Fearful puppies

October 21, 2014

In my previous post the sentiments expressed were that “dogs are a blank canvas” and that the dog’s personality could be shaped by how the puppy was raised.  However much we would like to believe this as it would make our lives as trainers much easier, it is not entirely true. Nurturing is all very well, but what about the hand Nature plays in the outcome.    In other words what factors went into making up the personality or temperament of the pup before it was born, during its neonatal phase of development and during its critical period of development.  Ongoing research is showing that it is actually neither one or the other, but rather an interplay of genetics and environment working together to determine how your pup turns out.

I sometimes come across dogs who have very fearful, anxious or shy personalities. There is often some improvement with a programme of desensitization and counter-conditioning, but in many cases the general skittishness continues, particularly when confronted with a novel event or strange environment. Rescue dogs often display this type of personality and because often nothing is known of the dog’s history, early abuse is often blamed. There might be a history of abuse, but fearfulness in dogs is more complex than that.

Fearful posture

Fearful posture – notably crouching and leaning back, ears back, tail tucked.

With all animals fear is necessary as a self-defence mechanism. The fearful, cautious puppy will often out-survive his bolder, more confident brother and so live to produce offspring who tend to be cautious. There is therefore huge selective pressure on the evolution of fear. Knowing this, and furthermore realising that there are a number of ways that a pup can become fearful or anxious, believing that abuse is the only reason for the dog or puppy’s fearful behaviour is questionable.

  • Genetics: There is ample evidence that animals (rodents, dogs, humans) can inherit a fearful, anxious disposition from its parent or parents.
  • Prenatal Environment: A stressed pregnant female will often give birth to pups with little or no resilience to stress.
  • Maternal Behaviour: There have been suggestions that the dam’s fearful behaviour will have an effect on the pups’ behaviour. No one knows for sure what the mechanisms are of this. It couldn’t have been genetics but it could possibly have been some nutritional component in the dam’s milk, social learning, or just being around a stressed mother.
  • Early Environment: If the pups’ early environment is impoverished in terms of lack of social contact with humans or other animals or experiences, the result will often be a fearful and anxious young adult.

With a rescue puppy that exhibits fearful behaviour, the best we can do is to make sure there is a comprehensive programme of socialization before the puppy is 16 weeks and continued exposure throughout the dog’s life. If a purebred dog is desired make sure that the puppy’s dam does not exhibit fearful behaviour by visiting her prior to whelping. Be aware that if she is genetically fearful puppies raised by her will be influenced by her genes, by any stress she experiences during her pregnancy and by being reared by a fearful dam.

For myself my ideal pet/companion puppy is one who is “middle of the road”. The one extreme would be a puppy who is fearful of everything novel in spite of extensive, careful socialization. The other extreme would be the crazy, fearless pup that dashes headlong into every novel situation, often at great risk to himself physically. My ideal would rather be a pup that approaches each novel situation or person with a certain amount of caution until he or she ascertains that there is no threat to his wellbeing.

Coppinger & Coppinger. Dogs: A new understanding of Canine Origin, Behaviour and Evolution. (University of Chicago Press 2002).

Jean Donaldson. Oh Behave!: Dogs from Pavlov to Premack to Pinker. (Dogwise Publishing 2008).



August 23, 2012

Having grown up in a world where temperature was routinely measured in Fahrenheit, a temperature reading in Celsius normally confounds me.  So when I took my young 10 month old girl’s temperature because she has been looking and behaving off-colour since yesterday afternoon, the reading on my Celsius thermometer of 40.7 degrees did not mean too much to me – only that it was above normal.  I had no idea by how much above normal.  Since it was too early in the morning to phone the vet for an appointment, I realised that I should at least know if a temperature of 40.7 was serious or not.

Once again, Google to the rescue.  With a click of a button you can convert temperature from Celsius to Fahrenheit or Kelvin; you can convert anything measurable from one thing to another.  As easy as pie.  Much simpler than multiplying by 9, dividing by 5 and adding 32!

Of course, to get back to little Dash and her temperature, I soon found out that a temperature of 40.7 is, indeed serious and that a visit to the vet was definitely called for.  Because we often train on farms and come into contact with ticks fairly often the vet immediately though “Biliary”, took blood and after a lengthy examination of the smear under his microscope, could find nothing that pointed to the high temperature.  What he said though that there was definitely some sort of parasite that the body had detected and was calling up all its defensive forces – thus the high temperature.  He treated her for the temperature and gave me some medication and she is already feeling much better.

I can’t think that I’m the only ignoramus around (maybe I am!) but thought the following information might be useful to anyone in the same position as I was this morning.

First of all – if your dog is showing any or all of these signs, she probably has a fever.

  • Lethargy
  • Depressed mood
  • Shivering
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Coughing
  • Nasal discharge

Secondly, taking your dog’s temperature is not difficult with a digital thermometer.  Simply anoint the business end with petroleum jelly, Vaseline, or Baby Oil and gently insert it about 2 or 3 centimetres into the anus and wait for results. Most thermometers sold for this purpose will take less than 60 seconds to register.

Now, what does the read out actually mean in terms of your dog.  The following table gives you the conversions with the highlighted figures indicating the normal temperature range for dogs.

Deg Celsius Deg Fahrenheit
38.3 100.94
38.5 101.3
38.7 101.66
38.9 102.02
40.1 104.18
40.3 104.54
40.5 104.9
40.7 105.26

There are a variety of illnesses and conditions that may make your dog run a fever.  These include:

  • Infection and/or inflammation caused by any number of bacterial, fungal and viral diseases.
  • A low-grade fever for 24 to 48 hours after vaccination is not uncommon and results from the interaction between the injection and the dog’s immune system.
  • Consuming substances that are poisonous to dogs can result in increased body temperature.

Home Care and When to Call the Vet

If your dog’s temperature is greater than 103 degrees F (40 deg C and above), you should call your vet.  Dogs with high fevers above 106 degrees Fahrenheit are emergencies that must be treated promptly.

To help bring your dog’s temperature down if it is dangerously high, you can apply a cool, damp washcloth to his ears and feet.  You can also use a fan on the damp fur to help lower the temperature.  Be sure to monitor your dog’s rectal temperature as you do this, and stop the cooling procedure once it reaches 103 degrees Fahrenheit.  Although a lot of sources say that your dog should not be given aspirin to help reduce the temperature a small amount of aspirin is acceptable, and dogs can tolerate aspirin at the rate of 10mg per kg.  (Reference Dr Grahame Murray of Winston Park Veterinary Clinic).  However, this is a temporary measure and should not be administered more than once or twice.

Thank you, Dr Murray for your gentle and loving handling of my precious pup.  You made a potentially (for her anyway) scary visit bearable and best of all, she is feeling a lot better than she felt this morning.


Exercising Your Young Pup

October 14, 2011

I saw a sight today when out in my garden that disturbed me a little, and thought I should put something down about my concerns. What I saw that perturbed me was a person striding briskly along the tar road next to my house with a young Labrador retriever on a leash walking beside her. The dog couldn’t have been more than 4 months or so – definitely half the size of your average full-grown lab. I don’t know how far they had walked, but I waited around in my garden for about 15 minutes in the hope that she would return past my house, but this didn’t happen. This meant that the pup was being walked at this pace, I assume, for longer than 15 minutes.
Don’t get me wrong – I am a firm believer in exercise and proper nutrition for a growing puppy, but the exercise must be appropriate for the age of the pup. A puppy’s bones are soft and spongy. They don’t completely harden until the puppy is 18 months to 2 years depending on the breed. Any high jumping and jumping out of things like trucks should be discouraged. The stress on soft bones, underdeveloped muscles and immature ligaments can create damage–maybe life-long issues.
However, having said that I believe that most puppies are under-exercised in the belief that too much exercise will damage their joints. Puppies can and must be exercised, but this must be appropriate exercise that is going to benefit the growing skeleton and not damage it. Research on humans has shown that high correlations exist between muscle mass and skeletal mass in exercising subjects, even in those who are in their growth periods. Surely this must apply to young dogs as well.
So, what is appropriate exercise? I believe that a “forced march” on a hard surface is inappropriate. I would rather see a pup accompanying its owner on a walk through a park or forest trail off-lead with the pup setting its own pace. I think a pup should be allowed to stop and sniff at interesting smells and explore the world around him. Puppies that are allowed to do this will benefit far more than pups that are walked on leash along a road. Beside the exercise benefits there is the bonding issue. I find it difficult to believe that a puppy who is marched along beside its owner until it is simply putting one foot in front of the other bonds with the owner to the same extent as a pup who has a strenuous interactive play session with its owner.
I also believe that the pup’s mind should be engaged; that he should be taught to be aware of ALL his body – not only his legs; spinning, weaving, walking backwards, walking up and down stairs, swimming. These are all activities that your pup will enjoy and that will prepare him for a life of health and well-being.

What Exactly is Puppy Socialization?

August 3, 2011

You probably hear the word “socialization” tossed around a lot – especially if you have just acquired a new pup.  Your pup’s breeder insists that you need to “socialize”; the rescue organization your pup came from says you need to “socialize”.  But what does everyone actually mean by socialization?

What they mean is that not only do you have to introduce your pup to a lot of strange dogs of all shapes and sizes, but also to different humans and as many different species of animals as you can, particularly animals that your pup will have contact with in your home.  It also means that you should expose your pup to as many different environments as possible; as many different sounds as possible from babies crying or toddlers screaming and shouting to traffic sounds, vacuum cleaners, motorcycles.

Even more important than just exposure is for you to carefully observe your pup’s reaction.  Your goal should be that your pup’s experiences should be positive experiences, not neutral or bad ones.  If your pup’s response to either the environment, person, object or handling is either overarousal (nipping, barking, growling or lunging), avoidance or freezing, then this particular item needs more work.  On the other hand, if the pup stays calm and relaxed, explores the object or environment, is playful and stays focussed on the food, or is all these things even without the food, then you know that your socialization is going well.

Some specific things you need to add to your list are:

Handling – in addition to the more obvious ones, cradling your pup in your arms, squeezing his paws, putting on his collar or harness, grabbing and pulling at his collar – all these things very gently, of course.

Different people, such as people with canes, people with uneven gaits, people with sunglasses, and so on.

Less obvious surfaces such as wet grass, manhole covers, stairs.

Also, blankets or rugs being shaken out, brooms, balloons…

Socialization is much, much easier to do during the Critical Period (before the pup turns 16 weeks) than later in the pup’s life.  Definitely worth it.


February 17, 2011


Seven or eight weeks is normally the age when pups are sent out to their new homes.  There are varying opinions as to the optimum age, but one thing most people are agreed on is that pups should stay with their littermates and mother until at least 7 weeks.  It is the time between 4 weeks when they are weaned and 7 or 8 weeks that the puppy will learn all the behaviours that make him a dog.  He will be able to practice body postures, facial expressions and vocalisations, and learn their effect on his siblings and mother and any other dog around.  He will learn how to bark and bite and what it sounds and feels like.  And most importantly, he will learn discipline from his mother. The breeder’s responsibility is to socialize the litter with other animals and people during this period.  Puppies that are removed from the litter too early tend to be nervous and to bark and bite and often cannot accept discipline.

When you get your pup at 7 weeks, therefore, he should already be well on his way to becoming a well-balanced dog.  From 7 weeks to 12 weeks is when most rapid learning occurs.   He has the brain waves of an adult, but not the ability to concentrate for long periods of time.  He also does not have the experience of an adult.  Any learning the pup does at this stage is permanent, whether the learned behaviour is desirable or not, and whether you have anything to do with it, or not.  This is the ideal time to start any obedience training of the basic behaviours with gentle, positive methods and lots of play.  It is also the best period to expose him to many different people, objects and noises and anything the breeder has not exposed him to.  This is the time to set boundaries and to work on your relationship with him.

You should also be aware that between 8 and 11 weeks, any painful, frightening or traumatic experience will have a more lasting effect on the puppy than at any other time.  New experiences should be as non-stressful as possible, but they shouldn’t be avoided because this fear period has a purpose and is linked to the pup’s survival instinct. He is naturally inquisitive at this age but to protect himself, he also has to be a little fearful of any new stuff so that he doesn’t barge in to a potentially dangerous situation.  So let him explore – just make sure that he isn’t getting into anything that could be traumatic.

Between 12 and 16 weeks the pup will have gained more confidence and will, possibly, not be as willing to follow instructions as he was in the beginning.  It is more important now than at any other time to establish your leadership and make quite sure that your pup knows that you are in control of resources.  Consistency is extremely important if the pup is to learn to respect you.  

This period is the time that formal obedience training should begin if the full potential of the puppy’s intelligence and companion ability is to be realized. Bearing in mind that the pup’s attention span is still short your training sessions should be very brief – not more than 10 or 15 minutes twice a day, with frequent “play” breaks.

Of particular interest to retriever trainers with regard to training and critical periods of development of the young retriever is that many canine skills, like retrieving, willingness to stay close during walks and coming when called appear to have especially sensitive periods for their introduction and training.

Scott and Fuller (1965) discovered that a dog’s willingness to fetch an object is definitely influenced by early exposure to retrieving games.  What they found was that pups exposed to retrieving games between the ages of 9 and 14 weeks became significantly more avid retrievers than those exposed later.  They also discovered that these puppies were easier to train than those who had been introduced to retrieving later (around 32 weeks).

Another area of interest to us as retriever trainers, as well as pet owners, is the dog’s willingness to follow and come when called.  Steven Lindsay says in his book “Handbook of Applied Dog Behaviour and Training”:

“An area of interest for average dog owners regards active following and coming when called.  Long walks consisting of occasional surprise manoeuvres, exciting changes of pace, unexpected chase and counter-chase episodes, hide-and-seek games, punctuated with occasional opportunities for ball play or stick fetching – all facilitate the learning of appropriate “staying close” skills in puppies.  Such interaction strongly stimulates leader-follower bonding and other social components conducive to obedience training.  If puppies are not exposed to such experiences during the socialization period, as adult dogs they are typically more difficult to train to come when called or to stay nearby on walks.  In contrast, puppies exposed to off-leash walks, playful recall training, and ball play, are invariably easier to instruct in the performance of related tasks as adults.”

Knowing all this you can now plan what to do with your pup and when.

8 Weeks to 12 weeks (Rapid learning and Relationship building)

  • Establish boundaries – be consistent.
  • Introduce retrieve as a game.
  • Attention-paying, follow me and establishing sit as a default behaviour by feeding one meal out of your pocket whenever your pup does something you like.  At the same time start using your clicker.  Click for eye contact, click for following you, click for sitting.  Withhold rewards for undesirable behaviours such as jumping up and biting.
  • Adventure walks with play recalls, play retrieves, and chase games.
  • Desentisizing to the collar and lead, but, at this stage no formal heeling.  Pup should want to stay with you, so there is no danger of developing a “pulling” habit.
  • Introduction to the water and swimming.  Remember that any negative experience will have a lasting effect on your pup during this period of his development, so be sure that his intro to water is as positive as possible.  Even if you have to wade in to encourage him in after you.  I wouldn’t advise using a retrieve to get him swimming, because if he associates a scary experience with the retrieve in water, this would not be a good thing.
  • Introduction to permanent sleeping area and desensitization to being left alone for short periods.
  • Introduction to riding in the car – pair the rides with pleasant experiences
  • Out and about – shopping centres, traffic, motorbikes, bicycles, children of all ages, visits to the vet (do these before he is due for his second vaccination), enrol in a puppy class.
  • Now is the time for crate training if you plan to use one.

12 to 20 weeks (Onset of Independence and Start of Formal Training)

At this stage your pup still has quite a short attention span, so make the lessons short.  The most important obedience skills for him to learn now are:

  • Sit to whistle – near and at a distance.
  • Recall to whistle
  • Brief sit and stay
  • Walk at heel with an automatic sit
  • Swing finish
  • Start formalizing the recall
  • Retrieves should still be fun.  Steadying not that important, but he must be sitting calmly before being released.  So wait until that happens.

Always remember to stop before pup wants to stop.  He should be begging for more.  Limit the number of retrieves to 3 a day.  At this stage keep the retrieves relatively close and in very short grass.  Do not grab the dummy away from him, but rather let him hold on to it for as long as he likes before you take it.  Start introducing him to someone other than you throwing.

The Power of Play (Part 1).

January 9, 2011

Why play games?

Games build a better relationship.
Games are an outlet for predatory behaviours.
Games can relax a stressed or anxious dog.
Games can be used as powerful rewards for good behaviour.
Games can be used to assist learning.  Play should be part of learning and training part of play.

Because games and play are such powerful bonding tools, it seems to me that allowing pups – and adult or adolescent dogs for that matter – unrestricted play could be counterproductive if you want your pup to bond with you.  That doesn’t mean that dogs and pups shouldn’t be allowed to play together, but this play should be rationed, with games and play with you as the handler taking precedence.

Do games need rules, and if so, why?

  • Games with rules offer excellent training opportunities.
  • Games with rules increase our control in arousing situations.  “Control the games, control the dog”.
  • Games with rules help to teach impulse control.
  • Games with rules improve and maintain bite inhibition.

Some interactive games you can play with your pup include tug-of-war, retrieve, hide-and-seek and scent games such as the shell game.


These rules are especially relevant for the games which tend to arouse the dog such as tug or retrieve.  The games that require problem solving or concentration are less exciting, though no less compelling for the dog.

  • Dog stops game on cue every time.
  • Dog only starts the game when invited and never at other times.
  • There should be many obedience breaks during games.
  • If dog touches human’s skin, clothes, hair or shoes with teeth, claws, or body, game ends.

Many of the dog games we teach our pups we teach backwards – in other words we teach the end part of the game first.  This is so that we can stop the game quickly when necessary.

Teaching the “Drop”

Teach the “drop: when your pup is not revved.

Step 1:  Let your pup take an offered toy into her mouth but keep hold of the other end.  As she takes it, say “Drop” and hold a tasty treat on her nose.  When she lets go of the toy, click or “Good” and let her have the treat.  Repeat, repeat, and repeat many times.

Step 2:  Once she drops the toy on cue, extend the time she is allowed to hold on to the toy.

Step 3:  As your pup gets better at giving the toy up you can practice when she is increasingly more aroused and also by putting gentle pressure on the toy to encourage her to tug back.

Step 4:  Practice the “drop” game using other toys and objects, and exchanging them with other favoured objects.  Work from objects which are low on your pup’s object list to objects which are higher on the list.

Note: Once you get the toy back offer up another game so that letting go does not predict ending the fun.  This is especially important during training:   if obeying signals the end of fun we can teach the pup to not let go!  Until she understands that the end of the game is not the end of the world have a stuffed Kong or rawhide chew ready to give her at the end of the game or time your exchange game just before dinner time.

Teaching the “Take”

This cue is important so that your pup won’t make a grab for the toy when you are not ready for it.  Once your pup understands the “Drop” cue you can start teaching her the “Take”.  Hold the toy behind you and say “Take” as you bring the toy from behind you to offer it to your pup.  Allow her to hold the toy for the length of time that you have worked up to with your “Drop” cue.  Say “Drop” and take the toy when she lets go.  Reward her with a treat, or the “Take”.  If she lunges for the toy before you give her the “Take” cue, simply put the toy behind your back and start again.  As she becomes more familiar with the two cues “Drop and “Take”, you can start adding excitement to the game.

Some pups may be reluctant to take the toy because they have been scolded for taking items in the past and some because they are not sure what games are.  Some under-socialized pups are afraid of interaction with people.  Play is so beneficial that I feel it is important to spend time teaching your pup to play interactive games with their people.

Resource Guarding

January 5, 2011

Left to themselves many dogs will become resource guarders.  They may growl and show their teeth to anyone who approaches and/or tries to take a valued object – whether it be food, a bone, a favourite chew-toy, or even a sleeping place or owner.  To prevent this behaviour from surfacing in your adult dog take steps now to show your pup that your presence around his food is not a threat.


  • Sit next to him while he eats his dinner, petting him while he eats, and occasionally taking food out of his bowl and hand-feeding him.
  • Feed him some of his meals in small instalments to show him that your hand approaching the dish predicts more food.
  • Take his dish away mid-meal and add a tasty morsel.
  • Walk up to your pup while he is eating and drop a tasty titbit into the bowl.
  • Let people other than yourself do these food-bowl exercises to generalize the no-guarding response.

This exercise will help to build his self-confidence.  You are teaching him that it is no big deal and can even be pleasant.

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