We have a 5 year old fearful Pit Bull named Oreo. She is the sweetest, happiest, Clumsiest dog you’ll ever know. She is a spoiled rotten lap baby (a house dog, obviously). Right at a year ago, we (my fiancé, who has owned Oreo since she was 6 weeks old, Oreo, and I) moved into a mobile home in which the heating/cooling vents are in the floor, and the floor is all hardwood. Oreo has not had experience with either of these. She is OK with the floor unless she is jumping down from the furniture, in which case she rocks back and forth, trying to build the nerve to jump, before finally taking the plunge. This issue isn’t nearly as bothersome and concerning as is her attitude toward the floor vents. She is petrified of them. She will walk past the floor vent if there is a wide enough berth, although keeping both eyes glued to the vent. If there isn’t Lots of room on All sides of the vent, she tends to get stuck. She will literally crawl Under the coffee table or climb Over the ottoman to avoid going NEAR a vent. Unless it happened while home alone, which is rare, she hasn’t had a traumatic experience with a vent. We have tried coaxing, trapping her so she’s forced to walk by it, rewarding her with treats and praise, everything we could think of, but after a year she still has the same reaction. I have owned dogs all of my life, large and small breeds, and have never seen this type of behaviour. Please let me know what could be the cause of this and what we can do to make life easier for our big ole fearful pit bull baby.
Thank you, Shea – Athens AL
Thanks for the email. We have to keep in mind that I haven’t met your dog or can ask the questions I would ask in a consultation but I can say the reason that Oreo behaves this way may not be tied into a specific bad experience but if one occurred I’d bet it happened between 8 and 10 weeks of age which is a fear imprint stage in a dog’s life and it might have been something only indirectly related to a vent, she just happened to connect a vent with the experience.
More often then not with dogs of certain softer temperaments these sort of things are not connected to a specific experience but to a lack of wide sensory exposure between 3 and 12 weeks of age which is a dog’s critical socialization period. If pups get a huge dose of highly varied sounds, sights, smells and textures during this period of time they tend to develop temperaments that take in new experiences very well. If it’s relatively sterile, they often kick into a fear response with new experiences later in life and this isn’t the first time I’ve been asked about dogs and vents when the vents were not something they experienced early in life.
On paper you should be able to desensitize Oreo to anything just as on paper if we fear something we should be able to desensitize ourselves but in practical terms it can be quite a challenge. There are basically two theories. The first is based on something called flooding. Essentially that means becoming immersed in a sink or swim manner in the thing we fear. It’s where we eat, drink, sleep and live. There’s no avoiding it. In that position the brain seems to have no choice but to rewire. Not only is this a hard thing to set up, it’s a hard thing to put a dog or a person through if you care about either.
The second approach is gradual desensitization. This would require that you identify every aspect of the vent experience that triggers a fear response in Oreo. That might include the sound of the furnace coming on. The physical appearance of a vent. The movement of air through or near a vent etc. While you’re figuring all that out you start a training program with Oreo that is unrelated to the vent. It has to be something that she enjoys and finds challenging. I use scent detection. The simplest way to go about it is to start by putting Oreo’s food down every day and taking it away after 5 minutes if she doesn’t eat it until the next feeding. After about 4 days most dogs are quite pumped about meal time and I start to move the bowl around a bit. Nothing tough to find but enough to give her the idea that dinner won’t always be in exactly the same place. Every day I make it harder and harder until I’m actually hiding it in 3 or 4 caches all around the house.
By the time Oreo is actually searching the house like a police narcotics dog for her dinner (dogs love this) you should have discovered all the triggers, big and small that elicit fear regarding the vent experience and you break them down into tiny pieces and introduce them in the most peripheral way possible to the search game. Never enough to keep her from her dinner but enough that she has to work through a hurdle. The idea is to keep it fun but give her a sense of accomplishment. It can be tricky and the biggest mistake people make is push too hard when they get a little bit of success.
If you can get Oreo’s heart rate up with a trot/run (not walk) for 1/2 hour to 45 minutes a day you’ll tweak her brain chemistry a bit in a manner that will help her cope better with stress overall. The type of food and treats you feed can impact this as well.