Bringing a puppy or dog into your home is exciting. You can’t wait to play with them, take them places, introduce them to your friends and family. But it can be disappointing when your puppy is fearful and doesn’t seem to enjoy new experiences.
Behaviors That Indicate Fear
It’s important to recognize signs that your puppy is feeling afraid or anxious. Some are obvious, some are not. Here are some ways you can tell:
- Flattened ears
- Tail tucked between legs
- Heavy panting and drooling
- Raised hackles along their spine
- Wide eyes
- Urinating when approached or petted
Why Some Puppies Are Skittish
Some puppies and dogs become fearful because they have been rescued from abusive situations, but this is not always the case. A fearful temperament can be genetic, or it can be due to a lack of socialization in the first few weeks of life. No matter the reason for your dog’s anxiety, you can work to help them overcome their fears. Often, a puppy’s curiosity will get the best of them, and they’ll become less fearful if given the chance to explore their environment at their own pace.
Puppies go through Critical Fear Periods in the first year of life. These are times in which they are experiencing many things for the first time and learning how to react to them. They may seem happy to see your friend one day and completely terrified of him next week – especially when encountering a minor change like a new hat or a change in outfit.
How To Teach Your Dog To Trust
During these fear periods – they’re hard to pinpoint and can vary from dog to dog, so it may make sense to treat your dog’s entire puppyhood as a potential fear period – you need to prevent traumatic experiences that will become memories your dog uses to judge situations for the rest of their life.
This means you need to avoid yelling, hitting, scaring, startling, water-squirting or using any kind of ‘aversive training methods’, particularly in your puppy’s first year. Even if your puppy does not react to a situation as you would like – punishment will not alter their behavior, it will only suppress their anxiety and cause problems in the future.
Socializing Your Puppy
Keep interactions short and pleasant. If you see any of the above signs of fear, it’s okay to take the dog out of the situation. It’s perfectly fine if your puppy does not feel safe playing with a rowdy child, or if they get scared of the mailman.
If you need to, for example, teach your puppy to play nicely with kids, find a way for them to interact that allows both puppy and kids to feel safe. This may mean showing the kids how to throw a toy for the puppy instead of wrestling or trying to give the puppy hugs.
Instead of letting strangers walk up to the puppy to pet her (imagine being so short and having big people loom over you and put their hands in your faces!) allow your puppy to walk up to people at their own pace. You can give new friends a treat to hand to your dog, too.
Sometimes, the best way to introduce people to your dog is to invite them to go on walks with you. That way, your puppy can sniff the grass, look for squirrels, and interact with the environment, with no pressure to interact sooner than they feel comfortable.
Other Tools To Help Your Puppy Relax
Your puppy may feel relaxed after a meal, or after they’ve had a chance to play, run or walk.
Calming scents can also be used to create a calm response in your dog’s brain. Be careful of which you use, as some essential oils and other substances can be toxic to dogs. You can look for a product designed specifically for dogs. You can also dilute one drop of lavender essential oil in a carrier oil like olive oil, and place a small amount on your dog’s collar, sweater or neckerchief.
When you’re at home, you can give your puppy a place of their own to feel safe, a crate full of blankets and toys is wonderful for this. Keep your dog in their crate if you have guests arriving – you can take your puppy out for introductions once the hustle and bustle settle down. Allow your dog to retreat to their crate if they’re overwhelmed.
Overall, helping a skittish puppy become trusting and friendly is really about proving to them that they have nothing to fear. Not all puppies will grow up to be friendly dogs, and that’s okay. It’s better to be able to teach your dog to enjoy the company of the people closest to you than to be able to take them absolutely everywhere. You are your puppy’s advocate, so it’s your job to keep crazy kids and teasing adult humans from overwhelming them – not your puppy’s job to tolerate absolutely everything.
How do you deal with your skittish puppy/dogs? Share your experience in the comment section.