Is there anything sweeter than a puppy?
OK, perhaps kittens, but that’s a different story.
Cuddling a puppy is a perk of the job of a veterinarian, especially when the puppy belongs to a staff member. But things didn’t go according to plan when Sharon, the receptionist, brought in her new mixed-breed pup. Cradling him in her arms, glowing with that “new mother” look, she graciously handed him to me for a cuddle.
This cute bundle of fur did something unexpected: He growled.
Shocked, Sharon and I looked at each other. Calmly and gently, Sharon placed him on a blanket on the table. Slowly, holding my hand low and where he could see it, I moved a hand toward him. This time, he growled and snapped.
Oh, dear. Not a good start.
Fear in Puppies
A growling puppy is shocking because, other than in the rough-and-tumble of play, we don’t expect it.
Until Sharon’s pup growled, I hadn’t given much thought to when puppies start to show fear or aggression, but this was a rude awakening. Recently, animal behavior researchers have investigated the age at which puppies start to show fear and if this varies between breeds.
Fear is a useful emotion because it keeps a puppy safe. Unfortunately, an offshoot of fear is aggression. This happens when a puppy or dog cannot escape what frightens him. Unable to flee, he will stand and fight.
- 49 days: The average age at which a puppy learns to be scared and run away.
- 19 days: The average age at which a wolf puppy does the same thing.
Breed and Fear
Researchers exposed 3 breeds to a strange toy (a battery-operated quacking duck), a loud noise and a steep step to see how they reacted at different ages.
They chose 3 distinct breeds:
- German shepherds (representing herding and guarding dogs)
- Yorkshire terriers (representing working terriers)
- Cavalier King Charles spaniels (representing a purely pet breed)
The results showed that German shepherds acted fearfully from 4.5 weeks of age, the Yorkies from 6 weeks and the Cavaliers at nearly 8 weeks. Ninety percent of German shepherds acted fearfully by 5 weeks, but for Labrador retrievers this was a lowly 2 percent. Good old Labs.
Learn more about what you can do to lessen fearful behavior in dogs:
Why This Matters to You
Knowing if different breeds develop emotionally at different rates has important implications. For a start, it means puppies who learn fear at an earlier age must receive first-class socialization to become well-adjusted adults, and this means lots of hard work.
The experiences a puppy has in early life forms the basis of his character. We’ve known this for ages. However, this research makes it even more important not to buy from a puppy mill or a breeder who isolates the pups in outdoor runs.
This matters because bad experiences in early life, especially in breeds that can grow up into fear-biters, may imprint even earlier than once suspected. It now seems German shepherds are equipped to learn fear at an early age, so they need especially careful handling to stop them from growing into quivering wrecks.
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Not only must you expose your puppy to many different experiences, but you also need to handle these introductions carefully.
What You Can Do
- Take time to read your puppy’s body language. If he seems fearful of a new experience, remove the object to a distance at which the puppy doesn’t react.
- Also, resist the urge to comfort him when he shows fear — this sends the message that he’s right to be afraid. Reward his bravery when he’s in the room with the scary object and doesn’t react, and gradually move the object closer, always rewarding only the calm behavior.
- If your puppy is anxious or fearful, act normally. When visiting the veterinarian, warn the staff ahead of time so they can give him extra time and not rush the visit. This allows your puppy to acclimate to a stressful situation and learn to not fear vets.
I’m happy to say that Sharon is an ace dog trainer, and her pup forgot his fear and grew up into a happy, loving and well-adjusted adult.
How you behave has a huge impact on your puppy. By doing the right thing for him and rewarding his bravery, you can make up for a misspent past, but this is tougher for some breeds than it is for others.