Comfort vs. Coddling - What should I do when my puppy seems anxious?
My teenage puppy seems rather on edge lately, sometimes anxious, sometimes full of energy, sometimes fearful. What should we do when our puppies behave this way? Even when we've done our best to socialize our pups from a very early age, they go through stages where things that didn't use to bother them now do. They go through spurts where they seem more anxious than others. It's a hard part of growing up. The best thing to do when you notice your puppy entering this stage is to pack your training bag with as many tips and tricks as possible. The more resources you have the better equipped you will be to kindly get the behavior you desire from your puppy and help him feel better too.
This has been on my mind lately. In the dog training world, we teach "Whatever gets rewarded gets repeated." "Don't coddle your puppy." "Be calm and confident as a leader." While I agree 100% with each of these statements, the coddle concept sparked interest in me this weekend to really research why this statement came to be and what we should be doing as dog trainers in the case of a worried, anxious, shy or fearful puppy.
In studying, I ran across a great seminar by Suzanne Clothier discussing this very matter. Think of human mothers. When your child is scared, do we say, "Suck it up buttercup!" and walk away? Some maybe, but probably not. Most would gently wrap an arm around their child or place a hand on their hand and calmly reassure them. We acknowledge the feeling they are experiencing first, then offer comfort. Animal mothers in the wild do this same behavior when their young show signs of nervousness or fear. Babies are known to go between their mothers' legs for safety. The mother stands confidently as she reassures her young and keeps them safe.
As the leader, it is important in managing a barking puppy you stay CALM and unaffected by any display of anxiety or aggression. You may comfort your puppy (as mothers would comfort a worried child) but make sure you don't cross the line to coddling. There is a difference. You may calmly place your hand on your puppy's chest and or back, speak gently and confidently, move with slow motions, and reassure your pup you are taking care of things. Do NOT act anxiously saying excitedly and petting quickly, "There there, baby, mommy's got you, it's ok, it's ok, it's ok!" etc as this displays you are in fact very worried and concerned which escalates your puppy's anxious behavior. That kind of reaction is what we consider coddling. Simply reassure your pup with confidence and move confidently past whatever is concerning him.
An addition to comforting your pup, spend time playing with your puppy. Find a game he loves such as fetch, find, frisbee or tug. Engage your puppy in play several times a day to strengthen your relationship. The stronger bond you have with your puppy the better, especially when he starts to act out. Sometimes toys do better redirecting your puppy's attention than treats! Try taking along a ball, frisbee or tug rope when you may see triggers you know might cause him to react. As soon as his body stiffens and tail is alert, pull out the toy and engage him in play to redirect his mind from the trigger to you.
Teach an Alternate Behavior
Another idea is to teach your puppy an alternate behavior instead of barking, growling, lunging or pulling. I like to get my puppy's eyes on me then expect a sit. To practice, I start in my driveway (or if that's too hard for your pup, start inside your home). Facing my pup with him on leash, I take a step back expecting him to follow me. As soon as I stop, I use a treat to lure him into a sit. When he does, I give him a treat. I repeat the process taking different numbers of steps before treating. Each time I expect my puppy to look at me (not the treat) and sit the second I stop.
Once my pup is quick to follow, I turn around and start taking steps forward. When I stop, I turn a quarter toward my pup and expect him to sit as before. Then I add in U-turns. When I turn and face my pup, he knows to look at me and sit. Once we get good at this exercise we move to a different location and repeat. When I'm confident I can get his eyes and a sit, I start introducing triggers, first at far distances and work our way closer and closer.
If you are experiencing those frustrating adolescent months with your pup, take heart and realize it's a natural part of growing up. Remain a calm leader, comfort when needed, engage him in play and or teach him an alternate behavior to help in times of craziness. Continue practicing obedience commands, challenging your pup every day. Give him plenty of exercise before training sessions and don't give up! You've got this! You're doing great!