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Dog Training Update: Summertime Fear Flare-Up

In summers past, I lamented the resurgence of Lilly’s inexplicable fear flare-ups. It happens only in the summer and only in the evening. Trust me, we’ve run through all the possible scenarios. But, I have a new theory.

Summertime Dog Fears

First, a little history, the strangest thing happens when summer rolls around. Lilly suddenly acts like coming inside the house (again, only in the evening) is the scariest thing ever. Sometimes, the fear spills over to me or Tom or anyone who tries to coax her inside.

Lilly flings herself to the ground, worms around like a furry hovercraft, and even screams bloody murder if you reach for her collar in hopes of leading her inside.

It’s darn near the saddest thing. Me? Me of all people … to have Lilly act like I’m a horrible, scary person breaks my heart.

BUT, because of the very real predator situation in our high-altitude valley in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, Lilly simply cannot be left outside alone … especially at dusk or after dark.

Summertime Dog Fears Possibilities Debunked

We’ve run through all the possible scenarios about which people commonly ask, including things like air conditioning, but we don’t have air conditioning. We just open a few windows at night and air things out.

Indeed, Lilly has had past fear breakdowns relating the window over the kitchen sink. Just this one window terrifies her, if you open it. Or, I should say used to terrify her. She seems to have gotten over it in the last 2 summers.

But, she showed summertime fears long before we installed that new window, so it cannot be that.

Lilly does NOT only balk at coming inside say the front door. She has flipped out over every door we have. So, it isn’t a door thing.

There is also a theory that says Lilly simply enjoys being outside in the summer, which is true, but it does not fully explain the full-on breakdown she has about coming inside.

Summertime Dog Fears: New Theory

Even though due to family and work stress, my ability to read for pleasure is greatly hindered, I’m REALLY trying to make time to read more this summer. So, I’m just now getting around to reading Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz.

I’ve interviewed Dr. Horowitz several times on dog behavior issues over the years, so I’d been wanting to read the book.

I came across this passage about how air currents and smells move in rooms, and it made me wonder if this isn’t what makes any and all doors inside the house seem scary to Lilly. Maybe there is something about the invisible thresholds into the house that matter: [emphasis mine]

“If we attend carefully, we might notice the gross changes of the day: the cool at the moment the sun sets, or the time of day registered in the amount of light streaming in the window — but the day’s changes are infinitely more subtle than this. With sensitive machinery, researchers can detect the gentle air currents that form as a summer’s day ends: warmed air pulled up along the inner walls creeps across the ceiling, spilling into the center of the room and falling along the outer walls. This is no breeze, nor even a noticeable puff or waft. Yet the sensitive machinery that is the dog evidently detects this slow, inevitable flow of air, perhaps with the help of their whiskers, well positioned to register the direction of any scent on the air. We know they can detect it because they can also be fooled: brought into a room that was warmed, a dog trained to follow a scent trail may search first by the windows when the track is really closer to the room’s interior.”

[p 214-215]

So, if we follow the idea that Lilly’s recent complete fear shutdown episode on a hike might be related to the scent of a bear, then in my mind, perhaps there is something about the way the air moves in our house at night and only in the summer that brings scents that upset Lilly and make the house — her happy, safe house — the scariest place in the world for a few hours, each night, in the summer.

What do you think? I’m I reaching too far on this one?

***

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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.

Kim - July 21, 2011

Could make sense. I have a fearful, dog-reactive poodle, Cricket, and I have learned to pay attention to his body language and vocalizations on walks, as he smells and senses his triggers long before I can see them.

kb - July 20, 2011

I don’t know if you’re reaching or not. However, from my SAR days, I do know a trick for finding those small air currents. I used to carry a Visine bottle that I’d filled with baby powder. Then, when I needed to know what subtle air currents were at work during a search, I’d puff the baby powder into the air to “see” the current. You might try this to see what’s going on with the breezes in your house and then if you try to change them.

I guess that you’d have to close a lot of windows to find out if your guess is right, and that wouldn’t be too pleasant right now 🙂

Pamela - July 15, 2011

I think this is definitely worth pursuing. I didn’t understand the importance of air currents until taking an intro to K9 Nose Work Class. We could see the dogs going away from the scent and wonder what was going on until someone noticed that the heater blower had kicked on and was dispersing the scent differently.

It might be worth talking to someone who does scent tracking or nose work to explore this idea a little more. You might be able to address Lilly’s fear by altering the air currents in some way. It’s certainly worth a try.

Janet - July 15, 2011

Really interesting theory – I suspect there are so many things that dogs are aware of/can smell/can hear that we can’t – doesn’t seem at all far fetched to me. If she is OK once in the house might it be that scents change around the walls/threshold – possibly diffused further in. What to do if that is the case? If it is a scent that creates such fear, I wonder if aromatherapy might be able to help? I don’t know much about it – you might? – but I think if I suspected I might have a nose-sensitive dog, I would take a look.

Kristine - July 15, 2011

How awful. I have seen dogs refuse to move forward before becaus they want to stay outside and play but I have never seen a complete breakdown like this. It’s not just a temper tantrum either. This is truly freaked.

I don’t think you are reaching too far either. Dogs are incredibly sensitive and it’s definitely possible it could be something like a draft that is upsetting her so much. I wonder how you could prevent that or help her work with such a fear?

Jen - July 15, 2011

I don’t think you’re reaching too far, I think it makes a good lot of sense. Just because we humans with our puny senses can’t notice something, doesn’t mean it isn’t red flags and sirens to a dog, with her hyper-senses. And the Horowitz passage especially makes this credible.

    Roxanne Hawn - July 15, 2011

    Thanks, Jen. It just clicked with me that perhaps she feels these air flows as “barriers” to coming inside, when I read that passage. I might be full of beans, but it’s something to consider … like we had to when Lilly flipped out for seemingly no reason on that hike recently. Perhaps a scent we could not detect is the reason.

AC - July 15, 2011

Is Lilly still scared when she makes it inside? If it’s an air flow thing, it seems like her fears would continue once inside.

Going with the “really likes being outside” theory, do you think Lilly could be freaking out because of any “pressure” put on her to come inside. If Lilly’s as super sensitive as Kona, maybe the push to do something she doesn’t want to do (and the accumulation of the routine happening everyday in the beautiful Summer) contributes to the breakdown.

For Kona, even calling her multiple times can be too much pressure. Then something that wasn’t even scary, or that maybe made her a little worried, becomes something *really* scary.

Just my experience with my crazy pup =)

    Roxanne Hawn - July 15, 2011

    Well, AC … it depends. Sometimes she gets inside and she is fine. Other times, not so much. BUT, yes, you are right … anytime I have to make a request more than once it *can* be upsetting to Lilly.

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