Why is my puppy suddenly afraid?

Dogs go through what are known as “fear periods” and if your previously happy and brave puppy is now acting spooked at things that didn’t bother him before, a fear period is likely the cause. 

What is a fear period?

A fear period is a developmental phase when a puppy perceives the world as more threatening than he normally would. He may suddenly spook at the neighbor’s garden gnome, or bark at a fire hydrant, both objects he normally walks by every day without question. He may decide he doesn’t like men in hats, tall people are terrifying. 

When are the fear periods?

Fear periods occur at approximately 5 weeks, sometime between 8-12 weeks, and again sometime between 6 -14 months.

The 5 week fear period is usually only a concern to breeders and foster families. The 8-12 week fear period sometimes passes without notice even. But the adolescent fear period, which is linked to sexual maturity tends to throw puppy families for a loop. 

Why do dogs have fear periods?

Fear periods encourage what is known as single event learning where dogs can learn from a single encounter what is dangerous and what is not. In the wild, this encourages survival by allowing them to learn faster what to avoid. However in domestic life, this means that a single traumatic experience during a fear period can forever haunt a dog. 

What do I do during a fear period?

The best thing to do during a fear period is to ensure your puppy does not have any negative experiences. Stay calm when he spooks, and speak to him in a calm and reassuring voice. Do not force him to interact with the scary thing, that will only lead to a negative experience and more fear. You can however use high value treats to create a positive association with the scary thing. You can do this by showing him the scary thing at a distance where he still feels safe, and giving him the high value treat when he looks at it. This is called counter-conditioning.

 

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