When my three year old Labrador Retriever came home at just 8 weeks we decided to enroll him in a puppy socialization class at our veterinarian’s office. We knew he would be lonely without his brothers from his litters as playmates, especially since our senior citizen rescued Basset Hound was not a tremendous fan of him the first few weeks. As lifelong dog owners who had recently experienced having three senior citizen dogs at the same time, including two who had recently passed away, we thought we knew everything about dog rearing.
During the first session our veterinarian talked about socializing our new puppies. Yep, we knew the importance of this and we were having fun letting Jax meet all sorts of new people. We nodded along knowingly, secure that we knew everything to help this puppy become a confident dog. And then we learned something life changing. We learned that the human instinct to make soothing “it’s ok, you’re ok, I’m here for you” noises when a dog is afraid of something might actually be teaching and conditioning the dog that being afraid was the appropriate response.
I sat in the class and thought about my late Labrador Retriever Babe, who cowered in fear whenever fireworks went off or a thunderstorm went past. I thought about the annual nightmare of trying to get her to go outside for a potty break every July 4 when it sounded to her as if her world was going to come crashing down. I thought about what my human response to her fear had been. It had been to stroke her and lovingly tell her, “It’s ok, I’m here, you’re fine.” I felt terrible that I had not realized what I was doing to perpetuate her fear.
I left the class that night with my blank slate of a puppy in my arms. He was not afraid of anything yet and we were going to keep him that way! I would not make the mistake of enforcing his fear like I had unwittingly done with my late Babe.
And so we set off with our list of New Puppy Experiences from our handout. When he encountered something scary I did not react by soothing him, I made sure his experiences were fun and happy and over the summer he continued to grow up into a big confident dog. We developed a routine in which he would experience something new like a child on a bike or a loud motorcycle, he would check out the noise, the smells and his surroundings while I stood silently near him, then he would look at me and make eye contact as if making sure he was correct that things were ok, and I would cheer and say “good boy, yaye, fun, good puppy, this is fun” and he would wag his big thick otter tale, wiggle, and go back to exploring the new fun discovery.
Last year when our female Labrador Tinkerbell came home at 8 weeks old, on July 3 of all dates, we started the same techniques with her. On July 4 we decided that I would stay home with her while my husband and kids went to see fireworks so that she would not be alone in her crate as the neighborhood started to celebrate loudly. We carefully orchestrated her day so that she had extensive play time for an hour before dark. We wanted her good and tired to sleep through her first 4th of July.
Sure enough, after playing with her new toys, with her new big brother Jax and with me, she fell asleep. She also had a belly full of Canine Caviar so she would not wake up hungry, had a quick drink of water and a potty break right before crashing on the sofa. She should be ready to nap from dark through the noise ordinance curfew. I turned on the TV, had the air conditioner turned down so low that it would not stop running and making noise, the dish washer churning and essentially came up with as much white noise as I could muster.
Exactly as darkness fell our little puppy woke up. Thinking that there could not be a worse time for a puppy going through house-training to wake up, since all puppy naps must be followed by an immediate potty break, I prepared to go outside with her. I could hear fireworks and firecrackers exploding all over our neighborhood. She yawned, looked at me, cocked her head to listen and I said in my happiest and cheerful voice “yaye, good girl, who-hoo, this is fun” as we headed to the door to go outside. I clapped my hands and skipped and she trotted along as if she was part of a great expedition.
Outside it sounded like a scene from Gone With the Wind. “Yaye, good girl, let’s go potty” I chirped happily the same way I had ever since she had come home not even 36 hours earlier. She trotted into the grass, did her business, and promptly ran over to chew on some mulch. In the distance bottle rockets, M80 fireworks and all sorts of noises boomed. Lights flashed in the sky. I carefully made no sound, no motion, I stood still and let her explore her new world. And Tinkerbell? She was completely unfazed, happily chewing her mulch like nothing was going on.
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