Although not overly common, some dogs are genuinely terrified of the big wide world. If your dog is hesitant to go outside, simply refuses to step a foot out of the door or runs back inside at the first available opportunity, then they are probably afraid of the outdoors and are naturally wreaking havoc with unwanted urination. If you are able to figure out whether something specific is causing this fear, such as another animal, lack of socialization or a particular noise, you will have something to work with. In most cases however, the owner will never be able to decipher exactly what the root cause may be.
Why is my dog scared of the outdoors?
These are usually dogs that have lived their entire lives inside. Some of them come from apartments, others kennels or laboratories. The condition is also known to afflict dogs that have been bred for years in puppy mills. Having never ventured outside, and already suffering extreme insecurity, these dogs do not know what to do when faced with the outdoors. However, the condition is not exclusive to these scenarios. Some dogs develop a fear of the outdoors because something bad happened to them while they were there. They have come to associate being outside with whatever it was that scared them so greatly. It could have happened once with particular vehemence, or it could have developed gradually over time.
It is very important to have a safe yard. If this is not the problem, then consider your dog’s extra sensitive hearing. Common causes of outside phobias include a barking dog next door, distant sounds that may be distressing for your dog or wind, rain and thunder. Perhaps there is a shiny or slippery floor that your dog has to cross in order to get outside. Maybe your dog has to climb stairs and is unsure about how to do this safely. It might just be that they are afraid of the unknown. Whatever the problem may be, there is little more heartbreaking than an animal scared of the great outdoors.
How to solve a fear of the outdoors…
This is a delicate matter to handle. Our dogs perceive the outdoors itself, or something within it, to be a major threat to them, when it should be considered a fun and adventurous place to be. What we need to do is change this perception. Instead of our dogs associating the world with bad things, we will have to teach them to associate it with good things. Our goal is to make them believe that exciting things happen to them when they are outside. This can only be achieved if they are able to learn and go out on their own.
What Not To Do
In order for us to be successful, it is vital that we do not inadvertently make their fears worse. There are several ways that we can easily traumatize our dogs and never get them outside again. This must be avoided. It will damage our relationship with our pooch, which may or may not be recoverable.
- While flooding (forcing an animal to face their fear and subsequently overcome it) may possibly work, it is more likely that it will create a much bigger problem. Flooding is known to cause severe trauma and push the dog’s brain over the edge. When a dog is in a fearful state of mind, they are unable to think about anything except getting to safety. This is not a good environment for learning, which is frankly impossible, and it will not help us to accomplish our end goal.
- Do not pick your dog up and carry them outside. While this may be tempting, it teaches them absolutely nothing (except maybe to associate being picked up with being forced to go outside). Your dog will become reluctant for you to pick them up, probably run away each time, and they will be forced to endure a far more stressful experience than is necessary.
- Never punish your dog for being afraid. It will only make them more fearful, of both you and the situation. This is not conducive to our efforts in any way. Scolding, hitting, pushing, kicking and similar is highly inadvisable.
The purpose of desensitization is to gradually expose our pet to a milder form of their fear. It is pivotal that the level we expose them to is low in intensity. The aim is encourage our dogs to relax and remain calm in a scary situation, which will never happen if their anxiety is too great. This is why we do not thrust them in the middle of the yard and force them to deal with it, because this will have the opposite effect of creating a positive association. We must try to figure out what is causing the problem (neighbour’s dogs, building, a snaking hosepipe or something else). This will enable us to recreate whatever is causing them to avoid going outside. However, if we are unable to find the source, we will need to be extra vigilant about watching our dogs for signs of stress during rehabilitation.
In the case of not going outside, the primary consideration is distance. We will desensitize our dogs to gradually come further and further out of the door, and finally into the yard. This is a time-consuming process that may take several weeks to achieve. It is of paramount important that our dogs do this of their own accord, and that we keep the intensity of their fear below the threshold of what they can handle. We do not want to rush the process and prove to them that they were right to be afraid all along. This is why it is critical for owners to detect the early signs of stress in their dogs. The second your dog starts becoming anxious, you need to slow down and go back a step or two.
Counter-conditioning means replacing fear with something positive, such as fun and exercise. It is not enough to just show our dogs that there is nothing to be afraid of. We also need to teach them that good things happen to them when they are outside. This will encourage them to go there and enable them to enjoy it instead of becoming afraid. Replacing a thought pattern with another (fear with exercise) is crucial to solving this issue. Dogs do not reason as we do. They live their lives according to the rule of ‘cause and effect’. So if doing something has a consequence, our dogs will learn not to do it. Likewise, if it promises a reward, our dogs will quickly learn to do it with gusto.
Techniques for resolving a fear of the outdoors…
It is all very well to talk about desensitization and counter-conditioning, but how will we achieve it? Although it sounds complicated, it is actually very easy. The only drawback is the time that will be required, but opting for a faster method will not solve the underlying problem and may damage the dog further instead. Before we begin the process of rehabilitation, we should first see if something simpler will work:
- If your dog enjoys the company of other dogs, or has a special friend, invite them over. Often the sight of another dog is enough to prompt our hesitant pooches to venture into the great outdoors. Ask their owner if their dog may stay with you for a week or so. If not, ask if they may visit as regularly as possible. If this is also not an option, ask someone else. Most people will be delighted to be a part of the solution.
- This sounds disgusting, but really, it could work perfectly. Try to obtain a jar of urine from another dog and put it in your dogs outside elimination area. Let them smell it first, coax them outside with treats and sprinkle the urine liberally over the area. The smell is often enough to make most dogs do their business on the spot. The more you do this, the more your dog will want to go there.
- Try leading your dog outside confidently. Walk your dog on a lead inside the house. It is important that you have a calm energy, appear indifferent and know exactly where you want to go. Your dog will follow assertiveness. Have a clear goal and do not walk too slowly, leaving your dog to meander around aimlessly. Once you get this right indoors and you have set a good pace together, walk outside. Do not hesitate, look at your dog or place any emphasis on where you are going. Do not talk to your dog at all. Maintain the same pace and use the same energy. Your dog will likely come with you. However, if your dog puts down their brakes at the door, try again. Repeat this several times until you are both outside. Do not go too far, too quickly. Gradually increase the distance according to how well your dog is coping. Keep walking and do not stop once you are outside. Go in and out, in and out repeatedly for twenty minutes at a time. These sessions must occur daily, twice if possible, until your dog becomes more confident. When they are ready, stop when you are outside and enjoy the view. Reward your dog for remaining calm. At the first sign of distress, go back to the previous step. If your dog simply refuses to go out of the door, do not pull them or force them. Rather drop the lead, go back inside, stop this method and try something else instead.
If none of the above methods work, you will have to rely on desensitization and counter-conditioning. It offers a long-term solution to a serious problem. Fortunately, it is not difficult to be successful and these lengthy words should not overwhelm you. This is a step-by-step guide to help your dog overcome their fear of the outside world. If you see no improvement after three weeks (note the word improvement, not cure), then consider consulting with a certified animal behaviourist.
Try to replicate whatever is causing your dog to become afraid outside, while you are inside. If it is the barking dogs next door, record it. If it is building noise, record it. If it is a snaking hosepipe, bring the hose indoors. If it is an object that keeps falling over, bring it inside with you. You will need high value treats (such as chicken, liver or something very meaty).
- Make sure the volume is extremely low in the beginning, the hosepipe or object is not moving at all. Whatever you are recreating, keep it at a very low frequency. Push play and reward your dog. The goal of what we are doing is to teach Fluffy that when the trigger starts, they will get a tasty treat. This will help them to associate good things with the problem instead of bad things. If your dog starts to stress, turn the volume down. You will need to repeat this at low frequency until your dog looks at you for a treat every single time the hose starts moving, the object wobbles or the noise starts playing. When your dog is doing this continually and still keeping calm, proceed to the next part of the program.
- Open the door. Do not go out of it and do not stay too close either. The idea is simply to have the door open during these exercises. If the problem is noise from outside, stop using the recorder and rely on the real noise instead, rewarding each time the noise occurs. If you are recreating another trigger, continue with rewarding each time the hosepipe moves, the object wiggles or whatever you are doing. Bear in mind that your dog should still be looking at you each time the event occurs.
- The next step involves coaxing our dogs to go outside on their own. After several successful attempts of outside wandering, continue with this step outside.
Begin to gradually move your dog’s most essential resources towards the door and finally outside. This is a slow process that will take several days if your dog is coping well. Necessary resources include food, water and toys.
- Place their food and water bowls a comfortable distance from the door, which must remain closed at this point. Do the same with your dog’s toys, with some also scattered by the back door. Remember that it is vital to do this gradually so as not to stress Fluffy out, who is supposed to remain calm throughout.
- Each day, move their resources two feet closer to the door. If there are signs of anxiety, make it one step over two days. Watch your dog closely and do not let them panic. It will help if you move these items without your dog noticing. Gradually, foot by foot, put their belongings right next to the door.
- If your dog is still coping, feed them next to an open door. If this is a problem, go back a few feet and keep the door open. Do this for a few days until your dog is able to eat comfortably. If your dog is not eating, they are probably too stressed out. Go backwards a few paces, until they are eating their food.
- Continue this process calmly, until your dog is eating outside. Keep going, at a gradual pace, until your dog is happily gobbling their food (and treats) heartily while outside.
Leave a trail of enticing treats a foot apart for your dog to follow outside. Use boring treats such as ordinary dog kibbles at the start, increasing the temptation as the trail progresses outdoors. A pile of high value treats should be the greatest enticement, such as chicken, liver, raw bones, meat or chewable pig ears. The chewier they are, the higher the chance your dog will spend more time outside with it. They should be placed outside at the end of the trail. Each day, build the pile further away. Make sure that their favourite toys are scattered outside as well.
It is important that we show our dogs how much fun they can have when they are outside. If your dog enjoys playtime, scatter all of their toys outside on the lawn. Use squeaky, bouncing ones to entice them to join you. Be enthusiastic about it, encouraging your dog to join you.
- If your dog is shy and timid, sit on the grass and call out for them in a happy tone of voice. Use toys that play on their prey instinct, such as those that move erratically on the end of a rope. If your dog comes outside, praise them generously, reward them happily with treats, play with them exuberantly and go back inside.
- From now on, all inside activities must be as boring as possible. The idea is to starve your dog of all excitement so that they learn all the fun is happening outside. This means no more petting, playing, running around or anything similar occurring inside anymore, besides sheer boredom.
- If you have another dog, use them to coax your terrified pooch outside. Play the most delightful, lengthy and exciting games you can think of with them, all the while calling your dog to join in.
Try using a Thundershirt or tight body wrap on your dog. This may just give them what they need to brave the outdoors. These products work by hugging tightly against the body, providing comfort and security. Put it on inside a few times before venturing out. Not all dogs are happy to wear them and your dog may panic even more, in which case this is not a good idea.
Clicker-train your dog, if not trained already. The clicker works by teaching your dog that a reward is inevitable when a certain goal is achieved. You will be able to train your dog to touch a target, or step onto a mat, which can then be moved steadily outside. Each time your dog touches the object, click immediately and reward them. This will require a history of work with the clicker to be effective.
Once your dog is coming with you outdoors, of their own accord, it is time to take Step 1 outside as well. You can gradually shake the hosepipe gently, rewarding every time it moves. Remember that your dog must be looking at you before your give them the treat. If you are using an object, steadily increase the level of wobbling. The same principle applies to any noise your dog may be afraid of. It is vital to continue keeping the intensity of the trigger below what your dog is able to handle, so if they begin stressing, go back to the previous level.
No dog should ever have to suffer a fear of the outdoors. It is contrary to their nature and extremely bad for them. Dogs that are afraid to leave the safety of their house are typically struggling with several issues inside, the most common being inappropriate urination. The only way to help them overcome such paranoia is to use several of these techniques together.