DEAR DIDI: Our Havanese, Desi, was walking through a door last month when the wind grabbed the door and slammed it behind him suddenly. It didn’t hurt him but it did scare the begeebees out of him. Ever since then Desi hesitates before walking through any door. When he does finally go through the door he races every time! How do we fix this? - Dedicated Dad in Manteca
DEAR DEDICATED DAD: The Havanese breed is known for the intelligence, sensitivity, and loyalty. They have been referred to as the ‘Velcro dog’ in the native Cuba because of their desire to stick by their human. Desi’s intelligence allows him to connect the scary event he experiences with future similar situations. He now recognizes doors as a possibly scary thing. His sensitivity makes him worry about it happening again. In short, Desi has a touch of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
The sooner you address the issue, the better. If Desi is allowed to continue in his fears it sort of sets things in stone for him mentally. The key to fixing things like this is to give him good experiences with doorways rather than just merely “surviving” them each time. Your first step is to discover his comfort zone around a door. When exactly does he begin showing nervousness as you approach them? Three feet? Six feet? One foot? We are going to train just outside Desi’s comfort zone. If he gets nervous four feet from any doorway, then let’s work at five feet. Do this before meals so that he is hungry and willing to overcome a few challenges to get treats from you. Make sure the treats are of high value to him. High value usually means leftover Rotisserie chicken, hotdog, steak bits, etc. Practice things Desi is good at, such as sits, rollover, shakes, etc. Don’t try to teach anything new during this process because it could add stress. If Desi loves to play fetch or tug of war then try playing at the comfort zone near a door. Keep the training sessions to 3-5 minutes in duration. If he is working with enthusiasm at five feet away from a door you can move closer by a foot. If at any point Desi won’t play or accept the treat you may have gotten too close to the object he fears. Back away a little bit. Be sure to practice at different doorways so that Desi doesn’t just get comfortable with one particular door.
Only move closer when he is perfectly comfortable and having fun working with you at the current level. The goal is to not let the dog feel any anxiety whatsoever during the desensitization process. Practice being happy, comfortable and relaxed near doors. You can do as many sessions as you want in a day, as long as, the sessions are short in duration. While you are working on his fears, you may need him to go through doors to get to the car or go outside to relieve himself. Have a yummy treat in hand and distract him by acting very silly and loud. Make passing through the door a party! Obviously, be extra careful to hold doors so that he doesn’t have another bad experience which would cause a huge setback.
Desensitization is a slow process of conditioning the mind to be okay with something it was previously scared of. This process works for almost any fear but takes patience on the part of the human. I tend to adhere to a 300 to 1 ratio meaning, Desi needs 300 really good experiences going through doorways to offset the one super scary experience. If you follow the guidelines I’ve given and he is still showing high anxiety around doorways please have him evaluated by a qualified Behaviorist.
Dierdra McElroy is a graduate of Texas A&M University, owner of California Canine, and is an Animal Behaviorist specializing in canines. If you have questions or concerns about the pets in your house, you can get them answered through a future column of Dear Didi. Just email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.