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Thursday 18 September 2014

Puppies need to socialise to avoid becoming nervous

Published 18/02/2014 | 05:34

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If a pup is deprived of contact with people and other animals during the first 13 weeks of its life, the development of a fearful attitude as an adult is far more likely.

SOMETIMES a name is chosen for a dog for a good reason: Pixie, a small black terrier, is an example. Anne rescued her from an animal welfare group a year ago, and from the start, she has been pathologically shy: she tries to be as elusive and invisible as a pixie.

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At first, Anne thought that she would become braver as she settled in to her new home. Despite Anne's efforts over many months to reassure her that humans are nothing to be afraid of, Pixie still seems as fearful as ever. Pixie would like nothing better than to be invisible in the presence of people.

Some stories about her behaviour illustrate the severity of her anxiety. She still rejects all contact with Anne and her boyfriend. She will not come to them when called, they can't approach her, and they can't pet her. She just wants to be on her own, and if anyone gets too close, she runs away and hides.

Pixie cannot even relax enough to lie in her bed without jumping up as soon as somebody else in the room moves. To try to help her, Anne now leaves her bed in the corner behind an armchair so that she can escape in there and find the peace and solitude she enjoys.

If Anne wants to take her for a walk, she can't even approach her to put her lead on. There have been times where she has missed her daily walk because Anne can't wait all evening for the opportunity to get her on the leash. Sometimes, she ends up having to corner her to get the harness on, like a little wild animal. The strange thing is that once she is on the leash, she seems relaxed, and she enjoys being out and about when on her walk.

Anne's impression is that she wants to be near humans, but she wants to be invisible, like a pixie or a fairy.

There are some occasions when she is so fearful of human contact that she gets into a blind panic. When Anne wants to let her out into the back garden to do her business, she gets so agitated that she starts running around in circles, darting under the table, skidding on the floor and almost climbing the walls. Anne is simply standing nearby, gently ushering her towards the open back door: poor Pixie behaves as if she is about to be taken into a gas chamber.

Another example happened recently when Anne was under time pressure after coming home from work. She had to let Pixie out to do her business in the garden, quickly because she was heading out again. When she went into the kitchen to let Pixie out, the little dog became hysterically upset, running around the room, piddling and pooping as she rushed backwards and forwards. It was a big challenge for Anne to stay calm: couldn't Pixie see that she was just trying to make life easier for her by letting her outside?

Anne is now wondering what to do. Should she keep working with Pixie, trying different tactics to calm her? Or should she give up, and seek a new home for Pixie where she might feel more relaxed?

Pixie's situation is surprisingly common: it's due to bad experiences in her youth. Puppies need to be well socialised between the ages of 3 and 13 weeks. Their brain develops at a rapid rate during this period, and it's geared up to learning all about new experiences. If a pup is deprived of contact with people and other animals during this period, the development of a fearful attitude as an adult is far more likely. Continued exposure to new things, people and animals is important for the first year of life. Pixie was probably deprived of this important socialisation when she was young.

There's a genetic element too: it's likely that Pixie's parents were timid creatures, and she has inherited this attitude. That said, if she had been well socialised as a young pup, she'd be far less likely to have grown up to be so afraid.

But what can be done now? Pixie needs to have supervision by an experienced, qualified dog behaviourist who has dealt with this type of situation before. For a typical dog owner like Anne, it's just too complicated: it's like a parent battling with a psychologically disturbed child on their own, without professional assistance.

A new type of relationship needs to be established at home, where Pixie learns that she has to "earn" everything that she wants in life, by obeying a command. For example, she should sit and stay before her dinner, or lie down before getting a treat. Anne needs to avoid all fearful situations for Pixie: chasing her around the kitchen just aggravates her fear and makes it worse the next time.

Some calming products may also help: a pheromone-releasing collar (Adaptil) will help Pixie feel more confident, and anti-anxiety tablets may help her feel less stressed.

The fact is that Pixie will never enjoy groups of people or social situations. She will never be a chilled-out, easy-going creature. She might adapt better to a different home, perhaps with a single person who is very focussed on working on her fear, but nothing is guaranteed.

Anne needs to decide: can she live with a pixie? Does she have the time, energy and money to engage with a good behaviourist? Or would Pixie be happier living with someone else? It's not an easy decision to make.

Gorey Guardian

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