It is normal for most puppies to go through a ‘Fear Period’. The first fear imprint period generally occurs between 8-11 weeks. Between 6-14 months there can be further periodic fear periods which are also normal.
Dogs whose genetic heritage has programmed them to be alert and focused outward will often have a more pronounced fear period. Breeds with guarding instincts will need increased positive socialisation during the socialisation period and adolescence.
Unfortunately, these periods do not come with a warning, there are no obvious signs that your dog is about to go through or is going through one. You may notice that your dog is more easily spooked or startled than usual, that they are more vigilant and that they are noticing things that they never seemed to notice before.
Early signs to look out for are: hesitance, such as stopping when walking; and avoiding certain areas objects or individuals. The dog may start growling or letting off low chuff like barks, this is the dog communicating that it is unsure.
If this happens, then it is important to take it easy on what you expose your dog to, keeping things simple for the dog to digest, and most of all, keeping the dog comfortable. It would be a mistake to force the dog to confront what it fears by taking it closer to it unwillingly, this may induce panic in the dog.
A dog that is pushed over its threshold, by repeated exposure to what it finds stressful may become aggressive towards it with the aim of creating distance from what it fears. Barking and lunging are communication patterns used to make things go away, the more the dog gets to practice these behaviours with the outcome of the dog being safe at the end of the experience, the more learnt the behaviour will become. In moments of fear and anxiety, the only goal for the dog is to stay safe, whatever behaviour it completes in these moments will become the learnt coping mechanism should this event happen again. The dog never wants to behave aggressively, but in moments where it feels it has to, in order to stay alive, it will.
When handling a dog that is displaying signs that it may be going through a fear period:
- Create positive experiences for your dog between environments, objects, people, cats and dogs.
- Dogs can develop anxieties from one bad incident.
- In moments of stress, comfort the dog by creating distance and then giving reassurance through positive reinforcement.
- Don’t force your dog into situations that make him uncomfortable.
- Give your dog time to adjust. Do not over expose or overwhelm your dog, do activities that your dog enjoys at home and when in public, use environments that are easy for your dog to digest