It was dark. FLD Gus led me to the common area of our townhouse complex to "park." As we rounded the corner past the last privacy fence, something startled Gus.
"WOOF!" he barked, in his now getting-older-and-deeper-puppy bark. It was a warning. He stopped in a point, nose lifted, front left leg curled up against his chest, thick tail poised in a straight line from his nose.
I followed his gaze.
A puff of wind whipped around the building and a plastic grocery bag inflated, stuck in the lower branches of a leafless bush.
"WOOOOOOF!" This bark carried a bit more challenge.
I laughed. It's just a bag, Gus! And started walking further along the sidewalk.
He would have nothing of it. Front legs planted and FLD Gus bowed his head in protest. "I'm not going near it!" he seemed to exclaim.
Ok, now I had a problem to resolve. I couldn't let him go the other way. My job as puppy-raiser was to help Gus conquer this newfound fear. Gus. Heel. I commanded and took a step forward.
He balked, but only for just a moment.
I heeled FLD Gus up to the bush and paused. OK! I said and released him from command. I squatted near the bag and coaxed him to me. See...it's just a bag. Come here, Gus.
FLD Gus cocked his head to consider, then bounced over, keeping one eye on the bag. Good boy!
He sniffed it.
And "parked" nearby, his surprise fear conquered.
It is not at all unusual for a puppy (at any age) to be "surprised" like FLD Gus was, even over silly things like a wayward, inflated bag. The trick for us humans is to not show alarm ourselves, or inadvertently reinforce the puppy's fear with "goo-goo" talk and petting. While hugs and touches might be something that reassures US, human behavior of this sort only encourages continuation of the puppy's fear-behavior.
The best reaction as the puppy's leader is to ignore the fear-behavior, and continue as if nothing is amiss. It's like when your kid slips and falls, there is a brief moment of frozen time when the child looks to you for your reaction. If you overreact, the child is sure to go on to win a drama-award. A brush off comment like, "SAFE! Way to go!" is more likely to stem the tears and bring out a tough-kid smile.
HINTS TO OVERCOME SUDDEN FEAR
- Stay calm--do not transmit negative emotions through the leash.
- Reverse direction to distance your puppy from the surprise and stop when your puppy is calmer.
- Divert your puppy's attention with a command such as SIT or DOWN.
- Heel your puppy past the surprise at a distance that helps your puppy stay calm. It is okay if your puppy shows interest.
- Keep heeling your puppy past the surprise, moving a little closer each time, as long as your puppy continues to stay calm.
- If your puppy reacts again, just heel him or her a bit further away, but don't give up when your puppy is still fearful! Work your puppy until he or she is calm again.
When my first Future Leader Dog puppy, Rosie, was about eight months old, I heeled her on a sidewalk in front of a Catholic school. As we passed a statue of the Virgin Mary, Rosie panicked and vocalized her concern. I stopped, reversed direction, and moved some distance away into the parking lot where I could heel her parallel to the statue without her getting overly excited.
Rose and I heeled back and forth, back and forth, back and forth; so many times I was worried that someone from the school would call the authorities to report me as a stalker! Eventually, I inched our way closer to the statue, until we were able to walk close by on the sidewalk and even pause in front of it without Rosie reacting.
This evening, I took FLD Gus out to the same common area to "park." The bag was still hanging in the bush. He glanced at it, and did his business. I suppose I really should remove the bag and throw it away, now that Gus has gotten over it!