The Role of Socialisation in Preventing Anxiety in Dogs (Part Three): How to socialise a puppy to a potentially fearful object

The Role of Socialisation in Preventing Anxiety in Dogs



Part Three:


How to socialise a puppy to a potentially fearful object


Here’s the process in full, using the lawn mower to provide an excellent example of the entire socialisation procedure:


The best example of a socialisation – or desensitisation – process involves the lawn mower, because it can be broken down into many different levels of intensity. This process, however, can be applied to anything that is a potential (or existing) source of fear:


Approach the mower from a reasonable distance while it is silent and still. Your starting point may be only a few metres away in a confident dog, or it could be twice that, or more, in an anxious dog. Take a step towards the machine and encourage your puppy to approach the mower, watching your puppy very closely to see how he is responding to the presence of the mower. Don’t march him right up to the mower. Just take one step and then stop approaching before any signs of anxiety or fear become evident. Reward him for a confident approach, even if he only takes several steps toward the mower, then turn around and retreat back to your starting point (to take any pressure off). Wait a moment and assess how your puppy is coping. If all is well, approach again, this time taking one or two additional steps closer to the mower. Reinforce a confident approach, then take the puppy well back again.


If you go too far too soon, and the puppy shows signs of fear (avoidance, shying away, barking, reluctance to approach etc) go right back to the beginning, or start from further away. Take your approaches much more slowly and increase the level of your encouragement for the puppy to approach. Maintain your positive reinforcement for confident approaches. Repeatedly approaching and retreat in gradual steps, getting closer and going away, getting closer and going away again, just like the waves of an incoming tide, rising further and further up the beach, and receding between each incoming wave. Please take a moment to picture these waves – it is the perfect analogy to describe how you should be approaching and retreating from a fearful object with your puppy. Just remember the ‘high tide’ routine.


When the puppy is close enough to touch the machine with his nose or paw, jackpot the dog with several extra special treats and a favourite game or an extra affectionate rumble – whatever the dog most loves. Allow the puppy to investigate the mower, praising and reinforcing confident, inquisitive behaviour. Remember to always finish on a good note, so end the lesson there!


If the puppy has an anxious nature, you may not be able to approach close enough for him to touch and sniff the mower for several sessions, spread across the day or a few days – but that’s okay. Just be sure to keep reinforcing confident approaches, or preventing (and ignoring) fearful behaviour by watching how the dog is coping, and taking smaller steps in the intensity of the exposure, if necessary.


Once the puppy is behaving happily and normally around the silent, motionless mower, and shows confident approaches from many different directions of varying distances, only then can you step up to the next level of intensity.


Repeat the entire process, but this time have an assistant gently moving the still silent mower backwards and forwards on a one metre line. Since the mower has now become a much greater potential threat (it is now moving and could be a predator), your once-confident puppy could now be feeling anxious, so don’t be tempted to rush the process by starting your approaches too close, or by approaching too far at once. Don’t undo all your good work – observe your puppy and be careful.


Once your puppy has mastered that, you can repeat the whole process with the mower running at very low revs, but stationary. The next step is to repeat the process with the mower at higher revs (more noise) but still stationary. Then start again with the mower running on low revs but with an assistant gently moving it backwards and forwards on a one metre line again. The final step is to repeat the process with the mower running at normal working revs, initially moving more than the one metre line, and finally moving around the yard as if mowing the lawn, with the puppy showing little interest in it while you distract the dog with games and treats. The puppy definitely must not bark at it or want to chase it. If this happens, you went wrong at some stage, because these are usually signs of anxiety and fear.


This entire process may take many sessions with an anxious dog, especially one that has previously exhibited fear behaviours when the mower was in action, and is therefore undergoing a process of desensitisation (see desensitisation and counter conditioning tip sheet). In a fearless young puppy, however, still within the critical period of socialisation, you may be able to complete this entire process in only one or two sessions. Please, please, please remember to keep your human ego out of the equation and think first of your very vulnerable puppy! There is no shame in taking six sessions instead of just one to achieve contact. We are introducing an extremely common cause of fear in dogs – the family lawnmower – to your puppy or anxious dog, so get it right by taking small steps, observe, and reinforce confident approaches.


This process applies when socialising puppies, or desensitising fearful dogs, to anything which causes fear. Whether the eliciting stimulus is a lawn mower, a vacuum cleaner, riding in the car, children, large dogs, or anything at all that needs to be desensitised, the same process is applied. This is one of the most valuable behaviour modification tools a dog owner can learn!



Look out for the next part of this series on The Role of Socialisation in Preventing Anxiety in Dogs.


There are also many related topics to this, so look on our website for more great Good Dog Tips!


© Trina Morris – – 2014

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