Fear periods in dogs are completely normal, but are a common cause of concern among dog owners. What is a fear period, why and when do they happen, and most importantly, how do you get your dog through them? Let's dive in.
What is a fear period and why does this happen in dogs?
Fear periods are temporary windows of developmental and cognitive change that typically occur 1-2 times during the first year of a dog's life. They often present with sudden behavioral changes that can be alarming to an unsuspecting dog owner, as they can involve the dog developing a "spookiness" or suspicion towards new things.
These periods actually serve a functional purpose in your pup's development, so they aren't to be entirely dreaded. During these windows, your dog's brain is undergoing massive reorganization and change, and your dog's body is biologically preparing for more independence and self-sufficiency.
It's important for dogs to develop a pattern of things that are safe, and things that are to be avoided. But it's our job to ensure that those patterns aren't skewed by unpleasant experiences. We'll get to that shortly!
What are the most common symptoms of a fear period?
The signs of fear periods in dogs can vary greatly between dogs, but what they have in common is a sudden onset.
Some of the most common signs include a dog that suddenly:
- Acts afraid of people, animals, and/or unfamiliar objects
- Startles easily at noises or sudden changes (we often see dogs become afraid of their reflection during this time!)
- Barks and backs away from new things. Often we see fearful body language, including pinned ears, tucked tail, and even urination. (Your dog has no control over this type of urination – please don't punish it!)
- Shows a dramatic behavioral change after a single unpleasant event (for example, your pup is startled by the vacuum cleaner, and will no longer enter the room that the vacuum is in, even when it's turned off.)
This dog is demonstrating a few good examples of fearful body language. The ears are pinned back, the mouth is closed into a tight grimace, and the whites of the eyes are prominently displayed (referred to as "whale eye.")
When do fear periods in dogs happen, and how long do they last?
Fear periods can strike somewhat unpredictably, and some dogs don't appear to experience them at all.
But if you have a dog going through their first year of life, the most common ages where we see the signs of a fear period are between 8-11 weeks of age, and between 6-14 months of age. Both periods can be expected to last between 2-3 weeks.
The 8-11 Week Fear Period
This fear period occurs quite predictably in early puppyhood, an unfortunate coincidence considering that this is the typical age for puppies to be transferred away from their litter to their new home. This can be an incredibly stressful experience, even for a confident puppy!
As a new puppy owner, your goal should be to maximize positive experiences during this transition period, and minimize putting your pup in stressful situations that may create issues.
The 6-14 Month Fear Period
This fear period is arguably the more difficult one for many dog owners, as an adolescent dog experiencing fearful or suspicious behavior can be a challenge to manage.
If your dog is in this age range and is experiencing some signs of a fear period, don't panic! We have to support our dogs through this biological process, recognizing that what may look like a decline in obedience and manners is likely rooted instead in fear and/or insecurity.
So, how do I help my dog through a fear period?
Let's talk first about surviving the 8-11 Week Fear Period.
How do you help a puppy come through this first period with no long-term effects?
- When first getting your puppy, allow them several days to settle in before you begin any sort of formal training or have any behavioral expectations.
- When possible, transport your new puppy to your home by car. If they must travel by plane, they should fly in the cabin, not in cargo.
- Safely socialize your pup around people and other animals – yes, you do want to start this early! We follow the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior's position statement on when and how to socialize puppies.
- Choose a veterinarian and groomer (if needed) that are committed to fear-free care. This means not rushing through the process, allowing puppy time to get comfortable, and minimizing restraint during procedures. You can check for a Fear-Free Certified veterinarian or groomer near you, although it's worth noting that there are many vets and groomers without that formal certification who are still practicing these same great practices!
- Don't force your puppy into interactions that make them uncomfortable. Focus on the quality of the interaction over the quantity.
How about the 6-14 Week Fear Period?
How do I help my adolescent dog through this challenging time?
- Avoid training methods that risk creating fear or suspicion from your dog. Training to an invisible fence, an e-collar, and/or physical corrections, especially during this sensitive period, has the risk of creating long-term behavioral fallout.
- Focus on working with your dog using positive reinforcement-based methods. You can find lots of fun training ideas here, on our YouTube channel. Your goal is to continue to strengthen your bond with your dog.
- Avoid on-leash greetings with other dogs. One unpleasant encounter – for example, a dog attacking your dog while on-leash – can set you up for a long road of helping your dog overcome leash reactivity.
- Do not simply wait for this period to pass. Your dog should still be safely meeting new people and animals (or even just watching them from a distance, if they are extremely uncomfortable with meeting them!), and gaining exposure to new environments. Bring high-value food with you to help create a positive association with those exposures.
- Just like in puppyhood, don't force interaction. Your dog will come around more quickly if given the chance to explore things at their own pace.
What a fear period isn't, and when to seek help:
Remember that if it's a fear period, you will see a sudden onset of these behaviors in a dog that has been otherwise confident and comfortable.
If you have a dog or puppy that has been experiencing any of these signs for more than 2-3 weeks, you're seeing a consistent worsening of fearful behaviors, and/or you have acquired a new dog or puppy that came to you already showing these behaviors, seek professional guidance.
For online dog training or in-person training help, or to get a referral for a qualified trainer in your area, please contact us.
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