Puppy Stages – Sudden Onset Fear
Puppy fear periods can be extremely unnerving for both dog owner and puppy, but they are not the end of the world.
If you have found yourself saying “Help, my puppy is scared of everything!” Or “I don’t know what happened, my puppy used to be so outgoing!”
You have come to the right place.
In this post, you will learn what puppy fear periods are, how puppy socialization should be used during this time and how puppy training can help.
Let’s get started…
Attack of the Vacuum Cleaner
It started out like every other day. Wake up, feed kids, feed dogs, attempt to make myself presentable. About 10 am that morning I ventured on a walk Junior, then 8 months old.
Junior was as sweet and outgoing as you could ask a Mastiff puppy to be at that age. Knew no foe. Was unafraid of anyone or anything.
He was at times, in fact, too friendly for his own good. Like the time he met two “oh yes, my dogs are very friendly” chihuahuas. These sharks in chi-clothing resented Junior’s kind, gentle approach and responded with a fury of bug eyes and tiny teeth.
But even the chi-attack was brushed off as a minor insult. Junior’s temperament was bombproof.
Until the day it wasn’t…
What are Puppy Fear Periods?
There are times in every dog’s life when their world is turned upside down. When even the smallest of events become a monumental obstacle. Stages of development when puppies are hyper-aware of the world around them and learn to respond with a survival instinct like their wolf ancestors.
These periods of development are referred to as puppy fear periods.
During certain fear periods, the reactivity level of puppies rises causing him to act defensively, become protective and more territorial. These new fears seem to pop out of nowhere.
Dogs appear fearful of novel stimuli or stimuli met before but that did not trigger a significant reaction.
Pam Dennison states in You Can Train Your Dog,
“One day he’ll be fine with something or someone, and the next day he’ll be terrified…. These are normal growth behaviors in young dogs as they mature.”
While some of these fear periods go unnoticed by dog owners, in other cases owners are left scratching their head, or worse, responding.During certain fear periods, the reactivity level of puppies rise causing him to act defensively, become protective and more territorial. These new fears seems to pop out of nowhere.
When Do Puppy Fear Periods Occur?
The timing of fear periods are given in ranges, however, when they occur in an individual puppy it is as defined as the day they were born.
Consider what Dr. Jen states in The Dark Side of Socialization: Fear Periods and Single Event Learning,
“The dangerous part is this: during this particular developmental stage, your dog’s brain is on a hair trigger, exquisitely sensitive to anything “bad” that may happen. A single frightening or painful experience during the fear period can have a lasting impact for the rest of your dog’s life.”
Fear Imprint Period (or Critical Period) (8-10 weeks; range 7-11 weeks):
This is not a separate stage of development but a component of the Socialization Stage which starts at 3 weeks old. This period of development is so important to the development of social skills and to the dog’s understanding of the world around him. It represents the time when a dog’s potential as a companion animal is either fostered and nurtured or impeded and even destroyed.
If subjected to physical or psychological trauma during this time, a dog is most likely to develop an avoidance response. It is also within this stage that at least 50% [READ: Nature Versus Nurture and the Drivers of Canine Temperament] of the dog’s eventual temperament is developed. During this time, a puppy is very sensitive to traumatic experiences and a single scary event may be enough to traumatize the puppy and have life-long effects on his future behaviors.
Coincidently, this fear period coincides with the time most puppies are separated from their dam and littermates and are sent to new homes. More on this in a minute.
Adolescent Fear Period (13 weeks – 6 months):
The puppies are now autonomous but are still learning about the world around them. Many will go through a fearful time when they begin teething between four and five months of age.
Flight Instinct Fear Period (Approximately 7-9 Months (range 6-14 months):
This phase is sometimes referred to as “teenage flakiness.” Adolescent dogs may spook at the silliest things. You walk down the same street every day for months and one day, out of the blue, he becomes hysterical at the sight of a fire hydrant that has always been there.
Your pup may become unable to enter his own backyard because there’s a wheelbarrow parked in the corner that wasn’t there before. Environmental contrast. They are on high alert when they perceive things aren’t “normal.”
Adult Fear Period (Approximately 12 – 18 Months):
This puppy fear period is believed to be related to the surge in growth that occurs at this age which may cause some physical discomfort. Sexual hormones surge now, too, which can cause mood changes and as a result, fearfulness. This fear period tends to happen between twelve to fourteen months of age.
Attack of the Vacuum Cleaner (cont.)
So Junior and I were on our walk. We rounded the corner and, about the same time, noticed a group of men in a neighbor’s front yard doing some landscaping. A couple of the men had hats on, one had a loud leaf blower, and a third was dragging a huge trash can and rake. Junior had seen similar men in our neighborhood countless times before, had heard leaf blowers, seen hatted men, and said hello every chance he got. This was a familiar scene with friendly strangers.
But on this day, at 8 months old, like a light switch was turned off, Junior didn’t recognize his “friends” anymore. They were strangers. Foes?
Junior stiffened as soon as he saw them, hair along his back on end, and, to my shock and horror, let out an imperceptible growl under his breath.
At that moment, with PTSD activated from my heartbreaking days with Linus, I tried to keep walking. But of course, the men were enamored with Junior and couldn’t help but talk to me as we tried to pass…
Later that night, I got the vacuum cleaner out and, while I finished up other tasks, left it sitting in the hall.
Junior came into the hall, took one look at the “intruder” and did the same thing. Stiff, hair on end, low growl. He didn’t look to me for assurance, as perhaps he might have done before. He walked stiffly, intently, toward his new enemy….
How to Know if your Puppy is Going Through a Fear Period
In early fear periods, you may not notice any change in behavior. However, as the puppy ages and enters later stages of development, reactivity levels rise causing them to act defensively, become protective and more territorial. Like with Junior, these new fears seem to pop up out of nowhere. And can be directed toward novel (new) stimuli or stimuli met before with no reaction.
During these periods, puppies may show fear of items, situations or people with whom they formerly felt safe. They may start barking at people entering a house or become fearful and startle at benign items like trash cans, drainpipes or even Dyson vacuum cleaners.
They may crouch, shake and try to run away, submissively urinate or, tell the scary thing/person to go away by showing an aggressive display, which may include snarling, lunging or other unruly
Interestingly, dogs whose genetic heritage has programmed them to be alert and focused outward will often have a more pronounced fear period. Protection breeds (Shepherds, Rottweilers, Doberman pinschers) and herding breeds (collies, cattle dogs) will need increased positive socialization during adolescence.
Here’s the important point.
The behavior that gets practiced, and is discovered to be effective, gets reinforced. When he suddenly notices the neighbor across the street getting out of his car, or the landscaper in the distance with a leaf blower, and sounds the increasingly high pitched alarm. Be mindful that as those men go about their business and walk away, your puppy’s confidence is emboldened as he effectively “scared away the bad man” (who was leaving anyway).
How you handle these puppy fear periods will determine whether you have a bombproof big dog on the other side or the “alarm” of the neighborhood.How you handle these puppy fear periods will determine whether you have a bomb proof big dog on the other side or the “alarm” of the neighborhood.
Top 5 Things To Remember During Puppy Fear Periods
1. Remain calm
No matter how embarrassing the behavior, it is critical that you do not overreact in response to your dog. Control their environment so they don’t feel they have to defend themselves. Keep in mind that this behavior is not a sign that your puppy has turned aggressive. But rather he is unsure and needs to overcome his fear at his own pace. You must be patient during these periods and keep to a familiar routine.
2. Pretend it’s no big deal
Control situations so that you can prevent a fearful response and show your puppy that you enjoy the situation. Use food treats and happy talk to encourage your puppy up to scary objects. I have found touching the object myself, and then encouraging my puppy to touch it with a happy, nonchalant attitude, is the best approach. Never drag or force an interaction with a scary object.
3. Don’t overwhelm, Desensitize!
Never force your puppy to interact with the feared object or person. Rather allow him to investigate whatever he fears on his own and remember to praise/reward any initiative your puppy or dog takes!
Pam Dennison recommends,
“It is vital that you don’t laugh at, scold, or comfort the dog during this time…. Ignore and wait for calm behaviors that you can then reinforce.”
4. Socialize, socialize, socialize
This one is a balancing act during a puppy fear period. Keep in mind that that the most significant opportunity window to solidify a bombproof temperament closes at 16 weeks. While it is essential to continue socialization through your dog’s life, you want to make the absolute most of this time.
The key is to avoid exposing your puppy to traumatic experiences. Shipping the puppy or allowing the puppy to undergo elective surgeries (like spay and neuter) at this time is not recommended. Veterinarian visits and car visits should be made fun and upbeat. Things like vaccines, cold examination tables, taking rectal temperatures, placing the puppy on a scale, nail trims and being handled by strangers, are all experiences that you want to make sure you are doing, but not right in the middle of a fear period if they can be avoided.
Do not encourage “watchdog” behavior at this age. This only rewards fear and suspicion not bravery and confidence.
5. NEVER punish the fear
Punishing fear will only exacerbate it and potentially solidify it. It is best to ignore the fear as Pam Dennison recommends, and let your dog build confidence by letting him investigate things on his own when he is ready and praising him for the effort. Use force-free behavior modification such as desensitization and counterconditioning.
How to Take the Fear out of Puppy Fear Periods
Here are a few helpful tips you can use with your puppy during a fear period to ensure you make it through unscathed.
- Use treats consistently and liberally to make positive associations! Food naturally has meaning to your dog, so when it is paired with things that have a negative meaning (i.e. the scary vacuum cleaner), the negative association is lessened or eliminated.
- In the comfort of your home, perform “pretend” vet visits with fake vaccines (a pen), mock examinations, and known people pretending to be friendly strangers. Use treats liberally for this fun exercise.
- When people visit your home during these periods, put your puppy in another room until
visitors are settled in, then bring your puppy out on a leash and praise him or her for any show of
confidence. Have visitors toss good treats toward your puppy without approaching him or her. Do not force, punish or coddle your puppy if he exhibits fear.
- Do not overdose your puppy with scary loud noises and exposures during his fear periods. Things like vacuuming can still be accomplished, but just do it one room at a time while your pup is 8 to 10 weeks old. Then stop and leave the ‘vacuum monster’ out where your puppy can investigate it between ‘roars.’ Use treats liberally.
- Always make going “bye-bye” in the car fun! Use treats liberally while getting in and out and when meeting friendly strangers.
- Consider using a DAP diffuser like Adaptil, plugged in at home when you bring your puppy home for the first time.
- Make crate-training fun with toys and treats.
For more ideas on things you can do with your puppy prior to 16 weeks, read A Bomb Proof Big Dog Starts With Puppy Socialization.
Optimal Time to Bring a New Puppy Home
In preparation for this post, I reached out to the Big Dog Mom Community to find out what age their puppy was when they acquired him. In a poll of 69 respondents that brought their puppy home before 6 months old, 48% said their puppy was either 5 – 7 weeks or between 8-10 weeks old. And we can bump that up to 49% when I add Sulley to that list as well since I flew him home at 8 weeks old. I picked up Junior at 10-11 weeks old.
Here’s why this is important.
The Fear Imprint Period (or Critical Period) occurs at 8 – 10 weeks old. And unfortunately, this is the time most puppies are separated from their mom and littermates and are sent to new homes.
There is increasing evidence that suggests it is better for puppies to remain in the breeder’s home with the dam and littermates until after the Fear Imprint Period to avoid anything that could be interpreted by the puppy as traumatic or scary. Everything about the experience of traveling to a new home can cause fear in a puppy, so avoiding those things during this fear period is important.
The longer a puppy gets to stay with his dam, the more time he has to develop traits and good habits that will help him in the short and long term. By the time a puppy is 10 – 12 weeks old, he will have been accustomed to feeding and grooming himself. He will have learned to socialize with other dogs, and the dog’s personality would have had some time to develop.
And lastly, consider that most of the social rules are taught and reinforced by mother dogs during weeks 6 through 8. The consequences of removing puppies from their littermates and mothers even earlier than 8 weeks are both far-reaching and impactful.
Stay tuned to Big Dog Mom for more on puppy development prior to 8 weeks.
For now, please consider waiting to bring your new puppy home until he is 10 – 12 weeks old.
I know how excited you are. But, remember, good things come to those who are patient.Consider waiting to bring your new puppy home until he is 10 - 12 weeks old. I know how excited you are. But, remember, good things come to those who are patient.
…The Rest of the Story
Had the landscapers ignored us, perhaps we could have just walked on past without incident. That wasn’t in the cards for me that day.
In broken English, “He’s BIG! Is he friendly?”
Me, (thinking, usually….though now I’m not so sure) “Yes, he’s friendly.”
With Junior in the lead, we proceeded toward the men in hats, with rakes, and loud tools. Slowly. Intently. Hair still on end. Tail slightly curled under.
Over the next two minutes, Junior dutifully sniffed each man and each tool. There was no tail wag or wiggling puppy butt. He was a “man-dog” with a mission. Learning about his world as though it was his first day in it.
The men, oblivious to Junior’s body screaming at them, asked, in broken English, all the usual questions about Mastiffs. While making small talk, I let Junior inspect at his own pace, watching every lip lick, every eye flicker, tail set, stiff body. I was having flashbacks at that moment. PTSD of a human aggressive Mastiff surrounded by foes.
We walked away without incident. A week later, we came across the same men, same neighbor, same corner. Junior’s puppy wiggle was back! Whew!
And for those of you dying to know how the Dyson faired… well, it survived too.
Junior stiffly and courageously approached but didn’t sniff it until I tapped the Dyson and declared, “See, it’s the vacuum cleaner. No worries.”
From agitation to curiosity, he made friends once again with the vacuum cleaner.
And fortunately for Big Dog Mom, sweeping has never been easier with these two BFFs. Simply turning on this momentary foe is now an invitation to follow me around the house and lay in my path.
Puppy fear periods are funny things.
They come and go like the wind when handled properly, but can have a lasting effect when they aren’t.
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Let’s make an impact together, creating one bombproof big dog at a time.Puppy fear periods are funny things. They come and go like the wind when handled properly, but can have a lasting effect when they aren’t.