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).


First Things First…

January 3, 2011

Welcome home with your new Puppy.  Read these notes as soon as you can as I’m sure you will want to get right down and sort out problems like potty training, bite inhibition and leash desensitisation as soon as your pup has settled down, which at 8 weeks will probably take a day or two.  If the breeder has done her job well, your pup’s ability to fit into his or her new life should be a piece of cake!

Potty Training

Check out Ian Dunbar’s article on potty training for detailed instructions.

You might not want to go to these lengths to potty train your pup, but there are five important points to bear in mind:

  • Put your pup on a schedule with regard to feeding so that you can predict when he has to go.
  • Take him outside immediately on waking and wait with him in the appropriate spot so that you can reward him (either with a treat, or with LOTS of praise) when he doesgo.
  • Supervise him closely when he is indoors with you so that you are aware of when he needs to go so that you can rush him outside when you see the signs, even if you have to tether him to you when you can’t supervise.
  • If you always take him to the same place to potty, and reward him there, he will always be inclined to seek out that spot.
  • If you “catch him in the act” all you need to do is to clap your hands smartly together to break in to the behaviour and when he stops the pee or poo, scoop him up and take him outside where he will be rewarded for going in the appropriate place.

Bite Inhibition

Your pup will already have learnt a lot about bite inhibition from his littermates and mother.  However, he will be inclined to bite when he’s excited or when he wants attention, and with his needle-sharp teeth it’s likely to be a painful experience for you and members of your family.

What he needs to learn is that biting will not be tolerated and that teeth and human skin and clothing do not go together.  This is one of the boundaries you will start setting now while he is still a puppy.  Each and every time your pup bites you will say in a loud voice “Ouch!” and immediately stop playing and leave the room.  Your pup will soon learn that biting you makes you go away (which is the last thing he wants) and playing gently makes you stay.  Apart from the word “Ouch!” you will say nothing – no nagging or chastising – simply get up and walk away, closing the door behind you.  Stay away for a count of 10 and return to your pup to resume the game.  The minute he starts biting again, repeat the procedure.  Removing attention is a very powerful tool to teach the pup what behaviour is acceptable and what is not.

The Collar and Leash

If your pup does not understand about leashes yet, go slowly.  Put the collar on and play a game with her to take her mind off it.  When she’s comfortable with the collar, clip the leash to it and let her drag it around for a while (supervised, of course).  Distract her by feeding her or playing a game with her.

When she comfortable with the leash, sit down next to her and put a very small bit of pressure on it.  Not enough to scare her or make her try to get away, but just enough so that she knows it’s there.  Then, either call her, show her a toy, or anything to show her that SHE can release the pressure by moving WITH the leash (towards you).  Give her a treat when she does.

Remember that it’s a counterintuitive response to push INTO the pressure – so that when the leash tightens, her instinctive reaction is to tighten it more.  She has to learn that moving into the leash and towards you is what releases the pressure.   Once your pup understands this you will have gone a long way to getting your pup to understand walking with a loose leash.

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