How to Rehab a Puppy Who's Afraid of People

Taking a puppy on regular walks may help curb his shyness.
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Puppies may be shy or fearful around unfamiliar people for a number of reasons, but treating fearfulness of humans in puppies is a lot easier than it is in adult dogs. Early socialization with mom and siblings is pivotal for puppies to lead normal, healthy lives and for them to be comfortable in nonthreatening situations with humans new and familiar. As with all behaviors, correctly identifying and reacting to the situation will help your four-legged pal overcome her fears.

Finding the Cause

Finding the root of a puppy's fear of humans isn't always simple, nor is it always possible. In some instances, a puppy is afraid of or shy around all unfamiliar people; in other cases, a puppy may be scared of people with certain looks or actions, such as men with beards or people wearing hats. People who talk loudly or move quickly may also frighten a puppy. The causes are myriad. They could be spurred by a traumatic event that happened to the puppy in the presence of a specific person or person with distinct characteristics, or the result of medical conditions that involve pain, or simply the result having a timid personality. The fact is well-known: Puppies who were separated from their mother and siblings prior to 8 weeks of age are predisposed to being fearful or shy around unfamiliar people or dogs, as well as of developing aggression issues.

Solution: Socializing

Just as humans go through much of their developmental stages during childhood and adolescence, dogs go through much of their development as puppies -- primarily between 3 weeks and 3 months of age. Outside of this narrow window, it will become more and more difficult to get your pooch to accept unfamiliar scenarios. Socializing puppies involves introducing them to new people, places and scenarios while they're young to help them become well-rounded and able to deal with different scenarios as adults. Try to create pleasant socializing adventures for your pooch, including planting friends with treats along your walk or having a puppy playdate, particularly if yours seems more comfortable around other pups.

Solution: Desensitization

Just as the term implies, desensitization means to lessen the sensitivity. Desensitization serves dogs with all types of behavior problems, including fear. Beginning a desensitization strategy starts with taking what your puppy is afraid of and making it less scary, or weaker, by getting it far away -- making it smaller. If your puppy is afraid of hats, for example, you might start by taking your pup on a fun walk and having people wearing hats far off in the distance. You might start with small hats, such as knit caps with small bills. As your puppy begins to get more comfortable with the far-away hats or small hats, you would gradually start decreasing the distance or increasing the size of the hat, depending on your approach.

Solution: Counterconditioning

Counterconditioning involves retraining your puppy to handle the people he's afraid of. By basic definition, counterconditioning teaches your puppy to associate what she's afraid of by letting her experience something positive from that person. For a pup afraid of joggers, you might start by taking her for a walk somewhat close to a jogging path and giving her a treat when she sees a jogger. She will ultimately begins to associate the joggers with treats -- happy things. This works best when she gets a treat as soon as she sees the jogger or other scary person, not after she's displaying fearful behaviors.

Avoid the Don'ts

Many owners inadvertently do things that encourage fearful behavior. For example, many puppies will hide or cower when they're afraid -- and many owners mistakenly pick them up. Unfortunately, this isn't consoling the puppy as the owner would hope; rather it's telling the puppy that he gets cuddled every time he's afraid. Becoming angry or nervous when your puppy shows fearful behavior will elevate the puppy's fear. When socializing, do not force your puppy to be touched, approached or otherwise handled by strangers. You still need to let him do things on his own time.