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Thursday, 20 December 2012

The not-so-great outdoors

Please can you help? I rehomed a miniature Jack Russell, Patch, in August this year from a local rescue centre. I was told he was four and a half years old and had been rehomed because his previous owners had moved to a property where they are not allowed pets. He is a super, very intelligent little dog who had obviously been well-loved as he came with a lovely bed and bedding and a good supply of quality food. Although I don't know for sure, I think his previous owners must have been quite elderly as, every time we pass a park bench he wants to climb up onto it, and doesn't want to walk. He is also very affectionate.

My problem is that Patch seems to be getting more and more nervous when outdoors - in the garden, or when walking, if he hears any noise, he either runs back into the house or won't walk and has to be carried home. Initially, his main interest was retrieving his ball, whether in the garden or out in the park, and this seemed to distract him from any sudden noise. However, recently even this activity isn't enough to distract him from a noise which I myself have barely registered, and the only way I can get him to walk is if my husband takes us in the car and leaves us somewhere from where Patch then leads us home - he has a highly developed sense of direction! I don't know if  'forcing'  him to walk in this way is the right thing to do, as he rarely exhibits 'normal' traits when walking - sniffing etc - and usually heads straight home, head down, looking totally unhappy. Although he travels happily in the car, he is very frightened of traffic, so I try to take him where there is little or no traffic, but he still appears very nervous.

Do you think a pheronome collar, or 'thunder' jacket would help, or can you offer any other ideas so that we can make his life less stressed? We just want to take that frightened look from his eyes.

Thanks for any help you can offer,

Ellen Barker, by email

Karen Wild, behaviourist, advises...

Hi Ellen

I think you are reading the signs correctly, and Patch is clearly not enjoying the experience at the moment. Forcing is not the fairest thing to do and can make things worse. Firstly make sure your Vet has checked his health with this problem in mind just to rule out any medical causes, and it is probably worth asking them if they can refer you to an APBC behaviourist for specialist help. It might be that he did not get used to certain sounds and experiences in his earlier life, and so will need a very gradual and enjoyable introduction. Start by making a very clear list of the things that are causing him to behave in this way. It might be that he can tolerate certain sounds as long as they are not loud, or sudden perhaps. Alternatively it might be that there are other triggers when he is out, so note down as many things as you can to really start to get to grips with this problem. Keep a diary too as it might help to establish a pattern. You are right that dragging him through experiences on walks is not going to improve if he is feeling unhappy and will more than likely make him feel more anxious as time goes along.

You also need to make a list of things he loves to do and start to gradually pair the most enjoyable thing with the least ‘scary’ to build a nice link between the two. This is where expert help really does make a difference. It has to be done gradually and thoroughly and at each stage he needs to stay calm and happy, not become stressed or worried.

By all means use a pheromone collar or calming jacket, and consider approaching a TTouch practitioner as well, but these would be best used as support for the above behaviour modification work rather than relying on them alone.

Above all if you work on this gradually as I have suggested, he will learn to trust you to look out for him and this bond means that if he is ever in doubt, he knows you will be able to get him out of what he sees as a panic situation.  He is lucky to have found such a caring owner.


  1. An Adaptil (DAP) collar, or Thundershirt may help, but without a behavioural modification programme to follow, the problem will simply be masked rather than fixed.

    It does sound very much like Patch has anxieties about the world around him, while it may be an interesting conversation to consider why this may be, the whys and wherefores will not help Patch any more than talking about the whys and wherefores of war will stop it from raging on.

    I would suggest contacting a qualified, registered behaviourist - try the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC - who are likely to have someone in your local area who can work with you, your husband, and Patch, and tailor a plan specifically for his needs.

  2. Is there anyone nearby, or perhaps the local vets know someone who will walk their dog with you. It sounds like Patch just needs a little calm reassurance and distraction from his fears. Good luck, he sounds a lovely little chap

  3. Firstly, always ensure there are no underlying health issues.
    Secondly, you have to make the great outdoors the best thing in the world for Patch. This can be done with something you know he likes indoors, such as food. It also has to be a gradual process.

    I would suggest feeding both his meals outdoors from now on. On day one, pop him on the lead and leave as usual. Take only five steps from the house and then produce his meal, either in a bowl or handfeed it from your pocket or treat bag. Handfeeding maybe a better option as he will take longer to eat it and he will be engaging with you. So, only five steps away for each meal on day one and then return home, end of walk. Allow him to do his business in the garden whilst you build up this walking/feeding method. This has to be a program of slow but successful progress.

    On day two increase it to seven steps before feeding. Over time you increase the distance from the house with the reward at the end being his food. Once you have got to the end of the road (for example) you can start feeding on the move. Food produces endorphins and can make a previously scary thing more acceptable.
    If he gets too anxious and does not eat, take it right back. Possibly even starting at one step away, feed and return home.
    You can only work at his pace. Try not to drag or pull the lead. Expose him to the 'scary' environment very slowly, pair it with a positive (food) and build on success.
    I have heard good things about Thunder Shirts, so perhaps use one with this program. Good luck.

  4. I would agree with the comment above, food rewards is the way to go. Try throwing food on the pavement encouraging him to walk forward. I'd also stick to quiet off lead areas where possible and consider walking with a dog who is confident as he may realise there's nothing to be afraid of once he sees the other dog is unreactive.

  5. Thanks for all your comments - we do now walk Patch with another confident dog, which sometimes helps, but not always - we return home as soon as he shows fear. We are going to try the Thunder Shirt and slowly increase his 'safe' play area outside as he loves playing with his ball - we can start off in the garage with the door open and gradually move outside.. With our weather, at this time of year it's not always possible to feed him his meals outside. You have all confirmed our instinct that we must follow Patch's lead, not force him in any way, so we will do this for the next few weeks, then contact a behavourist if things aren't improving at all. Many thanks.