Special Needs Puppies

Since Spring is in the air, and animal shelters across the country are filling up, including ours, this month I want to talk about the “forgotten ones”, a/k/a “pound puppies”. I recently spent some time at the Jefferson County Animal Shelter and had the opportunity to observe several litters of puppies. They all seemed a little depressed, although a few perked up and looked at me hopefully as I walked by their kennels. One litter in particular seemed a little shell-shocked, and a couple of the puppies were terrified to the point of aggression. They were only 9 weeks old.

Just like their human counterparts, canine babies experience stress, fear, and sadness when they are permanently separated from their mothers. They often go through a period of depression that can last from a few days to several weeks. For puppies that end up at an animal shelter, instead of a loving home, the changes are abrupt and frightening. At an age when they should be gaining self-confidence, they are learning to be timid, fearful, and sometimes even aggressive in their desperate attempts to control their world just a little bit.

I was very pleased to learn that the Jefferson County Humane Society has recently implemented a puppy socialization program to specifically work with these “special needs” puppies. Volunteers practice “Gentling”, a combination of gentle handling and restraint, and work with the more timid and fearful ones. With time and this kind of dedication, some of them will come out of their turtle shell, and the reward is a wagging tail, or a tentative lick on the hand. Without this kind of intervention, these puppies don’t stand a chance of being adopted. Fearful puppies often panic when hugged or made to lie down, and will struggle and sometimes even attempt to bite. Gentling rewards them for relaxing, and they learn not to fear being touched, restrained or handled by humans. In a shelter situation, this can mean the difference between life and death.

For puppies in the 6 – 14 week old range, Gentling is an important tool in basic training. One of the most important things it does is build puppy trust in you, but some other important reasons to do the Gentling Exercise are:

  • It establishes that you are bigger and stronger than the pup, and are therefore its pack leader;
  • As its pack leader, the pup will bond and want to follow you, and your instructions;
  • Demonstrating gentle leadership significantly reduces inappropriate aggressive behavior later on;
  • The puppy becomes accustomed to routine examinations and human handling; and
  • The pup will (and should) experience a small amount of stress. When stress is experienced, but nothing bad happens, it builds puppy self confidence, which results in a friendly adult personality.

If you are considering a new four-legged family member, I would urge you to look at your local animal shelter first. There are a lot of hopeful little souls out there waiting for someone to take them home, especially this time of year. Once you do bring your new puppy home, you can, and should, practice “gentling” from the very first day. Gentling bonds your puppy to you quicker than anything else you can do, and lays the foundation for a loving, trusting relationship, and a long and happy life with your dog.

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