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Slipping and Sliding

By Diane Garrod

papillon walking on shiny floor
This papillon appears vigilant as she makes her way across the shiny floor © Can Stock Photo/Laures

It is no fun for a dog who is scared of walking on shiny floors. Slipping and sliding and being worried or afraid every step of the way can diminish confidence. Yet one can find countless videos on YouTube of people amused at their elderly dog having a hard time walking on a slippery floor, or at dogs of all ages sliding across shiny floors.

In reality, it is no laughing matter. Dogs afraid of shiny floors could, in fact, be crying out for help.

For example, a dog may be suffering from something similar to post-traumatic stress disorder that causes him to have panic attacks. He might have a thyroid condition. According to Dodds and Aronson (1999), there appears to be a link between thyroid dysfunction and aberrant behaviors, disorientation, fearfulness, phobias and anxiety .

With increased urbanization and affluence have come dog-unfriendly lifestyles. Homes that are clean, ergonomic and efficient are fashionable. Contemporary trends in interior design can have a distinctly adverse effect upon the quality of canine life.

Overly clean, smooth floors such as wood laminate or polished tile surfaces are not comfortable for dogs to walk on. They also increase the noise level in the home. Mugford (as published by Jensen, 2007, p. 226) states that the behavioral repercussions of such floors may include motivating the dog to find refuge on the furniture.

Panic in dogs can take on many forms and this can include them being unsteady on their feet. Slippery floors do not absorb sounds. They are also visually-challenging making it difficult to stand, move, stop or stay in one place. Slick flooring can crop up elsewhere too: in stores where we take our pets to socialize, at the veterinarian’s office and at the groomers.

There are seven reasons a dog might be afraid of shiny floors or feel unable to walk or maneuver on them.

1) Eyesight

Near-sightedness and far-sightedness have been documented in dogs. However, dogs are generally considered to be myopic, i.e. suffering from near-sightedness. Dogs do not tend to suffer from far-sightedness often. Both conditions are measured using a series of lenses and a retinoscope.

Dr. Shannon Budiselic states: “As a rehabilitation therapist, I’m convinced that not all hesitancy to use hardwood floors is behavioural, and some of my observations from years of treating dogs who have lived on these floors suggests otherwise… A thorough physical examination by your veterinarian or rehabilitation therapist will help you determine any underlying physical issue that may be causing the anxiety (like sore hips, poor eyesight).”

Measuring how well a dog sees requires a Canine Eye Registration Foundation test such as is required for show dogs. Orthopedic Foundation Association (OFA) eye certification examinations are screening exams performed by board-certified veterinary ophthalmologists.

The exams can take place either in the veterinary office or at a special clinic held in conjunction with another event (such as a dog show). The eye certification exam consists of indirect ophthalmoscopy and slit lamp biomicroscopy. According to the OFA, it is not a comprehensive ocular health examination but rather an eye screening exam.

The Case of Logan

Logan is a rescued English golden retriever who has trouble walking on slippery floors. From day one of working with him, I saw that this extremely fearful canine client had trouble maneuvering on floors. It was not something that came and went but a constant.

From the beginning, I focused on Logan’s eyesight as the main issue, given that all other tests had been completed and come back normal. In the meantime, during our board-and-train sessions, I taught Logan to walk backwards so he could back out of scary places. He seemed to walk better this way, even up stairwells. I laid down carpets to help him to get from one area to another and increased distance incrementally, as well as had him walk in nonslip dog socks.

Trying a number of wrap combinations, a TTouch® method, I noticed he walked a lot better because it allowed him to hold his head higher. His habit was to hunch his shoulders with his head close to the ground and walk on floors this way.

Today, Logan can maneuver on floors in a store situation, and can move around confidently when he stays with me for a board-and-train. His foot placement is much more precise. However, he has trouble viewing something held over his head.

For this reason I continue to urge that Logan have his eyes tested by a qualified veterinary ophthalmologist, even though a veterinarian has since checked his eyes and found nothing physically wrong.

2) Otitis Tinnitus

The inner ear provides a required frame of reference for movement. Equilibrium is controlled by the body’s electrical impulses, which are registered on hair cells located in the three semicircular canals (the end organ for balance). These signals transmit the current status of the body in relation to the horizon (Kidd, 2004, p.1).

My own dog, Valor, has otitis tinnitus (interna), which is a deep inner-ear affliction. It causes him to be unable to walk on slippery floors. He can panic and whine because he is unable to get from one spot to the other. If he rushes forward, he slips and slides as though on ice. This comes and goes; he can go for months being able to walk fine on shiny floors and then, all of a sudden, be unable to do so.

Yet he has no problem walking on asphalt, cement, grass or training room floors. He also ducks if he fears something will fall from a counter or something like a broom might fall. Again, this is not consistent but sporadic.

Consequently, I am very familiar with this malady and what can be done to help a dog gain more confidence walking across the floor.

Otitis media and otitis interna cause a dog to have difficulty balancing. He may stumble and fall, stagger or trip when first getting up, or circle in one direction. It can cause him to be unable to walk on slippery floors. If you see any of the symptoms that indicate a lack of balance (such as staggering or falling), see a veterinarian for an accurate diagnosis.

Usually the dog will need to be anesthetized in order for the inner ear to be viewed. Antibiotics may be required.

3) Proprioception

Many causes in this list may cross over, but the one recurring element is that the dog is uncomfortable walking on the flooring and has a lack of confidence in his balance, footing and proprioception.

Balance is the ability to keep body weight centered over the body’s base of support. If too much weight is displaced away from the center, the dog can lose his balance and fall. Proprioception is the ability of a dog to know what position or orientation his legs and paws are in while he is standing or walking.

Through a series of complicated neurologic connections, small sensors located within the joints relay messages to the brain about where the forelimbs and hind limbs are at all times. The brain then controls the muscles to help move the legs in order to keep the body balanced.

Loss of proprioception causes abnormal placement reactions in the limbs, abnormal limb position at rest (legs crossed or paws turned under) and abnormal wearing of the toes. Loss of proprioception is a nonspecific indication of neurologic disease. If loss of proprioception is suspected, then working on a variety of non-slip surfaces may help.

The use of a wobble board, used in agility and K9 conditioning workouts, as well as exercise balls and carpeted stairs can help. Interspersing carpet squares with linoleum tiles as an exercise in variable surfaces can build confidence. You can also simply use carpet squares on slippery floors and then extend the distance between the squares incrementally and slowly so the dog has success moving across them.

4) Neurological Disorders

Neurological disorders may cause dogs to be unable to maneuver on slippery floors. Back end weakness, arthritis, degenerative myelopathy, weak limbs, cognitive disorders, back problems and nerve damage can all also increase fear of walking on slippery floors. Suspected neurological issues must be assessed by a qualified veterinarian/veterinarian behaviorist specializing in these disorders.

5) Orthopedic Problems

Being fearful of slippery surfaces may be a sign of undetected orthopedic problems. With health conditions ruled out, the dog’s problems can be assessed from a behavioral standpoint. However, sudden onset fear can be a sign of arthritis, ruptured cruciate ligament and other neuromuscular problems.

According to Dodds and Aronson (1999), ruptured cruciate ligament is one of the clinical signs of canine hypothyroidism in the neuromuscular problems category.

Walking on a shiny floor may be painful for a dog with orthopedic issues. Splaying out, back end tuck and slide or a wrong turn of a foot can all cause additional issues so it is very important to provide surfaces that the dog can feel safe on, like rubber-backed non-slip carpet swatches or rugs.

Think in terms of giving a dog a visual pathway for footing confidence. Work with a veterinarian to diagnose problems causing pain. The dog will need regular care and attention.

6) Long Nails/Excess Fur Between Pads

This is the easy reason. Clip nails, cut fur short between pads and help the dog overcome her fear.

The practical answers are: carpet swatches placed increasingly further apart, nail covers, dog booties and socks or paw wax.

Dogs learn by association and consequences. Changing the emotional association of slippery floors is the process. Various tools can help.

7) Fear

Puppies exploring the world can develop a fear of walking on shiny floors if they have had a bad experience during a sensitive period of development. Introducing all types of variable surfaces to puppies on which they can successfully maneuver can be a critical step in their development and confidence.

A dog who has a bad experience with shiny floors may develop a genuine, learned fear as her perception of the floor is keeping her from escaping. The dog becomes sitting prey. Imagine the fear.

Fear is the common factor in all seven reasons I have discussed. Fear is an adaptive response to a threatening situation. What happens when a dog experiences fear? When he gets input from slipping on a floor it goes straight to the amygdala.

According to Panksepp (2005), fear manifests here in the midbrain and stays there, whether there is a real threat or not. It remains there ready to surface if the right circumstance presents itself. Long-standing fears such as this are the most difficult to rehabilitate.

The inappropriate expression of fear characterizes anxiety disorders. A dog who cannot maneuver on a slippery floor may be experiencing anxiety and panic and, in that context, it is not funny at all. It is a very real and debilitating feeling for the canine.

Experiments in animals and humans, as well as introspection, indicate that memories for emotional events are particularly vivid and long-lasting. This is also true for learned fear (Kapatkin, Arbittier, Kass & Smith, 2007).

Finding help for a puppy is the key element to helping her work through this learned fear. The right, knowledgeable force-free professional can help with the puppy’s continued early development and build confidence. Doing so promptly is important. The more the pup exhibits this fear, the stronger the fear will become.

What Does Science Say?

A study by Kapatkin, Arbittier, Kass and Smith (2007) found that there were no significant differences in ground reaction forces between the linoleum and the carpet surface for thoracic or pelvic limbs for “normal” dogs vs. all other gait variables measured.

Data analysis was done on peak vertical force, peak impulse, breaking and propulsion peak forces and impulses. Three-way repeated measures analysis of variance was used to separately evaluate the effect of floor type on force plate measures in fore- and hind limbs, while controlling for side (left versus right) and experimental replicate. Mean force and 95 percent confidence interval for the six variables analyzed for all limbs on each surface were calculated.

What is compelling about this study is the word normal. It can then be assumed that, if a dog is slipping on shiny surfaces, we are observing abnormal behavior and the dog has an issue, as outlined in the seven reasons above.
Potential police dogs are tested on all types of surfaces, including shiny floors, to see if they can walk on them without slipping and sliding.

This is very important to determining if they will be candidates or not. Again, they are looking for normal canines. This is more evidence that dogs who are afraid of shiny floors are not normal, and are crying out for help (Odendaal & Slabbert, 1999).

A study by Louise Winblad von Walter (2010) aimed to establish whether it was possible to separate dogs who were fearful of floors and gunshots from dogs that did not fear them. This was done by studying behavior and changes in heart rate, hematocrit, plasma cortisol, progesterone, testosterone, vasopressin and β-endorphin concentrations in 13 dogs during a floor test and a gunshot test. Seven dogs who were fearful of floors had higher heart rates than six dogs who were fearless.

However, seven dogs fearful of gunshots had higher heart rates, hematocrit and plasma concentrations of cortisol, progesterone, vasopressin and β-endorphin than six fearless dogs.

The next time a dog is afraid of shiny floors, understand he is crying out for help. Help him.

Disclaimer: Please consult with a professional about a dog afraid of shiny floors. This is not a normal behavior. Professionals include: a qualified force-free canine behavior consultant, a veterinarian, a veterinarian behaviorist, a physical rehabilitation veterinarian, or a canine eye specialist. Make sure your dog has a team to address this issue. Professionals are trained to assess behaviors and provide programs customized to each individual. Use care when selecting professionals and beware of bad advice. Acceptance of this disclaimer and assuming full responsibility is the pet guardian’s priority.

Bear, M. F., Connors, B. W. & Paradiso, M. A. (2007). Neuroscience: Exploring the brain. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Budiselic, S. (2013). Dogs and Hardwood Floor Safety – A Rehab Perspective.
Dodds, W.J. & Aronson, L.P. (1999). Behavioral changes associated with thyroid dysfunction in dogs. American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association Annual Conference, 80-82.
Jensen, P. (Ed.). (2007). The Behavioural Biology of Dogs. Trowbridge, UK: Cromwell Press, pp. 226.
Kapatkin, A. S., Arbittier, G., Kass, P. H., Gilley, R. S. & Smith, G. K. (2007, August). Kinetic gait analysis of healthy dogs on two different surfaces. Veterinary Surgery, 36: 605–608.
Kidd, R. (2004). Structure of the canine ear. The Whole Dog Journal, 7 2004 p. 1.
Odendaal, J.S.J. & Slabbert, J.M. (1999). Early prediction of adult police dog efficiency—a longitudinal study. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 64 1999 269–288.
Panksepp, J. (2005). Affective consciousness: Core emotional feelings in animals and humans. Consciousness and Cognition, 14, 30-80.
Winblad von Walter, L. (2010). Physiological and behavioural responses to fear and discomfort in dogs and goats. Department of Anatomy, Physiology and Biochemistry, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Licenciate thesis.

This article first appeared in BARKS from the Guild, July 2015, pp.24-27.

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About the Author

Diane Garrod BSc PCT-A CA1 FF1 is the owner of Canine Transformations based in Langley, Washington, where she conducts Treibball workshops, classes and private consults, specializing in canine aggression and reactivity.

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