Early days – why puppies can be fearful
Puppies should be bright, bouncy and into everything. They should be filled with natural curiosity and sociability. They should be friendly and have the confidence to approach and be handled. I have just returned from seeing a puppy as a behaviour case which was anything but – and it nearly broke my heart. This 14-week-old puppy was so fearful of life in general that she was completely withdrawn, curling up in one corner of the kitchen and hiding her face under her tail – completely immobile – simply because there was a stranger in her house. This little puppy had taken three weeks to even cope with the presence of her devoted owners – and still wouldn’t eat in front of them.
Of course, nature has decreed that it’s sensible to be a little wary of new situations, or novel sights or sounds. A pup that rushes towards an unknown animal in the wild could end up as a tasty snack, so some degree of self-preservation is in-built into the dog’s system. However, a puppy that is overwhelmed by the intensity of new events, or is so generally anxious or fearful that it cannot recover from new experiences, should be treated as a behavioural emergency if it is not to suffer from terrible anxiety for its whole life.
Fearful behaviour in puppies tends to be caused by a variety of factors, and in many instances these can be combined to have a negative impact. Clearly, genetics have a role to play. We know that it takes only four generations of breeding for ‘fearfulness’ to see the trait in puppies – indeed, this research is some of the most conclusive when it comes to looking at the impact of breeding on behavioural characteristics in dogs. It would therefore seem obvious that fearful dogs should not be bred from, but the issue is not quite that simple. There are some occasions where those that breed just don’t see the problem in their own adult dogs. These dogs may appear to be fine at home – they don’t appear to be anxious, simply because they never go anywhere to find out! On other occasions I have known anxiety and even fear to be described as being ‘aloof’ – making this acceptable as a ‘normal’ trait for the breed.
Of course, the environment in which a puppy grows up can make or break their genetic or individual tendencies. Puppies which are raised in busy, friendly, outgoing situations tend to be busy, friendly and outgoing themselves! Puppies raised in socially deprived environments are far more likely to be over-stimulated or over-anxious later on. This makes perfect sense of course. A puppy that hasn’t had much experience of the world is more likely to be frightened when it does finally meet it – in whatever form. The experience is then unpleasant, and so the puppy will try to avoid it happening again.
Some of the worst cases where I have seen this have been from puppies from puppy farms. Indeed, the puppy in question came from a pet shop only a few miles away which takes stock from the local puppy mill, and she had been kept in almost complete environmental isolation until her owners took her home. This sad little dog will need weeks and months of effort and input to help her overcome her painful anxiety. Her owners are determined to help her, but they also say that they would not have bought her if they had known what the future was to hold. Worse still, as I left the house they told me that the pet shop already has another litter in stock – just the same.
Never, ever buy a puppy unless you meet its mother and litter mates – and you are sure that they are related. It’s all too easy to believe that because the adult is of the same breed, it must be the puppies’ parent, but this is not always the case.
Insist on seeing where the puppies have been raised. It’s not good enough for someone to carry a puppy in for you to see. One puppy I have met recently was kept on its own in a car parked on the breeder’s driveway, because it was the last to be sold. It has suffered terribly trying to cope with the outside world.
Be suspicious if the ‘breeder’ has more than one type of breed of puppy for sale. If you are offered several different types of dog to choose from, it’s very likely that the source of the puppies is a puppy farm. Walk away without buying.
Puppies can look confident in the situation that they are familiar with. This is also typical of older dogs which have been kept by the breeder as potential show or breeding stock. Make sure you can handle the dog without it showing any anxiety symptoms – such as freezing (going still), yawning ( a stress response) or urinating. If the dog is older and has had its vaccinations, insist on going for a walk with the dog to see how he or she responds to the outside world.
Never buy a puppy where the mother cannot be touched and petted by you! If she is showing aggression or fearfulness, the chances are the puppies may too.
Don’t buy a puppy from a pet shop! There are so many puppies ready to find a good home that have been bred and raised by excellent breeders, and so many lovely dogs waiting in rescue centres, that there’s simply no excuse to perpetuate this trade.