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Why You Should Never Ignore Fear in a Puppy

Will your fearful puppy grow out of his behavior? Probably not, and ignoring it and hoping it will go away can spell disaster.

Few people would be surprised to be told that puppyhood is a time when young dogs learn what’s safe, normal, rewarding, and harmful – lessons that will shape the dog he’ll grow up to be. But many people would be very surprised to learn how hard it is to undo those lessons once learned.

This is particularly true with lessons about fear. It’s also particularly critical, because fearful dogs not only suffer a great deal, but can be much more likely to bite or show other kinds of aggression because they’re afraid.

At the 2016 NAVC Veterinary Conference, behavior specialist Dr. Clara Palestrini of the Department of Veterinary Science and Public Health at Italy’s University of Milan warned that puppy owners need to be on the lookout for signs of fearful behavior in their dogs.

“From a behavioral viewpoint, the most frequently observed signs of fear are avoidance, immobility, flight, and aggressive behaviors,” she said. “An animal’s fearful posture depends on the behavior the animal is about to exhibit, but, in general, the body is lowered, the tail is down or tucked under the body, the ears are pinned back against the head, and the eyes are wide.”

Additional signs may include:

“In extreme cases, dogs show a real state of panic,” Dr. Palestrini said. “They are insensitive to pain and social stimuli and their reaction is immediate and extreme. In these cases, the flight behavior can be so violent that dogs may go to such extremes as breaking their own nails and teeth and jumping out of windows regardless of the height.”

These behavior problems, some of which frequently go unrecognized as being signs of fear and anxiety, can become firmly entrenched during puppyhood, and lead to fear-based aggression later on. Dr. Palestrini pointed out that dogs who are taken to behaviorists for aggression problems usually are motivated by fear or anxiety.

Complicating this picture is the fact that normal puppies go through a period when they’re particularly sensitive to fearful events and situations. This period often takes place just when they’re joining a new family, and being taken away from everything they know including their mother and littermates. This fearful response is normal, but steps should be taken to minimize the fearful reaction so it doesn’t develop into a more extreme, permanent response.

Differentiating between normal and extreme puppy response to new situations, as well as knowing how to provide the right response to a puppy’s natural display of anxiety during this period, can be tricky.

If your puppy shows signs of being anxious or fearful, and establishing an attentive, appropriate, loving routine doesn’t help with the transition, don’t ignore the problem. Seek the help of a board-certified veterinary behaviorist to reframe the dog’s fears before they’re so hard-wired they’ll be difficult if not impossible to reverse.