Super Sniffer® Puppy Program – Dealing with Fear Periods

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 red lab puppyappears 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

3 airedales at the marketplace

Dogs gain confidence from other more stable dogs

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.

Building Confidence

The issue of confidence has been cropping up in my life more and more these past few weeks ranging from issue in dogs to even bigger issues in people. Both are important as they relate to the raising and training of the service dog puppies we do here.

One of the single most important things an owner can do for a dog is to develop a strong sense of confidence; the same is true with their puppy as he or she is growing up. This is something you have to be aware of and deliberately working towards every day. I guess I have raised so many puppies over the past 45 years that it has become second nature to me, but I certainly make an effort every day to work on building the confidence of my puppies and dogs.

There are two sides however to the confidence question. The first side concerns the genetic make up of the dog. This is something you should have been looking at when you were selecting your dog for the future work you had in mind for the dog. There are many bloodlines of dogs who are sweet and kind but have no confidence to go out on their own, think on their own, or be able to handle even low level stress that training for a job entails. We ask a lot of our service dogs and the last thing I want as a breeder is to produce a dog that crumbles under the least amount of stress. There is nothing you can do to change the genetics of the dog once you get it so just be aware of this factor if you are still shopping for a puppy or dog and be sure to choose a puppy or dog that displays the most confident of attitudes.

The other side of confidence is something there is much more control over and that is the building of a self-confident attitude in your dog or puppy. My philosophy is pretty simple. I feel success builds confidence. How do you create success? I think this starts in the whelping box. From the beginning, we stimulate and challenge the puppies in gentle ways as they are developing their senses, moving around, and gaining the ability to process information. When they get older the stimulation is ramped up. Pat Hastings, author of the Puppy Puzzle has a rule of 7 for the pups that states by 7 weeks the pups should:

  1. Have been on 7 different surfaces,
  2. Have played with 7 different types of objects,
  3. Have been in 7 different locations,
  4. Have been exposed to 7 challenges,
  5. Have eaten from 7 different containers,
  6. Have eaten in 7 different locations,
  7. Have met and played with 7 new people.

This is fairly easy for breeders to accomplish with a little fore thought on the setting up the environment where the puppies spend most of their time. The more enriched that place is with different things the better for the puppies. To build success into this equation we start very early challenging the pups to go a bit beyond their comfort level and reward this with a tasty treat or part of their meal. This sets a habit that we will use repeatedly as they are developing and learning their service dog skill sets. It is important when you are raising your puppy that you learn to anticipate what the puppy is about to do or what they are thinking as they approach a new situation; by doing this you can set up the situation to be a positive learning experience.

Lab puppy and man Turning street Corner

This pup shows the confidence you want to see in a developing service dog candidate.

A simple example of setting a puppy up for success relates to housebreaking. Right after an eight-week-old puppy finishes a bowl of food for example, it will have to eliminate. An astute person will realize this and be prepared in advance to take the puppy immediately outside after the meal. When the pup eliminates this person will reward and will help build the confidence of the pup that it can do things to please the person. What I see more often is that people will wait until the pup starts to eliminate in the house, they scream “NO!” in a harsh voice, scare the pup and then the poor scared pup is taken outside in a rush. Now confused why the person is angry, they have forgotten about eliminating; this further frustrates the person who is clearly conveying this to the puppy whether they realize it or not. Raising pups is not easy, as you must be thinking all the time about what the pup will try next and try to stay one step ahead of them. Do things wrong and you can destroy the confidence in a puppy which is difficult if not impossible to recover later on.

The same is true for people training older dogs. We sometimes start with older dogs for the service dog work and find we can change their confidence level just by offering them a solid program of training in which there are clear rules they can understand, provide consistency, and rewards that dogs find satisfying to keep them motivated. When working with owners who are training their own service dogs, especially the diabetic alert dogs, one of the biggest problems I see is a lack of a structured program. As proven by many years of testing, dogs respond the best when they are presented with a logical progression to the training they can understand. Consistency in both the application of that program and its progression through the tasks being taught as well as trainer’s use of rewards and praise are key points to remember. Not that it is any fault of the owners trying to train their own dogs that life gets in the way, especially if you are dealing with a condition like diabetes, but this will have an effect on the dog’s education. How can you overcome some of the curve balls that life throws at you so you can set your dog up for success and build in that confidence for them to do a stellar job for you? I think if you have a structured program you then have a framework to keep you on track. If you get waylaid at any point, that delay will not have that adverse an effect on the dogs progress since  you have a solid starting point to continue forward. This is the value of a well thought out and researched program when it comes to the practical world of training dogs where we sometimes cannot continue under ideal circumstances every day.

The last point I want to discuss is the confidence of the handlers.   I see so many people so worried about doing the wrong thing, not looking right, not being able to control the dog in public, wondering if the dog will preform when they are in public, worrying about this little thing and that little thing, that they talk themselves and subsequently their dogs into a state of timidity and un-sureness. This is exactly opposite of what we desire for all good working teams. I feel that confidence is not about ability or achieving perfection, rather is it simply a state of mind; it is as simple as saying I am going to do this and you go out and do it. It doesn’t matter if it was perfect or not. I don’t think for one minute that any of my dogs ever wake up and say to themselves, “Oh I don’t know if today is going to be good or not, maybe I won’t do well.” I feel rather they wake up, tail wagging, ready for whatever the day may bring. And for my guys they are always ready and happy to try whatever that might be. That confidence is what we breed into them and develop, but the point is they have the right attitude and that is what we need to mimic. If you can just say to yourself, “I’m going to take this day and whatever it has to offer one step at a time and just do the best I can”, that conscience thought and deliberate positive action will do more than anything else to help you accomplish the synergy with your dog that will make you an ace team.

“If you’re presenting yourself with confidence, you can pull off pretty much anything”– Katy Perry