Puppies! Such delicate little creatures! Between 5 and 15 weeks (approximately), puppies go through a critical period where learning is optimal. I like to imagine their skulls wide open and their brains are beautiful sponges encased in a thin layer of webbed glass. They're open to learning and absorbing an incredible amount of information, but any kind of (perceived) trauma can easily cause damage.
A common misconception that is shared with both puppies and children is that they're resilient; "they bounce back quickly, unharmed." Puppies in this age group generally seem "fine" with everything - we hear it all the time. We run the hair dryer and the puppy quickly orients toward it but is not showing signs of fear, anxiety or stress. The guardian often says "See? He doesn't care. It doesn't bother him."
We, trainers, cringe every time because it's a daily occurrence in our world.
Just because you're not seeing signs of fear, anxiety or stress right now, doesn't mean that it's not going to grow over time! This is just the beginning of their life!
The work we have to do with puppies is preventive, not reactive.
Consider it a behavioural vaccine.
The process is called classical conditioning. (Think Pavlov.) You expose them to the stimulus at a safe distance/intensity for a very short period of time and when they notice it, you happy-talk and rain a stream of tiny meatballs onto them.
We are NOT using food as a reward here - we're using it to create a marvellous association. The hair dryer predicts fabulous food, therefore (in your puppy's mind) the hair dryer is safe and wonderful.
This prevents fear from developing down the road.
You may not see an immediate change in behaviour, which is always what we humans are looking for, however, the future benefit far outweighs the hard work we put in early on. These exercises where we associate something the puppy loves (usually the food is the fastest/easiest), with a novel experience (people, dogs, places, sounds, objects, textures, etc) are like tiny behavioural vaccines. They prevent fear, anxiety and stress from developing later when it's typical to develop fears - usually between six months and eighteen months (adolescence through to social maturity).
Let's think about trauma for a moment and how it is processed.
Trauma is relative. Some people might be traumatised after being in a fender bender and be afraid to drive for weeks or months. Other people shake it off and get behind the wheel minutes or hours later.
Some people are called for jury duty on a difficult and gruesome case and suffer from PTSD for years because of the evidence to which they were witnesses. Other jurors leave the courtroom and compartmentalise their experiences, going about their lives without any lasting effect on their emotional state.
We're all different and dogs are too.
How often do we meet adults who are afraid of ALL dogs after being bitten or jumped on as a child? When we experience trauma while we are young and our brains are developing, the results stay with us much longer than if it happens when we're older.
Hoping to introduce your puppy to your brother's 6-year-old dog who is cranky with other dogs?
Don't rush! Wait until your puppy is at least 5-6 months of age and then enlist the help of a qualified trainer to assess, prepare both parties for the introduction, and facilitate it with you. This is not something we ever suggest doing on our own as it can be extremely traumatic and downright dangerous.
That's what we're here for! Let us help.
Our job when our puppies are young and developmentally delicate is to protect them from trauma (big or small) as best as we can, set them up for as many positive experiences as possible - focusing on quality rather than quantity, and to create as many positive associations as we can with anything they may encounter later in their lives. We've created a checklist that might be helpful and encourage you to download it and use it between the ages of 6-16 weeks and beyond!
"Rather than assuming our puppy is resilient,
we must build resilience by creating positive associations."
What if your puppy is older than 16 weeks? Do not despair.
Missing this opportunity does not mean you've broken your dog or that they will be a behavioural mess later! It just means we have to do a little more work, a little more intensively to make up for it.
I've had many rescue dogs who have missed out on a positive early socialisation experience and I've been able to turn them around by creating positive experiences and associations for them.
It just takes a little more work and a little more time than with a sparkly new puppy.
You can do it!