"People warn me about fear periods in puppies and I've read about them but really, what are they?"
The owner of a lovely Golden Retriever puppy asked me this in a recent puppy kindergarten class. She expressed concern, both because she doesn't want her well loved puppy to be afraid but also because she doesn't understand what she should do. I told her to relax; being aware of these stages of development is the most important thing.
What Are Fear Periods?
A friend of mine who has had Newfoundlands for many years, told me about one of her dogs, who at four months of age, decided the picnic table had turned into a ferocious dragon. Her puppy, who had seen the picnic table in the backyard several times a day since he joined their household several weeks ago, walked out into the backyard one day and began barking at the picnic table while trying to back up into the house. It's hard to decipher why he felt that the picnic table was frightening but to him, it was.
A fear period is a time during the puppy's early life when he becomes aware of and potentially frightened by things around him. The picnic table is one example. It was in the Newfoundland puppy's environment all the time but in a fear period he became aware of it and decided it was scary.
The things that cause a fear are not always rational. Although some can be predicted, such as a trash bag being snapped open or an umbrella held overhead, others are not as easy to predict. The puppy can be frightened by a person, a smell, sound, surface (such as a slippery floor), or something he sees.
When Do Fear Periods Happen?
There are three fear periods that are fairly common as well as one that does happen but not as predictably. The first is when the puppy is between eight and ten weeks of age; just when the puppy leaves his mother and siblings and goes to his new home. For a wild canine, this is the time he's learning from his parents and older siblings how to live in his world and a puppy who isn't cautious would be more likely to not survive. A cautious and potentially worried puppy will take fewer risks. For our puppies, however, they might become frightened during the first ride home, at the first visit to the veterinarian, or other things that happen as he adjusts to his new home.
Many puppies will also go through a fearful time when they begin teething between four and five months of age. The puppy's gums hurt, he might have an upset stomach, and he doesn't feel good and since he doesn't understand why he feels as he does, he may become fearful of other things.
When the puppy is going through adolescence, it's not unusual for the teenage puppy to go through another fear period. This one is believed to be related to the surge in growth that occurs at this age which may cause some physical discomfort. Sexual hormones surge now, too, which can cause mood changes and as a result, fearfulness. This fear period tends to happen between twelve to fourteen months of age, although it can occur earlier in small breed dogs and later in giant breed dogs.
Some dogs also have one more fear period in early adulthood, typically at around two years of age, as the dog is mentally maturing. The dog's behavior may be unsettled now. He may be more protective than normal, territorial, moody, and worried all at the same time.
It's important to remember, however, that although these are the typical ages and times for a puppy to become more fearful than normal, every dog is an individual. One puppy may have a pronounced fear period at eight weeks of age, no changes at all when he's teething, and then a slight fear period as a teenager. Every puppy is unique.
It's important to remain calm when your puppy is frightened. Dogs, even young puppies without much life experience, can read emotions well and if you're upset, the puppy will become even more worried and afraid. Since we want these fears to be fleeting and not remain for the dog's lifetime, it's important not to be fearful or overly emotional yourself.
It's especially important not to punish his fears or get angry at the puppy. He didn't purposely create his fear period and although his reactions may not seem rational to you his fears are very real to him.
So when he's upset, be calm and act like nothing is a big deal. Be supportive, love him lots, but remain calm. Understand why he's reacting as he is, support him, don't make the fears a bigger thing than they are, and remain calm yourself.
Fear periods occur during a puppy's early life when he becomes aware of and frightened by normal things. Here are some tips to get through this weird phase.