to do with this “toy” like the first time I tried playing with the box with her. She has also started really exploring everywhere we go, as long as there aren’t people around. She is reverting to being a dog instead of a jumble of anxiety and nerves. I am very excited we are at a point where she is really taking off in her confidence. I know it won’t continue to happen this fast and that there will be some setbacks, but I am here to enjoy the ride.