Diamonds in the Ruff

Helping Your Worried Dog

Why is he afraid?  It probably started before he came to live with you. 

Most often it isn't a bad experience, it's no experience.
 

Early and Ongoing Socialization is key to having a dog who is confident and comfortable in new situations.  But what if your puppy missed out?

 

There are many reasons that a puppy might not have had a rich and varied early puppyhood: 

 

  • Perhaps the puppy was ill or injured and the only time they left the house was for treatment at the vet clinic.  If clinic staff were the only new people they met, and trips to the vet the only car rides they took, it's no wonder they are fearful of leaving the house.

  • Maybe they were from a puppy mill, a hoarding case, or an irresponsible backyard breeder who was just raising dogs for the money who didn't take the time to see to early socialization needs during the critical socialization window of 3-12 weeks. 

  • Maybe there were simply too many puppies in the litter and not enough time and energy to provide enough individual socialization ops for each of the puppies prior to placement. 

  • Maybe the breeder became ill and wasn't able to give the puppies what they needed.

  • Perhaps the litter never left the room or kennel they were born in until they came to live with you, and then met few new people in the weeks following. 

  • Maybe they weren't adopted until well passed the critical socialization window. 

The most common cause of poor socialization is puppies who are born in the fall

During the primary socialization window, winter days are short and it it's too cold for backyard barbecues and long walks in the park or road trips.  There are no farmers' markets or soft ball games to take the puppy to.  He didn't go to enough places, experience enough novel sights and sounds, or meet enough varieties of people or animals. 

 

Another all too common reason  is someone put the fear of God into the puppy owner to "keep the puppy home until it had all of its shots" out of fear of illness.  You can socialize a puppy AND keep it safe from disease.  Now the puppy is approaching adolescence.  At 5 months of age, puppies hit a secondary fear period, they recognize there are strangers in the world.  Your socially inexperienced puppy is just starting to see the world and meet new people.  And he's terrified.

 

The result is a dog who is afraid of anything "new" - he is neo-phobic.  New people, places and things are dangerous until proven otherwise.  His fears may make no sense to you, but they are very real to him.  We can't turn back the clock.  There are no do-overs.  You can get in some meaningful socialization between 12 and 20 weeks, but not to the extent you could have if you'd started during the primary socialization window.  Now, we are playing catch-up.

How much is "Enough"?  Can you over-do socialization?  Yes, you can.

"In order to be well-socialized, a puppy should meet 100 people by 12 weeks." - Ian Dunbar

That's 11 new people per day between 3 and 12 weeks ...  wow!  More is not better if you are repeatedly putting your puppy in overwhelming situations.  A socialization outing might be sitting in a quiet park seeing 11 new people pass by, not 11 strangers swarming and holding and kissing your puppy.  If your puppy is working at a deficit, the last thing you want to do is go on a crash course of trying to catch up by flooding your puppy!  Slow is fast.  Avoid situations that are overwhelming.  All exposure should be safe and positive.  He should leave every situation happy to have been there.  Gradually expand his number of trusted friends.  When his 'friends list' is long, he will add new ones more easily. 

After 20 weeks (5 months) remedial socialization is much more difficult.  Fear is something that can be lessened by gentle exposure and confidence building, but you can't make a genetically sensitive, cautious personality bold and fearless, or your aloof dog love everyone.

So how do we help our worried pup build confidence?

Slowly, at a distance they can handle, as often as humanly possible, without flooding and overwhelming the puppy.

First goal - feel safe in the environment.  Find quiet places where no one is likely to be and just sit with your pup and allow them to acclimate to the environment.  If he wants to lean on you or climb in your lap, fine.  If he will eat, feed him.  Scatter treats in the grass to encourage him to sniff around.  Sniffing and searching is a calming activity.  Keep the leash slack and follow the dog if they decide to go exploring.  Gently guide them away from getting close to any activities that you feel would be too much for them at this stage, or if it might prompt a human to spot him and try and "make friends" and put the dog in over its head. 

Distance is your friend.  Right now, those kids are far enough away that this dog is aware of them and can watch without feeling any anxiety.  If they moved closer, we'd see his calm relaxed demeanor change.  We might see his hears flip back,  he'd probably lick his lips, look away, and show other outward signs of concern.  His heart rate would go up.  If people appear passing on the grass area, we might see avoidance, hiding behind his person, or looking for an escape route.  If their attention was directed at him or if anyone approached where the lawn meets the dirt., we'd likely get growling and barking.  His hair might stand up.  He would likely go into fight or flight mode  We don't want to put him in that situation!  The goal is for the dog feel fine the whole time.  If he gets startled, if we let him get in over his head and have to bail, as he escapes the scary thing and feels relief, we will make him worse, not better.

Let the dog lead.  Allow the dog the freedom to change direction and move away.  Don't pressure the dog to move closer.  ANY time the dog stops moving forward, keep the leash slack and stop with him.  Give him time.  If he opts to increase distance congratulate him for his wise choice.  More information in this article:  "Thresholds - Recognize and Respect Them."

Empowerment - why having a choice matters. 

Would you?  Could you cross this bridge? 

What if someone took you by the arm and dragged you toward it? To your dog, fearful stimulii cause the same physiological response as crossing this bridge causes this man.  Fear affects adrenaline, cortisol, and heart rate, resulting in sweating, increased respiration rate, and decreased appetite. 

 

Don't pull him toward what scares him.  Living beings go into freeze, fight or flight mode when panic sets in.  They may go frozen and shut down, try to escape or hide, or lash out to keep the scary thing at bay.  The man on this bridge cannot walk due to his fear.  He clutches the railing, scooting to get across.  If you have a fear of heights, just looking at this photo probably gives you the heebie-jeebies!

We will assume that this man chose to take this challenge.  Dogs are rarely given choices or given the space and  time they need to come to terms with what scares them.  They are made to endure the approach of animals or people and pulled by their leashes toward scary situations at the insistence of their humans.  Too-often frightened dogs are seen as stubborn or unreasonable when they put on the brakes and can't continue. 

 

Time and space matter.  Slow is fast when it comes to helping your dog through his fears.

This handout courtesy of © CAROL A. BYRNES "DIAMONDS IN THE RUFF"

Training for Dogs & Their People (509) 325-7833

ditr_training @ hotmail.com - http://www.diamondsintheruff.com