Breaking the Cycle


When you have a nervous dog you get into a rut. This “problem” dog can’t be taken out in public, so you think, because he behaves so “badly.” For your nervous dog, this causes massive behavioral and emotional fall out. It goes something like this:

1. Nervous dog is a little skittish at the park.

2. Because he is skittish, he pulls on his leash and is hard to manage.

3. Then he, say, barks at someone who startles him.

4. You, embarrassed from the barking and/or bruised from being hauled across the park, don’t take him to the park for a week.

5. Nervous dog is now less familiar with his environment, and reacts even more strongly.

6. You don’t take him to the park until guilt absolutely compels you. If you have a yard, you gradually stop taking him out at all.

7. Nervous dog loses all of his coping skills and is now terrified to leave the house/yard, even to go to places that used to be okay. You are reinforced in your belief that the dog can’t be taken out.

Additionally your dog, once you give up on going out, lives an incredibly sterile life. He sleeps the same naps in the same beds. He goes into the yard and sniffs the same trees and pees on the same piece of lawn furniture. He maybe plays with the same tennis ball and chews on the same chewbone. This is not the stuff of good mental health. Anxious dogs can get very rigid about what is “acceptable,” so it’s very important to keep variety in their activities.

This cycle can also sneak up on you. We’re starting to see some fallout from this, even though I know better, just because it is so d***ed hot outside. Silas has dropped from three-four outings a week to maybe one outing every week and a half. He had a melt down at PetSmart the other day, because of a dog on an overhead sign. He’s always loved PetSmart. I had quit taking him because their asphalt parking lot is flamingly hot. And now, of course, I think “oh, we shouldn’t go back to PetSmart, the sign scared him.” This is the Bad Cycle of Staying Home in action. His acceptance of strangers, which was at a pretty good place in the Spring, is also getting a little rockier.

So, how do you get out of this?

1. Enrich your dog’s environment at home. Absolutely, no matter what. Puzzle toys, treats hidden in cardboard boxes, hiding a toy for him to find, a new game, training some new tricks. Do whatever you can.

2. Get over yourself. (This one is the most important, and I say it with deep love, both to you and to me.) Your dog barks. Your dog pees inappropriately. Your dog could use a refresher on leash walking. Your dog will only walk at one park, and it’s a thirty minute drive away. You will make mistakes handling and training through any of these things. Accept it. Move on. Seek professional help if you need it.

3. Find a safe, very boring place to exercise your dog. You would really prefer your dog to not get any practice with his bad behaviors, but don’t use that as an excuse to stay home. If your dog is afraid of specific things, try to minimize contact with them.

4. Go to that place. Spend as much time there as you can. Keep it positive. Watch for signs of stress and try to get out before it escalates. Warning: this may be five minutes.

5. Repeat number 4. A lot. Gradually, the safe time will expand. Your dog, who has been living is sensory deprivation, will start to be more okay with being out in the world. You can now, maybe, add a new place.

Historically, Silas will keep at least a vague memory of a particular place. When we went through almost exactly this same process this time last year (although it was motivated by some real behavioral stuff then, rather than my laziness.) I found that once I got him used to being out at all, he pretty quickly got back up to speed on all of our usual places. Don’t make assumptions, though. Every dog is different, and sometimes the places themselves change in ways that aren’t readily apparent to humans.

3 thoughts on “Breaking the Cycle

  1. So true! My last dog Shadow didn’t do well in new situations. But there were specific places in the neighborhood and also up in the mountains I could take her where I knew she loved it. I know her world was small and I didn’t do a great job with her training like you do with Silas – but I did make sure the environment she did have was fun and enriching for her. I’m glad Blueberry is more open to visiting new places and is the exact opposite of how Shadow was.

    Don’t be so hard on yourself – you do an amazing job with Silas and when it’s hot – it does make it really difficult to get out. It’ll cool off soon and then you can get back into it with him. 🙂


  2. I think it is great that you see the potential problem and are doing what you can. I totally understand about it being too hot to take the dog certain places. You have to think of the dog’s physical health as well.

    I can relate to what you are writing about. When Storm was young, she would bolt if she was somewhere that she was not comfortable. She would practically hang herself on the leash because you could be looking at her and still not see it coming. She never did it at hunt tests, hunting or while hunt test training. Those were happy places for her.

    Mostly she would do it when we went to obedience class. She hated that environment. I think it overwhelmed her because at times it could get loud in that building. I was tempted to not go back because she was so distressed and such a handful. Instead we did round after round after round of obedience classes in that building until she was OK in that environment. She actually earned her Canine Good Citizenship there. I was so proud of her. It was not an easy test and she did a good job.

    After she got over her nerves of that place, I could pretty much take her anywhere. Plus of course she was growing up and maturing mentally as well.


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