Dr. Sally J. Foote/Pet Talk | Helping puppies deal with stress

Dr. Sally J. Foote/Pet Talk | Helping puppies deal with stress


As a veterinarian with certification in behavior, I have come to appreciate how puppies grow and develop behaviorally, as well as physically.

As a veterinarian, I was well trained in the prevention of puppyhood diseases such as parvo and the importance of treating the dreaded hookworm.

My education lacked any background on how puppies learn and develop behaviorally. Adding behavior education to my continuing education has helped me create a wholistic view of the puppy as they go from weaning into adulthood.

I look at both the physical and mental needs of the puppy to develop into a healthy dog. I share this understanding with my clients to help them stay the course through some of the trying times of puppyhood.

Puppies are adopted or sold at the age of weaning. This is usually around 7 to 8 weeks of age. If weaned at 5 weeks, they miss important life lessons from their mother. Learning to play fair, bite inhibition and the seeds of impulse control start with the guidance of Mom for those last two weeks prior to full weaning.

If the puppy stays with Mom, they are often sheltered from new life experiences during the important socialization stage from 4 to 12 weeks. This results in a dog that starts life in a new home with a foundation of fear rather than curiosity.

It is normal for puppies to have some stress at 8 weeks of age as they are adjusting to a new home. The degree of how stressed or timid a normal puppy will be to a new experience, and how they can accept that new experience, is important to know.

At 8 weeks of age, a bit of puppy whining, as they settle in a crate, is normal. This is the response to being left alone for the first time, where they have not had any experiences being isolated.

A normal puppy should habituate — get used to this. As the puppy self calms and stops whining and relaxes in the crate, they are habituating. The puppy is learning that the person is not coming back. His crate is comfortable and so the puppy self-calms.

A calm puppy can recognize the treat and eat them in the crate, making a positive association. This little flare of stress that reduces and stays away is resiliency. It is good for learning to have a little stress, that can be habituated, increasing the resiliency skills.

The key points are that the whining is decreasing in tone and frequency — and the puppy relaxes and settles in a few minutes. There is de-escalation of the whining — it becomes quieter and less frequent. There is not any other escape behaviors like pawing, mouthing or digging. The puppy lays down and is quiet.

When an 8-week-old puppy continues to whine, increasing in tone and intensity, then fear is escalating. They are not habituating to the crate. Fear is building, blocking the ability to eat a treat or play.

An example is a puppy whining for five minutes one night, 10 minutes the next, building up to hours every time they are crated. They become more upset, resulting in pawing, digging or chewing trying to escape the confinement.

In this state, the emotional parts of the brain are working harder than the learning areas. The high emotion — fear — decreases how effectively the learning centers of the brain can work, so the puppy cannot learn to settle when they are whining excessively. Often, the puppy just collapses due to fatigue — they are not settling. If your puppy is whining, pawing, drooling or refusing a treat, they are stressed and need help to learn to settle. It will not happen on its own, and they will not grow out of it.

Puppies are able to learn about the world, that it is a fun place to explore, between 4 and 12 weeks of age. At this age, they are like a sponge, ready to absorb anything they encounter and learn from the resulting experience.

If there was fun, food or something pleasant, they want to stay close, continuing to engage. If it is painful, or scary, they will avoid that stimulus. A puppy needs to go out and about meeting many people, animals, take rides in cars, fun trips to the groomer and other places.

Waiting until the puppy is 4 months old, after all vaccinations, is now more difficult on the puppy. The emotional brain area has developed more, with vigilance and fear as the primary way of processing information.

Without a foundation of positive social experiences in earlier weeks, socialization will be more work. It will require more food rewards, repeated trips and more gradual exposures to the new experiences.

In "Perfect Puppy in 7 Days" by Dr Sophia Yin, there is an excellent chapter showing how puppies develop behaviorally from birth though 4 months of age, when they are now young adults.

This chapter is easy to read, with photos of a growing litter of puppies, to understand the physical and mental development happening right before your eyes. I highly suggest this chapter for all animal professionals to read. For me, this chapter really helped me to understand why puppies respond to the world as they do and when problems arise from missing the important socialization period.

Whining, shaking, hiding and cowering are common puppy behaviors. They are the body language of fear. Whining is a form of vocalizing that is a distress call. When it lasts over a few minutes, this is showing that the puppy is staying in distress. In this situation, the puppy is learning that whatever they are whining about is fearful. Removing the puppy from the situation can reduce the whining, but it can also interfere with the puppy learning to be a dog that can settle in a confinement area or handle new experiences. In short, the quick fix of removing the stimulus that caused the whining can interfere with socialization and learning. So what do you do for a whining puppy?

Consult with a veterinarian, veterinary technician or other certified animal behavior professional about your puppy.

Often, these puppies need a product to help reduce their anxiety, coupled with a plan for socialization that is paced for this puppy. Secondly, using the puppy's meal as a training tool creates socialization and training periods daily, where the puppy is motivated for this and can be fun.

In "Perfect Puppy in 7 Days," the learn to earn plan is modified to be used in this way. You can see photos and check lists for using the meal for car rides, trips to a motorcycle shop and learning how to meet other people on walks. Use the food for games, where you throw the food in the crate and close the crate for just a minute, then let the puppy out again.

If your puppy is shaking, timid or still whining, you need to use a product like the mother dog-calming pheromone, a supplement to boost calming brain chemistry, and be sure your puppy has been wormed and eating proper puppy food for brain development.

At many of our puppy exams, we use the Adaptil calming pheromone on a bandana to help the puppy be calm and take treats. Often, I suggest using this at home as well.

Dr. Sally J. Foote can be found at the Okaw Veterinary Clinic in Tuscola. She has articles on puppy socialization and other topics at okawvetclinic.com.

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