Puppy “fear periods” are perfectly normal but the way you manage your pup’s reactions at this time will influence the way he or she behaves in adulthood.
What are puppy fear periods?
As your puppy develops from birth to maturity, his body and brain go through a lot of changes. Puppy fear periods are a normal part of growing up. Behaviourists believe that they are a primeval mechanism to keep the puppy safe from danger and help it to live comfortably with the other dogs in the social group.
There are 2 main fear periods. The first one usually occurs sometime between 8 and 12 weeks. The second is roughly between 6 and 14 months of age and can seem more like a series of shorter fear periods.
The first fear period coincides with the time of life when young puppies are physically strong enough to leave the nest and start investigating the wider world. In nature, if they were to wander too far from Mum’s protection they could be vulnerable to all sorts of things. (Like a human toddler wobbling off out of Mum’s sight)
The second fear period is equivalent to human adolescents, where the need to become more independent is coupled with the necessity of staying safe. In nature, adolescent dogs join the pack to hunt for food but they need to know the difference between the thrill of the chase and the risk of getting hurt. The message to the puppy is to run away if something unfamiliar approaches them,
Recognising fear periods in puppies
When your puppy is going through a fear period certain stimuli or events (and they are different for each pup) may prompt a stress reaction. You might notice a change in body language such as
You might not see the logic in your pup’s suddenly different reaction to stimulus. Something that has never been a problem might suddenly become scary for no obvious reason. However, the way you help your puppy cope with his or her emotions will have a big impact on how he or she reacts to everyday situations in the future.
How to manage puppy fear periods
First of all, puppy fear periods are normal and they are temporary. They are not usually a sign that you have picked the wrong puppy, that the dog doesn’t like you or that something is terribly wrong. They are simply a developmental stage that your puppy needs help with through training, socialisation and habituation.
While your pup is working his or her way through a fear period, it’s important that you stay relaxed and patient. If you know you puppy is struggling, re-assure them and pair the thing they are worried about with something they do like eg some tasty chicken is often a winner!
Don’t get angry – it won’t help. All the puppy learns is “when x, y or z happens, the human gets cross therefore x, y and z need to be avoided at all costs”
Never put the puppy under pressure. Forcing them to meet the big dog, talk to Aunty Joan, sit on the kerb while lorries whizz past his nose (or whatever the stimulus may be) will make the dog even more reluctant next time the situation arises.
Don’t give up. Avoiding the problem won’t make it go away.
Your job is to show your puppy that x, y and z are not scary, will not hurt him and can safely be either ignored or embraced. It’s an important part of socialisation.
For dealing with fearful behaviour dog trainers have a wealth of techniques. Here are two of them
Desensitisation for dogs and puppies
Desensitisation means exposing your puppy to a thing or a situation just a little bit at a time. But not so much that puppy feels stressed, overwhelmed or overexcited.
As soon as you see any signs of stress, remove the puppy from the situation. That way he or she knows that no matter what happens, you are a safe house.
It’s important that you don’t avoid scary things altogether otherwise you and your dog will have a limited lifestyle in the future. So next time you’re in that situation make sure you stay at a “safe” distance – your puppy’s interpretation of safe, not yours – and start building positive associations
It’s not unusual for a puppy to be fine with traffic/dogs/noise/visitors and then suddenly change when a fear period kicks in. All you need to do is take a step back and start doing some desensitisation.
Building positive associations
Dogs learn by association, so by pairing a scary situation with something good eg yummy treats, verbal reassurance and play, they will feel more positive when they meet that situation in the future.
In his book “Easy Peasy Puppy Squeezy” reknowned dog trainer Steve Mann describes building positive associations with the vet. He suggests that with the vet’s permission, you take pup just inside the door, feed lots of treats, give lots of praise and then leave. Repeat several times until puppy looks forward to the experience. Then you can gradually increase the duration and distractions within each “visit”. Eg stay a bit longer, encourage the pup to have cuddles with the receptionist and get used to having the vet nurse touch ears and examine teeth.
Building positive associations at a young age makes life much easier when your bundle of fluff has grown into a big strong dog.
Putting the theory into practice
Whether puppy is going through a fear period or not, socialisation and habituation are vital for a dog’s long term quality of life.
Habituation is a big word that means exposing your pup to every day smells, noises, activities until the dog barely notices them. Things like the washing machine, vacuum cleaner, telephone, x-box, cats and the sound of the neighbour’s lawn mower.
The things we take for granted can be quite scary to a puppy or even to an older dog who has never come across them before. Don’t overwhelm them and let them get used to things in their own time. Employ some common sense though. If puppy is not keen on the washing machine, don’t put his crate right next to it. On the other hand, if you wait for the dog to go out before you switch it the washing on, the situation will never improve. Just make sure your dog can see and hear the monstrous machine from a distance and has something positive to pair with the sight and sound of it eg a yummy kong, filled with their favourite treats can be a fun thing to do whilst the washing machine monster is on!. Over time, the fear will subside – the dog will become habituated.
Socialisation is introducing your dog to different experiences so that he or she can meet dogs, people and different situations calmly and confidently. Good socialisation can shape your puppy for the rest of their lives, but done badly it can be hugely detrimental. Good socialisation is something we are very conscious of at Best Behaviour Dog Training and we incorporate it into everything we do.
When you browse our website, you’ll see that our Dog training classes are always mixed. They’re for puppies AND adults. Puppies need to around dogs of all shapes and sizes and have positive adult dog role models to learn from. If you let them approach every random dog in the park it could get them into a muddle, which is why well organised calm training classes are ideal for puppies. Not all dogs are sociable to others when you visit a park!
Bringing puppy along to classes ensures that he or she can meet dogs of all ages in a controlled and safe environment. It gives you, as an owner, a better insight into doggy body language and helps you to introduce your pup to other dogs while you are out and about. Plus, you will have a qualified trainer and behaviourist on hand to ask any questions about any aspect of your puppy’s behaviour that is confusing or frustrating you.
Our Perfect Puppy Masterclass is a great way to learn more about what drives your puppy’s behaviour and how you can shape him into a confident, well-mannered and loving pet.
We recommend that puppies come along to dog training and socialisation classes for their first year of their life to help them through fear periods and give them the basic grounding in good manners and behaviour that they need to become excellent doggy citizens.
If you would like to learn more about puppy training, Steve Mann’s book Easy Peasy Puppy Squeezy is straightforward and very informative. It’s written in plain English and highly recommended by many of my dog training colleagues.