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Dealing With Puppy Fear

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Scared Puppy

Ears down and back indicate concern or shyness, which could easily tip into fear.

Image © Amy Shojai, CABC

Dealing with puppy fear can boost the confidence of your scared puppy. Fear is a strong emotional response to a perceived threat. Puppies typically exhibit fear when confronted with unfamiliar people, animals, or situations. This normal emotion is a protective mechanism that prompts the dog to either fight or flee the danger.

Why Puppies Experience Fear

There are limitless circumstances that may prompt fearful or anxious behavior in the dog. Anything outside the puppy's experience is typically perceived as a potential threat, particularly by submissive or shy pets. Strange noises, being left alone, or a stranger's approach are common triggers of fear. Puppies may react fearfully to unfamiliar animals, meeting children or introduction to babies. People in uniforms or wearing hats are common fear inducers.

What Fear Looks Like

The pup's response to fear depends on the circumstances and how confident (or not) the pup may be. When the opportunity is available, most pups run away or try to hide from the threat.

Puppies anxious or fearful of being left alone as in separation anxiety may try to escape by clawing windows or doors, and crying or howling for company, or even chewing or eliminating inappropriately. A submissive dog crouches in a low position, rolls on his back, and performs submissive urination to appease the perceived threat.

When escape isn't possible, when the pup feels cornered or is defending his property (the yard, an owner), the result may be a fear-induced aggression. You may notice this reaction in your puppy when you reach into a crate to bring him out and he snarls and lunges and snaps, but becomes friendly and happy once out of the confinement. He can’t escape the crate, so your hands coming at him induce a cage-fear reaction.

Your puppy communicates his fear and tries to drive the threat away using growls and snarls, barks, raised hackles and/or flattened ears. If these distance-producing signals don't work, the dog may attack.

Transient Fear Periods

Many young dogs tend toward shyness during adolescence, at about four to five months of age. Careful socialization to potential triggers during this time can be helpful. Most of these fear-related behaviors fade as the dog matures, gains confidence, and becomes used to the triggering situation. Exceptions can develop into problem behaviors, though.

In particular, some of the northern breeds like Siberian Huskies, as well as larger breed dogs like German Shepherd Dogs and Labrador Retrievers seem more prone to noise phobias like fearfulness during thunderstorms or fireworks. And a dog that is frightened by something specific during the socialization period may thereafter react in a fearful manner.

Reducing Fearfulness In Puppies

Punishing the dog for fearful behavior does not work, and in some instances will escalate the behavior and make it worse. The best way to prevent fear is to build confidence at an early age by exposing puppies to a variety of positive new experiences.

When the pup is older, a program of desensitization is required. In effect, the pup is taught to recognize a benefit to conquering his fearful behavior. He is exposed to the fear-inducing situation time after time -- a man in a hat, tape-recorded thunder, the departure of a loved one -- initially for extremely short periods at far distances, followed by progressively longer sessions and/or at increasingly closer distances. He is rewarded (praised, given a treat, etc.) only when he behaves appropriately. Eventually it is hoped that the dog will learn to relate the formerly fearful encounter with good things for himself.

Dogs that are particularly shy may benefit from obedience training and interactive play sessions. Nothing builds canine confidence like being praised for doing something well. Tug-of-war with a towel is a great confidence boost for dogs; let him win.

An extremely fearful dog, especially one who reacts with aggressiveness need more help that most pet owners can offer. Consult a professional animal behaviorist for advice; some dogs may benefit from anti-anxiety medications.

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