Scared dog lying on rug

Credit: Mike Burke

What on earth is that?

Ever had a scary or traumatizing experience as a child growing up that has stuck with you until this very day? And just thinking about it brings back all those horrid feelings which makes you anxious, scared and insecure? Well of course this can and has happened to many of us, and well, this can happen to our dogs too!

One day we have the most loving friendly dog and then suddenly and out of the blue it’s like Fluffy has changed overnight. We don’t speak dog, so we don’t understand or have any idea of what has happened,  just that something is different, and we have no clue why.

Fear periods in dogs are very real, luckily some of our dogs will never have any issues but, it is becoming a lot more common nowadays given the amount of rescues that are being adopted.

So, what is a fear period?

Scared wet dog in swimming pool

Credit: Mia Anderson

Fear periods are stages during a dog’s development where they are extremely sensitive to scary or bad experiences. When something terribly traumatizing or painful happens during this stage, which has a negative and lasting impact on your dog’s behaviour, we call it one event learning.  If your pup for example had to accidentally fall into the swimming pool, the shock and trauma of that event may affect her so much that the sight of water immediately has her in a panic and she’s now petrified to go near the swimming pool or any water for that matter. All it took was one bad experience and it’s now embedded in her memory forever. Even some aggression problems in dogs can be linked back to awful experiences in early puppyhood.

Fear periods typically occur during the first 16 week period (8 – 10 weeks), and again in adolescence between about 6 – 14 months of age (there are also varying opinions as to the exact stages of development when fear periods may occur). So if you have a pup and are proactive by going to puppy school, exposing your pup to as many people, dogs, situations, experiences etc. as possible in a positive way, this period will hopefully pass by without any issues or you ever noticing anything out of the ordinary. The next fear period may take you by surprise as your pup seems to be confident, happy-go-lucky and doing just fine. Then suddenly she’s a bit nervous and apprehensive about things that never bothered her before, the big black rubbish bins outside, your neighbour that always pops past to say Hi, the statuette in your garden. This increased suspicion and reactivity is normal and as long as we don’t make a big fuss it should pass on its own after a few weeks.

So what can we do as doggie parents to prevent these fear periods having a lasting impact on our dogs?

  • Puppy school and socialization is an absolute must to help pups become exposed to a variety of things as mentioned above so they can build their confidence.
  • We can be proactive and steer clear of any potentially dangerous situations or interactions.
  • Don’t make a big fuss, be cheerful and act like it’s no big deal, dogs feed on our emotional state.
  • Be calm, remember dogs can pick up on our body language and our stress.

    Child pulling pug

    Credit: Vidar Nordi-Mathisen

  • Don’t force your dog to interact with the trigger or object, by forcing we might overwhelm and make him more fearful.
  • Desensitize, work at a distance from the trigger that your dog feels comfortable and use some tasty treats, chat to your trainer about how to go about this.
  • Counter-condition use yummy treats or something your dog finds rewarding so their experience is changed to a positive one. Here again you can chat to your trainer to help with some suggestions as to what to do.
  • Never punish your dog for being fearful, this will only make the issue worse. Use positive reinforcement!
  • When in doubt chat to your trainer or a qualified force free behaviorist for advice.

Ondine Schultz

Canine behaviour & training coach (basic) (FODS)

Clicker Instructor (FODS)

Intern Puppy Instructor at the FODS Puppy School