Have a new puppy? There’s a lot to get used to and prepare for, but one thing that often gets overlooked is puppy fear periods.
Puppies go through an important socialization period from approximately three weeks of age to 12–14 weeks. This is a critical time in puppy development and it’s important for them to be safely and intentionally exposed to new textures underfoot, new sights, scents, and sounds, as well as meeting new people, dogs, and other animals. This critical period of early socialization starts with the breeder and then continues as puppies go to their new homes and families. Well-socialized puppies are generally playful and confident, so it can take people by surprise when these same puppies become spooked or fearful seemingly overnight—welcome to your puppy’s first fear period!
What Are Puppy Fear Periods?
Fear periods are a normal part of puppy development, but they also can be overwhelming for dogs. During fear periods, puppies become more sensitive and aware of the world around them. They may be more concerned about new objects or experiences, and even things that they previously might have enjoyed can become worrisome. Your puppy will experience two fear periods, both of which are a normal evolutionary part of puppy development. No amount of socialization can prevent them, but the good thing is you can help your puppy to work through them and come out the other side more confident
Fear Period #1: 8–11 Weeks
Puppies will generally experience their first fear period around 8–11 weeks. Coincidentally, this fear period happens right around the time they are coming home and adjusting to a new family, and starting to explore the world. Recognizing that puppies are very impressionable, you want to be thoughtful about what your puppy experiences during this critical time. It’s essential to not overwhelm a new puppy and instead to create situations where they can explore meeting new people and having new experiences without being pressured or forced to interact.
Fear Period #2: 6–14 Months
This second period often takes new puppy owners by surprise. Small breed dogs tend to experience their second fear periods earlier than large breed and giant breed puppies. This second fear period can be especially disorienting for owners because your 6-14-month-old may look like an adult dog, so it can be hard to remember that your dog is still a puppy and emotionally developing. It can feel like everything you taught your puppy has fallen apart. The confident, engaged, and smart puppy you had just a day ago is now insecure and worried about a harmless object. Don’t worry—this isn’t forever!
Training Through Fear Periods
Dogs who experience stress or trauma at this age can experience larger, related behavioral problems or consequences later in life, so it’s important to be sensitive to training needs during this time. For example, my youngest dog went through a big second fear period when she was about 10 months old, which coincided with a minor knee injury that necessitated multiple visits to vets and vet specialists. As a result, we still work on helping her remember the vet office is a fun, safe place to go. Fear periods are often misunderstood as puppies being defiant or difficult, when they’re actually just being uncertain or worried about things in the world around them.
Even confident and well-socialized puppies go through a phase of being concerned about something that might seem silly to us. Just because we know that the vacuum cleaner turning on, a plastic bag blowing in the wind, or a wobble board at training class isn’t something dangerous, your puppy doesn’t have the same understanding of the world. Fear periods are a developmentally normal part of growing up for dogs and something for us to be thoughtful and intentional about preparing for.
If your puppy suddenly develops a fear about someone or something, it can be tempting to try and force your dog to get closer and see that it isn’t scary. But this approach is far more likely to backfire and create a bigger and possibly long-lasting fear. Instead of forcing your puppy to engage in things that scare them, give them the space to explore and choose to engage at their comfort level. Try to turn the scary situation into a positive learning opportunity.
Step 1: Allow your puppy to move away from whatever they are scared of.
Step 2: Praise and reward your puppy for looking to you for guidance, and for looking at the object that scared them.
Step 3: Allow your puppy to control how close they get to what scared them, and don’t pressure or lure them to get closer. Praise and reward with treats or toys as well as for any positive curiosity or interaction including looking at the object, stepping towards it, sniffing, etc.
Step 4: Keep the training session short and fun. It’s okay if your puppy doesn’t overcome the fear and get completely comfortable with the object that frightened them. End on a positive note with lots of treating/praising.
Step 5: Try not to make a big deal about the thing your dog is afraid of, but incorporate it into future training sessions. Reward your puppy for looking at you, and any engagement with the thing they are scared of. If possible, engage your puppy with a toy. Let the puppy control the pace and stay at a distance they are comfortable with.
Fear periods can take everyone by surprise but try not to panic. It can be helpful to keep a list of things your puppy is nervous about and try to incorporate those into future training sessions. You might be surprised to discover that the balloon that terrified your puppy yesterday might not faze them tomorrow. Try to remember this is a normal stage of development and, although it can be tempting to want to quickly show your puppy there’s nothing to be scared of, there are no shortcuts through a fear period. Your puppy is taking in an overwhelming amount of information about the world and is looking to us for reassurance and guidance. It should be our training goal whenever possible to make those experiences safe, fun, and positive.