Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
What's Going on up There?
What Causes Fear of the Sky in Dogs
If your dog is looking up at the sky and appears fearful, something might have left quite a negative impression in its mind. What may have happened will likely remain a mystery to us; therefore, we can only make assumptions. Perhaps your dog one day witnessed a bolt of lightening that hit the ground, or perhaps an airplane flew very low, hurting her sensitive ears. Perhaps something fell from a tree on her. It could also be your dog felt pain one day and associated it with the sky. If your dog cowers and runs for cover, the chances are very likely that she is seeking shelter from a perceived danger.
Because every time a dog cowers and heads for shelter and nothing bad happens, the dog feels the need to engage in this sort of ritualistic behavior for the sake of safety each time. This modus operandi can be somewhat reinforcing to the dog since it brings relief. However, when there is a reinforcing behavior at the root of a behavior problem, as a general rule, this means the behavior will likely not extinguish easily. Therefore, in order for a dog to stop engaging in this ritualized behavior, the pattern must be in someway broken apart and alternative behaviors must be taught.
How to Break the Behavior Pattern and Teach Alternate Behaviors
We will take a look at some ways to disengage a dog's mind from this ritualized behavior. Because each dog responds differently, I will suggest three different methods that may help you out. The absolutely worst thing you can do to keep feeding or exacerbating the behavior is paying attention to it, reprimanding it, and allowing it to continue to happen. Here are a few tips:
Method 1: Using Eye Contact as Alternate Behavior
In this exercise, you will try to use classical conditioning to train your dog an alternate behavior that is hopefully going to be rewarding enough to help her forget about the sky. You will start this training inside the home and then gradually progress in front of the door and then work your way outdoors. Here are some easy steps:
- Arm yourself with the tastiest treats: skip kibble, or those stale doggy biscuits forgotten in the cookie jar. Try hot dogs, roasted chicken, or dog trainer's favorites: free-dried liver that you can find in your local pet store.
- Choose a quiet area of your home where there are little distractions. Keep your other dog away.
- Next, you will make a smacking sound with your mouth to grab your dog's attention and immediately deliver the treat. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Smacking sound, treat, smacking sound, treat. Smacking sound, treat. Do it about seven or eight times until, upon hearing the smacking sound, your dog looks for the treat.
- At this point, make your dog work a bit for the treats. Make the smacking sound and keep the treat at your eye level. Just keep it next to your eye. The moment your dog makes eye contact, deliver the treat. Basically your are training your dog the ''watch me'' command and your smacking sound is the cue. Repeat, repeat, repeat, until your dog learns that upon making eye contact, she gets a treat. She should therefore start looking at you automatically upon hearing the smacking sound in anticipation for the treat.
- Gradually, start adding distractions to the exercise. Do it in a room where there are more noises, or with another dog around but kept away with the aid of a helper at a distance. You want to make the behavior more and more reliable by adding distractions.
- As your dog gets good at this, put a leash on her and try making the smacking sound with the front door open.
- If she is responding well, you can then try to step outside a few steps and ask it there as well. If she responds well, give lots of praise and deliver a jackpot (in other words, toss a handful of treats on the ground for her to eat). If you notice she is trying to look upwards and she refuses to make eye contact upon hearing the smacking noise, you have gone too far to fast. Go back inside, practice a bit more and then try a bit later.
- Continue progressing. With time, patience and consistency you should see a change in the pattern of her behavior. Instead of looking upwards towards the sky, she should feel compelled to look at you for the treats. This way she is offered an alternate behavior that is more rewarding.
*Note: once you reach this point, you do not want to put her up to fail by unleashing her and letting her free to go as she pleases. This will likely encourage the upward sky-looking to make a come-back and often even stronger than before. If she needs exercise, I would therefore walk her in another place where the behavior is less likely and leave the yard only for the ''watch me'' training purposes. Until enough time passes and the upward looking behavior extinguishes.
Method 2: Using Nose-Work as an Alternate Behavior
In this training exercise you will try to use your dog's predisposition to sniff the ground to hopefully disengage the sky-looking behavior. A dog sniffing a trail cannot look up at the sky at the same time!
- Again arm yourself with the tasty treats we talked about before.
- In the home, right upon feeding (and with your other dog away) make a trail of tasty treats that leads to your dog's food bowl.
- Repeat this over a few days.
- On a specific day, organize for her to eat outdoors. Make a trail of treats that leads from the front door to the food bowl placed a few feet away.
- Allow her out to follow the trail of treats and eat from her bowl.
- Attract her with a treat once she is done and allow her back in.
Do this often, to keep her mind off the looking upwards. With time, she should start associating the outdoors with going out to eat rather than acting fearful. Repeat often but do not let her out to wander after eating, she should just eat and come back to you once done. Again, we want to make this brief and upbeat so to allow her to succeed without worrying about the sky. As she gets good at this, you can open the door and launch treats across the yard as you say ''go search!'' and have her search for them. This is a fun game that will teach her that things that fall from the sky are great! As she does well on this, you can hide the treats beforehand in the yard, then open the door and ask her ''go search!''
Method 3: Play as an Alternate Behavior
Play is also another great way to keep the mind off the sky. Play, indeed, is a great way to counter-condition a dog because a dog cannot be fearful and playful at the same time. Here are some ideas:
- Arm yourself with about five to seven tennis balls.
- Keep them all in bowl and make your dog exited about them
- Head outdoors with your dog in an excited state of mind and start launching the balls across the yard and have a helper continue launching them from the other side.
- You want to keep your dog so engaged in play that she forgets all about her fearful behaviors.
- Stop the game right when it starts getting real fun and call your dog happily inside; give a few treats and then become boring. You want your dog to understand that outdoors is where the real fun happens, while indoors life is a bit dull. If you stop the game right when it gets real fun, next time, your dog will be more eager to go play out.
- Note: if your dog appears fearful of you launching the ball, avoid this game and try a better one. A bubble making machine making bacon flavored bubbles or a big ball such as those used for the sport of Treibball may be great alternatives.
- Note: If your dog's recall is poor, invest in a long line when outdoors and polish the recall exercise. These come in 30, 40, and even 50 feet. While the following article is about training scent hounds, it is helpful to just about any dog: How to Train Your Scent Hound to Come When Called.
- Note: You may want to use Thundershirt along for these brief outdoor adventures if it does make a difference. While Thundershirt has an 80% success rate, some cases require an accompanying behavior modification program to help the dog work through its fears.
Considerations About Behavior Modification
As seen, to reduce this behavior pattern, there are different approaches. Most of them teach an alternate behavior so to extinguish the unwanted one. If you are still having problems, consider consulting with a reputable dog behaviorist. Because fear-based behaviors at times are often just the tip of the iceberg—in other words, just an outward manifestation of a deeper rooted temperamental problem—you may want to engage your dog in some confidence building training. Clicker training, nose-work, and agility can do great things to dogs with fear issues if introduced gradually at the dog's pace.
Of course, no miracles can be done, but some owners committed enough at times, see marvelous results in their companions. However an important consideration: not all dogs can be totally cured from fear or aggressive behaviors when they are based on temperamental flaws. For more on this visit: ''Can Dog Behavior Problems be Cured Once and for All?
Deborah Brooks Langford from Brownsville,TX on February 01, 2012:
My sons dogs hate fire crackers.. I feel so bad for them.. interesting hub. take care.. voted up
Cat R from North Carolina, U.S. on February 01, 2012:
shorty72 on February 01, 2012:
My dog hates flies if there is one in the room she will not sit still until I get rid of it. Great hub.
seattleamilehigh1 from Seattle, Washington on February 01, 2012:
I can't figure my dog out either. He wont quit staring at his shadow! Great read, voted up :D
Phoebe Pike on February 01, 2012:
A very useful and interesting hub. Great work!