I had a phone call some weeks ago from a worried dog owner who just couldn’t understand why her 3 year old collie was so nervous that it lunged at people and dogs if it got too close to them when out for walks. She was convinced that her dog has always been nervous because the first time she took her out, after the completion of her vaccination program at about 13 weeks of age, the puppy was easily startled by the sight of dogs of different breeds, unusual objects and even a coat lying on the grass. Months of training followed and he became wonderfully obedient but still afraid of other dogs. The anxious owner could not understand how this could be and finally sought my advice.
Sadly, this sort of problem is not at all unusual and although I recognise that dogs differ widely in character and that some are less confident than others, there is no reason why any dog should fear things that don’t hurt them. It just might be that this young dog is generally a nervous type, but it’s much more likely that she didn’t have enough contact with the world she needed to learn about when she was a young puppy.
Responsible and loving dog owners want nothing more than a well-balanced and socialised dog so make every effort to take their pup to training and socialisation classes where it can meet and play with, not only other dogs, but strange people as well. However, the most important age for a puppy to learn about the world and all the unusual things in it is between 3 and 12 weeks of age, well before many people consider socialising their pets. This of course, is when our puppies are locked away for fear of infection, until their vaccinations are complete. As a puppy grows up the socialisation process takes longer and longer if it wasn’t carried out when the pup was tiny. A six week old puppy can be socialised in an afternoon but a six month old puppy will need weeks to feel as comfortable and a one year old will struggle for many months. Some breeds of dog are also more sensitive than others and need more, and more careful socialisation.
When you bring your puppy home don’t forget that older dogs which have been vaccinated are perfectly safe around your pup. Invite them to come and play. He also needs to meet tall men with beards, babies, ladies in hats, vacuum cleaners with silly smiles on their faces, hear strange noises, listen to traffic and watch fireworks. In short he needs to experience all the things that he will have to deal with when he is an adult, as soon as possible, before his fear instincts take over. So get the boys round to watch the football, invite your girlfriends for an evening movie and puppy cuddling session, take your pup out in the car to see the world go by. If he’s small enough, carry him through the streets for a few minutes each time you take him out. You only have a few short weeks from when he arrives to make his life so much less stressful as he grows up.
So where does that leave the nervous, lunging collie? Training certainly helped him to bond with his owner and was useful in diverting his attention away from other dogs. However it didn’t address the basic problem of his fears around other dogs. It may be that he will never be truly comfortable in their company but the less he sees of them the worse he will react. Fearful reactions to things dogs are not comfortable with are heavily self-reinforcing. If something nasty comes too close, you growl and hey presto, it moves away, so you’ll do it again next time, probably sooner and maybe a bit louder to get the message across.
We trained him a few commands really thoroughly, which are designed to keep his attention on his owner and to distract him from whatever is going on around him. His owner took him regularly to where he could smell and see other dogs but was far enough away from them, (however far it took!) for him to feel safe, and then rewarded him for his attention to her before moving away. This reassured him that he didn’t have to do anything he didn’t want to but that he could trust his owner to keep him safe. Over time he gained the confidence to get closer and closer and was able to walk with other dogs on lead. Before too long she took him to agility classes where he was so keen to please his owner and having so much fun he soon didn’t care how many dogs were there.
He’s still a little shy but he is so much happier as he knows he can relax in the company of other dogs and his owner feels exactly the same!