Puppyhood is a magical time full of play, cuddles, and mischief. But it’s also a key time in your dog’s development. Many problem behaviors exhibited by adult dogs, such as separation anxiety, reactivity, or fear of strangers, can be traced back to those early months. However, raising your puppy to be confident and secure nips those kinds of problems in the bud. Read on to learn how to boost your pup’s confidence so they grow up to be a self-assured adult.
Catch Your Puppy’s Socialization Window
Although dogs of any age can learn new things, puppies have a critical time period where their experiences have lifelong consequences. This puppy socialization window only lasts for the first three months of your puppy’s life. During that time, if your puppy forms a positive association with something, that will carry through to adulthood. However, missed experiences have consequences too. For example, if your puppy never meets people who walk with canes, when they encounter those people as an adult, your dog may feel uncomfortable or even anxious in their presence. The more positive encounters your puppy has in their first three months, the more self-assured they will be as an adult dog.
Introduce Your Puppy to New People
In their first weeks at home, you need to socialize your puppy to people of all different types. That will ensure that when your dog is an adult, they will see everybody as a friend. But that doesn’t mean overwhelming your puppy with oodles of people at once. Have small puppy parties with just a few guests each time. Enrolling in a puppy training class can add even more people to your pup’s social calendar.
Allow your puppy to approach strangers rather than the other way around. This lets your puppy set the pace. Have the strangers reward your puppy’s interaction with praise and treats or a bit of kibble. If you’ve already begun training simple behaviors, have the strangers ask your puppy to sit or lie down. Keep it positive so your puppy enjoys the experience and builds confidence with meeting new people.
Introduce Your Puppy to Other Animals
It’s also important to socialize your puppy with other dogs. They need to meet large dogs, small dogs, shaggy dogs, hairless dogs, and so on. And again, make those interactions pleasant for your puppy. Keep meetings one on one at first and don’t let the other dog bully your pup. However, it’s completely normal for an adult dog to put an overexuberant puppy in their place. Supervise all interactions and ensure both dogs are having a good time.
Don’t forget about other animals your dog might encounter like cats or other household pets. Teach your puppy how to behave calmly around other pets and reward them for acting appropriately in their presence. And for dogs that might spend time in the country, include cows, horses, goats, etc. in your socialization program.
Introduce Your Puppy to New Situations
The socialization window isn’t just for people and animals. It includes experiences too, such as new environments, different noises, and strange surfaces. It’s important to build your puppy’s confidence with as many situations as possible so when they encounter those things again as an adult, they will be relaxed rather than fearful. It’s a lot more work to shift your dog’s emotional response once they’re grown than to introduce them to the situation as a puppy in the first place.
Think about all the things your dog might face over their lifetime and work as many of them into your socialization as you can. Start small and build up as your puppy gets comfortable. In other words, to help them tackle the stairs, take it one step at a time rather than expecting them to master the entire staircase at once. For sounds that are out of your control, such as fireworks, consider using a recording of the sound to expose your puppy before the socialization window closes.
Teach Your Puppy How to Be Alone
An often-overlooked situation that puppies need to face is being by themselves. Although it’s tempting to spend every minute with a new pet, it’s essential to teach your puppy how to be alone. Otherwise, your dog will make their own fun or even worse, develop separation anxiety.
Start with a safe confinement area like a crate or puppy playpen. Then leave your puppy inside for very short periods of time. Be sure to give them something fun to do while you’re not there such as chewing on a food-stuffed toy. This not only builds positive associations with being alone but teaches your puppy appropriate alone-time activities. Slowly increase the amount of time you leave your puppy until they are calm and confident by themselves.
Teach Your Puppy to be Comfortable With Restraint
Being attached to a leash, examined by a vet, or held by a groomer are all forms of restraint. And a dog that doesn’t feel comfortable being restrained is a dog that may react in fear. Teach your puppy to feel relaxed during restraint with simple handling exercises. Start with gentle pats and pair each touch with a treat. Slowly increase the invasiveness of your handling until you can examine your puppy’s mouth, ears, and paws all while holding them still.
Allow Your Puppy to Set the Pace
No matter what new situation your puppy is facing, never force them to go beyond their comfort level. One bad experience can set your puppy back and lead to problems down the road. With patience, praise, encouragement, and rewards, most puppies will be confidently tackling new things in no time. However, if your puppy is overly anxious or shy, enlist the help of a dog trainer or behaviorist as soon as possible to boost your confidence-building program.