Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Re-evaluating car fears in a fearful dog

My older collie Finn came to me with a lot of baggage, fears and outright phobias which in some cases we have had to use medication to cope with. To put it into perspective at one point he had become so fearful of overhead planes that I had to seriously consider having him put to sleep as his quality of life was so appalling. Thankfully we have largely moved on from that dark place, although he remains over-sensitive to most noises.

One of our ongoing challenges is travel in the car. For various reasons, partly a small almost accident (4.5yrs ago) and mostly Finn's amazing ability to link fears and escalate them, Finn has struggled with car travel for much of the time he's been with me. His reactions are relatively unpredictable but he is most likely to react on a narrow, twisty road especially if the surface is bad or rough - however he has been known to have problems on straight but rough roads and its difficult to tell from a map or SatNav what the surfaces are like!

When I say reaction, I mean that he starts to pant, sits up in the boot (fully enclosed) and starts to look distressed, pressing against the side of the car (perhaps for reassurance? he does a lot of compression seeking when he is worried). Obviously as I am driving I don't always see this stage, nor is it always possible to stop the car. The full expression of his panic is frantic tearing at the bodywork of the car/dog guard etc. He is incredibly strong, and totally unable to hear anyone at this point. The dog guard is now bolted into the body of the car, and I have built a wooden protector as the back seats have been shredded resulting in cuts to his mouth etc :-( All of that took just 3 minutes in one episode.

We have been working with homeopathy, acupuncture and TTouch and initially this year I felt we were making some progress. Coping better in general and able to tolerate some more dodgy roads. Unfortunately as with all stressors, if other environmental stimuli upset him (low flying plane or child kicking a football) when we are away, then the return journey can become very difficult. He displays much of his anxiety in a physical way (low back, right side and right hip) which while the acupuncture relieves this, doesn't seem to stop it building back up again!

Re-evaluation as of this week:
I wanted to try and move Finn into the body of the car so I can observe him more clearly while driving, plus he seems worse if the car body is fully packed and he can't see me. After quite a lot of struggling with various sized crates I've had to opt for putting the back seats down, Finn in a harness and clipped on a medium length leash to the bolted down dog guard.

Yesterday was our test run - journey 1 to a local moor for our run together, short trip of less than 10 minutes each way. Journey 2 is the 15-20 min drive down a main road to our training class which Finn loves.

Thanks to all of the counter conditioning work we did two years ago Finn really loves jumping into the car, will do tricks in it etc and in fact is a chilled bunny until we start actually moving (as now I was working on my own with him and its hard training and driving at the same time!)
However once its clear we are going somewhere, a fine trembling starts up over his body, some panting, slightly unfocused eyes. Varies in ability to take food. Pressing body against the car. The trembling seems to stop within about 3-4 minutes and he is clearly less distressed on return journeys??
What I have learned: my inability to observe Finn previously led me to believe that he was in fact coping better than he really has been. Clearly he is distressed by travelling on any road and until I can help him cope better in easy situations its unfair to expect him to cope on a difficult road. I am working hard not to overblame myself for this, and am trying to focus on moving forward with Finn.

Next steps: make another appointment for acupuncture and homeopathy consultation in an attempt to reset his system. Discuss our options with the vet again.

Am also having a chat with a behaviourist up in Iverness, Scotland, later this week about another specialised CD of children/footballs etc for Finn and will mention the car travel issue then too.


  1. Do you think counter conditioning would work if you were able to do it when moving? If it would help to have a driver so you can concentrate on Finn am happy to help out. Also groundwork (your balance board/teeter might be useful here) to improve balance and ear work for stress.

  2. Hey Janet! Now the weird thing is that I did masses of work with a homemade teeter etc a few years ago - result is that Finn loves it and is very comfortable on moving surfaces like that. Unfortunately that doesn't seem to generalise o the car where its as much the unsteady movement as the vibration I think?! Crazy daft doglet!!

    Very much yes to your offer of driving though, will need to come up with a plan. Would be good to alk things through with you too :-)

    As you reminded me, we've come this far, I just know we can crack this one too....

  3. Hi Morag, sound like you're slowly but surely making progress with Finn, dogs need more humans like you. It's great that you are seeking the help of a behaviourist, as there is only so much you can do by yourself. You mention two years of counter conditioning, was this preceded by a lengthy desensitisation program? I ask because I have worked on a similar case and my approach was a very lengthy desensitisation program before even thinking about counter conditioning (sometimes the two can overlap but your case I think needs the two to be applied separately). This is something you can work on with the behaviourist. Also depending on how Finn's assessment goes with the behaviourist you might like to consider working with a reliable dog - reliable dogs are typically ex service dogs, so they are pretty much bullet-proof, well-socialised, trained to very high standards, have great social skills etc. But this does depend on how Finn is now with other dogs. One thing that I did which made quite a difference was actually being in the crate with the dog while the owner drove the car, it took about 3 months to get to this stage, but once I was able to be in the crate with him, then we progressed quickly. I also had him wear a doggie t-shirt one size too small, and I believe he still wears one on all car journeys. Hope this helps.

  4. Hey there! thanks for your comments :-) We have been attempting to work with behaviourists since I first adopted Finn over 5 years ago but its never really worked out - either they gave us unhelpful advice that included punishment and rank reduction or only offered advice the once and never replied to any of my calls/emails etc for additional support :-/

    Yes we did desensitisation first (I will post up our old training journal at some point) and then the CC. I have been very limited by little access to good trainers/people with dogs who are willing to help us and of course being the only human in our group!

    Finn's behaviour with other dogs is massively improved and he now helps other aggressive/fearful dogs at some TTouch workshops - however in the car he is totally oblivious to canine company (I have another dog who is totally fine with travelling). Finn is not really that sociable with people or dogs - we have a good bond but even then he's keen to maintain his own space?

    If Janet can help by driving then perhaps I can try sitting in the back with him. I did try this for some time early last year when I was staying with my folks but we didn't seem to make much progress then?

    TTouch wraps, tshirts etc have no beneficial effect on Finn unfortunately. One of those things that doesn't work for all dogs and generally I think these interventions, like the DAP, are too mild for his kind of strong physiological reactions? I had hoped the wraps etc would be useful since he is clearly 'pressure seeking' but seems not.

    Re: the behaviourist - its a telephone chat as usual because he is in Inverness and I live in York now! The most useful support I've actually ever had has been through books and online discussions with Leslie McDevitt and Pam Dennison.

  5. Hi Morag,

    I totally appreciated where you are coming from. I myself find it frustrating that many certified behaviourists still do the whole pack leader dominance approach, and/or use punishment. So yes first thing is to find a behaviourist whose approach is positive.

    I can see from what you write that you have come a long way with Finn, however I would like to delicately highlight that the desensitisation program you previously went through did not have the desired outcome. Finn still elicits a fearful response in the event of disturbance, imbalance, certain sounds etc, and with desensitisation it is paramount that you do not move forward (in your particular case), with counter conditioning until Finn no longer elicits a fearful response to the above.

    Once I'd progressed to actually being able to get in the crate with Chad I felt like Houdini... during our first me in crate session I think both I and Chad got in and out of the crate at least forty times within the space of an hour and 30 mins. It took several session before Chad no longer elicited a fearful response. I carefully observed the level of his response, and it did gradually weaken in very small incremental steps. This goes beyond patience, but the reward for both human and canine is priceless :)

    The doggie t-shirt (neutral) was paired with food. So before I started using it for car sessions, Chad wore it ONLY when having breakfast/dinner/bone, so by the time it was applied to car session he had formed a positive association with wearing it.

    The fact that Finn will play games in the car and is happy to be in the car (without moving) is a big breakthrough. :)

    I'm sending positive thoughts your way to find a good local behaviourist, as phone calls just aren't going to work :) And yes sounds like Janet could be a great help in moving forward.

  6. Thanks so much for your helpful and very tactful comments! In one sense the DS and CC did help, as in we saw initial big improvements but those did not extend to rough roads. What I am seeing now with having him in the back is that he has regressed and what were previously less/no stress events in the car (normal roads) are once again causing upset. So I think its fair to say the programme did help but for whatever reason hasn't stuck...also we were unable to do much practice on troublesome roads, partly because its *really* hard to predict when he might react.

    Off for lunch now and a long hard think about this. Sounds as though I may have to go back to not taking him anywhere in the car which will seriously make life difficult. I take my dogs to training on a Monday, they work in two classes and I assist in two. Not taking Finn means leaving him at home for 3 hrs when I've been at work most of the day - not fair on him really?

    Off to think hard *sigh*