When you have a dog like Panzer, every little success counts, and counts big. Even if that success is simply walking into the bathroom.
I never thought I would be excited by a dog walking into the bathroom when I’m…you know, but Panzer recently did, and I was! Shelby has never had a problem popping in to say “hi” and check out what’s going on. Ever since she was a pup, whenever I walked into the bathroom to take a shower or brush my teeth or relax in the bath, she would come barging in like she owned the joint. Our door doesn’t latch properly for those wondering. She’ll even push aside the shower curtain while I’m shampooing my hair (just checking to make sure it was you mom).
Training Shelby to get into the bathtub on cue was easy breezy. I shaped it in five minutes and continue to heavily reinforce it even now. The bathtub is such a rewarding place for her that I’ll often find her sleeping in there. One day I was really peeved at her for who knows what, and I yelled at her, which I don’t normally do. She ran upstairs and hopped in the bathtub, which damn near broke my heart. She looked up at me and wagged her tail as if to say, “Remember how happy this place is?” I immediately sank to my knees and apologized for being such a barbarian.
Shelby’s love for the bathroom is actually so extreme that I had to train her to lie on a mat outside the bathroom while I’m taking a bath, because she preferred to just sit there and stare at me which, as you can imagine, isn’t all that relaxing. Panzer on the other hand, not so much.
It took Panzer awhile to get comfortable with our home, especially the upstairs, which makes sense, because we’re not upstairs all that often (except to sleep). None of those rooms smell quite as strongly of us and none smell at all like food. Eventually though, he warmed up. Except to the bathroom. After about four months of him living with us, I called him upstairs. I was standing in the bathroom putting towels away, but I wanted him to come lie on the bed with me while I folded the rest of the laundry. He ran up the steps, bee-lined into the bedroom and peed in fear all over the bed. The poor dog thought this had something to do with the dreaded bathroom. I sighed, stripped the sheets, put them in the wash, steam cleaned the bed and decided it was time to try and conquer the bathroom phobia. I knew the bath he’d received by being carried in there and plopped down didn’t do much to ease his discomfort, and he was starting to smell again. I wanted the process to be a bit easier on him and for us to have the freedom to bathe him without drama (he does sleep on our bed after all).
I tried the cookie trail into the bathroom which has always been a hit with our rescues, but that was a no go. He would eat the cookies until the threshold and then come to a halt, staring at the cookies beyond.
I tried shaping it, but he just repeatedly offered the behavior, “Glancing into the bathroom”. I also tried just sitting on the opposite side of the door, talking to him, petting him, just waiting. I did teach him to open the door with his nose like Shelby (no one tell Joe that, as far as he is concerned Panzer learned this “annoying” habit on his own).
I also tried throwing cookies from inside the bathroom, which he liked but didn’t help, and I tried calling Shelby in and out of the bathroom, cueing her to jump in and out of the tub and put her paws up on the sink all while Panzer sat in the doorway and watched. Nothing. He was like a stone, but at least there was no more peeing on the bed incidents.
Fed up, I vented to a trainer friend, who asked if I’d tried a mat. Duh! Sometimes it takes a new set of eyes to see the solution. Revved up with “my” new idea, I went home and set up the mat in the hallway outside the bathroom. Panzer couldn’t even wait for me to spread it out and chose to lie down on it as it fell. He loves his “mat” (which is actually an old beach towel). I clicked and jackpot rewarded, then called him off to come target my hand and sent him back and forth between my hand and the mat.
As the sessions moved on, I inched the mat closer and closer to the threshold. Because of space constraints, I had to call him away from the bathroom or into the bathroom to target. Assuming “into” wasn’t going to happen and not wanting to poison my game, I chose “away” from the bathroom, which I think worked to our advantage, because he wasn’t looking into the scary place but was instead looking toward a familiar place.
After about a week, I had him on the mat the whole way in the bathroom – woohoo! The thing was, he still didn’t seem to associate where he was as “the bathroom” i.e. he wouldn’t enter unless we were specifically playing the mat game. My guess was the place had not yet been imbued with a strong enough history of reinforcement, so I just kept playing.
Well, guess what? Two days ago, for the first time in the almost seven months we’ve had him, Panzer walked into the bathroom on his own! I was using the bathroom of course, and he still looked unsure, but progress nonetheless! I praised him heavily from my awkward position as he hesitantly looked around.
Like I said, when you have a dog like Panzer, every little success counts big. We may not be all the way to bath time, not even close really, but we’re making tons of progress. Every fear that I can eliminate is one step closer to his rehabilitation.