So you have opened your heart and home to a fearful puppy: bless your heart for doing that! Fearful puppies are not an easy project, but it can be a very rewarding journey for those dedicated folks who want to do as much as possible to help these poor pups out.
Because let's face it: these pups are suffering and they need you to take them under your wings to help them learn that the world is not a scary place as it seems. But why do they perceive the world as being so scary in the first place? Following are some explanations as to why puppies may act scared of going outside.
Lack of Socialization
Not many new puppy owners are aware of the fact that puppies go through a socialization period which closes around 12 to 16 weeks. Reputable breeders will start the socialization process when the puppies are under their care, but then it is up to the new owners to keep up the work.
The most critical time is generally around the first three to four months of a puppy's life, a time during which it's important exposing them (in a non-threatening way) to stimuli they will normally encounter in everyday life.
Now, this exposure requires a certain balance. Puppies should be exposed to indoor and outdoor stimuli as much (and as safely!) as possible, but without overwhelming them with too many stimuli at once (or stimuli that are too intense) which risks overstimulating, confusing, and even potentially scaring, the puppies.
Too little exposure may lead to a puppy who grows up fearful because, as it happens with other animals, a puppy's normal, default reaction to anything unfamiliar is fear. On the other hand, offer too much stimulation, and the puppy risks being raised in a chaotic, unpredictable environment, which can lead to anxiety.
A puppy acting scared to go outside may therefore have not been exposed to certain stimuli and therefore reacts fearfully to all these novelties, (think a puppy raised on a farm being brought into a big city), or may have been bombarded with too many stimuli (or stimuli that are too intense) with little time to assimilate all the information.
When it comes to puppies acting fearful of going outside, it would be incorrect to exclusively consider the puppy's past experiences and exposures during the critical socialization period. Sure, a puppy acting skittish around men may reveal deficiencies in the breeder's socialization, but genetics may play a role too!
Puppies are often referred to as being born as clean slates, but this statement is inaccurate for the simple fact that it ignores a puppy's genetic background.
If the puppy is born to parents who were emotionally unstable, this instability may be inherited to the puppy, hence, why it's important to bypass questionable breeders and pet stores (which often source their puppies from puppy mills) when looking for a puppy. These sources fail to temperament test parents, and puppies born to anxious mothers, are likely to become anxious as well.
Interestingly, this is something that has been backed up by research. A mother dog's stress can affect her puppies and this takes place in the womb at a hormonal level.
Basically, when a pregnant dog is stressed, stress hormones ( such as cortisol, adrenaline and norepinefrine) are released into her bloodstream. Now, if the level of such hormones reaches a certain threshold, some will seep through and reach the placenta, accessing the developing puppies. What happens at this point is that, the puppies "learn" that, the world they will be born into, is a scary place.
If we think about it, this an adaptive function in a puppy born to a stray mother considering that such puppies need this extra "awareness" in order to survive the dangers of busy roads, people with ill intent and aggressive animals and off-leash dogs.
However, this fear becomes maladaptive, causing unnecessary stress, the moment we welcome these puppies in our homes and raise them in a safe environment with leashes and fences to protect them.
If your puppy was doing fairly well going outdoors and now he puts on the breaks the moment you exit the door, you might be dealing with a fear period. Puppies tend to go through various fear periods as they develop which are times when new fears may pop up or some fears may worsen.
When do fear periods take place? The very first "fear period" takes place at 8 to 10 weeks. Puppies at this age are very vulnerable to traumatic experiences, and one single scary event can risk having life-long term effects.
A further fear period is expected around 6 to 14 months which can cause reactivity levels to rise, causing the dog to act defensively, and possibly, become more protective and territorial.
Due to the fact that at this age the puppy has possibly grown into a large dog who is barking, lunging and pulling on the leash, this fear period tends to have a bigger impact, often triggering the owner to seek out professional help.
A Matter of Gear
Something else to consider is whether the puppy is truly scared to go outside or whether the puppy is simply stressed from wearing a harness or a collar to which he hasn't been conditioned to. It is also possible that the collar or harness exerts a compounding effect on the fear of the outdoors, causing two fears to combine and intertwine.
This is something that can happen when puppies haven't habituated well to wearing a harness or a collar.
Soon, the fear/discomfort of wearing this gear generalizes to the outdoors, since it is worn just prior to stepping outside. Or the opposite may happen, the dog may fear the outdoors, but then the fear generalizes to the gear as it predicts going outside.
Now That You Know...
Puppies are resilient beings, so with the right guidance and support, it is possible to help them overcome their fears. It takes time tough and lots of patience to help them come out of their shells. Here are some tips to help puppies who act scared of going outdoors.
- Compile a list of your puppy's triggers. Perhaps your puppy is scared of outdoor noises, or of wearing the leash and collar, or cars passing by scare him.
- With the help of a professional, learn how to apply counterconditioning along with desensitization (behavior modification protocols where frightening stimuli are presented in less intense forms and become reliable predictors of great things happening).
- For fear of outdoor noises, you can start off by applying the "hear that" method when your puppy hears them when still being indoors and feeling safe.
- If your puppy is scared of his walking gear, make sure to introduce your puppy to his collar and leash in baby steps and by creating positive associations. A similar process can be used when getting a puppy used to a harness.
- Consider safety. A martingale collar may be needed if your puppy is fearful and prone to pulling backwards and backing out of a collar or harness. Consult with a force-free dog trainer for the best gear for your puppy and how to successfully condition him to it.
- Let your puppy wear his walking gear during the day without taking him outdoors. Play with him, feed him treats, praise him, tell him how good he looks while wearing it. Then take it off, and make all the fun abruptly end. You want your dog to associate wearing the gear with great things.
- Make sure to teach your puppy as well how to give in to leash pressure, rather than resisting it, by feeding treats every time your puppy takes a step forward upon feeling slight pressure.
- Create positive associations by the door in several small sessions. Feed tasty treats by the door that leads to the outside. Then, once he's comfortable with that, open the door a little bit, and feed tasty treats, then close the door and no more treats. Open the door a little more, feed treats and then close it and no more treats. Also, make sure to praise and reward any voluntary exploratory behaviors (looking outside, sticking his head out, approaching the doorway).
- When your puppy goes outside, make him feel safe by keeping the door to the indoors open, enabling him to retreat back inside if he ever feels overwhelmed. You can sit down outside with him and feed him treats and lots of praise
- Once outside, start very slow, e.g. stick to just walking around right in front of your house, feed treats, then go back inside after a few seconds and no more treats inside. Slowly start increasing the time outside and the distance you’re able to go. If at anytime your dog is scared or won't take treats, your dog is over threshold, you’ve pushed too far and need to back up a step in the process.
- It's best to err on the side of caution rather than progressing too fast. Take it as slow as your puppy needs, going at his pace, and perhaps even a bit slower than that. If we allow our dogs to be scared, that will only more deeply reinforce their belief that the world is a scary place which causes setbacks. By minimizing any panic-inducing situations, we create an important safety and trust base which paves the path towards behavior modification.
- Avoid walking your puppy when it is particularly noisy (peak hours of traffic, when the school bus comes by, trash day etc.).
- Aim to boost your puppy's confidence at home through training (in particular clicker training, free shaping) and mental stimulation (brain games/nosework, foraging). Praise and reward your puppy when he takes initiative and engages in explorative behaviors (walking up steps or unstable surfaces, approaching an upside-down chair, opened umbrella, approaching etc.)
- Some puppies become a little more bold if they are walked with another dog (preferably a play mate) who has a happy demeanor and walks outside with confidence.
- As you work on your puppy's confidence and creating positive associations by the door, you may have to rely on an indoor potty station. Start with a play pen with pee pads placed in a central location where your puppy feels safe. As your pup gains more confidence, you can move the play pen with the pee pads or doggy litter box closer and closer to the door that you'll be using for going outside to potty and on walks.
- Consult with a force-free dog trainer specializing in behavior problems, or even better, a highly credited dog behavior professional such as veterinary behaviorist. A veterinary behaviorist can assess the puppy and determine if medications may be warranted based on your puppy's specific situation.