By Debby Kay ©2016 all rights reserved
“The only thing you have to fear is fear itself” –FDR
Fear is one of the most mishandled behaviors in dogs that I can think of. Not dealing with fear properly can lead a dog to develop more severe problems including paranoia and self-destructive behaviors. Yet fear is not a bad thing, in fact a healthy fear of certain things will keep a dog alive. Where I think a big problem develops is when the pup is maturing and going through natural fear periods that many people don’t know what to do or how to properly handle the situations that may arise. This will be the focus of the second in a series of articles I am presenting on my puppy raising program.
There are generally 2 recognized fear periods when dogs are growing up. The first appears when they are around 2 to 3 months old. During this time you need to realize your pup is learning a tremendous amount about what is going on in the world and nature has provided this fear period to help keep pups in the wild alive. So this is a good thing in a natural world but something we must manage in our contrived world. Loud noises are something that pups at this age are particularly sensitive to. There are a couple of ways I deal with that here at my kennel when raising out a puppy but first I want to say that I deliberately breed pups that have very low noise sensitivity. If you are buying a potential service dog or a gun dog for hunting, this is something you will want to inquire about.
Prior to the onset of this fear period is when I introduce noises from recordings to the puppies while they are eating. Noise making devices, even noise apps for smart phones, are commonly available with just a little hunting around. By associating the noise with the meal it creates a positive situation and the pups will soon learn that noises (such as bangs, splashes, crashes, whistles, etc.) are no big deal, if anything it means “I’m going to get something to eat”. The noises are introduced far away at first then moved closer and closer to reduce the impact until the noise can be played over the pups while they
are snacking away. Another thing I practice is to vacuum in the room on the other side of the whelping room area when I notice the pups are snacking on mom at around 3 weeks of age. When I do this cleaning routinely, by the time the pups are entering this first fear period, they been so conditioned to this noise that there is little that will bother them.
So in preparing the pups knowing this fear period is going to happen, what actually happens when it comes? What I have found is the pups will respond most to sudden unexpected events not always but sometimes associated with sharp sounds. So knowing this bit of information I try to avoid those things during this time. If that is not always possible I try to take the pup(s) out with an experienced adult that is rock solid. Pups during this period should be around dogs that will create a positive role model, so be careful whom your pup sees and socializes with for these weeks.
Another fear period I see in my Labradors will occur around 9 months of age (most articles I looked at say between 6-14 months in general), which is when they are experiencing one of the last spurts of growth. If you did an analysis of a dog’s hormones at this time I am sure they would be all over the place, as this is the time I see some of the silliest behaviors. Its almost as if the dog I had been working with up to this point has gone away and has left a silly insecure imposture in its place. If I had to guess this is also the age that most people mess up pups and also when most of the pups develop the behaviors that eventually lead them to a shelter.
So what’s an owner to do? Let’s try and look at some examples to help understand an approach that helps in working a dog through this period. Up until now you have had a happy confident pup who greets other dogs with a wagging tail, goes happily along on walks where ever you take him and is not afraid to try anything new. Now all of sudden one day on a walk you have taken every day for the last 6-8 months your dog suddenly balks at the heavy metal trash bins put out by the park service. Huh? You think, “What’s going on?” If you try to force your pup past this, which is a common reaction from most people, you run the risk of frightening the pup to the point of creating a permanent negative association with the object. Don’t try and rationalize that the pup has seen this object a hundred times before, instead try this and help your pup work through the situation.
I will find the point where the pup stops and does not want to be any closer to the object and sit down on the ground right there. If I have a toy or treats I will begin to play a little game with the pup until I have their attention and engagement. Slowly I move myself closer to the object. At some point if I am lucky I will be very close and will then get up and have the pup chase me past the object ending our game with a big round of praise and some treats. Then I settle down and continue my walk. This will not always work but does most of the time.
The same thing is true with pup’s first thunderstorms. One of the biggest problems I see is people will go rushing to the scared pup with a soft encouraging voice and say “Its OK puppy”, not realizing that they are actually reinforcing the pup to be scared of thunder. Instead try what we do and continue to play games of great interest to the pup during all the booming. If you’re good they will be so engaged in playing that they will ignore the thunder, as you are showing them by your example, and just go on with their normal activities.
Fear is normal and a healthy attribute in a dog, it will keep the dog alive; as a future working dog it will be a valuable asset to have. Our job in raising puppies is to be sure those fear periods teach a pup how to handle their fears and keep them in a proper perspective.