Fear periods: Why is my puppy scared?
Puppy owners are often surprised when their fearless (even reckless) little puppy suddenly seems scared of new situations. They might even become wary of things that they were fine with just a week or two ago. What’s going on?
Fear periods are completely normal. Let’s look at what they are and how you can help support your puppy as they grow into a confident, well-adjusted adult dog.
What are puppy fear periods?
All dogs experience developmental stages when they’re especially anxious and become wary of strange or new situations. They might suddenly become afraid of noises, new places, or unfamiliar people. These are fear periods.
Puppy fear periods are perfectly normal. In fact, they’re an essential part of canine development.
In the wild, fear periods served an important evolutionary purpose. They helped protect young dogs from potential risks, including other animals and environmental hazards. Fear helped keep puppies from running into danger with their tails happlily wagging.
While this is essential for wild animals, it’s less helpful for domesticated dogs. As responsible owners, we keep our pets safe. Becoming fearful just leaves dogs struggling to deal with normal, safe situations.
Luckily, these fear periods are easy to predict. They consistently come at the same times for all dogs. The first fear period for puppies runs from 8-11 weeks of age. The second comes in at 6 months old and lasts until 14 months.
How to handle fear periods for a happy, well-adjusted dog
Puppy fear periods might be inevitable, but there’s plenty that we can do to help our pups cope. With care, we can even use this time to build trust with our pups.
Socialisation is key
Socialisation is the most powerful tool you have to help your puppy cope with fear periods. Socialisation is about more than just putting puppies into new situations. It means giving them gentle, safe opportunities to experience new people, places, sounds, smells, and more.
Good socialisation means allowing your pup to explore the world without pushing them outside of their comfort zone.
Train through fear periods
If we want well-rounded and well-trained dogs, we can’t simply avoid training our pets during the fear periods. If done well, training can actually help your puppy to deal with their fear.
Don't push your dog
Make sure that your dog is able to set the pace when training in new situations. If they appear scared of something, don’t push them to interact more than they want to. Allow them to move away and observe it from a distance.
Puppies are naturally curious, even during their fear periods. Their curiosity will encourage them to explore new things, as long as they feel safe and protected.
Show your dog that you're relaxed
Fear periods are the perfect opportunity to encourage your puppy to follow your lead. If your dog looks to you for guidance or support, reward and praise them. A dog who looks to you for how to respond to a situation is going to be much safer as it grows up.
Being relaxed around new situations with your dog tells them that there’s nothing to worry about. Simply waiting calmly while your dog considers a new situation can often be the best strategy.
Make training fun
Do your best to avoid training ‘failures’ by keeping training sessions short and positive. This prevents your dog from getting overwhelmed and lets them learn in an enjoyable way. Remember that punishing an already fearful puppy will always be counterproductive.
Emotional “flooding” is when a dog is overwhelmed with stimuli and emotions. It often comes from forcing your dog into a situation that they’re not ready to deal with yet. It might seem like you’re helping them get over their nerves, but it can often make their fears worse and even create phobias and reactivity.
If your dog pulls away from a situation, appears distressed, or freezes, give them the opportunity to calm down in an environment that feels safe and secure.
Learn more about puppy fear periods with Paws in Work
At Paws in Work, we put healthy socialisation at the heart of our puppy therapy events. We ensure that our puppies are only being presented with positive experiences during their first fear period.
If you’re a breeder or want to learn more about taking the best care of your new puppy, sign up for the Paws in Work newsletter. You can also get in touch to learn more about how Paws in Work can help with socialising your puppy.