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Get Puppy S.M.A.R.T.: Red Flags

Mar 23, 2015


Behaviors that require help NOW

Even when we’re doing everything we can to be Puppy SMART, sometimes we see red flags in our puppy’s behavior that should immediately be addressed. As trainers and behavior professionals, we spend a lot of time dealing with issues in adolescent and adult dogs that presented themselves in puppyhood, but were difficult to interpret, or which well-meaning owners thought puppy would outgrow.

Below are the most common puppy behavioral red flags:


Puppies will naturally be wary of new sights and sounds as they learn to process the weird and changing world around them. The important thing is that they recover quickly from being startled. A truly “fearful” dog gets stuck.

  • A healthy and psychologically sound puppy should be somewhat eager to interact with people and other animals.
  • Mild hesitation in approaching unfamiliar places, sounds, people or objects is appropriate.
  • More than a few seconds to recover from mild hesitation could indicate fear.
  • Repeated attempts to escape a situation or interaction, or refusing delicious treats are signs of fear.
  • Avoiding or hiding from people, animals, or objects is an indication of fear which may progress to aggression during adolescence and social maturity.
  • It is important to teach a positive emotional response NOW.



Aggression is technically defined as behavior with intent; in puppyhood aggression usually arises out of fear. Overly aggressive fear-based responses (below) are not typical for puppies that have no history of a negative or frightening experience in such situations.

  • Growling, snapping, biting, stiffening, cowering, lunging, prolonged alarm barking, prolonged raising of hackles in response to people or animals.
  • Rule out any medical cause (e.g. pain, over-reactivity due to hearing or sight difficulties)
  • Seek behavioral help NOW.
  • Overly excited puppies can appear “aggressive” with growly sounds and snappy mouths, which is usually a sign that we need to tone down play/excitement.

Handling issues

A visit to the vet is often the first time owners notice their puppy has problems with being handled.

  • Mild mouthing during play and handling is normal.
  • Growling, stiffening, snarling, hard mouthing during physical handling (toenail trims, vet exams, hugging, lifting) are not normal and may indicate fear or pain.
  • Rule out medical cause.
  • Work on creating positive associations with visiting the vet and being handled.

Resource guarding aka “possession aggression”

In the dog world, possession is nine-tenths of the law. A dog thinks “if I’ve got it, then it’s mine”. Although dogs often respect this possession law amongst each other, sometimes we see puppies that are overly possessive of resources - toys, bones, food, their bed - toward humans.

  • Freezing, growling, snapping over food bowl or other high-value item.
  • Resist urge to show puppy “who’s boss” by grabbing puppy or item; this only reinforces puppy’s instinct to guard.
  • Become the “Pez dispenser of goodness” when you walk by your puppy when he has a high-value item by dropping a treat next to him.
  • Work with a professional to evaluate your puppy’s tendencies toward possession aggression and come up with exercises that teach puppy an alternative to guarding.

Separation Anxiety

Sadly, separation anxiety is one of the most difficult things we deal with in adult dogs. Many puppies show some signs of stress – whining, crying – as they adjust to being away from littermates, or being away from owners. These behaviors should disappear if confinement, departures and arrivals are handled properly.

  • “Separation Anxiety” is an often-overused term to describe puppy behaviors, like demand barking or destructive chewing, that simply require more management or training.
  • True separation anxiety is when dog goes into a panic mode when left alone and stays panicked until owners return.
  • Typical symptoms: extreme destruction, long-term howling/crying (hours vs minutes), self-harm (obsessive chewing on paws), excessive drooling (fills up or soaks the crate pan or lining).
  • Crate training, teaching puppy to be alone, low-key departures and greetings, help prevent the development of separation anxiety.
  • Associate departures w/positive things, like a chew treat in crate after you grab your keys to leave.
  • Preventing separation anxiety may prove to be one of a puppy owner’s most important tasks.

Sometimes puppy owners are so focused on solving typical puppy problems, like housebreaking, that behavioral red flags are overlooked. Keep in mind that puppies do not outgrow these behavior problems, and they become worse as puppies enter adolescence. Seek professional help now while puppy is still young and learning.

Getting Puppy S.M.A.R.T. means during the first few months puppy is in your home you should be focused on Socialization, Management, Activity, spotting Red flags, and Training.

Category: Training

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