I am wondering if you would be able to help us with our 2 1/2 year old cocker spaniel. She most definitely has been a challenge. We got the pup from a private breeder and she was 11 weeks old when we picked her up. We noticed soon after that she was very timid regarding anything strange in or outside the house. She would make a fuss and bark until it was moved. Even after 2 years she still will frequently do this.
We decided to enrol in a “Puppy Kindergarten” at a local obedience school to try and get her more socialized. We do not have children and both my husband and I work full-time, so Sophie was being left by herself during the day so we thought this would be good for her. The first 2 classes she wouldn’t come out from under my chair! We continued the class but didn’t push her too much. She tolerated the other dogs but when they had play time, she just wanted to stay away from the them. We enrolled again in Obedience Level # 1. They reinforced with treats but in my case Sophie would have nothing to do with even her favorite treats when she was away from home, so I found that reward process very ineffective. When someone approaches and they by chance reach out and try to pet her she usually goes into the high pitch “scared” bark, so far not biting but I worry that this might happen. It is very hard to deal with these outbursts of aggression when friends arrive or when out in public.
You likely have a dog problem because you had a breeder problem. Sadly pretty much all you have to do in order to be a breeder in North America is tell the difference between a male and female dog. Good breeders know that puppies adopted later then 7 ½ to 8 weeks of age have an increased chance of the behaviour problem you describe. Good breeders almost always have their litters spoken for before the dogs are even bred so the chances that a puppy would be hanging around until 11 weeks of age are slim to none. Whether an unexpected late age, or the correct purchase age, a good breeder has had practical socialization well planned and under way in advance of purchase. Good breeders inform their purchasers about the severe limitations of puppy kindergarten/socialization classes. They understand that dog to dog socialization is complete at 6 weeks of age and that the majority of these classes fall far short of useful socialization and for dogs like your own have the potential to do more harm then good.
In the true socialization of puppies the exposures for socialization must be extremely diverse from the perspective of sounds, sights, smells and with multiple accesses. For example, exposure to infants, crawlers, toddlers, annoying 8 year olds, the elderly, skate boards, bicycles and for those that consult me before they pick a breeder let alone buy a dog, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Anyone planning to purchase a puppy at the ideal age of 7 ½ to 8 weeks of age should plan on a very busy following month. Provide puppies with a cornucopia of sounds, sights and smells and you provide them with a much sounder temperament.
Veterinarians would argue that the dog should not have such access to the world before all inoculations are complete due to the risk of exposure to dangerous viruses. I understand their perspective but restricting an interest in a dog’s physical well being at the expense of long term mental well-being is a mistake. I suspect more dogs end up in shelters and/or are euthanized due to fear based behaviour problems then would ever contract the viruses of concern in the average household situation where the dog and owner go for a walk about. That is not to say that a puppy owner should not heed their veterinarian’s warning but both the behaviorist and the veterinarian’s concerns can be addressed using common sense and forethought. For example, exposure to crowds can be accomplished by carrying the puppy through crowds. Exposure to children can be accomplished with trips to the nearest school ground or soccer game with the dog and owner sitting in a lawn chair atop a blanket. Visit construction sites, bus stops, stand near lawnmowers, snow blowers, play sound effects tapes etc.
Sadly once the socialization period has passed by, regardless of attempts at behavior modification it is a rare situation that a poorly socialized dog becomes relaxed and carefree. However in many cases I’ve found a fairly significant portion of the anxiety eventually becomes self induced as opposed to that warranted by the situation. In other words over time a dog can work itself into a state beyond the level of legitimate anxiety. The dog owner will need to learn to recognize the behavior markers where the dog is emotionally avalanching and then interrupt and provide an alternative focus such as “Look at me!” first learned in non-anxious scenarios and then applied in low end scenarios and finally in the higher anxiety scenarios. There are also anti-anxiety medications that can be used in conjunction with the relearning process by chemically assisting in the establishment of some degree of mental equilibrium. However they are not intended for use without a behavior modification program that normally would require the input of an experienced dog trainer or behaviorist.