Your sweet puppy is growing fast. You’ve done everything right and socialized him with all kinds of people and dogs and he’s always been a friendly pup. Then it happens — your well-adjusted youngster all of a sudden wigs out and goes Cujo when he sees a kid on a skateboard, a tall guy in a hat or, even worse, a little old lady with a walker.
“It came out of nowhere,” is the common refrain from alarmed pup parents. What happened? Your pup hasn’t gone rogue; he’s just entered a developmental phase trainers fondly call the “teenage weirds.”
Puppies go through several developmental phases when they are more likely to react fearfully to new or unusual things. That’s why early puppy socialization is so important. But as they age and their bodies and brains go through the physiological changes that accompany maturity, the way pups see the world changes. They may encounter a person or even an object that they’ve seen before and suddenly act very wary and fearful as if they’d never seen it before in their life. Their hackles may rise, they may growl or bark or demonstrate other “aggressive” behaviors. It’s not aggression but anxiety or fear that’s manifesting.
So what do you do? First, don’t panic! If you freak out, it can reinforce your pup’s fear — “Mom and Dad are acting weird so this thing really must be scary!” Reassure your pup that the “scary thing” isn’t so scary after all.
Then move him calmly away from what’s bugging him, rather than forcing him to face it. Think about it — if you don’t like snakes, having someone say “It’s ok, it’s a nice snake, just go say hi” is NOT the most effective way of changing your opinion about snakes….
When you’re far enough away that your pup is calm and will respond and give you his attention, even with the presence of the fear-inducing thing, start giving him super-high value treats. This process, known as counter-conditioning, helps change his attitude toward the “scary” thing by pairing something really desirable — yummy treats — with something that worries him and consequently makes the “scary” thing seem less scary. The key is to not push your dog past his comfort level. Remember to work on this from far enough away that your pup remains calm.
Not all pups experience the “teenage weirds” but if yours does, never fear — with calm encouragement and techniques such as counter-conditioning, you can help them regain their confident and happy selves.
For more information or personalized help, contact your local Wagly training professionals.