Helping your fearful puppy become a more confident dog

By Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA

My jumping off point for this post is a commercial for the California Academy of Sciences in which my dog Otis was recently cast, and my assertion is that it takes time (months and years) for any puppy, but especially a naturally fearful one, to mature into confidence.

First, the 45-second commercial for a new exhibit at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences, about how skin (and fur, shells, feathers and other external structures) form the living interface between organisms and their environment:

The ad is fantastic, and I am proud that Otis was part of the production.  At eight years old, this formerly-fearful puppy aced hours of filming countless takes, surrounded by strangers, cameras, microphone booms, and other objects that would have terrified her when she was my newly-adopted 14-week puppy.  She would not even have been to calmly handle the commotion when she was four years old.  

But at eight years old, Otis has developed the wisdom to filter out stimuli that would have consumed her attention when she was younger. I do not use the term “wisdom” flippantly. What is wisdom except the learned ability to discern what is important enough to pay attention to, and what can be ignored?  The Webster’s Dictionary defines wisdom as “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment that develops over time.”  My point exactly.

There’s a learning mechanism called “habituation” that is often conflated with “socialization”.  While these two processes are related, habituation specifically means the “diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus.”  Most puppies chase after every blowing leaf and are aroused by every dog they encounter, thereby learning about their world by closely observing it.  Otis was extraordinarily attuned to all dogs when she arrived in San Francisco from her rural birthplace, and fixated in fear at loud trucks and in fascination of every bird in sight. Not so any more.

Dog owners often contact me because their dog freaks out while tied up restaurants, or flees from garbage trucks, or refuses to walk down a certain street, or any other situation that can cause a dog to become fearful or aggressive or avoidant. My advice usually involves slowly habituating their dog to the situation, from a distance and over time, by implementing a program of desensitization and counterconditioning.  

But I sometimes have to convey that their dog does not have the temperament or tools to handle the situation at hand—at least not yet—and may never.  I encourage these folks to take the longer view, to not expect everything at once, and to consider what does make their dog happy.  That may never include being tied to a post while you go into Starbucks for a latte.

Another thing happens when a dog reaches full maturity: They learn English (or French or Spanish, or whatever language is spoken in their homes.)   Not in the sense that they can sit down to write dog blog posts, but in that they have observed humans for so long that they understand far more words and contexts than we set out to train. I never taught Otis “you stay here”, but I said it so many times when I did not load her in the truck that if I utter those words now, she happily stays in bed.  

This communication goes both ways, or at least it should.  I recommend that all dog owners “listen” to what their dogs are telling them.  If your dog cowers in fear every time you go to the dog park, the dog park might not be part of your future or hers…and that’s okay. What are alternate ways to physically and mentally stimulate your dog?  

The maturity and two-way communication that allowed Otis to effortlessly follow my direction during the film shoot, assured that she was safe under novel circumstances, evolved over the eight years we have been together, with her listening to and observing me, and me her.  (She also utterly ignores birds, even if they land a few feet from her in the backyard.) This is a point I make over and over with my clients:  Except for the most naturally calm and confident individuals, expecting too much from our dogs too early is frustrating for all concerned.

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Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA

My Blog/Articles page includes other posts I have written in the past decade or so. These posts highlight my philosophy, beliefs and methodology regarding dog behavior and training.  Thanks for reading!

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