When a Dog Suffers a Trauma
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!