Fearful puppy growling

Q. My 6-month-old puppy has started barking at things she sees through our living room window. She is also nervous when she meets people but is otherwise friendly. What can I do to help her be less afraid?

A. At this age, dogs may show their fear in a variety of behaviors, including barking and a reluctance to approach people. Without intervention to help manage this fear early on, it can become permanent.

During this time, it is important that you expose your dog to a variety of situations, including meeting new people and dogs; pair each situation with a reward to create a positive association. The main socialization period for puppies is from 6 to 12 weeks of age; many pet parents assume that a puppy class during this time is the only socialization their dog needs. In reality, socialization needs to continue throughout your dog’s life. But go slowly — if you push your dog too fast, you run the risk of validating or intensifying her fear.

Teach Your Dog to Greet Without Fear

Some otherwise friendly puppies and adolescent dogs show a hesitance to approach people. It’s important to teach these dogs how to greet new people; you can do this by associating new people with pleasurable consequences. Take your dog’s regular kibble out on walks with you instead of feeding her out of the food bowl. Give your dog a piece of kibble whenever a new person walks by her. Ask your dog to sit as the person approaches and feed her as the person walks past. 

Once your dog is comfortable with people approaching her, it’s time to work on greeting. Start by having familiar family and friends approach your dog and treat her for any calm behavior, including sitting or standing with all four paws on the ground. Once your dog is comfortable being approached by people she knows, allow friendly strangers who express interest in your dog to give her a treat. Have them toss the treats on the ground in front of your dog; if she stays relaxed, you can ask them to hand feed her.

It is important to remind people to not pet your dog — or any dog — unless she makes the first contact and seeks affection. Teach your dog strategies for approaching people on her own terms, such as training her to shake or hand target.

Put a Stop to the Barking

To curb barking in the home, teach your dog to turn and approach you when she sees or hears something outside. Start training in a room without any distractions. Choose a specific verbal cue, such as “here!” Stand beside your dog and say the cue word; immediately move a treat toward your dog and lure her until she is facing you. Your dog should learn to turn toward you to receive the treat when she hears the verbal cue. Practice while standing behind your dog or off to one side; over time, work on increasing the distance between you and your dog until you are calling to her from another room.

If your dog barks at things she sees outside, close the blinds and move any furniture she stands on away from the windows. Allow access to these areas only during training sessions. Stand next to your dog while she looks out the window and reward her for turning to you when asked. Start by practicing without any distractions outside; as your dog learns to respond to the verbal cue, say the word as soon as you see something your dog normally barks at. If your dog barks at something outside, use the verbal cue to call her away from the window and toward you.

With practice, your dog will learn to find you when she hears or sees something unusual outside, often without you even needing to give the verbal cue. Once she is doing this, her access to viewing areas can be restored. Vary her reward for finding you, including petting, getting a toy or chew, or anything else she finds enjoyable.

Finally, keep in mind that if your dog begins showing anxiety, stress or hesitancy in situations where she was previously relaxed and comfortable, the need for intervention is critical. One of the best places to start is by talking to your veterinarian; he can check your dog for any condition that may be contributing to her increased anxiety. He can also help you develop a training plan or refer you to a qualified behavior professional.