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I Think Pickle Is Seeing Dead People…

I’ve said a lot of crazy things in my life, but I really do think that Pickle is seeing dead people, specifically in my bath. That or she’s been watching too many scary movies with creepy people hiding out in bathrooms – which sounds realistic to me because I have a phobia of shower curtains. I kid you not. And I am fairly confident it’s because I started watching horror films from a young age and inevitably if there was a bathroom scene and the shower curtain was pulled shut, something totally messed up always jumped out from behind the shower curtain e.g. that creepy old lady with pink lipstick in The Shining. Case and point right there.

Now honestly it may not be a true phobia, but it is definitely a very strong aversion. I mean, at almost 35 years of age I still can’t touch a shower curtain. If I am in a hotel alone then I will get some kind of implement to push that curtain open and that is where it will stay. I will shower with that damn thing open and let the bathroom flood before I will shower with it closed. My husband and I lived in a small work flat a few years ago, thankfully for only a short period, but the shower was over the bath and the flooring was carpet, so I had to have the curtain closed to shower. So every time I showered in that house, Rob (bless him) would open the curtain so I could get in, he would then close it carefully so it didn’t flap and touch me or come in my general direction, and then he would sit on the toilet and talk to me the entire time I showered because I couldn’t stand being let alone. I never had any kind of freak shower curtain accident as a child so I do think it must have something to do with all the horror films I watched. No regrets though cos I really love horror films.

Anyway, I digress. We have lived in our current house almost 12 months, and since moving in the girls have had a weekly bath in the main bathroom. While Pickle doesn’t enjoy her bath, she has never shown any signs of fear when it came to her baths or the bathroom in question. That was until I got back from a trip away at the end of January. She was still fine with having a bath and going into the bathroom unless I was the one having a bath?! The first time I went to have a bath after getting home she was a mess. It started when I turned the taps on – she followed me like a shadow, worried expression on her face. These just got more intense as I went through the motions of getting ready for the bath – getting my towel, iPad etc. But when I got in the bath she came into the bathroom, sat on the bathmat and trembled like a leaf, intermittently coming to the edge of the bath and jumping up to put her paws on the edge as if to check on me, before going back to the mat! Before this she had always sat at the doorway waiting patiently for me to finish in the bath.

When unexpected reactions occur to everyday things it must make you think – what has changed for my dog? I started wondering if something had happened while I was gone. My first thought was that she must have got a fright when she had a wash, but no, she was still absolutely fine for her baths. It was just when I was having a bath. My husband washed her a couple of times while I was away with no incident. He also doesn’t use the bath so there’s no way she got a fright while he was bathing. We had had no guests stay while I was away so no opportunity for any incident there either. So, for now and forever, the ‘why’ behind this new behaviour will remain a mystery and I will continue to hypothesise about the actual cause – enter my seeing dead people theory.

The ‘why’ is important when you are looking at unwanted/unexpected behaviours, especially when deciding on the best course of action for modifying the behaviour, but like in this case, it’s not always possible. What was obvious was that my taking a bath was causing Pickle quite serious emotional distress, bordering on panic, which could not continue. And so, we started to take action. As with everything to do with my pets – physical or emotional, I always ask for advice from colleagues or professionals as I want to be sure that my emotions are clouding my decisions, or I want a specialist opinion purely because I am that kind of owner. An hour consult later with our lovely behaviourist and we had a plan to act on immediately. A plan unfortunately that meant I couldn’t take a bath for the near future. Now this might sound like no big deal, but until we moved into this house, it had been over 4 years of living in a house that had no bath!!! Baths are now very sacred to me and a vital part of my physical and mental well-being, but Pickle’s emotional well-being was priority, so I was willing to never have a bath again in her presence if that was what it took. You might be thinking – just leave her downstairs so she doesn’t know, but alas, at the first turn of the tap she would zoom upstairs on high alert to check if I was going to have a bath and the trembling would begin. We couldn’t live like that and it wasn’t fair on Pickle to have her on the verge of panic at the turn of a tap.

The plan… step 1 was to identify at exactly what moment of the bath-preparation process she was triggered. Easily identified, it was when the taps were turned on. So for the next few weeks, every couple of days, I would start the process of having a bath. I would turn the taps on, walk downstairs and make a delicious licki mat with peanut butter and take it upstairs to the bathroom with us. I’d give that to Pickle on the bathmat while the taps were running. Now peanut butter on a licki mat is a high-level reward for her so it would take a lot for her not to want it. A licki mat is a calming activity. So, can you see what we were doing here? If putting the licki mat on the bathmat while the taps were running caused her too much distress that she couldn’t lick the peanut butter, than this was too hard for her and we needed to take a step back – maybe put the licki mat outside the bathroom door, or in the next room over etc. until we found a point where she was relaxed enough that she could lick. Once we found that magic spot where she was happy to lick, we wanted her to be able to relax enough that she could settle or lay down while licking that mat, not just standing and licking – because laying down is a more relaxed and disengaged position than standing.

Lying down is a more relaxed position than standing

From our first try I found Pickle was comfortable on the bathmat in the bathroom with her licki mat which was great. And then the next level of testing began – turning the taps on and off to see what reaction I got. If she was lying down, did she stop licking? Did she lift her ears or look over? Did she stand back up? All indicators that her tolerance was being tested. The important thing here is that we did this very slowly and didn’t push her too far. The first session lasted about 5 minutes with me turning taps on and off and just sitting on the edge of the bath while she had her licki mat.

The beginning stages - taps running, Pickle licking her mat in a standing position

I repeated this several times until I was happy she could emotionally handle the next step which was making a few splashing noises - the videos below show the difference in responses between a couple of sessions. Can you see the difference in her?

A little splash and she stands up immediately

A bit of a splash and she continues to lick in a down position - progress

Just like all behavioural conditions, it takes time, you can’t rush things. Fear, whether you can understand it yourself or not, is a powerful motivator and you can’t expect to resolve these issues in a single session or with a quick fix. I love my baths, but most importantly I love my dog more, so I am willing to put in the hours and be patient while we worked through (hopefully to the point of resolution) this new behaviour.

In the next blog I will go on to explain the next step and discuss where we are now, 3 months down the road.

Until then, enjoy the journey of becoming a mindful pet owner.



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