Supporting Insanity – Backyard Aversion

This post is part of a series wherein struggling pet owners submit pleas for help to the expertise of blogland. Everyone’s experiences are unique. If you have any suggestions, please don’t hesitate to share them in the comments. What you think common sense may be revolutionary for someone else. You never know what may resonate. My hope is that together we can help good pet people feel a little less alone.

I received an email a few days ago with a problem that stumped me. While it is related to dog agility, I think the potential cause of the dog’s reaction is fear-based and may not have anything to do with the activity the dog was performing at the time. Since I know a lot of you have worked very hard with your dogs in alleviating similar fears, I have hope you will be able to offer some support.

Here is the question:

Help! My dog, usually overflowing with confidence, knocked a bar last week. Now I can’t get her to even go in the back yard, much less take a jump at a lower height to get her confidence up.

I use only positive reinforcement training, so when she knocked the bar, I think I said “oops, try again!” in a happy voice. Now, she cowers when I try to take her outside, cowers when I try to touch her, etc. The weird thing is that she is just fine with the jumps in class and at an expo we attended over the weekend.

Tonight I took the bar off the jump and had her just walk through it inside, and she was obviously uncomfortable and wanted to leave (but I had the treats, so she wouldn’t).  Any suggestions? Thanks!

If you have any tokens of advice, please share them below. Words of encouragement or commiseration are also very welcome!

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13 thoughts on “Supporting Insanity – Backyard Aversion

  1. Wow, what a disappointing thing to happen. And I feel so bad for the unhappy dog feeling so scared.

    Our trainer keeps reminding me that when a dog gets frightened, dial everything back until they are no longer afraid. I’d take down the jump in the back yard. I might even consider taking down all agility equipment and only work on getting the dog comfortable in the yard with no other expectations.

    Once she can walk outside by herself and take a treat, slowly start doing foundation behaviors (sit, stay, touch, whatever). Only when she appears comfortable do you bring the jump back into play. I know it will make practice tough for a while but hopefully she won’t take too long to recover.

    As I keep hearing from fearful dog specialists, you can’t go too slow.

    Good luck.


  2. Hmmm… Some dogs can get right back on the proverbial horse after a spooky incident but some might need a little reassurance and some time to reacquaint themselves with the whole environment before comfortably moving on to the next step. I think the owner is on the right track of backing up to just walking through the poles but maybe needs to step it back even a little further?

    Given that she’s okay with the jumps in class and at the meets, I agree that it’s probably not the obstacle that’s bothering her but rather the situation. I would suggest backing up even further than walking through the poles and taking down the jump down completely for now. Start by bringing her outside, feed her treats for just being there and then bring her back in again. Lather, rinse, repeat until she seems comfortable going outside again. Then put the jump back out and treat her just for being outside with it (not trying to go through it yet).

    There are lots of things in a backyard that can frighten a dog – some of which we wouldn’t even notice. Getting her comfortable about being out there again would be my first thought. Good luck! I hope the owner drop you a line again on her progress. 🙂


  3. It seems to me that something more than knocking a bar happened, that perhaps the owner didn’t notice. Or, the dog is super soft, which I’m not sure is the case either, because otherwise this wouldn’t be confusing.

    Since the dog is now cowering when the owner tries to touch her, it sounds like she needs to start everything over. In the house, just reward the dog for giving her attention and coming to her voluntarily, that kind of thing.


    • Your dog might not be able to be right next to the thing that scares him at first. You might need to determine how close she can be to something without reacting and slowly over time get her closer and closer.


  4. Dog memory is fascinating. Some things they remember for a long time and others they forget in a few minutes. I think I would start over with many rewards and hope that bad memories would fade. Food conquers all.


  5. Is there a particular toy that this dog goes gaga over? (For my guys it would be a laser pen.) Something so exciting the dog can barely think in the throes of playing with it?
    If so, just play with that most exciting of toys out in the backyard. No jumps, etc, nearby. Really rev her up. Play for a few minutes and go inside. Do this a few times a day, for several days. Put it on cue, “Wanna go play laser?!” and practice enough to getting her hauling for the backdoor when she hears the words. Little by little, start bringing the jumps back into view, but don’t make her interact yet. Then try to have her run thru the stanchions w/o a bar in place. Keep building up until you can add a bar back it. Just be sure to move along slowly and never force the issue.

    Also, it may not even be the jump she fears. Maybe when she knocked the bar, she managed to really twang a nerve in her foot and now associates the pain (albeit temporary pain) with the backyard.


  6. We don’t do agility, but in our hunt test training when the dog has muffed something up, we go back and simplify and try to end on a positive note. It sounds like the trainer may need to build the dog’s confidence back up. The way to do that is to go back to the easiest thing and praise, praise, praise when the dog does it (say walking through the jump). Treats are great but nothing can take the place of praise, the more excessive the better. Don’t move on until the dog is solid and comfortable. Also, as the trainer, try to stay calm yourself. If the dog senses that you are tense or worried, it will travel right to the dog. Good luck.


  7. Hmmm…I don’t have anything useful to add. It’s strange that the doggie seems so impacted by this event given that the handler was gentle in her response. Has the handler always treated the doggie this way or was the handler’s reaction different this time.


  8. Aw…what a shame that happened. I wonder what spooked the dog so much about it, especially since the owner trains with positive methods only. Are they positive the dog didn’t get hurt?

    If it were me, I’d take a few weeks off from jump training completely, and then maybe reintroduce the jump in baby steps. Reward for looking at it. Reward for approaching it. That sort of thing. All things in time.


  9. What a sad happening – for the pup and for you! I know this has probably been considered, but are you 110% certain there was/is no injury? If so, then it sounds like you are back to square one. Dial it right back and maybe spend some time in the yard doing something your pup enjoys that has nothing to do with agility. Start slow, work toward playing near the jumps, then to walk through with no bars etc. until you are back where you were. Good luck!


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