How to get a traumatised Labrador to like water
October 19, 2013 9:27 AM   Subscribe

Friend rescued a five-year-old sick Labrador from the streets and adopted him, but he absolutely hates water and can't be bathed because of this. What can we do to get him over his fear?

Boju had seemingly been abandoned and showed signs of trauma (welts around his neck from a tight collar, possibly), had a bad case of tick fever, and was severely malnourished. There was no name or tag on him. She took him to the vet, spent a month on his treatment, and got him back to looking normal again.

The dog clearly had behavioural and aggression issues and was extremely wary of people he didn't know, but after about three months of being with my friend, he's slowly improving. I've quite taken a liking to the fella and visit him frequently to try training him using positive reinforcement methods. It's not been easy because his memory seems spotty at times and his sense of smell isn't as strong as you'd expect in a dog, but he's definitely learning things like "fetch" and "drop it".

The one major problem, however, is that the dog is terrified of water. I have no idea what kind of experience could've caused a water-loving breed to dislike water so intensely, but my friend can't take him anywhere near water to bathe him because he starts growling and runs away. At the moment, she's using just a wet towel to clean him but she really wants him to be comfortable getting wet so she can bathe him properly.

We've tried gradual desensitisation by leaving him food bowl in the bathroom near a slowly dripping tap but he won't have any of it. He just won't go anywhere near the food bowl. Heck, if you simply squirt him from behind with a water gun, he jumps as if he's been shot and starts growling.

Any ideas on how we can help poor Boju get over his fear of water? He's a sweet dog for the most part, doesn't lick or jump on people, and loves to come up to me and ask for a belly rub. I'd love to see him get over whatever bad experiences he's had in the past and become a regular dog.
posted by madman to Pets & Animals (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Gradually increasing the dampness of the towel until the towel is making him wet? It sounds like it's not being wet, it's getting wet from water striking him or him being forced to receive water. If you can make bathtime out of sponge-bathing him from a warm basin in the bathtub (i.e., get him used to being wet in a dry bathtub), maybe you can gradually work up to using a container to pour small amounts of water over him, and then potentially to doing that with a little water in the tub.
posted by fatbird at 9:36 AM on October 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'd suggest working with a good trainer, one well-versed in positive training methods. Fear-based aversion is a tough nut to crack with dogs, but a professional will probably have the best luck. And a good trainer will spend as much time teaching the owner as the dog, so your friend will learn a lot about how to work with her dog.
posted by lunasol at 9:37 AM on October 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Gradual desensitization is not putting his food bowl near a running tap or squirting him with a little bit of water! I'm betting the bathroom area is scary enough. Try slowly moving his water dish closer and closer to the bathroom over the course of a few days. For baths, I might try using a progressively wetter towel, since he doesn't seem threatened by the towel being wet. Perhaps eventually you'll be wringing the wet towel on him with no problem.
posted by ancient star at 9:38 AM on October 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm sure a lot of people will say this, but good for you and your friend for helping this dog. What you are doing for your friend and this dog is exactly what it needs: being another person in its life it can learn to trust. Hope there's more friends who will be up for that as well.

Are you familiar with BAT (Behavior Adjustment Training)? I'd highly recommend looking into it. It could help with the water issue and other potential issues that might arise.
posted by grayber at 9:41 AM on October 19, 2013

Yes, talk to some trainers. They're not as expensive as you think, and if you ask around you can probably find one especially versed in abused/traumatized dogs. Forcing a dog into an enclosed space with the thing he's afraid of is not positive reinforcement, it's kind of cruel and it's going to make it worse. Spend the $60-100 for a trainer's time and get a game plan together.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:42 AM on October 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: We hired a trainer to help. She said that he probably needs a few months to recover from whatever abuse he's suffered to get him back to being in a receptive state for more training. Right now, he needs to do just have more mental stimulation to slowly get him back to normal. We're doing the Kong toys, etc. for that.

(BTW, Lyn Never, we never forced him anywhere. We tried putting his food bowl in the toilet, but when it clearly didn't work, we took it out and fed him at his usual spot.)
posted by madman at 9:47 AM on October 19, 2013

We also adopted a lab with a strong fear of water. It was frustrating because I grew up with water-loving dogs and just assumed, because of Homer's breed, that he would leap joyfully into any available water source.

We kind of forced him into baths twice because he had gotten so stinky, but it was an awful experience for all of us.

We finally found a solution: my son plied him relentlessly with treats while my daughter and I stood in or next to the tub and used the handheld shower to wash him. By the end of the bath, his tail was no longer buried between his legs but was actually held out straight! Sadly, we never had a chance to try it again because he got very sick and we had to euthenize him (he was quite elderly when we adopted him).

It sounds like your friend's dog might actually be beyond this pretty simplistic method. But maybe it's worth a try? Good luck!
posted by primate moon at 9:49 AM on October 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I just spoke to my Dad who is a vet. He doesn't know much about the behavioural stuff but he said dogs' behavioural/psychological characteristics are often quite fixed by the time they are 4 or 5 years old. This doesn't mean it'll be impossible but it may be harder than it would be with a younger animal. As other people have said, talk to a behavioural specialist.

I think what you're trying to do is laudable and that you should stick at it but don't be surprised if it's difficult and you don't achieve 100% success. Any progress in making life easier for this dog would be wonderful though of course.
posted by fishingforthewhale at 9:58 AM on October 19, 2013

I also have a rescue lab! (well, lab mix, but same deal in this particular case.)

My dog came from an ordinary family, as far as I can tell was always well cared for, and doesn't have the aggression issues you mention Boju having.

But, he is absolutely terrified of water. Once, we were inside the house and he heard a neighbor watering plants outdoors. He hid under a table.

He will cower next to me if we pass a yard with sprinklers.

He's OK going to the beach, but prefers to stay on the dry sand, and ideally out of sight of the water.

My solution in bathing him is to turn the hose on him. He absolutely hated it at first. One thing that I think really helped early on (and still has a calming effect now that he's getting used to hose baths) was touch. I've always noticed that, as soon as I start massaging the shampoo into his fur, he calms down a little bit. At first it was just a hair. Now he will generally cooperate with being bathed (after about eight months and probably 10 baths), probably because he knows that he's going to get a nice massage out of the deal. He still hates being hosed off, and is clearly traumatized by being wet in general (his post-bath behavior is hilarious). And he still cowers and hides in response to water outside of the specific context of getting a bath. But we are in a place where I can bathe him as needed.

Here's how I do it:

- Set the scene: I go outside and put dog shampoo and an old towel near where the hose is.

- Come back inside, leash the dog, and take him outside. Sadly, he is very excited because he thinks we're going on a walk.

- Grab the hose and wet him down. One swift, confident movement. No body language cues that we are making a pit stop at the hose. No "time for your bath, little bear!" or any other hint that water is going to happen. The dog is usually not at all happy when the hose comes out, but he's never tried to bite me or run away or anything else deal-breakingly awful.

- Shampoo. After months of work, he will generally start to relax at this point.

- Rinse. At this point he is generally disgruntled and Not Having It, but not trying to run away, either. Resigned to his fate to be Forever Sprayed With Demon Liquid, I guess?

- Put the hose away and immediately wrap him up in a towel. There will be several intense shake-offs. Be prepared to get wet and have everything in the surrounding area get wet. I generally prolong the toweling off and try to turn it into a nice petting/massaging/snuggling time instead of a stressball "NOW I HAVE TO DRY YOU OFF UGH" experience.

- I also generally let him lounge around in the sun until completely dry, often with copious treats.

(The entire experience is punctuated with "GOOD BOY" and "NICE JOB" every time he even remotely is kind of OK about any of it. With "did not try to bolt" as an example of being kind of OK.)

I use the same towel every time. I tell myself that this adds to the routine and helps him understand after the bath that it's OK and he can relax with his snuggly towel friend. This may be optimistic. Either way I only have one dog-appropriate towel.
posted by Sara C. at 10:05 AM on October 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

Good for your friend and you for saving this dog!

Our rescue dog was also terrified of baths, and still intensely dislikes water (runs and hides when we use the hose to water plants outside), but we eventually got her to be relatively okay with bathing via my husband getting into the tub filled with water and holding her soothingly and crooning to her as we soap her up and then use a gentle warm stream from a spray attachment to rinse her. She still doesn't like it at all, and won't come into the bathroom – I have to put her on a leash to bring her in, then lift her into the tub, but she tolerates it now. Barely. It took a while to get to that point, and it takes two of us even now.

We did the wet towel business at first, and I think we would also get her to get into the dry tub to get a treat to try to just get her used to it. But I'd suggest taking it really slow, and just using a dry shampoo method for now. If you do eventually try the tub again (or if you are able to get him to get in and out of the dry tub using treats), make sure there's a mat on the bottom of the tub so that there isn't a slippery surface there to make him even more insecure.

But again, as far trying actual bathing, I'd let the trust build before pushing it at this point, since he's still adjusting to everything.
posted by taz at 10:08 AM on October 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

My parents' mutt was terrified of brooms and vacuum cleaners (even when off) when they adopted him. Like, cringing whining runs away to hide for ages. He also wouldn't go near the food bowl if we put a broom in the same room. We didn't do anything about this because it didn't actually have any real effect on his life, but after some time he got used to them, so he'd eat near one if no one was touching it or moving towards it, and I think by now he'll even been in the room when you use one. So he might just need much more time to get used to water. You can try other things, but whatever people did to him before might still be too recent.
posted by jeather at 10:48 AM on October 19, 2013

Best answer: Some of this is just going to be a matter of time and trust and patience.

If this were my dog, I'd first get him to the point where I could handle him all over, pick up his paws, spread his toes, gently pull his ears and tail, put my hand in his mouth, roll him over on his back and scratch his tummy, etc. If he's not relaxed with you handling his body, he won't trust you with other things.

Then I'd take a cup of warm water. Exactly one cup in a one cup container. Take a small rag, and dip a corner of it in the container, then wipe his front foot from the 'ankle' down. Spread his toes, wipe his foot, croon the word bath to him and feed him treats all the while. If he'll let you do his back feet, find, otherwise, don't push it. Go up his legs as high as you can while he's comfortable, and then stop when he resists. That's it for the day. Repeat until he gets excited about the cup of water and treats. When he's OK with a cup of water, get a two cup container and start all over again. Gradually work your way up to a bucket and a very sopping, sloppy rag--at which point, you'll probably have to be outside or working on a big towel. Do this in the kitchen, not the bathroom.

Eventually, you can sit just outside the bathroom door, then slowly, over a period of days, work your way into the bathroom. As taz says, mat in the bathtub. The first time in the tub DON'T turn on the water, just do the cup/rag thing. Eventually, you should be able to turn the tap onto a trickle, then start to pour water with your trusty cup.

I wouldn't use the hose on this dog until you're absolutely sure the water doesn't bother him. Who likes a cold bath?
posted by BlueHorse at 11:18 AM on October 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

I wouldn't squirt him with a gun. Heck, I'm not scared of water but I'd be upset if someone squirted me without warning or permission. It doesn't seem like the best way to help him see water as something that is not scary or threatening.

Good luck - reading about Boju's traumatic past and rescue both saddened me and warmed my heart. I'm happy that he's found people who love him so much.

I know we aren't supposed to hound (ahem) people asking questions about pets for pictures, but, you know, if you felt like posting one ...
posted by bunderful at 1:46 PM on October 19, 2013

Then I'd take a cup of warm water. Exactly one cup in a one cup container. Take a small rag, and dip a corner of it in the container, then wipe his front foot from the 'ankle' down.

YDMV (your dog may vary!), but my afraid of water dog absolutely would NOT be having this AT ALL. Like, he would go hide behind the toilet if he saw me coming at him with a container of anything that appeared to be liquid.

This is actually how I discovered my dog's fear of water -- he'd hurt his foot and I attempted to clean it off with a rag and a cup of warm water. Just seeing me with the 8-oz tupperware of water was enough to send him hiding in a spot he knew I couldn't reach.

The beauty of the hose bath is that there's no anticipation. There's no watching a scary human advance in your direction with a container of Scary Scary Liquid. There's no coaxing into a tub, or even into a room where Scary Scary Liquid is known to occur. Everything is normal, then SURPRISE DAMPNESS, then oooooooh, a nice massage from Person, then ANNOYING DAMPNESS, then snuggly towel. The whole thing takes under two minutes and requires no cooperation from the dog besides not biting your arm off.

Meanwhile I find that convincing my (stubborn) lab to willingly cooperate in anything he's not inclined to do can become a huge uphill battle that will ratchet up the tension for both of us and make the ultimate unpleasant task much harder than it really needed to be.
posted by Sara C. at 2:01 PM on October 19, 2013

Put on some rain gear and try going for a walk in the rain?
posted by The Hamms Bear at 7:34 PM on October 19, 2013

^^ As above, yeah!

If he's from the streets, he's been in the rain before, right? What's it like when you go out when it is raining?
Maybe go for a rain walk, bring the shampoo with you, and do it all in stages as you walk? If it's a good downpour, could rub doggie down with shampoo in an alcove, wait a few, then head back out into the wet for a rinse off... might be a decent solution if he doesn't mind lots of patting in the rain.

That way, YOU aren't doing something to him, chasing him, restraining him... he just happens to be outside with you on a regular walk and its conveniently raining.

If he needs a cleanup in the meantime, dry bathing might be your best option. Cornstarch rubbed into the fur and combed out will get rid of most mess, even wet feces.
posted by NorthernAutumn at 1:25 PM on October 21, 2013

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