Whole Dog Journal's Blog September 14, 2010

Forcing a Dog to Deal With His Fear is a Big Mistake

Posted at 09:32AM - Comments: (6)

A problem behavior might tempt some owners into using force. But that’s a zero sum solution.

That’s why I don’t bother bringing him into pet supply stores, a little field trip that many other owners enjoy with their dogs. But other than that, it’s not a debilitating problem. He’s comfortable on the vinyl floor that’s in our kitchen and dining room, and just fine on the parquet wood floors in my office. And though we have laminate floors in our hall and living room, the main traffic areas have been covered with rugs. Until recently.

My husband, Brian, liked the carpet runners in our long, narrow hall, but they’ve driven me crazy. To me, they function as a trap for dog hair and dust. I’d rather have bare floors, which can be quickly swept or damp-mopped. Two weeks ago, I negotiated with my husband for a trial period without the runners, and I removed them. My husband had to admit that it’s easier to keep the hall floor clean without the rugs. The only one in the family who is not happy with the situation is Otto.

Otto is highly motivated to use the hall, even though he’s afraid of walking on the bare floor; he has to walk down the hall in order to join us in the living room. He likes hanging out with my husband in that room when Brian practices the guitar, and when we watch movies on the television. And in order to follow us out the front door, he’s got to first navigate the hall.

Otto has a few different tactics for completing the journey. Sometimes he walks super slowly, like he’s walking on thin ice, and he may fall through it at any moment. Sometimes he runs as fast as he can, as if running away from a cliff that is crumbling into the ocean. At other times, he walks on the very edge of the floor, as close to the wall as possible. There are problems with each of his tactics. His slow walk sometimes stalls out, and he freezes in fear, with trembling legs. His fast attempts leave him skidding and sliding, running in place as his legs flail like a cartoon dog. And walking on the edges makes him lose his balance, which leads to more flailing.

Brian and I are trying to help Otto deal with the floor. Brian spent 20 minutes with Otto the other night, walking up and down the hall off-leash. Brian gave Otto bits of his favorite treat (hot dogs) every few feet, and stopped frequently for petting and encouragement. He made a big fuss of Otto’s success. By the end of the session, Otto was walking more or less normally up and down the hall. But then the next morning, Otto was stalled out again – declining to even attempt a single trip down the hall. When Brian called him from the living room, Otto glanced down the hall, and then ran out the kitchen door into the yard.

It’s just a small setback. There really isn’t any urgency to solve the problem. We’ll just keep working on it slowly. I know one tactic we are NOT going to try: flooding. That’s when you force someone to deal with his or her fear. This approach can work is some situations with humans, because it’s paired with counseling, in an effort to engage the person’s intellect in the recovery process. In animals, the tactic tends to result in a helpless submission – not learning, confidence, nor trust. Instead, we’re going to keep up the patient use of systematic counter-conditioning and desensitization. And perhaps solving this hallway crisis will enable us to visit set supply stores in the future!

Comments (4)

My dog has this same fear and tries to run fast out of my bedroom which has laminated flooring and ends up panicking and wheel spinning. I have put a thin strip of carpet from the door to my bed so he can lie on it as it's his favourite place when I'm out. It doesn't look very nice as it's a cut-off and shreds and frays. I have tried to find something small and attractive, like little paw prints, which i can stick down but can't find anything. Does anyone know where I could get something like this please?

Posted by: white 12 | May 23, 2015 8:26 PM    Report this comment

You may call me a cop out...but I'd probably get two cheap area rugs/heavy towels so Otto could jump from one to the next...maybe he can start looking at the hall as a 'fun place' again...my dog knows where EVERY metal piece is in the sidewalks in town...so now I just praise him for jumping over them (he used to stretch his leash to go out into the road to avoid them)

Posted by: MuttLover | January 8, 2011 10:45 PM    Report this comment

my dog doesn't like decking of any sort....he has gradually gotten more comfortable w/ them...but if its a NEW one, forget it ...like the hiking trail bridge at Zion...I tried treats and coaxing...then just picked him up and carried him...set him down fast so he could start sniffing again (be rewarded for lettin me carry him)...
he also doesn't like to walk on metal..e.g. manhole covers
and Metal grates...are double trouble..

Posted by: MuttLover | January 8, 2011 8:55 PM    Report this comment

I have a dog, Gyp, who has "smooth floor anxiety" and have tried several things. Placing mats with rubber backing like stepping stones across a stream has worked well. We have tried trimming Gyp's hair around his feet and his nails, which can help with traction. At K9 Nose Work Camp our cabin had smooth floors and Gyp became more and more relaxed as the week went on. He did very well when searching for the target odor (resulting in a treat) in a different cabin with the same floor. I have often observed that a dog who is working is less likely to be reactive or fearful. You might try hiding treats or toys in the area with flooring issues in combination with small rug "islands" to keep it from overwhelming Otto. Best wishes from Gyp and Doree.

Posted by: Adoree D | September 15, 2010 7:33 AM    Report this comment

New to Whole Dog Journal? Register for Free!

Already Registered?
Log In