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

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


I think I’ve mentioned before that my dog, Otto, is nervous about slippery floors. 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 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!


  1. I’m a professional k9 trainer. Funny seeing this article. I just addressed this very issue with a lady at my seminar this past weekend. The fear of that floor is not the dogs. It is yours. Simple’s not “flooding” to teach the dog to talk on a slippery floor. It’s only a big ordeal for those that do not understand dog behavior. Put the dog on the floor and STOP attaching your weird human fears to your dog. You will all be happier.