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My Dog is Scared

Dear WOOF-

I have a 21 month old lab who seems to be afraid of the oddest things, and is constantly barking at things that are different or he has never seen before. For instance, the other day on a walk, we went by a man doing some yard work who had a wheel barrel on his driveway. My dog had his hackles raised and he crouched low, sniffing the wheel barrel. Seems like strange behavior for a 98lb lab to be displaying. Is there anything I can do to make
him more confident?


You mention that he barks and is fearful of things that "he has never seen before". This fear-based issue is known as neophobia which basically means the fear of novelty/new things.

During early puppyhood, (6-12 weeks) and most notably between the 8th and 10th weeks of age, pups are the most wiling to approach, investigate, and interact with environmental novelty. It is during this period that a pup's motivation to approach and investigate new things outweighs their natural wariness, so it is considered the optimum time for appropriate (non-threatening) exposure to as many new things/people/places, etc., as possible.  In providing this kind of broad-ranging exposure (also known as "socialization") - as long as the experience for the pup is pleasant and non fear-inducing - a safety history with new things, people, etc. will develop, and ultimately results in confidence rather than fear. 

Broad-ranging, appropriate social exposure -- or lack of it -- during this period of development heavily influences how confident a dog will be when encountering novelty as he matures. This is why it is so important that pups be socialized to as many new/novel things (people,dogs, places, things) as possible during this time.  It's not until the pup is well beyond their 12th week that "deficits" in the socialization process become your dog's fearful response to the wheel barrel, and other things he's experiencing for the first time.

Although some dogs are genetically structured for greater ease of sociability, and have no trouble with new things seemingly regardless of their social history during this period, others need lots of exposures to lots and lots of new and different things in order to be confident when encountering something new for the first time.  It's impossible to know with complete certainty where a particular pup falls on the ease-of-sociability spectrum, so it's always best to start early and be thorough.  Think of all the things your pup will encounter as he continues through life as a dog living in our human world, and provide opportunity for your pup to "socialize" with those things.

In your case, your dog is well past the "socialization period" but that doesn't mean it's too late, or that you can't help him with his fears.   Since dogs learn by making associations you'll use food (and an approach/retreat technique described below) to help him make a pleasant association with things that are new (and scary) to him. As an example, let's look at the wheel barrel incident and formulate an approach that will help you to help him overcome his fear next time he's concerned when encountering something new.

At the first sign of fear (hackles raised, woofing, hunkering down, etc.) stop and back away from the object to a more comfortable distance for him - (where he sees the object but isn't displaying fearful behavior) and begin feeding him his favorite food treats, one after another for a few seconds. Then turn and retreat with him to a further distance from the object - stop feeding him treats as you retreat. Turn and begin to approach the object, again stopping before he's concerned - and feed, feed, feed. Again turn and walk him away - stop feeding treats as you retreat. Repeat your approach stopping before he's showing any concern, and begin treat delivery as you get a little closer than the time before. Continue this approach -feed treats-and retreat technique until he's able to approach the object all the way without fear, then allow him to investigate the object (sniffing is good!), as you reward his investigating behavior with the treats. 

Following this plan with lots of practice and patience, you will begin to see him starting to take less and less time to "warm up" to new things..

Thanks for writing, I wish you much success! 



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