Scared pup in the city
August 9, 2017 10:49 AM   Subscribe

My new dog is having trouble adjusting to city life. Looking for pointers and trainer/behaviorist recommendations (San Francisco).

I recently adopted a two-year-old terrier mix with a mystery past, and for the most part he is doing great, but he is terrified of my busy neighborhood (an industrial area of the Mission district of San Francisco). There is a lot of traffic, especially noisy buses and trucks, heavy foot traffic, and homeless people. There is a small park across from my building where I take him to do his business, but often he is too scared to do anything and just tries to run back inside in a panic.

When I drive him to the dog park (a fenced-in field in a much quieter neighborhood), he is like a totally different dog--not scared at all, does his business, runs all around and plays happily with the other dogs. I take him there every afternoon, but I need to be able to walk him around my neighborhood as well, at least to do his business at night and in the morning. As it is now, he is only pooping at the dog park, and regularly holding his pee for like 18 hours (I take him out at night but he won't pee).

Can anyone recommend a trainer or behaviorist who will help me deal with his extreme fear, help get him acclimated to urban living, and also address more basic behavioral issues like pulling on the leash and barking? I would prefer someone who doesn't use shock or prong collars.

The first trainer I contacted said that he couldn't help me (I guess he only does basic obedience training), and that I would need to see a behaviorist and maybe temporarily put my dog on anti-anxiety meds, and that he might not ever get used to city living if he didn't experience it as a puppy. This all sounds a little extreme to me. The SPCA does private training but the website says they don't deal with extreme fear or anxiety issues, so I think they're out.

Also, if you have dealt with similar issues, any pointers or anecdotes would be great. Thanks!
posted by désoeuvrée to Pets & Animals (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
First thing I'd definitely do is give your (totally freakin adorable) dog a treat every time he does his business. Use a verbal reinforcement ("Good peepee!!!" or whatever) as well.

I know someone who lives in the Mission who has a behaviorist she uses with her rescue dog -- I'll see if I can get a name. Anxiety meds don't seem that extreme if they help your poor little guy chill out, but I agree with you that it seems that there is a lot of potential for improvement. Sorry that guy was so discouraging!
posted by radioamy at 11:08 AM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ok, my coworker uses Mutt About Town. She's had a lot of success (her rescue has some dog aggression issues). Good luck!
posted by radioamy at 11:13 AM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

As with many dog behaviors, gradual change is best. As a super short term solution, can you use puppy pads so he's not holding his pee for so long? I agree that short term anti-anxiety meds might help the transition.

My dog was also very nervous about city living so I took him to GG park out where people do yoga (he was terrified of them at first) and let him experience a little bit of people interaction (joggers, baby strollers, etc) and then walked him on Lincoln which has some traffic but not too much. Reinforce with praise and treats every time he goes potty. It's pretty far from the Mission, tho, so maybe you could take him to Dolores instead? It's only super crowded on the weekends and it's big enough that you can get away from the traffic / other people.

After a couple weeks of daily walks there he calmed down a lot and I started walking him around on the street more. He's a happy city dog now. Best of luck!
posted by ananci at 11:19 AM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Since you say "extreme fear", I would see a board certified veterinary behaviorist. Looks like Dr. Leslie Larson practices out of VCA San Francisco Veterinary Specialists.
posted by OsoMeaty at 11:38 AM on August 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

We adopted a puppy a couple of years ago, which went from quite suburban-ish area to busy inner-city life. He spooks at loud noises. At first, being outside at all terrified him - we're on a busy street between two train tracks. It took several weeks to get him at all comfortable with being outside, and months before he seemed to actively want to go out. (Dog park was, as with you, entirely different. He loves that.)

Our dog still flinches and runs from anything with a "growly" motor - mostly big trucks and motorcycles, but he's now fine with traffic in general. It's possible yours can get used to the general noise/activity level with lots of exposure, which won't be comfortable at first. (And may take longer than ours, who was 12 weeks old when we got him.)

Take him to the park near your place and just be there with him for a while. Keep a handful of treats, and give him one every few minutes just for being out there - here you are, outside in the world, being a good dog, have a treat. Get him to associate the place with some happy thoughts. Give him treats for peeing or pooping outside, and praise lavishly. Do this a lot longer than you'd think is reasonable. Lots of tasty snacks, lots of petting, for putting up with stuff the humans want him to do that make him unhappy.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:53 AM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

You might start training "relax on a mat" to teach him to self calm (this was the first thing we worked on our reactive dog class). Basically, you get a blanket or towel (something that's easy to move around). With your dog in another room, lay it out and spread some yummy treats on it. Put a chair next to it. Then, go get your dog. Put him on a leash, and walk him up to the mat. Sit down while he eats the treats. Keep dropping treats if he seems inclined to wander off, but don't feed directly or praise him. The treats should appear in front of him as if by magic (this is the self calming part, rather than him learning he only needs to be calm when you ask him). Eventually he will sit down on the mat -- drop more treats! Keep him invested in staying seated (so, don't make him get up to get them). Taper off as he stays seated on his own. Eventually, he will lie down. Follow the same treating pattern.

Start inside your apartment. If you dog is calm inside, this will probably go pretty quickly. Once he's able to relax reliably inside, maybe move into a hallway or lobby -- somewhere a little bit busier than your apartment, but as terrifying as the street. Keeping stepping up the challenges slowly as he learns to relax in new environments. If he ever starts to regress (i.e. he can't reliably quiet down), go back to the last spot you worked on.

Don't dismiss the meds -- if the park freaks him out that badly, you just keep building the negative associations every time you take him there. If the meds calm him down enough that he can start building positive associations with the park, and you can probably wean him off of them.

Check out kikopup's YouTube videos -- I've actually just started some of her loose-leash walking tips in the last week and I've already seen a ton of improvement with my reactive dog. If you're walking him with just a collar, try a harness with a front clip. That will redirect his momentum to the side instead of forward and help teach him not to pull. We like the Balance Harness.

The trainer we really liked had a certification from the Karen Pryor academy, which is positive reinforcement only.

Check with the SPCA again -- friends of mine in SF took a "Reactive Rover" class, which may have been through them. [here].

Good luck -- I feel your pain (obviously). Fearful/reactive dogs are stressful and can be embarrassing (I'm worried I'm developing a reputation in my neighborhood), but with a lot of work they can also be great dogs, and you get the satisfaction of knowing how much you've improved their lives.
posted by natabat at 1:32 PM on August 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

I don't live in SF, but I can give you an anecdote! I am dealing with similar issues with my adopted terrier mix. Like you, I have a small park near my building and live in a neighborhood with heavy foot traffic and buses. And my dog recently went through a phase where nearly everything outside my building spooked him. We're still working on the situation but we have made some progress.

Several months after I got him, my dog started panicking at often unidentifiable causes outside my building. One day he went into a panic right after pooping in the park. I couldn't pick up after him while he was blindly pulling in a different random direction every second, so I stepped on the leash to keep him still for a few moments. This was a big mistake. As we walked back to my building, the poor guy was clawing at the ground trying to get back to the door, pulling so hard on the leash he was almost horizontal, like he was climbing a cliff face. After that he refused to go any distance from our back door.

At that point I hired a trainer for a few home visits and put my dog on anxiety meds. First trazodone, which made him sleepy but did not seem to help overall, then fluoxetine, which is helping a lot although the dosage might still need to be adjusted.

At first, when my dog was afraid of stepping out the door, the trainer had me give him treats at a fast pace at increasing distances from the door. (Say "Find it!" brightly, throw a treat on the ground, click as soon as he eats it, reward by doing the same thing again and again and again.) The idea was for his head to come up and then right back down to sniff the ground again so he would always be hunting for the next treat and wouldn't have time to think about how scary the location was. I tried to keep him under panic threshold, and if he showed any signs of anxiety we would leave immediately. I drove him around the neighborhood for the actual bathroom trips.

This didn't help with his tendency to spook, but he did stop being scared of the location itself and also started asking to go out constantly so he could eat more.

After about a week he was out of the instant panic stage and our progress plateaued. Then the trainer had me change strategies to something like BAT that is supposed to teach him it's safe to explore because he can disengage from scary things. I stopped driving him around for potty breaks. At this point he's comfortable going to the park again. We're still working on specific triggers like strange men and dogs but it's worlds better than it was three months ago.
posted by henuani at 3:21 PM on August 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

Our dog has the same problems - afraid of city stuff, really has trouble with noises and other people. We're still working with her, but here's what we've done so far:

-Behaviorist. We're lucky to have an amazing behavior clinic nearby, and we brought the dog there. We got some good advice and some prescriptions for anti-anxiety medication. Don't be afraid to try them, they do help.
-Dsensitization. We were starting from a different position than you, so we had to first get her comfortable going in the back yard and then going on the leash. It's a lot of work, a lot of short exposures to th scary situation, but it will help.
-Finding what she's comfortable with. Our dog won't walk down our street but loves going to the woods, so we're doing that. We're also still putting her on the leash and taking her down to the sidewalk. Some days she'll go a few houses down the road, some days she doesn't want to leave the porch. We try to give her treats and encouragement for dealing with the sca y situation.

We had a couple trainers tell us they couldn't help us, but we did find someone who is experienced with timid and anxious dogs and she really gave us a lot of good advice. I'd look for another trainer who has some experience with that or comes recommended from a behaviorist. Often the two can work together, too, to build a training plan better suited for your dog.
posted by backseatpilot at 4:55 PM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh, and to address the elimination issues specifically - our trainer did say to find the dog's comfort zone and start from there. If she won't go outside, put some puppy pads inside and try to get her to use those. You can slowly move them towards the front door and eventually bring her outside. That being said, we did try them with our dog but she never took to them; she got more comfortable going in the yard first.
posted by backseatpilot at 4:59 PM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

2nding a veterinary behaviorist rather than a trainer - they can provide excellent training suggestions and can also integrate medication as appropriate (for us, with anxiety and fear issues, medication worked really well to just raise the threshold on all of his triggers enough that he was able to tolerate scary things with low exposure and work up from there). It's a night-and-day difference from discussing medication with a normal vet (very similar to the psychiatrist-vs-GP distinction). My veterinarian aunt strongly recommended going straight to one and I second it. It's a little pricey but they're really, really helpful and I think going early can avoid compounding issues.

We also have a one-on-one trainer who has helped so much, and your "trainer" sounds terrible. Unfortunately it's an unregulated market but you can definitely do better than him in an area like SF. A vet or veterinary behaviorist should be able to provide a good referral. CPDT certification is a plus although it's not a guarantee.
posted by R a c h e l at 6:45 AM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh, yeah, and to add - those are the things that worked for my dog in a very similar situation (similar triggers but with fear-aggression added on, which is no fun to grapple with). He moved from suburban life to a similarly urban area and I'm pleased to say that a year in, he ignores all kinds of formerly-terrifying things (cars, trucks, sirens, power wheelchairs, bikes on the sidewalk, strangers, flapping piles of trash...) like they're nothing.
posted by R a c h e l at 6:54 AM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

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