How to Raise a Fear Free Puppy

You waited until the time was right to adopt, or you waited for a special litter to be born and ready to come home with you.  You want your puppy to be loving and funny, but also confident, able to go anywhere you want to take him with no problems at all.  But what do you do when you begin to take him out and he’s afraid of passing cars or an overturned trash can, a plastic bag blown by the wind, or at home, the vacuum cleaner, the alarm clock, your cat?  What if he’s scared of the elevator or walking down a flight of stairs?  What then?

There are three secrets to raising a self-assured pup, one unruffled by a change in venue or schedule, one who can be just as content in the country as in the city, one who can go on a trip and feel that any place you hang his leash is home.

Secret Number 1:  Know Your Dog

Think about the breed of your puppy or the type if he’s a mix.  Bull-and-terrier dogs tend to be bold. You might be able to progress faster, walk on busier streets, not worry as much about noise. Retrievers should have no problem socializing. They might have started wagging their tails in utero. Some dogs are naturally more friendly or more aloof. Don’t expect your German Shepherd to act like a Golden Retriever. Do your research and be realistic. For a purebred dog, the work he was bred for will determine his personality. With a mix, his behavior will give you a hint of what his mix is and a clue about how he views the world. A little research about the type of dog you have will help you to have appropriate expectations.

Secret Number 2:  Show Your Dog the World

Take your dog exploring. You don’t have to go to the North Pole or Machu Picchu. You and your puppy do need to explore the great big world away from your house and backyard, though. He needs to see other people and other animals, to walk on all sorts of surfaces, to be as comfortable downtown as he is on a hike in the woods. He needs variety so he can take things with a grain or two of salt.

When he sees something he can’t identify, perhaps that overturned trash can, give him time and the support he needs to find out it’s not as scary as it looks. Let him approach, slowly, with your encouragement, and see that what he fears is no danger to him at all. Let him copy an older dog if you can — following her up and down the stairs, sleeping through fireworks.

What if he is afraid of traffic, buses and trucks, and ambulances? Then alternate busy, noisy streets with side streets, hectic places with quieter places. Distract him, if necessary, with a bit of food or his favorite squeak toy. Or duck into a store that allows dogs to give him a break.

Do not shield your puppy from noise but give him the chance to become accustomed to it. Play fetch while you vacuum. Play a game while you walk him or let him carry an empty water bottle or favorite toy. Help him make light of anything strange until he’s content anywhere you take him. Rather than waiting to see if your puppy will be scared of things, focus on rewarding your puppy for being calm and relaxed when he sees and hears things. A small piece of a treat or his food can help reinforce the desired behavior.

Secret Number 3:  Train your puppy.

Underneath what you teach, beyond and behind the lovely sit-stay, the recall, the emergency down, beneath fetch the ball and bark on cue, a faith is growing in your puppy, step by step: his faith in you. As he matures and as you train him, he will notice that when he listens to you, he is safe. He will see that, like his dog mom, you never take him into harm’s way, that when he’s with you, he’s in good hands and free to enjoy himself and have fun. This translates to my partner knows what she is doing. When things are okay with her, they’re okay with me. Gentle, effective training creates the courage you are after.

Your puppy learned from his mother that to follow her and watch her example kept him safe and happy. Now he has transferred that task and that honor to you.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Carol Lea Benjamin is a noted dog trainer, who, in 2002, was elected to The International Association of Canine Professionals Hall of Fame for “a lifetime of dedication to dogs and their training.”  She is the author of numerous award-winning books on dog behavior as well as the Shamus Award-winning Rachel Alexander and Dash mystery series.  Benjamin lives in New York City with her two dogs, Sky, a Border Collie, and Ziggy, an English Shepherd.