I have been asked many a time by owners why their seemingly confident little pup has suddenly become fearful. This can manifest itself as a fear of anything in the environment, from people to dogs to dustbins! Your once relaxed little pup who would stride by anything and everything with ease, suddenly seems to have a minor meltdown at the mere sight of an outstretched hand or a dustbin in front of your home. But why does this occur? What is going on?? And most importantly, what can we do about it?
Firstly, it is important to remember our pups go through quite a few developmental stages during the course of their first 2 years. It may seem quite clear cut, we get our puppy at 8 weeks, we bring them home and as long as we socialise them adequately then our job is done and we should have a confident and fulfilled dog at the end, right?? Well, maybe. There are however stages that it is important to be aware of along the way.
One of these stages is termed the ‘fear period’ or ‘fear imprint stage’. This is a stage in which your pup will seemingly out of the blue develop a fear or anxiety about something which has likely previously held no meaning. Something very normal like a person in the street, or something a bit more obvious like traffic or other dogs. This may display itself via avoidance behaviours ie. hiding behind you or pulling back away from the object, you may see a change in body posture from a relaxed tail carriage to a ‘tucked under’ tail and a ‘deer in the headlights’ expression.
Fear periods can occur twice in a pups development, the first is around 8-10 weeks old, and the second between 6-14 months (nicely coinciding with the adolescent stage which brings a whole new set of behaviours in itself!). The puppy will respond in a more fearful way to anything which it may deem ‘traumatic’. Something which is likely not traumatic, will be perceived by your pup as pretty scary and something to be avoided. It is also at this stage that events will have more of an impact than at any other time, so in short, it’s a pretty important period of time all round! The fear stage is not limited to NEW experiences or stimuli which is important to remember, it may be something that your pup has seen every day since being with you and something he has paid no attention to at all, or even enjoyed, up until now. So, to define, a fear period is a stage in which a puppy may perceive new or familiar stimuli as a threat.
We can see, biologically, why this stage may occur. A puppy at this age is just starting to ‘fly the nest’ and any wrong move or misjudgement about what is/isn’t ‘safe’ will effect survival chances. Also, the first fear stage will coincide with when a pup is leaving his mum and siblings and going off to a brand new unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar people and stimuli.
So, what can we do to help our pups if we feel they are going through a fear stage??
There’s a few things to consider:
- Bond – bond with your puppy! Via training, communication, and patience. Gain your pups trust and engage with him daily. Encourage focus behaviours ie. eye contact, practice engagement training (look back at my blog articles if you’re unsure how), and work on handling techniques to gain a solid level of trust between you both.
- Make it FUN – use treats/favourite toy to help build positive associations with every new experience your pup has! Take things at your pups pace, don’t force interactions, let your pup make a choice as to how far he wants to engage with the environment around him. Encourage, praise progress, and keep a light-hearted tone in your voice. There is actually no evidence to suggest you can reinforce an emotion (fear is an emotional response to an event/object), however there is no need to go overboard with your ‘cuddling’ if your pup is fearful! Reassurance yes, panic-stricken cuddling, probably best not.
- Use calming aids – I have said before that the scientific evidence behind such tools ie. Adaptil plug-ins and collars is far from conclusive, but, I can tell you some people swear by them so they are worth consideration I feel!
- Use a set up – set up ‘pretend’ situations! Your pup is worried about people going by when walking? Ask a friend to help with gradual desensitisation. Your pup is scared of dustbins? Spend some time every day building positive associations with the dustbins! Pup is scared of the vets table? Ask your vet if you could have a ‘social visit’ with just treats/cuddles and fun! They will not mind!
- Sleep – ensure your pup is getting enough sleep! Inadequate sleep leaves a pup unable to learn, process information and will likely be more sensitive to situations.
- Stay calm!!! – the first thing we do when our pup is worried is worry ourselves! Stop yourself, think clearly, what can I do to improve this? How can I change my pups emotional response to this object? There will be a way, so just calmly work through it.
- Ask for advice – if you are unsure, don’t go through it alone, ask a professional for advice!
Although it may seem like a worrying time, your once confident little pup is suddenly worrying about something entirely meaningless and inconsequential, try to stay calm. Don’t build it into more of an issue than it needs to be, stay relaxed and simply work out a plan to try and change your pups view of the ‘scary thing’. It’s perfectly do-able.
There is, as stated above, a second ‘fear stage’, however I am a puppy trainer and try to limit topics as much as possible to puppyhood so I will refrain from delving into it too much! If you need more information regarding this second stage just get in touch.
I do cover the developmental stages our pups go through during my 1-2-1’s so if you feel you are struggling with anything mentioned just get in touch!