When Sully, my family and I moved to Denver, I was concerned about our living situation. We were moving into a small, boutique pet friendly apartment building. This meant we would be running into other dogs in hallways, stairwells and elevators. Sully and I had not lived in this type of housing before; therefore, I did not have to worry about this.
As we packed up our townhouse in Boulder, I could feel my stress level increasing. After a few days of living in the new building and going for walks with Sully, I noticed he became stressed the moment I stepped into our hallway. The walk to our door included Sully’s ears perked forward, body tense, lip licking (coping behavior), mouth closed and tail high.
I started thinking about our previous experiences in this hallway. We had never run into another dog in the hallway. He never heard another dog barking from inside the apartment units. I am sure he smelled them though! I asked myself what has him so stressed? And then it hit me like a ton of bricks…..
I had him so stressed!!
It was me that was holding my breath when we entered the hallway. It was me tensing on the leash. It was me talking to him in a stiff, anxious tone. It was me who single-handedly conditioned him to be stressed in this location. Therefore, it would have to be me to desensitize him to the hallway and change his association. Luckily we were only working with 3 days of negative experiences in the hallways vs. 3 months!
I put my trainer hat on and here’s what I did:
- Before I entered the building or our hallway, I would take a deep breath and then initiate play with Sully. He and I always play this game where I tell him “I am going to get you” and then I run after him. He loves to run away from me. We sometimes play this game during our walks so he was used to playing it while on leash. I used that game to get our bodies moving, think about something else and create a positive association to the locations. Now every time we enter these spaces, he looks back at me and play bows waiting in anticipation of his favorite game!
- At the end of the hall, outside my apartment door, Sully and I did 5 minute training sessions daily to to work on focus behaviors and to create a positive association to that location. I felt comfortable doing this near my door in case I needed an exit strategy if another dog entered the hallway.
- I also organized a few of his dog friends to make “guest appearances” in lobby of the building and in our hallway. I did this to get him used to seeing other dogs in these spaces. I used dogs he knows and likes so it was a positive experience for him.
- Lastly, he always got high value treats in these locations. I rewarded him using cheese or boiled chicken for any behaviors he offered such as, checking in, leave it, walking next to me, sitting, etc.
Within 2 weeks, Sully’s behavior had changed. The hallway became a fun and inviting space to enter. By giving US alternative ways of interacting in these locations, it lowered our stress, changed our behavior and created that positive association we both needed.