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.