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Case Study: Puppy Joyfulness Lost, Tail Between Legs, Acts Cautious

she used to be filled with puppy joyfulness
© Theo Stewart

Hettie is an adorable Cockerpoo puppy who is now 16 weeks old. For the first four weeks that Hettie was with them (8 to 12 weeks old), she was a typical confident, happy and energetic puppy. She would fly around in puppy joyfulness, grab things and cause the usual puppy chaos. Why, then, has she now lost her puppy joyfulness?

Before getting Hettie, her owners had already booked their vacation. While they were away, they left her in what they believed was the best place possible. This was a well respected day care and kennels. From what I observed of Hettie’s new careful, tail-down behavior, something must have happened while they were away. She had come back a different puppy. Not to be too dramatic, it’s like something had broken her spirit. She had lost her joyfulness. Her tail goes between her legs even when the lady owner appears. It could have been that this holiday care was totally the wrong environment for a young puppy. Too many dogs all at once and too much noise, perhaps. It can only be guesswork.

Sensitive Period for Socialization

Hettie’s not scared of dogs, however. It’s people she’s wary of now; she’s generally reserved and what I can only call “careful.” According to Yin (2011): “From about 3 weeks to about 3 months of age, puppies are primed for bonding to other animals and individuals, for learning that objects, people, and environments are safe, and for learning what the body cues and signals of others mean. It is their sensitive period for socialization and it is the most important socialization period in a dog’s life. …….but what types of interactions should puppies actually have? ……it’s important to actually make sure that the puppy is having a positive experience and learning something good.”

For the first four weeks the family did all the right things, exposing Hettie gradually to the outside world of traffic, noise, people and other dogs. During her stay away there could have been one or two single incidents that were negative and scary to Hettie. It could be that the whole thing – the number of big dogs and the barking may have just been too much for her. Could this explain why Hettie has lost her puppy joyfulness?

Miller (2014) points out that “secondary fear periods exist which, ‘according to various information sources, can occur for a dog anywhere between the age of 4-11 months and perhaps as late as 2 years of age. A fear-causing event at any time during this period when a dog is more sensitive to aversive stimuli can also have far-reaching implications for fearful behavior.’ This is something owners need to be aware of.”(Bradley, 2019).

Building Confidence

The priority now is to build Hettie’s confidence in every way possible. The owners will always use encouragement and avoid any scolding. They will put no pressure on her. When the lady approaches she will throw food to the puppy; I’m sure her tail won’t be between her legs for long.

Most importantly, they must train all their visitors. Knowing what to expect, I had avoided walking towards her. When I did move, it wasn’t directly. I avoided eye contact and spoke quietly. As I moved about, I leaked food from my hand onto the floor. Hettie was very soon quite literally eating out of my hand. What we would love to see is a return of the enthusiastic, excited puppy she had been before they went away. A return of a her puppy joyfulness.

P.S.: From an email that evening: “Hettie has been much more ‘naughty’ this evening and stolen lots of items from the sitting room plus made a break for upstairs – quite a relief after such a withdrawn persona earlier on.”

NB: For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’. If you listen to ‘other people’ or find instructions on the internet or TV that are inaccurate, outdated, aversive or not tailored to your own dog it can do more harm than good. Click here to find a force-free Pet Professional Guild trainer/behavior consultant in North America. Click here to find a force-free Pet Professional Guild trainer/behavior consultant in the British Isles and Europe.


Bradley, A. (2019, March). Putting the Social in Socialization. BARKS from the Guild (35) 34-35

Miller, P. (2014, June). Fear Not, Wee One. BARKS from the Guild (8) 14-19

Yin, S. (2011). Puppy Socialization: Stop Fear Before it Starts

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