Many pet parents find that their puppies are energetic, confident bundles of joy. They don’t seem to be afraid of anything and will gladly dive headfirst into new experiences, often biting them with their little mouths. But sooner or later, your puppy might experience a fear period: a brief timeframe where they seem more scared of new or even familiar objects and experiences than before.
Good news—fear periods are totally normal and are not signs that something is wrong with your dog. However, it’s important for pet parents to know how to get through fear periods with their puppies. Let’s break down how you can do just that now.
Puppy Fear Periods Explained
Fear periods are natural parts of dog development and may even be healthy when teaching your dog not to be afraid of new stimuli or objects. However, puppy fear periods must also be controlled and approached carefully so your dog doesn’t develop a fearful personality and so they are properly aware of the world instead of oversensitive.
In a nutshell, a fear period is a (usually) short span of time in which your dog may appear to be frightened or extremely sensitive to the world around them. When they encounter a new object, like a fire hydrant or a car, they may react negatively or seem scared of the object despite having no real reason to be afraid.
Furthermore, fear periods are sometimes punctuated by your puppy acting like they don’t want to have new experiences or interact with new objects. They may even turn against their favorite toys or objects they are already familiar with.
In essence, a fear period is just a temporary time span where your dog is a little more of a scaredy-cat than normal. But don’t worry if your puppy experiences this. In fact, most puppies experience two distinct fear periods over their development. When properly socialized and with your guidance, your puppy can get through their fear periods steadily and come out the other side without being overly fearful.
Fear periods may be necessary for puppies to build up their confidence and self-esteem. Puppies that come through fear periods are bolder, more willing to take risks (under proper supervision, of course), and are less likely to approach other dogs with anxiety. So fear periods could just be nature’s way of teaching your dog that they don’t have to be afraid of unfamiliar stuff!
Early Fear Periods
The first stage of fear periods may occur when your puppy is between eight and 11 weeks old. For many pet parents, this is right when they start to adopt a puppy and separate them from their mother and/or any siblings.
As a result, it’s not uncommon for new puppies to be initially shy or afraid of their new environments. Puppies are very impressionable and they may quickly attach to their new pet parents. But it’s also not uncommon for those puppies to be a little unsure about adoption overall!
Because of this, pet parents should make sure that all the experiences they provide to their new puppy are positive. Make the home a warm and engaging place and make sure that there aren’t any strange things the puppy can get into and potentially scare themselves with.
Parents should furthermore not overwhelm their new puppy with constant aggressive play or entertainment. Give your puppy plenty of time to explore their new house and/or backyard under supervision. Let them see things on their own terms and at their own pace.
Not only is this better to prevent any shocks or scares for your canine companion, but it’s also good to teach your puppy the boundaries of their new environment and to give them some initial confidence.
If you give your puppy the freedom and flexibility they need to thrive, they should emerge out of this initial fear period relatively quickly.
Adolescent Fear Periods
The second of the two common fear periods frequently takes pet parents by surprise. It usually occurs between the ages of six months and 14 months. By this point, many pet parents think that their dogs are confident and relaxed, especially if they have been training them well.
The adolescent fear period may occur suddenly and apparently at random. For example, maybe you are accustomed to walking with your puppy in the morning. But one day, they become frightened at the passing of a nearby car or at the sight of a certain garbage can.
These responses are normal, but they can seem a little “out of nowhere.” Fortunately, you can use the training tips below to help your puppy overcome their fear and help them keep their confidence well into adulthood.
Just like the initial fear period, the adolescent fear period doesn’t last for too long. The right mindset and training philosophy can help your puppy get through their fear period more rapidly and stably. However, don’t be surprised if you have to redo or reinforce some of your training with your puppy during this timeframe. They might be a little more resistant to new training or doing things they don’t want to do as well.
In addition to all these notes, keep in mind that small breed dogs may experience the second fear period earlier compared to larger breed dogs. This might be because small breed dogs tend to experience sexual maturity earlier than large breed dogs. The second fear period usually aligns with this development stage.
Are Fear Periods Normal?
Yes! No matter the personality or breed of your dog, they will experience at least one fear period in all likelihood. As noted earlier, fear periods might be helpful for teaching your dog confidence and for boosting their self-esteem. As your dog notices things that scare them, then learns to approach the scary thing without harm, they also learn to trust the world around them and their pet parent(s).
Additionally, fear periods may perform an evolutionary role by helping puppies avoid getting into trouble or encountering danger too early. In the wild, it probably benefits little puppies or wolf babies to be a bit afraid of unfamiliar things so they can run back to their parents for safety.
Of course, your dog’s personality may also affect how long their fear periods are and when they get them. Each dog is different, so pay attention to your puppy and how they act or what they are afraid of and adjust your behavior accordingly.
How Long Do Fear Periods Last?
Normally, puppy fear periods don’t last for longer than a couple of weeks or months at most. In fact, many dogs overcome their fear periods after just a couple of weeks, provided they are trained by a positive role model.
However, some puppies may be naturally more fearful or scared than others. In such cases, they might have longer fear periods that stretch on for several months before they eventually overcome them.
If your puppy is having difficulty moving past one or both fear periods, professional training assistance might help.
Can a Dog Become Fearful Later in Life?
Yes, but this isn’t the same thing as a younger adolescent puppy fear period. Instead, dogs can be traumatized or made to be afraid of things through experiences just like humans can.
For example, say that you and your dog get into a minor car accident while they are buckled into a dog seat. Even though neither of you was injured, your dog may be hesitant or fearful of cars for the foreseeable future.
This isn’t to say that older dogs can’t be trained to overcome their fear. Exactly the opposite is true. You can use the same training techniques below combined with positive reinforcement to help your dog overcome their fear somewhat.
However, some traumas or scary experiences can’t be fully overcome or may result in permanent behavioral shifts for your dog. If necessary, you can speak to a veterinarian about behavioral issues if they are problematic or counterproductive, such as your dog peeing in their crate or chewing on things nervously.
They may recommend a professional dog trainer to help you overcome these issues. Bottom line: your dog can become fearful later in life, but it’s not because of a natural fear period. Instead, it may happen due to a specific event or traumatic experience.
How To Train Through Fear Periods
If your puppy is currently in the middle of a fear period, or even if they are just being a little scared of new objects, you can train them through their fear with the right mindset and philosophy.
Just like positive reinforcement is best for teaching your dog new commands or tricks, it’s best to approach any puppy fear with more positive energy.
Let Your Dog Move Away
Imagine that you’re on a walk with your dog and they immediately become scared upon seeing a fire hydrant. The shape is unfamiliar, and maybe the color (for whatever reason) makes them feel nervous. The dog stops in their tracks and tugs on the leash to go backward.
At this point, you should not root yourself to the ground like you normally would if your dog tries to pull on the leash. Instead, allow your dog to move away from the fire hydrant (or any other scary object in question).
Move with them and maintain the same calm, controlled manner you had before. Don’t act scared as your dog does; doing so could actually ramp up their fear, so don’t play along under any circumstances.
Instead, just let your dog back up at its own pace and remain calm. If you like, you can tell them that it's okay or whisper reassurances.
Provide Praise and Treats
Once your dog stops backing away from the object scaring them, give them praise and provide them with treats. You should only do this when your dog stops retreating. When they stop retreating from the object, it means that your puppy isn’t sure if the scary object is really worthy of their fear.
By praising them and giving them a treat, you calm your dog down and associate the object they are focusing on with a positive experience. Furthermore, you show the dog that the scary object isn’t going to get in the way of you and your pet having a great day.
Let Your Dog Take the Lead
After your dog receives praise and treats, let them take the lead or gently guide them toward the scary object. If your dog resists, relax and wait a couple of minutes. Sooner or later, your dog will likely become curious instead of afraid and will tentatively approach the object that frightened them.
As they do this, don’t rush them along or push them toward the object. Allow them to gradually sniff the ground leading up to the object and inspect it on their own time. As they inspect the object and find that it doesn’t do anything scary, they will relax, their hackles may go back down, and they may regain their normal personality or mannerisms.
If you like, you can give your dog another treat to reinforce the positive experience. By rewarding your dog, you show them that investigating strange objects carefully and cautiously is good.
Keep Training Sessions Short
While teaching your dog not to be afraid of strange new objects, be sure to keep any training sessions short. For example, if your dog has started to wag their tail and has responded positively to the unfamiliar object, don’t dally.
Continue with your walk and resume your normal business. Your dog will start to think of encountering strange objects as a relatively normal part of the day. After all, you don’t want your dog to respond fearfully each time they see something new.
You want your dog to see something new, analyze it carefully, then continue on as planned. This is the only way your dog can be relied on to be a good walking partner and to socialize with other pups.
Moderate Your Own Behavior
Lastly, be sure to pay attention to how you behave around a strange object as well. Dogs are very social and empathetic creatures. You may notice that your dog looks from you to the scary object over and over again upon initially encountering it.
Why? Because your dog is trying to see how they should be reacting to the unfamiliar object.
If you react fearfully or pretend to be scared of a fire hydrant, your dog’s initial instinct will just be reinforced and it may be impossible for them to get used to it in the future. Your dog’s personality may also permanently turn more toward the fearful side of things by accident.
In contrast, if you act calm and like there’s nothing to be afraid of, your dog will assume that that’s true. You should also not act overly excited or energetic. Just act normally and calmly.
Your dog will look at your face, see that you aren’t afraid, then reason that they don’t need to be afraid either.
This has an added benefit in increasing your dog’s trust and confidence in you, which may make them easier to train in the future. It might even make it easier for you to get your dog to do something uncomfortable, like accompany you to the vet, if they trust you fully.
Give Your Dog a Place To Relax
In addition to the above steps, your dog might benefit from a special place they can call their own. The Diggs Revol Crate is a great example, as it’s comfortable, compact, and collapsible and is ideal for giving your dog a safe, secure place where they can relax.
If your dog has a stressful walk outdoors, giving them a crate or a place to hide will allow them to fully recover from the experience and emerge ready to play once more. If you have a sensitive dog, overstimulating them may just make them more fearful rather than solving the problem.
No matter whether you use a dog crate or just give your dog a place to sit under the couch, be sure they know where they can go when they need a little “them time”.
At the end of the day, puppy fear periods are just something pet parents have to deal with. But they’re usually no big deal to get through, especially if you use the training tips above. In fact, smart pet parents will take advantage of fear periods to teach their dogs how to approach unfamiliar objects safely and cautiously without being necessarily fearful.
You should also have a great leash on hand when taking your dog on a walk, especially if they are the right age to enter a fear period for the first time. Diggs’ Walk Suite has everything you need to enjoy safe walks with your pup, including a leash, collar, a dispenser, and poop bags. Check it out and other comfortable solutions in our shop today!
The Diggs Team
We believe our dogs deserve safer, better designed pet products.
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