Fear Periods

A fear period is a period of time that the dogs danger brain activates more readily than usual. Read our fact sheet on the dogs mind to learn more about their danger brain.

It is normal for most puppies to go through ‘Fear Periods’. 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.

fear periods

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.

On the other end of the scale, some dogs go hyperactive or fidgety when a fear period hits. Because so many owners are completely unaware that fear periods exist in the first place, their first thought is usually to take the dog out and exercise it to ‘drain some energy’. Unfortunately, this could be detrimental to the dogs mental health, everything it learns while taken out in this frame of mind may be associated with fear, stress or anxiety. When we see a dog that is fidgety, our goal should be to make them comfortable and teach them to settle down through calm communication, brain games of mental enrichment. Old sayings like a tired dog is a happy dog can be a bit misleading in my opinion, I feel that a more accurate saying is a comfortable dog is a happy dog.

A dog that is pushed over its threshold, by repeated exposure to what it finds stressful may become aversive to it, either trying to flee from it or even 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

  • If it means taking a day or two off of walking, and training them at home, then do this. A couple of days off of what scares the dog will allow them to regroup, their cortisol levels to drop back down and be in a frame of mind ready to take on new things.

One of the hardest things that owners of puppies that suffer from fear periods struggle with is that the way that they have to interact with and treat their beloved puppy is not exactly what they signed up for. When people get their dogs they so often envisiage playing in fields and running along beaches where as so many of these pups and dogs that suffer from fear periods simply cannot cope with this level of stimulation at this stage of their lives. Keeping their dog on leash and concentrating on training rather than play can seem less appealing to some dog owners. Unfortunately we do not always get what we sign up for when we take a dog into our homes, but it is so important to recognise the level of care they need and move at their pace, regardless of what might of been had we been dealt a different hand. These stages are temporary in the dogs life if handled well, and while some may never be able to cope with the high levels of environmental stimulus that others can, all puppies stand a better chance of desensitising and becoming better equipped at coping with these pressures later in life if we move at their pace and build calm and positive associations. When we take our puppies out, they are learning one way or another, if they get exposed to everything while they are panicking, this is what they will learn from the world, if they get exposed calmly, at their pace and using positive reinforcement then the world seems like a great place. It is up to us to expose them to what they’re ready for and not push too hard, monitering their levels of stress and and ensuring they’re forming a memory bank full of positive experiences. Each dog gets dealt a different genetic hand and this will account for her behaviour in many ways, we cannot change genetics and working against them is futiie. To learn more about what affects the behaviour of our dogs, click here.

Ian Shivers
Bondi Behaviourst