Helping Max Learn to Get Over His Fear of the Kennel

By: David Codr

Published Date: December 12, 2014

Max in KennelIf you follow my blog or Facebook page, you know that earlier this week I asked for help transporting a Dalmatian named Max from a less than ideal home in South Dakota. Fortunately Chelsey Mero stepped up to the plate and volunteered to drive several hours to get him and bring him to Omaha where the plan was to fly him back out to his original rescue group in California.

When Max and Chelsey arrived at my home, he was clearly stressed. This was to be expected to some degree given all he had been through that day, but he was in an almost heightened state of alert. His head was bobbing and weaving trying to take everything in and looking overwhelmed.

We invited him to come out of the car, but he was clearly unsure of himself, moving in a somewhat halting fashion. To help him relax I sat down on the edge of the seat with my back to him and remained still for a moment. After a short pause, I could feel his breath as he sniffed me.

Once he finished, I slowly got up and asked Chelsey to bring him out with the leash. He was still a little hesitant so I moved a few feet away to give him space and had Chelsey tug a few times firmly on the leash to get him moving forward. As soon as he started, she took the tension off the leash and he jumped down.

Max was still hyper alert stagger walking a few steps in a direction before turning to go the other way. We took him into my back yard through the gate so he could settle down and get some of my dogs scent before meeting them.

Max walked in small circles but consistently came back to where Chelsey was standing. We let him do this for a few moments until he started to use his nose. Once he calmed down, I brought out Cali my two year old Lab / Border Collie / Dal mix. Cali has a very happy, higher energy personality which was similar to Max’s.

At first Max avoided Cali, so I asked her to sit and take a more passive role. Max circled us a few times getting closer each pass until he was close enough to stop and sniff her butt a bit. Once he did, Cali jumped up and gave him a few play signals. After mirroring each others stuttered movements for a few steps, they took off running around in the yard chasing one another.

After they played with each other a bit I introduced Farley my 10 year old Dalmatian. After some introductory sniffs, Max was back to running with Cali who had picked up a 5 foot branch and started chasing Max with it.

We watched them run and play in the yard for a half hour or so before Chelsey bid us farewell. When we went inside Max started to show a little nervousness, especially near Cali’s kennel or when I walked near. As soon as I moved, he would immediately bolt away while lowering his head, curling his ears and almost walking with a hunched up or stiff stuttering body movement.

I sat down and tried to move as little as possible for the next hour or so as I observed him. He paced the room for a few moments but eventually started to play with Cali again. They would play a bit, then break and he would do some pacing, then go back to playing with Cali. Sometimes he would bump the table or wall when wrestling with Cali and get spooked from the sound. The worst was the time he bumped the kennel as it made a distinct sound. As soon as he turned and saw it was a kennel, his tail tucked, head lowered, the stiff hunched over body position reappeared and he bolted, almost squatted himself away.

After observing him for an hour or so, I started to move around again, but took slower more deliberate movements while completely ignoring him. My first goal was to get him to remain sitting or at least not bolt away when I stood up. It took a number of repetitions at these small movements, but finally I was able to leave the room while he remained sitting. But as soon as I left the room, he followed behind me.

I decided to use that opportunity of him following me to enhance the leader follower dynamic by feeding him. I also wanted to gauge his attitude of the kennel so I placed the food bowl next to the kennel itself. Max clearly wanted some food as he would start walking towards it, but about half way there, he would veer off and do a circular path around the room so he was as far away as he could be.

I moved away from the food to ensure he didn’t think I was guarding it. This helped as he would walk closer, maybe a third of the way before veering off and circling back to the other side of the room again. I remained motionless and let him repeat this a few times hoping he would get closer to the reward, but he did not. I eventually moved the bowl away from the kennel and gave him space again. This time he ate his food, although he did that in a circular way as well. He would eat some, then circle around the room, come back to his bowl and repeat.

Since he was going to need to sleep in the kennel, I knew I need to come up with a way to change his perception of it as he clearly cowered by the sight of it. Dalmatians are a very communal breed of dog who don’t do well when separated from their owners too much. While there is nothing wrong with using a kennel, using it for extended periods of time or in a punishing or isolating (which to a dog can be punishing) way can cause psychological harm. Especially for overly sensitive dogs.

We took a break after lunch before starting again. I broke out some high value meat treats with a strong aroma and tossed them into the kennel. As soon as I did, Max bolted across the room. I waited for him to slow down before i called him over to me. It took a considerable amount of coaxing both verbally and with my body language and calming signal before I was abel to get him to come over. I rewarded the recall and then tossed another treat into the kennel which triggered a fleeing movement from Max.

Because of his long day I didn’t want him to put him into the kennel physically, I wanted him to walk in on his own power. I tried a number of different techniques, but nothing worked. Max would have nothing to do with the kennel. I decided to take another break and let the dogs roughhouse outside while I thought of a new strategy.

While they were running around my yard, Max inadvertently slapped his tail against a sheet metal tool shed. As soon as he heard the sound, Max bolted to the other side of the yard which gave me an idea. I went in and took the plastic bottom out of the wire kennel I have in my house. Watching Max outside helped me remember that any time Max touched the kennel, the plastic bottom rattled a bit.

I tossed in a blanket then grabbed some high value treats then let the dogs back in. I showed Max I had a treat and then tossed it on the floor near the kennel. He looked at me for a moment so I encouraged him to go get it. But each time I verbally encouraged him, I noticed it caused him to walk away. I repeated the process again but this time when he came over to me I looked ahead and did not acknowledge him. After waiting a few minutes, he circled over and then came back. Then he repeated the prices, but closer to the treat on the second pass. By the third pas, he was close enough and licked it off the floor before scooting quickly away.

I repeated the toss over and over, each time tossing the treat closer to the kennel. We made good progress until the treats started getting tossed right inside the front of the kennel. At first he would lean in and get them then scoot away so I started throwing them further inside. Once we got past to how far he could reach in without stepping on the floor, he stopped and shut down so we took another break.

I knew I needed to get Max inside the kennel but clearly he had a very negative perception of it. He could have been kenneled for too long with his previous owners. They may have used it as a punishment, pushed him inside physically or positioned the kennel in an unused room which causes some dogs to feel “sent away.” There are any number of possibilities, but the end results are all the same Max was terrified of the kennel now.

I had been encouraging Max to use my dog doors, but he seemed spooked by the covers. I tried holding them open and a few other things to entice him to go through them, but no avail. This had been going on throughout the day as I kept taking Max out every hour or so. I didn’t think I was making progress at it until I went back inside. After the dogs played a bit, Cali ran over to the house and ran through the dog door. To my surprise Max followed only a few steps behind her. His momentum helped him cross the barrier before he had a chance to think about it and get scared.

I decided to use the same principle with the kennel. I put Max on the leash and walked him from the back door through the kitchen and then through the dining room where the kennel was. AT first Max started to stiffen up and stare at the kennel when we approached it so I picked up the pace. I jogged him in a circular path through these rooms several times until he no longer slowed down when we got near the kennel. Once this was the case, I circled back one last time. But on this lap, I led him right into the kennel door. Max walked right into the kennel with zero hesitation!

I asked Max to sit down and as soon as he did I offered him a reward and some affection before letting him out of the kennel. Once he came out I asked him to sit for another treat. However Max would walk past and do his circular lap around the room before cautiously coming back to me. Once he got close enough I offered him the treat ad assigned a recall command word.

I took a break then repeated the process and had the same results so I took off the leash and practiced motioning him inside. He was still cautious and nervous about it, but I was able to get him to go inside and sit several times. I gradually asked him to stay inside for longer durations as I wanted to give him experience in the kennel while keeping him in a calm frame of mind.

We practiced this in short 3-5 repetition cycle of going to the kennel several times throughout the day. By dinner time, Max was able to sit and even lay in the kennel while remaining calm and with the door wide open. The photo with this post was taken at this moment.

Its going to take some additional practice and lots of positive reinforcement, but based on how much progress Max made on such a stressful day, Im guessing his fear of the kennel will quickly become a thing of the past.

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