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July 8, 2011

As I mentioned in Tuesday’s report about our recent hike with the girls from Cowgirl by Proxy, Lilly suffered a major fearful dog freakout on our short hike. I have several theories on why she melted down in the most unlikely place.

Fearful Dog Freakout Background

Lilly is somewhat famous for throwing herself to the ground in dramatic fashion (as if gravity suddenly got stronger right there). She curls one arm under, drops her head, tucks her tail, and flat out refuses to move.

This behavior provides the opening for one of my essays about Lilly that was published in a book called My Dog is My Hero.

We’ve seen this behavior many times before:

  • At dog training classes (especially while learning agility)
  • At public locations with too many people or too much noise
  • In the veterinary hospital (including the parking lot)

But, we’ve never seen her meltdown or “go flat” as we call her shutdown behavior while doing something fun … like hiking.

We tried taking a break to let Lilly mellow out, and she even offered a rousing bout of “jumping her jitters out,” which is often how she shakes off something scary by jumping straight into the air (as high as my face), but after just a few more feet UP the trail, Lilly threw herself to the ground.

So, I sat with her, while the others went on, and eventually began making our way back to the car. All I had to do was ask, “Are you ready to go back?” and Lilly practically sprinted back down the mountain.

If Wishes Were Horses, I Would Ride Ride Ride

best dog blog champion of my heart fearful dog
You can tell by the shape of Lilly's head and the placement of her ears that she is nervous.

Or so the song goes. I seriously considered giving Lilly a xanax before we met up with our hiking pals. Remember, we only use it as-needed now … rather than twice a day every day.

I decided not to because:

  • Lilly has been doing so well this summer.
  • We’d be outside in a wide open space.
  • We were only talking about 2 other leashed dogs of stable and known temperament.

Plus, I was doing a product test on a dog pheromone collar that is often used to keep dogs calm (especially dogs in a group or new situation). The one we have comes under the brand name Nurture Calm 24/7. I got it for FREE in the exhibit hall at the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine.

Longtime readers know that we’ve tried DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) spray on a bandana. We’ve tried a DAP diffuser in the house … without much affect.

BUT, one of my veterinary blogger friends SWEARS by DAP collars for foster dogs and newly adopted dogs, so I figured, “Why not?”

I don’t think it helped. In fact, I have a theory that somehow Lilly is sensitized to the smell and associates it with something bad … not something good.

Fearful Dog Triggers

DOGS: Now, it’s entirely possible that hiking with 3 extra people and 2 new dogs was simply too much for Lilly.

NOISE: However, the night before our hike some yahoo in our valley shot off a gun for an hour or two — bam, bam, bam. We’re lucky that we hear almost ZERO fireworks we live (rural spot, high fire danger), but we do often hear guns.

In fact, I joke with another rural-living friend that … “You know you live in the country when you say to your fearful dog, ‘Nothing scary. Just guns.'”

Lilly reacts to the noise (usually), but the other night it really set her on edge.

SO, while we were hiking, someone near the Dream Valley Ranch began shooting too. Just a few shots a few times for a few minutes, but it easily could have been enough to upset Lilly.

SMELL: Either I’m right about this pheromone collar upsetting Lilly, OR there is a chance she responded to a nearby known BEAR den. A scent or smell makes a lot of sense because Lilly kind of flipped out for no apparent reason.

SUMMERTIME PATTERN: There is also a good chance that this hike merely coincided with the return of Lilly’s seasonal fear.

Later in the afternoon, after some minor thunderstorms and dinner, I temporarily lost Lilly in the middle pasture. I called and called and called for her. I walked around and looked for her, and when I finally FOUND her … she was cowering in the tall grass hiding.

When I herded and / or convinced her to walk toward the house, she tried to squeeze between the garage wall and some of Tom’s tools. She did NOT want to go in the house … that’s a uniquely SUMMER ONLY, EVENING ONLY thing she does this time of year.

Xanax Ho!

So, I got her in the house. I took off the pheromone collar, and I gave Lilly a xanax. She finally relaxed and slept while we watched a movie. We also let her sleep with us that night so that I could keep watch on her.

The next day, Lilly seemed mostly normal (for her), but not quite 100%, so I kept her inside with me while I worked. She mostly slept.

Your Theories?

So, I’m not exactly sure what caused Lilly to meltdown, but those are my thoughts. Ideas?

I really try not to be overly attached out outcomes with Lilly because everything is a process, but I will admit that having her get this upset during something I’d hoped would be fun for us both put a real damper on things.


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About the Author Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related.

I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

  1. I really have no idea what might have caused it… Does Lilly ever get freaked out by very animated and talkative people? I’m just wondering if the people were so amped that it made Lilly nervous. Probably a crazy idea…

    I’ll be interested to read about your theory about why Lilly doesn’t like to go inside in the summer. That has always puzzled me. Now, let’s just hope that my internet is working when you post about it!

  2. While I’ve gotten better about not melting down when new fears/fear manifestations arise, it still stinks.

    hmmmm….was it hot(ish)? Kona’s much more sensitive when she’s tired and hot. She’ll typically have a stronger reaction to a trigger (or set of triggers) when she’s tired. I suppose most of us are the same way. I’m more likely to lose it at the end of a long, hot day.

    Kona had one fearful response on the trail that I think was in response to bear scent but it was obvious. She stopped dead in her tracks, inhaled so deeply that her exhales sounded like growls, and then did a 180 to hightail it out of there. Not obviously bear, but obviously scared by a smell.

  3. What you said about the bear. It’s remarkable how dogs pick up on things we miss, because their senses and instincts are so tuned in (that’s how I think of them). I love hearing about Lilly’s days 🙂

  4. I’m going with bear (or something else scary that none of the people could sense). Do you have cougars in your area?

    1. Yes, we do have mtn lions in the area, Sheryl. That’s a thought as well. However, Lilly and I have had three close encounters with mtn lions (same one, three times, several years ago) … and even the one time it was seriously like 10 feet from us when we first saw it run up out of the trees by the creek (away from us), she didn’t freak out.

      She followed my lead and we SLOWLY made our way back up the trail toward the parking lot … it had circled, plopped down the grass across the creek from us, and watched us walk out. It never was aggressive or anything, but let me tell you … I was terrified.

  5. I have too little experience to offer any ideas, but I did want to weigh in with my sympathy. Until you have a fearful dog you just have no idea how much thought and energy goes into helping them and worrying about them. Perhaps this is on my mind even more as my fearful girl is pressed up against me, finally sleeping after a stressful evening. Not knowing what sets her off is one of the hardest things for me. If I knew for sure what gets to her I would better be able to manage, desensitize, counter-condition, etc. But so often I end up with many theories and no concrete knowledge. All I can say is thank goodness your girl has you to think about and analyze and keep loyally helping her work through the hard times!

    1. Thanks, Katie. I cannot tell you how many times (especially early on), where I had NO CLUE why Lilly was afraid. None. It takes a lot of time and observation to make even a guess in some situations.

  6. You know, Lilly’s behavior sounds similar to Luna’s–maybe in different circumstances, but similar to having fearful dog freakouts. She has those regularly, but they’re unpredictable. She could be doing so well, then, something upsets her, but it’s unclear what. The kitchen floor phobia, being afraid to come in the dog door (when she goes out fine), and now stairs and getting in the car. She flips out if I try to help her in the car now (started yesterday). Afraid of furniture and now certain landscaping.

    All of this means I have no suggestions and agree that any of your theories could be right. BTW, I also tried the Nurture Calm 24/7 pheromone collar that we got at the vet conference, and she actually gets more frenetic when wearing it. Don’t know why that is, either. Could be smell, but she’s not worn one before, only had the DAP next to her crate when she was young.

    1. That’s so interesting, Hilary. I have a NEW theory on the summertime coming inside issue, and I hope to write about it next week.

      Thanks for the details on Luna’s response to the Nuture Calm 24/7. I spoke to our behaviorist about it today (while we were talking about something else), and she agrees that my instincts could be right. Perhaps Lilly does associate the smell with scary. I might put it on her again to see if she has issue with, but our behaviorist suggested waiting at least a few weeks to try it again.

  7. I know how disappointed you must feel that the fun hike you planned wasn’t fun for Lilly or you. And it must be awful to see the dog you love looking so scared.

    As I was reading, I wondered if she smelled something. Did your friends notice anything different about their dog’s behavior?

    I suspect Lilly’s flat tire impression drew most of the attention. But if there was something scary in the environment (like a bear), the other dogs might have also reacted but in a milder way.

    1. Thanks, Pamela. I don’t mean to be so pathetic, but in the last 2 years … with pretty much everyone in my life sick and/or dying … I get to have very little “fun.” So, to have the outing go a little south for Lilly, bummed me out more than it should.

      Perhaps, Maery, will weigh in, but I sure didn’t see her dogs respond to any smells (if there was a scary bear smell around). When Lilly flips out … she gets my full attention, so I didn’t notice the other dogs responding … even in smaller ways.

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