Why Is My Dog Scared of Going Outside?
What's So Scary About Going Outside?
There may appear to be nothing scary in a yard from a human's perspective but things may look very different to a dog. With noses containing more than 220 million olfactory receptors (humans have only a mere 5 million) and powerful ears capable of detecting sounds in the ultrasonic range, dogs are much more attentive to their environment than humans. So as humans we may be missing all the multi-sensorial stimulation dogs are exposed to. A few examples of what dogs may find to be scary in the yard include but are not limited to:
- The neighbor's dogs barking
- Your slippery floor before going outside
- The stairs that lead to the yard
- Distant sounds that you may not hear
- Fear of the unknown and new places
- Fear of windy conditions, rain, and thunderstorms
In many cases, the fear is unfounded and may stem from a lack of socialization and fear of the unknown. In other cases, the fear is known, such as when the dog runs back in at the sight of something it fears or as soon as a scary noise is perceived. In any case, the message is clear: The dog does not feel safe at all outdoors.
What Not to Do
If your dog is reluctant to go outside or is simply terrified, it is important that you take the right approach to training. There are however, certain techniques that, while effective with other humans, may make the dog's behavior worse.
1. Don't Flood the Dog
To "flood" a dog means to force the animal to face its fears in the hope of overcoming them. While flooding is a form of behavior therapy, it comes with substantial risks, and there are not many guarantees it will work. Tossing a child who's afraid of water into a pool fears water into a pool may make that child more afraid—and it's the same with a dog. While flooding may yield fast results when it works, it is also more traumatic and less effective.
In the case of dealing with a dog fearful of the outdoors, flooding would entail taking the dog outdoors and blocking the escape route so the dog is forced to face its fear. However, unlike humans who can rationally talk themselves out of a fear, dogs panic until their brains shut down. In such a state, the dog's cognitive functions (ability to learn) are impaired and there is no room for learning. There are better methods and we will see them below.
2. Don't Punish
Whatever your dog does, never punish him for being fearful. Doing so is totally counter-productive. Last year, there was a dog who was terrified of walking on slippery floors. When I asked the owner what he had done so far to help the dog overcome his fears, he told me he used to scold the dog for being fearful. When the dog ran over the shiny surface and slipped on the floor he used to tell him "bad boy"! No wonder this dog was terrified! Dealing with fear and then having an owner scold on top of that created the perfect concoction for terror!
3. Don't Carry the Dog Outside
Some dog owners may feel compelled to carry the dog outdoors if their dog is not too keen on visiting the yard. But doing so doesn't teach the dog a thing. In order for a dog to learn and overcome its fears, he must go out the yard on its own. If you carry your dog outdoors, you are causing two big problems:
- Your dog may become reluctant to be carried because he starts associating it with being taken out the yard.
- The dog is then placed in the yard, which is a scary event that may cause more fear and stress.
How to Help a Dog Who's Afraid of Going Outside
Your dog's fear of the outside may manifest in many ways. It may start as a simple reluctance to go outside accompanied by fearful body language (tail between legs, ears back, head carried low, uncertain gait). Then one day your dog may decide to put on its brakes and will not budge. What to do? As seen, pushing the dog outside and or scolding him will only make matters worse. Here are some tips to make the great outdoors an appealing place to be without overwhelming the dog.
Desensitization is a form behavioral therapy that is the opposite of flooding. Instead of forcing the dog to face its fears, which may be traumatic, the dog is exposed gradually to keep its anxiety and fear below the fear threshold. The threshold is an invisible line that separates fearful reactions from non-fearful reactions—or at least reactions where the dog is under better control. Often what makes the difference is distance. Therefore, if the dog is carried outside and put in the middle of the yard, he will certainly be over the threshold, causing him to panic, whereas, if the dog is placed in front of the opened door that leads to the yard, the dog would feel more relaxed and would be under the threshold.
Note: Threshold levels vary from one dog to another.
Through a process of desensitization, the dog is gradually exposed to the yard and its noises. This process takes quite some time and much care must be taken to make sure the dog stays below his threshold level. Dog owners must be able to recognize early warning signs of stress so as to make sure they're not asking for too much at once. If the stimuli the dog is exposed to is too intense, the dog may become increasingly sensitized to his fear. So, for example, you would take care to not practice desensitization when your neighbor is outside using a chain saw.
While desensitization is a powerful behavior modification program on its own, adding counter-conditioning on top of it, will double the effectiveness. Counter-conditioning means changing a dog's physical and emotional response to a particular stimulus. If your dog does not like the outdoors, he may have been conditioned to act fearfully. In counterconditioning we are changing the dog's emotional response and attitude towards the outdoors, flipping it upside down. In other words, we want to change the negative associations and create positive ones. So if yard=fear, we want to shift it to yard=fun! No need to worry, dogs do not need a math degree to understand this equation!
We will see desensitization and counterconditioning at play in the steps below.
Tips for Making Your Dog Love the Yard
The following tips are a mix of desensitization and counterconditioning meant to help your dog overcome his fears. If your dog does not show signs of improvement in the first week or two, or if the behavior worsens, consider consulting with a veterinary behaviorist or certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB).
- High-value treats
- Food bowl
- Tape recorder
- Access to outdoors
Exercise 1: Outdoor Noises Are Great!
1. Identify what makes your dog fearful. If you know your dog runs for cover the moment he hears a noise, try to replicate that noise. It would be a good idea to record the noise and then play it at a low volume (desensitization).
2. Add some counter-conditioning. To make this process more effective, try to feed your dog while the recording is playing or give tasty treats every time you push the "play" button and the recording starts (counterconditioning). Do this until your dog starts looking at you for a treat the moment it hears the recording of the noise.
Note: Make sure you give the treats when the noise is playing and put them away when you stop the recording. It must be crystal clear to your dog that the noise is what brings the treats out and when the noise ends, the treats end too!
3. Ramp up the desensitization and counter-conditioning. Open the yard door and do the same exercise, only instead of using the recording as a prompt for treats, you use the actual noises to give treats.
Keep your dog inside with you at first, at a distance from the door where the dog won't be overwhelmed by fear. As soon as you hear a noise, toss a treat. You can even put the noise on cue after a bit, for instance, you can say something like "good noise!" With time, the noises will become a friendly reminder to get a treat and the dog should start being desensitized.
Important: Continue the exercise outdoors if you can get your dog to come out. Below are ways to train your dog to love the outdoors.
Exercise 2: Feeding Station
A good way to make the outdoors less intimidating is to put the food bowl near the door and then gradually move it outside.
Note: If your dog will not take food, you are working over the threshold. A dog's ability to take food is often a good indicator of a dog being sub-threshold.
- Start feeding next to the door when the door is closed (if your dog is uncomfortable, feed a few feet away from the door).
- Feed a few feet away from the door, but this time with the door open.
- Feed closer to the door with door open. Keep moving the bowl closer as your dog adjusts.
- Feed with the food bowl facing the outside but with your dog still inside.
- Gradually move the bowl farther and farther outside.
Exercise 3: Trail of Treats
Leave the door open and make a trail of treats that leads to outside, the end of the trial should contain increasingly high-value treats which ends with a pile of treats or a valued bone or pig ear. Do this frequently, and once your dog is outside, make sure your dog sees a bunch of toys scattered in the yard.
Exercise 4: Outside Is Play Time!
If your dog is play oriented, scatter lots of toys on the lawn and entice him to come outside with squeaking toys or bouncing balls. If your dog is shy, sit on the lawn and try to call him in a happy voice, using an irresistible toy. If it helps, tie it on a string and move it erratically like prey. If your dog comes outdoors, praise lavishly, have a fun upbeat play session, and then invite your dog back inside.
Once inside, make the day boring. In other words, make sure your dog learns that all the fun is outdoors and indoors nothing really great goes on. If you have another dog, let your fearful dog see how much fun he is missing.
Exercise 5: Use Clicker Training
If your dog is clicker-trained, make a target to click-treat and gradually move the target more and more outdoors. Give jackpots for when the dog steps outdoors.