"Changing behaviour is not something you do casually because that behaviour has value to the animal or it wouldn't be doing it."
I spoke with a client this week who described her dog suddenly becoming avoidant of the dog park. Previously, this dog loved the dog park and would hop out of the car happily and head for the park on her own. Now, the dog doesn't want to get out of the car and needs a leash to even approach the park. Once there, she won't take treats or play with her ball, and she shakes anxiously until they leave the park. Obviously, my client is concerned. She wants to know what is wrong with her dog and she is sad herself as now they don't see their dog park friends any more. They can go to other parks without any issue, so it isn't that she doesn't want to go to a park anymore. It's just this park that they've been going to several times a week for years.
In this example, the dog's fear of this particular park has value for the dog. Something obviously happened there from her point of view and she wants to avoid that park to protect herself (and possibly her owner as well). Perhaps she heard a noise or saw something and that's where her anxiety comes from. Nonetheless, her anxiety is real and must be addressed. Making her "cowboy up" and go the park in an effort to show her that there is no reason to be anxious is not the solution. Instead, they need to leave this park behind for a while, putting it and whatever the dog thinks happened there, behind them. I suggested having some of their friends meet them at other parks so that it can be determined if her dog's fear has something to do with one of her dog friends, or if it is really just the park itself. After a couple of months, they can return to the original park and see if the anxiety still exists, or if time has made that particular memory fade. If her avoidance is rooted in a sound or smell, for example, it is likely those things would no longer be an issue. If, however, her avoidance was built on something she simply felt inside of herself, then she is likely to still be scared and not want to visit that park. Her owner needs to be ready for that possibility as their days of visiting that park and hanging out with their friends there may be over.
And if this anxiety blooms, and her dog becomes even more anxious across other situations, then we need to address that as well. It may not be the park at all, but symptomatic of something bigger going on inside of her dog's head. If that's the case, I will be sending them to see their vet for a full workup to make sure there isn't some physical reason for the behavior change. If she checks out physically, then the task becomes figuring out how best to address her fear and anxiety before it takes over, changing her (and her owner's) quality of life.
Behavior is adaptive. What we do, and what our animals do, has purpose. Before you seek to change their behavior, try to understand why they chose that behavior in the first place. That bit of insight may be just what it takes to help you better understand the mind and motivation of your beloved companion animal.
As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.
My sweet granddog, Westley, is scared of garbage trucks. Just hearing them rumble from miles away causes him to retreat. While we continue to work with him on desensitization to garbage trucks, the bottom line is that he perceives them as scary; they're big, noisy, and threatening. Walking him at times of day and away from areas being serviced by garbage trucks is the key to helping him feel safe and comfortable on his walks.