When a Dog Suffers a Trauma

The scene is the back interior of a car. There is a bowl of cat food in the foreground. In the back is a dog crate with a distressed brown dog looking away.

Here’s a photo that breaks my heart. Clara the bold, refusing to leave her car crate, even to eat some cat food.

This is what happened.

Early in December, I took Lewis and Clara to the house my sister is going to move into so they could mess around while I cleaned house. It was raining and dreary. There were leaves layered on the lawn and on the steep driveway.

Clara always jumps into the car on her own, but I help her get out. It’s the same routine we’ve had since she was a little pup. After I open her crate door, she comes to the back driver’s side door where I am standing and walks into my outstretched arms, and I lower her down. We do this even though she is 45 pounds, because my SUV floor (on top of the folded seats) is too high for her to jump down from safely, especially at her age.

A red Subaru Outback is parked on an inclined concrete driveway covered with leaves. An arrow points to an area on the concrete just below the back door on the driver's side.
The arrow marks the place I put down Clara after I lifted her from the car. The driveway was wet as well as leafy.

So on this day, she came out of her crate and came to the car door. I beckoned, and she stepped into my arms. I lifted her down. When I put her down on the wet driveway, she slipped and fell onto her side. She didn’t appear to be injured, but the fall was traumatic. She scrambled up, jumped back into the car, and dove into her crate.

I coaxed her out, and she stood there with her back legs trembling, as she does when scared. I couldn’t tell for sure, but she seemed unhurt. Then she scooted back into her crate again and wouldn’t come out.

Clara used to retreat to a crate as a puppy when she was scared or overwhelmed.

Coaxing Her Out of the Crate

I drove back home with both dogs (Lewis had never gotten out of his crate). When I got into the garage, I opened Clara’s crate door, but she wouldn’t come out. I let Lewis out and took him into the house, closing the car door before we went. I didn’t want Clara to try to get out on her own in case she ventured out of the crate.

I returned to the car and tried to coax Clara out. She wasn’t having any of it. She crouched in her crate, looking petrified. I got ahold of her collar, but she was a dead weight, and I didn’t want to resort to force in any case.

I went in the house and came back with two bowls of cat food. The ultimate treat. I planned to put one bowl near her crate, and another on the floor outside the car.

The scene is the back interior of a car. There is a bowl of cat food in the foreground. In the back is a dog crate with a distressed brown dog lying in the crate, backed up from the opening, looking at the camera and ignoring the food.

I set a bowl down in front and a little to the side of her crate. She didn’t budge. I had to hold back tears. She wouldn’t come out for cat food. I left for a bit, shutting the car door. When I came back, she was still in her crate, the cat food untouched.

I left again, for a little longer. When I came back, she was in her crate, but the cat food was gone. She had come out and gone back in again. I was simultaneously relieved and heartbroken. She would come out and eat when I was gone, but not when I was there. Ask anyone who takes in fearful foster dogs. That’s how she was acting, creeping out to eat the food when I was gone, then scuttling back into her safe place. I appeared to be associated with the trauma.

I brought cat food again and left it. Each time when I came back, she had eaten it. She started hanging out in the front of her crate with slightly more relaxed body language. Finally, on about my fifth try, she came out to eat the cat food while I was still there. As desperate as I was to get her out, I didn’t grab her. I let her have the cat food, then she went back into her crate, as I figured she would. This gave me confidence to proceed, though.

I needed a new way to help her out of the car. She didn’t know how to do it on her own by taking a step on the floor of the car, and I was sure she wouldn’t walk into my arms. I decided to use my Klimb, a sturdy, low platform designed for dog activities, as a landing pad. I opened the rear hatch, took Lewis’ crate out, and put the Klimb next to the back of the car. Clara has experience Jumping down onto the Klimb already. I bought it as a step off my bed for disabled Zani, and Clara has used it as well. We do all sorts of training and husbandry on the Klimb, too. It is conditioned as a happy and safe place.

I set up the Klimb. I put the bowl of cat food down near Clara’s crate and she came out and ate. As she did that, I again refrained from grabbing her, but I closed the crate door so she couldn’t hurry back in. She tried a couple of times to get back in her crate, then she walked to the rear where I was waiting. I tapped the Klimb and cued her to jump down on it, and she did! I had yet another bowl of cat food ready. She gobbled it happily, jumped off the Klimb, and went into the house. The timing was great. My partner Ruth had just finished having lunch and had saved a couple of pieces of hot dog for Clara, as she always does. Clara slipped straight into one of her happy routines.

Back in the House

Clara didn’t act scared of me. What a relief—I had been fearing the worst. I have always been her safest anchor in the world. I was safe again, outside the car situation. I had no idea how she would react when we tried the car again.

Over the next couple of days, Clara got excited and asked to come along every time I went somewhere, which made me hopeful.

The traumatized reaction was atypical for Clara. She is physically bold and has never been afraid of objects or unstable surfaces. I was deeply upset by this development. I wanted and needed to help her feel better about exiting the car. Riding in the car is the doorway to lots of enrichment and fun for her, besides being a necessary life skill.

I have seen this kind of large fear response to an event only a couple of times with dogs, and I have learned to take it seriously. I needed to make a careful plan. It’s human nature to minimize this kind of thing in our minds, to assume the dog will “get over it.” It would have been natural for me to try the next day to “see if she would get out of the car the normal way.” I didn’t. I might have tried to change the situation a little, go somewhere different with a better landing area, and assume Clara “would understand that this was different and wouldn’t be scared anymore.” But I’ve finally learned that fear doesn’t work like that. I fought my impulses and made a plan that changed the picture a lot for Clara, because who knew what part of the situation her fear had already generalized to?

Addressing the Fear

The view is through the open rear hatch of a Subaru. There are two dog crates with a Klimb dog platform fitting vertically between them.
Klimb between crates: the front bottom leg is removed

I successfully rehabilitated Clara’s fear and she can again exit the car.

I abandoned the old method of lifting her down. Not only was it now associated with her fall, but I have a shoulder problem and the process causes me pain, too.

With encouragement from Marge Rogers, I figured out that I could fit the Klimb in my car along with both crates. It fits vertically between them if I unscrew one of the bottom legs. I purchased the Klimb’s custom nonslip cover. I had been using a square of yoga mat, but wanted the extra security of the better fit.

Our new method was the same way I got her out that first day: step down onto the Klimb, then down to the ground. But I didn’t want to always have to get her out the back. I needed to have the option to put the Klimb next to a door as well.

Here is the plan I made and carried out. You can see most of it in the video embedded below.

1. With Lewis’ crate removed, I cued Clara to get into and out of the car via the Klimb placed in back. I reinforced generously, especially for coming out. I used either spray cheese or Stella and Chewy’s dehydrated raw food for every step.
2. Next, I cued Clara to get into and out of the car via the Klimb placed next to the passenger side door, which she has never used before.
3. First with Lewis’ crate removed, then with it present, I cued Clara to get into and out of the car via the Klimb placed next to the driver’s side. This is her lifelong exit location from the car, and was the most likely to have fear attached to it, so we worked up to doing it last.
4. Finally, we took it on the road. We went somewhere fun. She was happy to jump out via the platform.

A Klimb dog platform is sitting on the level part of a mostly inclined driveway next to a red Subaru. The Klimb is placed next to the back door on the driver's side as a step for dogs when they get out of the car.
The Klimb goes flush next to the car and the car door opens over it. Perfect!

Designing a Training Plan for One Dog

I tailored this plan with Clara’s history and capabilities in mind. I’m not suggesting this as a method for anyone else.

Luckily, Clara was not scared of getting into the car, being in the car, or riding in the car. Just getting out. So I needed to take an operant approach. I would have made a different plan (and likely a longer one) if either of the latter two had scared her. I would have used a classical conditioning-based method.

Here are some reasons why my approach worked for Clara, but might have been a bad idea for some dogs.

1. It involved jumping onto a small surface. It would have been a different and longer process if Clara hadn’t already been comfortable with the Klimb. She has had lots of good experiences on there, including jumping down onto it as well as up. She grew up in an agility household and got plenty of practice jumping on and off a variety of things.
2. My method involved a bit of luring or targeting as I beckoned her onto the Klimb the first few times. For some dogs, that would have been too much pressure. It’s not a good idea to lure a dog toward something that scares them. Again, Clara’s comfortable with the Klimb.
3. The area behind my car in the garage was a tight place to work. You’ll notice it in the video. Clara was exiting the car straight at the closed garage door, which was very close. She had to jump down and immediately halt her forward motion. A bigger dog, or a dog lacking her physical ability might have had a hard time. But she coped fine. I made this choice because leaving the garage door open would’ve had its own set of problems.

For those who would like some more general instructions for a dog who may not be used to getting onto a stool or platform, here is a video by the wonderful trainer Donna Hill with step-by-step instructions on teaching a dog to enter and exit a car using a step stool.

Video of Training Steps for Getting Out of the Car

The great thing about a dog who loves to go places in the car is that going to a fun location becomes the large, terminal reinforcer. I’m still using higher value reinforcers for moving on and off the platform, but I’m gradually fading them to lower value as she becomes fluent with this new system. You can see in the video that she is interested in the environment as soon as she exits the car.

Might Clara’s Reaction Be Related to Cushing’s Disease?

Clara was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease last May (2022). Her original symptom was extreme hunger. Her case is mild so far, and she is not on medication yet. But over the summer, she started exhibiting some weird fears.

I suspect those fears, and her high-magnitude response to a onetime fall, are related to the Cushing’s. This disease causes dogs to have an overabundance of cortisol in their system. Not a great situation for a dog with fears and who had such a hard start in life. Her recent anxiety and fears could also be early symptoms of canine cognitive dysfunction. Cushing’s may raise the likelihood of that condition as well (da Silva, 2021).

My vet and I are trialing some meds. The thought of Clara having added fear and stress in her life makes me feel sick. I’ll do anything in my power to help her. In the meantime, I’m relieved Clara is comfortable getting out of the car again. We dodged a bullet. I’ll be keeping the Klimb in there for good.

Reference

da Silva, C. C., Cavalcante, I., de Carvalho, G. L. C., & Pöppl, Á. G. (2021). Cognitive dysfunction severity evaluation in dogs with naturally-occurring Cushing´s syndrome: A matched case-control study. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 46, 74-78.

Copyright 2023 Eileen Anderson

Photos copyright Eileen Anderson. The photos of Clara frightened in the car were digitally altered by a Photoshop specialist to remove a whole lot of white dog hair that was sticking to the fabric on the back of the rear seats. I don’t mind telling you about it, but I’m glad I didn’t have to let you see it!

14 thoughts on “When a Dog Suffers a Trauma

  1. Eileen, might her fear response be a result of breaking a rib or luxating the rib when she slipped? I ask because I have fallen as you described Clara’s accident. And it broke or luxated my rib (and that hurt!). It was six weeks before I felt well enough to run and breathing was painful. Clara and I are of similar age in dog years. Just a thought.

    1. Lesley, you are the second person who has cautioned me, with good reason, that there could be pain involved. Thank you! I always run down the fear path, even though there is good research tying pain to some types of fears in dogs. I’ll be getting Clara a checkup.

      Thank you again, and sorry about your rib!
      Eileen

  2. Thank you for the story and the solution that worked! I had a somewhat similar situation with my highly reactive Lab mix Charlie last year. He normally rides in a crate in the cargo area of my SUV and he can jump in and out on his own. However, arriving home after a vet visit when he was very groggy due to being pre-medicated for the visit, I attempted to help lift him out of the crate (I knew he was too sleepy to jump out on his own safely) and he became very agitated … snarling and snapping at me and refusing to let me near him. It’s possible I hurt him inadvertently when I tried to lift him out, or it’s possible he had a reaction to the meds. After several failed attempts to get him out, I opted to let him just sleep off the meds in the crate, which took four hours! Finally, around 8 in the evening, I got in the car and took a ride with him (it was getting chilly) and when we got home, I saw him stand up on his own in the rear view mirror. I calmly opened the back and he jumped out independently and went inside like nothing had happened. He acted perfectly normal after that, thank goodness, but I knew we needed a different option for future vet visits. I explored several ideas, but in the end I got a nice fabric hammock for the back seat of the car and then bought the Pet Gear Easy Step III lightweight pet steps that he can use to climb into the back seat. It was relatively easy to teach him to use the steps and to ride in the back seat but we took numerous practice rides before his next vet visit as I knew it would be different when he was medicated and not as steady on his feet. So far, we have successfully handled two vet visits using the new system and he’s done ok. Not having to reach into the crate to assist him makes a big difference. I also reduced his meds slightly so he isn’t quite as groggy as he was the time when he had the problem. He still rides in the crate for all other trips as I believe it is safer for him and he’s used to it. The Pet Gear steps are light enough and small enough that I can fit them in the passenger side front seat when I do need to use them. It’s possible I will need to further refine our system for the future, but for now it’s a viable way to get him to and from the vet!

    1. Donna, that was smart to take him for a drive after he was wake to slip him into a routine. Your system sounds with the Pet Gear steps sounds good!

      Eileen

  3. Thanks for this blog and video. I have moved and my garage is much tighter for space. Willow is hesitatng to get in and out of the car. You have prompted me to create a plan to help her. Thanks x

  4. Oh, Eileen, I’m so sorry to hear that Clara (and you!) had this stress in December. When I read stories like this, I’m always so grateful when something useful (like the Klimb) has a history of successful training associated with it. It’s quite common that a dog will get older and struggle to do what they used to or have a bad experience due to a changing body, and yet the dog will have had no history with training on ramps/steps before, so the owner must start from scratch with an already traumatized pup. Those situations are sad and hard and scary. To that end, I’m very grateful you’re getting the word out in a gentle way that pre-training stairs/ramps/handling is so important before our pups get older when it may be too late.

    1. Thank you! And thanks for distilling that message and saying it explicitly. I know her being comfortable with the platform made a world of difference in the short time and low stress involved with the training.

      Eileen

  5. One time fear learning is so fascinating. I had a dog who slipped one time on the kitchen floor. For as long as we lived in the house after that, she walked around the spot where she slipped.

  6. Glad you found an effective solution. Fear in dogs is the worst. I like Clara’s leash. Is it stretchy? If so, where can I buy one?

    1. Hi Melanie,
      The leash is an old agility slip lead from Clean Run. It has a stopper on it so it doesn’t choke, but it’s easy to put the loop over her head. It’s not stretchy. They don’t have the exact thing there anymore, but the “Slip and Clip” leads are similar. Just be sure whatever you get has a stopper.
      Eileen

  7. I love everything about this post (except for Clara’s original fall of course!) and especially your patience and step-by-step work and problem solving. It’s such fun to see Clara go from so alarmed to so happy with her Klimb and new exit strategy. Well done!!

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