We have adopted a rescue dog that has obviously been abused in the past. One of her greatest fears is large, black, plastic bags. It makes it difficult to walk her on trash collection days when a number of homes have a big, black bag sitting by the curb. She balks at walking past them. We need to zig zag back and forth across the street to avoid them. What is the best way to teach her that she no longer needs to fear these big, black trash bags? ~Alice
First of all, congratulations on your newest family member, and thank you for adopting a rescue dog! These dogs, regardless of breed, often have unique issues that may take time to overcome. Also, not knowing the dog’s full history can make it difficult to identify potential challenges until they arise, seemingly out of nowhere.
It’s important to remember that the reaction is based on association. Pavlov conditioned his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. Similarly, it sounds as if your rescue has a conditioned response to large, black, plastic bags. Fortunately, conditioned responses can often be successfully removed or redirected with patience and consistency.
For this situation, we suggest overcoming the fear in stages.
Begin by purchasing a box of the bags that affect your dog. Place the box on the ground in an area that your dog considers to be a safe location, and allow her to smell, examine, and interact with the box. Observe her reactions, and provide soothing encouragement and treats once she exhibits the behavior you desire. Repeat for several days until you are satisfied with her response.
Next, take out one plastic bag and lay it flat on the floor. Again, allow her to smell it, examine it, and interact with it (safely and under supervision, of course!). The goal is to show her that there is nothing to fear. At the same time, practice walking around the flat trash bag. Put her on the leash and practice walking past it, next to it, and even over it in the safety of your home or yard.
From there, you can progress to filling the bag, then setting up an obstacle course in your yard with several bags. Eventually, you’ll be able to progress to confidently walking the neighborhood on trash day.
Remember that your attitude and reaction are vitally important during walks. You are the alpha dog in her pack, and she will follow your lead. Exude confidence and control, and she will trust you and follow suit. Before you know it, running from trash bags will be a distant memory!