Nervous puppy

Specs is a wonderful puppy, a total super star, no question.  She’s also the puppy that I’ve worked hardest with, as I’m sure you can tell.  I feel as though we’ve been everywhere – stations, busy town centres, shopping centres, supermarkets. I’ve introduced her to so many people that I’m sure I’m getting a bit of a reputation.

But this last week has been a bit weird.  When we went out for our first ‘proper’ walk, in exactly the same place where I’d been taking her on carrying walks, a big truck came past and she freaked out.  Hmm, I thought, we clearly haven’t been doing enough traffic.

And then last weekend she was in the garden trying to do her business when someone in a nearby garden started a lawn mower and she came dashing back in to the house looking a bit worried.  Hmm, I thought, not what I’d like but I’m sure she’ll get used to it when gardening season really starts.

And then she ran and hid in the kitchen when I got the hoover out.

And this morning she refused to go into the garden because the big dog next door was barking (he doesn’t often bark so this may have been the first time she’d heard him).

So, anyway, this evening I had planned a walk with a friend next to a really busy road to get her used to the traffic.  She was a bit concerned at the traffic, but not too bad – she looked worried but she kept on walking, which is actually what I wanted – it showed she was starting to realise that it’s scary but not dangerous.

The real trouble started when we went into the park.  It was a lovely calm evening with not many people around at all, considering it’s in such a built up area.  We met a few people walking by and all was fine until I realised she was dragging on the lead.  The only untoward things happening were some very loud teenagers talking in a nearby car park, some distant loud music thrumming in the background, and three young boys playing football.

I encouraged her along and she was doing fine until one of the football playing boys ran behind us to put something in the rubbish bin, and little Specs totally freaked – she screamed as though she’d been stood on. The poor boy was really upset as he hadn’t been anywhere near her, and I had no choice but to pick her up and put her tight inside my coat until she calmed down.

So what was going on there then?  I have no idea. I was really quite upset and worried that my lovely bright, brave puppy could be so frightened.  It was horrible to see.  The only thing I could think was that maybe it was the thrumming music or the speed of the footballing boys, or maybe both together.

I rang Jenny to talk it over and she said that all of her dogs (and actually mine too) have freaked out at something in the past.  Sometimes you can tell easily what it is, sometimes you can’t.  You have to remember that their hearing is so much more sensitiive than ours that they could be freaking over something we can’t even hear.

My suspicion is that Specs is a sound sensitive dog.  That explains all of the weird incidents over the past week or so.


So what to do?  I could ignore it (WRONG! – it will only get worse) or I could deal with it and get her desensitised to loud noises.  That’s going to take a lot of work, but I have to do it.  My lovely Sheltie Callie was a nervous dog and it was a nightmare to live with.  She would bolt if I so much as dropped a knife on the floor, and when we were outside she would bite if she felt threatened.


So my plan is:

  1. lots and lots and lots of hoovering – as many times a day as I can
  2. take her into the garden on the lead so she can’t bolt into the house if she hears a loud bang
  3. more trips to the park with the loud noises and football players
  4. anything else I can think of that involves loud bangs and running children

All accompanied by large amounts of lamb, turkey and kibble so that she starts to associate the loud bangs with lovely food rather than with fear.

It’s going to be tough, but I shouldn’t grumble – I’ve had an easy ride so far!



One thought on “Nervous puppy

  1. I’ve done a bit of looking at fear imprint in puppies. And I liked this, I like Ian Dunbar.

    And I like that he says the “fear imprint” stage of development is elastic even though some authorities wedge it into weeks, months or even days during a young dog’s development. Yes, some developmental behaviours are pretty distinct, but it can throw us a curve ball if we’re looking for fear imprint at 8-12 weeks but our puppy is as brave as James Bond until his 13 week birthday. Let’s just be aware it happens, expect it and be ready to deal, eh?

    On my internet travels I found the term imprint/impact, as in, pup behaving more fearfully plus that the impact of a trauma tends to be more long-lasting. I think that’s more helpful than simply fear imprint.

    When a pup like Specs who’s been pretty much the perfect furbaby suddenly starts to behave in ways we consider not ideal, it’s a surprise, it’s a worry. Of course, things we don’t want are always a worry, even if he’s been up to the undesired behaviours since half an hour after we got him home. But if he’s always done it, we’re more prepared, so I’m going to assume it’s harder for us if it’s unexpected, if we’re surprised. Puppies and young dogs: new stuff comes online all the time. We need to be ready to stop, take stock, make sure we’re ready to sort it.

    First: are we sure dog is okay physically? If at all in doubt, get her checked out. And not by the man down the pub, by the vet.

    Then make your plan, like Jackie’s done for Specs. You want to be looking at not avoiding the issue at the same time as not terrifying your puppy to the point of abject panic. That’s quite a challenge with things like noises, either something bangs or it doesn’t. Soft bangs/gunshots/dog barks/hoovers, kind of hard to find, if not impossible to find. But it is possible to try to work them at a decent distance and to reduce that distance in stages. Do your best.

    Received wisdom is not to fuss over the fearful behaviour and I think this is fine. Dogs often recognise what we consider encouragement as backup for their fear. “Oh dear, mum’s scared too.” However, touch can be soothing, and massage and rhymic patting can help a worried animal. But save your real input for the brave stuff when it comes. Stroke, pat, silence. Then when he’s done it, walked on through his fear. “Oh what a brave boy you are!” Chicken/beef/tug toy/loves and kisses.

    I also like to work recall when dog is worried. Logic being: if she’s scared, what I want her to do is come back to me not run back to the car or for home or just randomly into the sunset. So, if she is able to listen/eat at the same time as she’s worried, switch on your recall training. Lesson: See scary thing, come back to me.

    Two incidents in my life sprang to mind when Jackie mentioned Specs’ troubles.

    I was very young and watching Blue Peter, a slot about how to train police horses to deal with crowds. These horses were walked up and down among very loud men, shouting, banging, waving football rattles. Football rattles are very loud. And the horses just walked. I was impressed. I think that was my first exposure to animal behavioural modification and the image stuck with me bigtime.

    Second one was curing my lovely Jack Russell cross, Squirrel, of a very similar problem to Specs’s. (Jackie, never call another dog of yours a name ending in s, so hard to write possessively, words ending in s). We had been doing dumbbell retrieves in the training hall and the bell landed on the wooden floor, bang. Squirrel refused to go anywhere near it. Oh no! I’ve ruined my dog’s retrieve. But, oh no, what it actually was was an opportunity to get her better at coping with noise. So, over the next week, every mouthful of food for dealing with bangs. I started with taps (you can do that, make quieter bangs in your own kitchen), off the washing machine, freezer. By the end of the week I could start world war three in the kitchen and anywhere else I found a suitable bang surface and the dog stood there, waiting for her biscuit. And she retrieved again in class. I was happy.

    So… I think the only thing I might reflect on a bit if I were Jackie is how she feels about getting Specs better around unexpected loudness. If we put our practical dog-trainer hat on rather than our worried-parent hat, the job becomes interesting rather than tough. And let’s face it, that’s all we’re doing really, teaching her to cope with stuff, teaching her. And that is interesting.

    Oh, and we can’t forget this:

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