What Are “Fear Periods” Telling Us?

Behaviorists have tried to quantify this concept…but every puppy is different. Many professional handlers point to the ages of 8-9 weeks, and 5-6 months, as vulnerable “windows of transition”.

Some puppies seem to navigate these so-called fear periods pretty smoothly. However, few puppies completely escape the ups and downs of adolescence.  Let me explain-

Very young puppies seem fearless. They appear to handle lots of “pass the puppy”, loud environments, and other animals.  When they’ve had enough, they just fall asleep.  We’ve all seen it happen.  Being “afraid” is a biologically expensive state of mind.  Very young animals simply don’t have the physical reserves to sustain rapid growth in the midst of stress.  So they can appear to endure a lot, then they just ‘pass out’.

When puppies mature a little bit more, their awareness expands.  With more mental capacity, but lacking experience and context, their focus may shift from curiosity to avoidance.  How acute this shift is, depends on the puppy and the environment.  Breed and temperament play a part, but we can help guide our puppy through these stages. This is where appropriate socialization, and knowledge of canine body language really come into play! If you can, consult a canine professional.

When puppies get past the 4-month mark into early adolescence, we can see mostly compliant young dogs-who were beginning to “get with the program”-start to become distractible; harder to communicate with.  Some puppies don’t seem to hit the ‘terrible Teens’ until 8-9 months or a year.  It’s variable.  But, like raising children; maturity, growth, and learning are seldom linear. It seems like our adolescents have to break down, or regress, before they regain their emotional and mental footing and “re-consolidate” their gains. 

Some of these “growth” periods could be seen as fear periods. They notice more, but don’t understand all the new information.  Depending on the dog, this newfound awareness or significance of things they’ve seen or met before…creates reactivity.  An Internal dog may display avoidance, submission, or even neurotic displacement behaviors. An External dog may bark or lunge. All of these outward behaviors come from the same place:  Fear.  Insecurity.  Discomfort.  Remember, it’s all from his point of view, not yours.  What to do?

Back up your training.  Re-visit earlier concepts.  Review your focus and engagement skills yet again.  Don’t worry about going back to lots of reinforcement with food or favorite toys.  Work basic cues in many environments.  In public, insist that people ignore your dog.  This may help a fearful dog tolerate some proximity to others.  If your older puppy starts to bark at the person (remember, this is insecurity), ask that they not overtly react or leave right away.  If they do, it will teach the puppy that they can get “relief”-distance-from the feared person or thing– by barking or acting out.  Work with your puppy to find the distance that they can tolerate; the amount of proximity to a feared dog, or person that allows them to relax a little. And–always give treats during exposure.  Help your puppy!   Correcting or scolding him will not change his internal state.  It will only show him that strangers or other dogs cause him to get pressured/punished.