Helping a Shih Tzu Get Over His Fear of the Kennel

By: David Codr

Published Date: July 29, 2015

Rassie 2

Rassie is a six-year-old Shih Tzu male who is fearful of the kennel; running and hiding under a table when he realizes his guardians are going to leave.

While his guardians were on vacation, the person watching the dog was bitten when she attempted to pull Rassie out from under the table to put her in the kennel.

This turned into one of the more interesting cases I have had lately. Rassie’s primary issue was a severely negative perception of the kennel. As many client’s do, his guardians had gotten into the habit of picking him up and placing him in the kennel rather than having the dog walk in on its own.

Making matters worse, the dog had very little structure. A lack of rules along with being catered to like few dogs I have ever met had given this dog the impression that he was a VIP.  His guardians had gotten into the habit of bringing things to the dog and rewarding Rassie when he jumped up or barked at them. This had progressed into a sort of variation of demand barking.

Demand barking is usually something that happens when a dog barks to get something. I smile as I write this, but I honestly think at times this dog was saying “Stop throwing those treats into the kennel and start dropping them into my mouth, now!”

I wanted to gauge how severe his reaction to the kennel was so I pulled out some hight value training treats. Rassie was standing in front of me as I tossed one of the treats a foot in front of his kennel. The dog looked up at me with a “Do I look stupid to you” look on his face. He didn’t take a single step in that direction.

I waited a moment, then tossed another treat over, this time a little further from the kennel. Rassie barked at it, then slowly walked over and took the second treat only. After walking back to where I was sitting, he turned to face the treat and kennel and started barking at it.

I gave him a few moments but when it became clear he wasn’t budging, I decided to move the kennel to see if that would help. It did, but only marginally so. I could get him to come closer to the kennel after working with him for a few minutes, but it was clear that there was no way he was going inside.

I changed the setup a little more by pulling out the bed that was inside the kennel and positioning it in front of it. That helped a little more, mostly because the dog could hear the treat hitting the plastic floor and walls of the kennel when I tossed it in. But still, Rassie made it clear he still had no intention of going inside the kennel.

The guardians son had recently relocated home and brought with him a few dogs. My client had them in another room so we could focus on Rassie, but I wanted to see if we could use jealousy to motivate him to go inside.

While the strategy helped, watching the other dog get the treats wasn’t enough of a factor to motivate Rassie to go into the kennel. Rassie was paying pretty close attention as the other dog showed no hesitation or reluctance to going into the kennel to get the treats I was tossing in. I had hoped that seeing the other dog getting these treats could illicit a bit of jealousy in Rassie, but I had no such luck.

I decided to change the environment up again by removing the gate and top of the kennel. I placed a huber of treats right inside the front of the kennel but Rassie wouldn’t even stick his head in that far. I was abel to get him closer to the kennel when I tossed treats right outside of the kennel, but that was as far as he would go.

It appeared as if the dog was stuck. He clearly wanted the treats, but his negative reaction to the kennel was still too sting to overcome. I pulled out a leash and attached it to his harness. I have found that some dogs need a human to get them over the hump. In some cases, simply attaching a leash has done the trick.

The leash clearly had a positive impact. At first he went back to the barking / growling under his breath, but then he moved forward. You could see him move about a little faster, he had a little bounce to his step and he even went two steps into the kennel on his own.

While we were making progress, Rassie was still hung up on the entering of the kennel. The entrance had become a very real obstacle that was a real challenge for the dog to pass. I decided to use the leash to get the dog over the hump. I knew pulling it in the kennel would trigger the wrong response so instead I tosses in a treat, waited for the dog to approach on its own, then pulled gently up on the leash as it approached the threshold to the kennel.

Success. As soon as Rassie passed the entryway to the kennel, he went all the way in and the use of the leash was extremely minimal. Success!

I wanted to take advantage of the momentum, so I dropped another treat inside and gave him time to see if he would walk in without the leash. His approach to the kennel was great, no hesitation until he got right up to it and while he stopped, his body language looked great. He stood right there thinking about it but didnt go any further so I picked up the leash again.

Just like before, the lightest tug up was all Rassie needed to cross the threshold and walk all the way inside again. Instead of pausing again, I dropped another kennel inside and motioned for him to go get it. For the first time ever, Rassie walked into the kennel on his own.

My holding of the leash was almost the same as a child needing to hold the hand of a parent before doing something they are apprehensive about.

Now that the dog was finally going fully inside the kennel, I introduced a command word of “kennel” the instant the dog got the treat. I kept repeating he command word as he chewed it and recommended that his guardian start doing the same. In time, the dog will learn to associate the positive reinforcement of the treat with the command word itself. Once this is the case, the dog will go into the kennel on his own.

I had one of the grandchildren run through the exercise with Rassie to be sure that we had made as much progress as I thought. While his treat tossing needs some work, Rassie went in and out of the kennel with his guidance and looked even better while doing it.

Next I had Rassie’s primary guardian run through the exercise so she could practice getting the dog moving and her timing of saying the command word. It was great to see Rassie going into the kennel on his own with little to no prompting.

It had taken us over an hour to get to this point. This is a great example of how important patience and breaking things into small achievable steps is in the rehabilitation process.

After going over some additional steps that the guardians will need to follow to fully rehabilitate Rassie’s fear of the kennel, I went over a simple recall exercise. All of Rassie’s bites had happened when a human reached under a table to pick up the dog.

These bites were due to the dog’s fear of the kennel and knowing that was why the human was trying to pick him up. In time that need to hide under a table should stop. But for now, I wanted to show the guardians how to get the dog to come to them so they don’t have to reach under the table anymore.

I showed the guardians how to use a hand motion to get the dogs attention and other to put the dog into a sit without saying anything. Each time the dog sat in front of the person who called him, they immediately delivered a high value reward as positive reinforcement.

As I mentioned at the jump. this turned out to be one of the more challenging cases I have had in a while. It will take the guardians repeating the kennel exercise every day for the next week or two until the dog goes in on command. Once that is the case, they can start adding back the things we took away; the kennel top, gate, bedding, etc.

It will take a week or to of practice of going into the kennel, getting the high value treat then being able to leave before the dog’s fears of the kennel are licked. Once that is the case, the guardians can move to the next step, practicing having the dog in the kennel with the gate close while they are there.

Rassie’s guardians will need to move step by step; practicing the dog being in the kennel with the door closed and humans in the room in clear sight for gradually longer periods of time.

Once the dog has no further issues about being in the kennel when the guardians are there, they can start work on the final step; dog left alone in the kennel when they leave the house.

Just like the other steps, the dog will need to practice being in the kennel with the guardians gone for short trips. By gradually increasing the length of time they are gone, the dog will learn to stay calm and not mind being in the kennel when they are gone.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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