Food overcomes Fear

My big, bad GSD mix, Kita, is afraid of the refrigerator.  Not all refrigerators.  She’s terrified of the one in our current home, a bit wary of a friend’s fridge, extremely nervous around one in a cottage we visit, and I don’t remember her showing any reaction at all to the appliance in our old house.  Kita doesn’t go to see anybody else, so my sample is limited, but it seems that the ice-maker is what sets her off.

I believe the refrigerator in our old home was the first Kita had ever encountered, since all her reactions pointed to never having been inside a house before coming to live with me.  That model was very basic, no ice-maker or anything high-tech like that. Then we moved to this house.  The refrigerator had an ice-maker, but it wasn’t hooked up to a water line until I had that done nearly 6 months after we moved in.  Kita didn’t seem to pay any attention to the fridge at all, until it started making ice.  This is speculation, because I don’t remember any huge traumatic incident, but I’m willing to bet that Kita was walking past it when some ice dropped in the bin, and that startled her.

The noise is quite loud and in our galley-style kitchen Kita must walk right past the refrigerator to go outside.  At first, I noticed that she trotted through the kitchen, but wasn’t nervous at other times.  Soon, Kita began to anticipate ice-dropping by reacting with “airplane ears” and panting to the gurgles and burbles of the ice-maker.   The cottage refrigerator that also makes her very nervous has the same system and makes many of the same noises, whereas the high-tech, well-insulated appliance (delivering ice to the door) in my friends’ home is very quiet.  Kita began avoiding the cottage kitchen, but would pass the quiet fridge with no more than a few doubtful looks.

At first, Kita’s antics to avoid the dreaded Refrigerator Monsters seemed funny and not a serious problem.  Would that I knew then what I know now!  A dog’s phobias and fears, if left unaddressed, deepen and worsen with time.  Now, after many years of the fear settling in, Kita goes through a ritual every time she must pass our refrigerator:  hesitating, looking at it, taking one step, then looking again, backing up a step, putting out a front  paw, making a couple of bobbles in the direction she wants to go as if she’s revving up her courage, and at last trotting past — fast!  If something (even the cat) is blocking her “only possible” path along the cabinets on the far side of the kitchen, she can’t bring herself to take the plunge.  If someone steps in the way as she’s trotting through, Kita puts on the brakes, skids and is obviously terrified.

I know she’s panicking in that situation because she will refuse to take a treat. That is a bench-mark used almost universally by dog trainers to test a dog’s stress level.  A dog that is able to accept and eat a treat, while it may be showing signs of extreme nervousness, is not experiencing a traumatic level of anxiety.  Kita won’t even touch a treat held under her nose until she is in her safe zone — which is apparently off the kitchen’s tile floor and onto the carpet of a room on either side.

Kita used to eat her dinner in the middle of the kitchen, not right next to the fridge, but within a few feet.  Gradually, she needed her bowl placed further and further away until it was actually on the carpet.  Then darkness began exacerbating the fear.  Soon, Kita absolutely refused to pass through the kitchen if a light wasn’t on.  I could kick myself now, but it wasn’t until she’d reached that point that I realized what a problem had developed.

Here’s the interesting thing — if anyone stands at the opposite end of the kitchen WITH A TREAT — Kita will trot through without her whole “ritual.”  One quick look to make sure the Refrigerator Monster is in its corner and she goes!  This is another universal in dog training — a dog accepts anything that brings or is connected with food. Food can be used to overcome Fear.

It’s also axiomatic that the higher the food’s “value” (in the dog’s eyes) the more fear the dog is willing to overcome for it!  A dog will do a lot more for a bite of steak, or gravy than for her kibble.  Most dogs will even be willing to put up with a bit of nervousness for just their usual boring bowl, as long as we don’t ask too much at one time.

Especially when a dog has reached the level of panic that Kita experiences, progress is very slow.  I’m using both her dinner and special treats to encourage Kita to overcome her fears.  We are gradually moving her food bowl closer, so she is now eating with the bowl on the tile.   Each day, I move the bowl to a different place — sometimes closer, sometimes backing away a bit from the Refrigerator Monster.  Sometimes in her “only possible” safe path, sometimes on the other side in the scary zone!  If I have a special treat, like some broccoli scraps (go figure, the dog loves cooked broccoli!) she must come in the kitchen to get them!  Kita hasn’t accepted food with all four feet on the kitchen tile, yet, but we’re getting there.

Today, for the first time, Kita pushed a bowl she was licking along the tile until it was in front of the refrigerator.  She knew what she was doing and gave the boxy beast some doubtful looks!  But she kept on licking until every bit of gravy was gone.  It’s going to take some time, but she’s on her way!

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