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Fear periods in dogs

One day you wake up to your four month old puppy, always sociable and friendly, suddenly growling and barking at strangers on the street. Or maybe your young eight month old dog, categorically refusing to climb the stairs to your apartment and cowering in fear. It can happen just like that, out of the blue.

Before resorting to drastic measures, like obedience training or do-it-yourself solutions, let’s consider that it might just be a developmental phase. It's important to firstly make sure that this abnormal behaviour isn’t happening as a response to a specific event, a shock, or as a result of an intense period full of stress factors. If this is the case, please consider consulting a good trainer to help you guide your puppy or young dog through this phase. If you can exclude these causes for your dog's abnormal behaviour, it is possible that they are going through what is known as a 'fear period'. A fear period is something that human children regularly experience between two and twelve years of age, as many parents know. What a lot of dog owners don't know is that a similar thing happens to young dogs. These phases are transient and may vary in intensity depending on the age and individual dog. Don't panic - fear periods last from a few days to a maximum of a few weeks (if the behaviour continues beyond this, contact a professional who can help). Why do fear periods happen? Simply put, they happen due to changes in hormone levels and often coincide with periods of growth and awareness (the subject is actually quite a complex one, so psychologists forgive me for being succinct!).

  • The first fear period occurs when the puppy is about eight weeks old, which is why it is no longer advisable to take a puppy from its mother at such a critical point. This is when the puppy starts to encounter many new experiences, and is not as protected by their mother. As Turid Rugaas says, "seven-eight weeks: the world is getting bigger!" It is possible that at this stage the puppy becomes more aware that there are things around him beyond his mother, siblings, human companions and immediate environment. As with children, learning that the world is a much bigger place can be quite scary.

  • The second fear period happens when the puppy is around four months old. This is when he progresses from being a puppy to a young dog, and his puppy licence essentially expires - he now has to deal with situations in a more mature way. He has to deal more effectively with social interactions, respecting the property and boundaries of other dogs and exploring the world from a slightly different perspective. You may notice that your young dog suddenly shows fearful reactions to things and situations that were completely normal only a few days before.

  • The third fear period occurs between eight and ten months, depending on the individual dog. This is sometimes referred to as the 'pre-adolescent' stage. During this time dogs learn to cope in the world they are in, in all its vastness and complexity. Social relationships change - as a 'teenager' dogs have to deal with big hormonal changes, growth (physical and cognitive) and early sexual maturity. A dog can only be considered completely adult when his brain is fully developed, which happens at around two years old.

Fear periods are linked to significant changes in the personal and social growth of the dog. They are partly due to hormonal changes, and also the result of cognitive growth. In some cases natural fear is a sign of maturity. So how can we handle these periods? What can we do when dogs suddenly refuse to do things they have always done, or start to show abnormal behaviour during a fear period? The answer is simple - absolutely nothing! Our job is to support them through these difficult few days and help them handle the fear in the least traumatic way possible. It's a very delicate phase; so don't try to do too much. If he's afraid to walk down that road, don't force him to - just find another road that will take him to where you have to go. If he's not interested in socialising, leave him alone and give him space. If he shows fear towards a specific object, don't try to expose him to it by force. I'm not a fan of exposure therapy - if I were afraid of spiders, I certainly wouldn't like to be locked in a room full of them to 'cure my anxiety'. Gentle, systematic desensitisation can be helpful if really needed. Most importantly, avoid harsh tones and commands, as this will only reinforce the dog's fear and idea that there is something wrong. Let the fear period take its course - it will be over quickly. Patience is vital. If we can learn to observe the changes and growth of our dogs, and support them through their more difficult phases, we will soon find out how beautifully rewarding and interesting it is to share our lives with growing dogs.

Federica Iacozzilli is a dog trainer and behaviourist working in Italy.


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