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How to Calm a Puppy in New Situations

Early in a puppy's development, everything is new and your puppy’s trust in you is innocent and faithful. As he faces new situations, however, he’s prone to question your opinion while still being unsure about some of life’s experiences. As he matures, your puppy will have his own set of opinions and must be consistently persuaded to mind you.

Setting an example for your puppy

When he’s very young, your puppy will mirror your reaction in all new situations. If you get excited, uncomfortable, or edgy, he’ll follow suit. Expose your puppy to new experiences under controlled circumstances so you’ll be centered and prepared to set the right example and deal with your puppy’s reaction.

A puppy past the critical socialization time may have a more pronounced reaction to new situations, especially if he has no similar experience in his memory bank. For example, an older puppy who hasn’t navigated a staircase or hardwood floor may actually be terrified at the prospect. How you handle such a situation determines his future attitude. A dog who is fearful of specific things is more leery of new situations throughout his life.

Turn your “can’t do” puppy into a “can do” dog by being the example you want him to follow. When your puppy’s response is pronounced, you need to stay very calm. Keep your eyes focused on the situation at hand (not on your puppy) and interact with the stimulus — be it a person, situation, or object — in the manner you want him to mirror. If you look at your puppy or even glance back at him, your posture and visual confirmation may get misconstrued as insecurity.

Handling different types of puppy reactions

Young puppies generally react to new situations in one of four ways that is directly related to their personality characteristics:

  • Fearfully: A fearful reaction is revealed by a hesitant body posture. These puppies pull back or scurry to leave the environment. Often they scratch to be held or acknowledged.

  • Calmly: Pups who react calmly are patiently observant and have a relaxed body posture and mild-to-friendly curiosity.

  • Actively: Interactive puppies explore a new stimulation with a hyper enthusiasm and may be hard to calm down or refocus.

  • Defensively: Puppies who act defensively may back up, hold still, run forward, or do all three. They also may bark or vocalize their feelings in some way. Their ears may be flattened against their heads, and they may hide behind your legs or try to climb up into your arms or lap.

Any attention given to a puppy reinforces his reaction, which is fine if and only if your puppy is reacting calmly. Other responses need redirecting.

Instilling confidence in a fearful pup

Fear is a common response that shows your puppy doesn’t like to make interpretations alone. Because of your pup’s dependence, new situations demand your guidance and direction.

Don’t lift your puppy up or coddle him if he has a fearful reaction. Your lowered body posture and high-pitched tone convey the message that you’re afraid, too. Let your puppy move out of the situation that’s overwhelming him, and then kneel down and pet him with full strokes. Breathe deeply and stay calm: Your composure will be reassuring.

Capturing the attention of a calm pup

A relaxed reaction is a good sign that your puppy will take everything in stride. To reinforce his calm behavior and keep him focused on you, use treats to reward him or to socialize him with new people.

Containing the excitement of an active pup

The puppies in this energetic group love life. To them, new experiences hold endless possibilities. Even at a young age, passion emanates in everything they do. Clearly, your goal in new situations and introductions isn’t to bring an active pup out of his shell. Instead, your goal is to successfully contain his excitement. To displace his enthusiasm, give him a toy.

Defusing a defensive pup

If your puppy displays an early defensive reaction (before he’s 14 weeks old), take it seriously. The onset of adolescence, with the release of adult hormones, will intensify any aggression that’s at the root of his defensive reactions, so you need to deal with this behavior immediately.

In the meantime, fit the puppy with a head collar, and keep him at someone’s side in all new situations. If the puppy is wildly reactive and hard to manage at any stage, call a professional to help you. A defensive puppy left unchecked often matures into an aggressive dog.

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