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Your normally fearless puppy hides when people try to pet her. Just yesterday, she loved attention from strangers.
Now, however, she cowers and trembles. You wonder what happened.
Your puppy may be experiencing a fear period.
During a fear period, a pup suddenly becomes afraid of something–or many things–that she wasn’t scared of previously.
In this article I’ll explain what a fear period is and when it’s likely to occur.
And I’ll set forth what you should do to help your puppy get through this trying time.
What Are Puppy Fear Periods?
Puppy fear periods are certain times when a pup is more sensitive to her environment and extremely aware of the world around her.
They are a normal part of puppy development.
Although your puppy may have appeared to be confident and you have trained her to perform various behaviors, it may seem as if her world–and yours by extension–has fallen apart.
Suddenly your puppy becomes insecure and worried about even seemingly harness items.
Your pup may even physically appear like an adult dog. But remember that even adolescent puppies are still developing emotionally.
Don’t despair. Your puppy isn’t being difficult or defiant. She’s just going through a fear period.
Most fear periods last between two to three weeks. And you can help her get through it unscathed.
First Puppy Fear Period: 8 to 11 Weeks
This is a critical time in your puppy’s development. She’s very sensitive and impressionable to new developments in her life.
Coincidentally, it’s also the time that most puppies go to their new homes.
This is a very difficult time for puppies anyway because they’re leaving their mother and littermates for the first time.
It’s important to socialize your puppy to new environments, people, and friendly animals during this period.
So there’s a delicate balance in introducing your puppy to new situations without forcing her to accept settings that she’s not able to deal with at the time.
Just be sure not to force her into new situations she can’t handle yet.
Second Puppy Fear Period: 6 to 14 Months
Because the time frame is longer than the first fear period, it seems to come out of the blue when your pup suddenly becomes fearful during this window of time.
Smaller breeds usually enter into the second fear period earlier than larger or giant breeds do because they generally mature earlier.
Signs That Your Puppy Has Entered a Fear Period
You will usually notice a dramatic change in your puppy’s personality and body language when she enters a fear period. It literally seems to take place overnight.
One day, she’s happy and confident and the next she seems to have fallen apart.
Each puppy’s fear period varies greatly. Some suffer mild behavior changes whereas others show more extreme behaviors.
You need to read your puppy’s body language.
Signs of a puppy entering a fear period may include the following:
- Freezing in place or moving more slowly
- Excessive panting
- Hiding behind you or under or behind objects
- Lip licking
- Looking away from the scary item, animal, or person
- Pinning back ears
- Tucking tail
- Whale eye (showing white portion of eye)
- Refusing treats
- Startling easily at noises
- Moving to a safe space
- Furrowed brow
- Staring at the feared item, person, or animal
- Vocalizing (whining or barking)
- Urinating when exposed to the fearful being or item
- Reactivity even seeming aggressive
It can be very upsetting to see your usually sweet, playful, welcoming puppy change.
The sudden onset of certain behaviors is strange to most puppy parents.
But don’t panic!
If your puppy had a good temperament before the sudden onset of the fear period, she should again become the great puppy you knew.
It just takes time, patience, and making sure that you don’t force your puppy into situations that she can’t handle during that time.
What Are Puppies Fearful Of?
Each puppy’s an individual. But there are certain events that trigger many puppies who are experiencing a fear period. They include:
- Loud or sudden noises
- People coming to your door
- Being handled or touched
- Traffic (especially motorcycles, trucks, and buses)
- People who appear different (e.g., wearing hats, glasses, gloves, etc.)
- People who rush towards them
- Items that are new to the puppy (such as a vacuum, post box, or flowers)
- Flooring surfaces that are new to the puppy
Remember: even one negative experience during a fear period can have life-long effects on your puppy.
So you need to be your puppy’s protector and not have anyone or thing frighten her.
I used to promote my dog training business at a local pet shop.
It was a very fancy boutique-type place with pristine, shiny wood floors. People would often bring in their puppies.
I used to observe that dogs who weren’t exposed to such a shiny surface were afraid.
Either they didn’t want to walk on the floor at all. Or they walked cautiously as if they were walking on hot coals.
Had they been exposed in a controlled manner to such a surface it wouldn’t have been a big deal.
What To Do When Your Puppy Enters a Fear Period
Don’t just wait for a fear period to pass. It’s still important to continue socializing your puppy during her fear periods.
You just can’t flood her with experience she isn’t able to adjust to.
If you force her to accept people, other animals, or situations that overwhelm your puppy during a fear period, it may have life-long adverse behavioral effects.
You don’t want her to experience any traumatic events during this time.
To help your new puppy, give her several days to settle in before doing any real training.
Make sure that the method by which your puppy’s transported to you isn’t a traumatic experience to her.
If feasible, have her transported by car.
Try not to have her transported by plane if possible. If she must be transported by plane, make sure that it’s in the cabin, not in the cargo area which can be very noisy and scary to puppies.
A friend of mine’s Aussie puppy was transported by plane in the cargo area during the first fear period. The dog is a few years old now and has a strong fear of certain noises.
Allow your puppy to choose to move away or towards scary items and beings.
If your puppy is suddenly not the social butterfly she was yesterday, let her move away from the person who wants to pet her. If she’s on leash, just happily say “let’s go” and walk away.
Tell people that you’re training and they can’t engage with your puppy at that time.
Don’t make a big deal about it or have a tight leash. You don’t want your puppy to sense that you’re stressed. Pups can read our body language.
If an object is scary, do the same thing.
When my sheltie Amber was a puppy, she suddenly became frightened of a truck at a shopping center we often went to as part of her socialization program.
She froze in place, then hid behind me. I just said “let’s go,” and moved further away from the truck where she wasn’t fearful anymore.
Allow your puppy to control distance to the feared items or beings.
If your puppy wants to approach the feared item, as long as there’s no danger, let her.
Caveat though with people or animals: you have to be sure that they won’t approach the puppy and put her over her tolerance threshold.
Also don’t force or lure her to what she fears. She needs to explore the world at her own pace during this time.
Praise and reward with great treats any curiosity or interaction with what he fears.
PRO-TRAINER TIP: Have a supply of great, yummy treats that your puppy can’t resist ready as a reward. These treats can even be small pieces of boiled, de-boned chicken that most pups can’t resist. The pieces should be small, no larger than a pea. Always have your reward treats ready before giving your obedience cue.
This may even be looking at it from a distance that she doesn’t show fearful body language. Or it may be looking at it, taking a step towards it, or sniffing it.
But note that if your puppy normally takes treats and doesn’t during any interaction, she’s probably too stressed.
Add distance or even end that socialization session.
Don’t make a big deal about what your puppy fears
If you act stressed, your puppy will feed off that and her fear will escalate.
Instead, just act upbeat and take your puppy to a distance or area where she’s not fearful.
Keep training sessions short
For young puppies, training sessions should be short anyway–five to 10 minutes at most.
Make sure that you always end your sessions on a positive note.
Train only while your puppy is still engaged in the session.
Use lots of treats, praise, and play to reward your puppy for good behavior.
Don’t use training methods that can scare a puppy. This includes training her to use an electric fence during a fear period.
Training using positive reinforcement will be especially helpful because it increases a puppy’s confidence in the world around her.
Play games with your puppy
Play with your pup. If she enjoys fetching, have her fetch toys she likes.
Have her interact with puzzle toys that aren’t too difficult. Make sure that she’s enjoying the experience.
Enrichment toys can help build a puppy’s confidence in the world.
This will also help your puppy become used to new items while enjoying herself.
Use puzzle toys that distribute her kibble or treats, which automatically makes most pups have a good association with them.
Always set your puppy up to succeed
If your puppy is too wound up before exposing her to new situations, exercise her first.
Play fetch. Have her do a few obedience commands with praise and treats.
You just want to take the edge off, not tire her out.
Manage your puppy’s environment
If your puppy’s in a fear period and is afraid of traffic, take her on walks where the streets don’t have any or very little.
If she’s scared of loud noises during that time, try to have her be exposed to quieter environments. You get the idea.
Don’t let people or animals rush towards her.
Safely socialize your puppy
You still need to socialize your puppy to new environments, items, flooring, people, and friendly animals that she will need to face during her lifetime. You just need to do it at her own pace and distance.
Do gradual introductions to new people and stimuli.
Always supervise all of your puppy’s socialization.
Avoid children, dogs, adults, or situations that are unpredictable.
Because most fear periods last only two to three weeks, remember that things will get better.
Part of socializing a puppy is getting her used to vet appointments.
Puppies require a series of vaccinations to avoid life-threatening diseases.
And your new pup may need to be professionally groomed.
If possible, use a fear-free certified vet or groomer.
You can even do some training set-ups to get her used to being groomed. Have her eat a great treat while you gently handle her.
Touch her legs, back, neck, tail, head, and underside.
You should do only a few touches during each session, eventually having longer sessions when she enjoys them.
Do the same thing with brushing.
At first just show her the brush and treat. Do this for a few sessions.
Then just touch her with the brush and praise and reward. Eventually, start grooming and brushing. This may take a number of sessions.
Redirect your puppy’s focus from what she fears
If possible, have her perform an obedience cue–praised and rewarded with treats of course.
Have her play fetch or tug with a favorite toy. You want to relax her.
Counter-condition and desensitize her natural response
Pair scary things, events, people, and friendly animals with great treats.
When she sees what she fears, start giving her a flow of a great treat–like small pieces of deboned chicken. Just do this for a few minutes at most during the session.
Then move away from even the sight of the fearsome thing.
Over many training sessions, you can move closer (sometimes just inches) to the feared thing to desensitize your puppy–all while rewarding with great treats.
Use holistic remedies
You can check with your vet if something’s appropriate.
Some holistic supplements and devices can greatly reduce a puppy’s stress.
There’s a product called Adaptil which mimics the puppy’s mother’s pheromones and is supposed to have a calming effect. It comes in a plug-in, spray, and collar.
There is even music called Through a Dog’s Ear that is supposed to have a calming effect on dogs.
Seek professional help if needed
If your puppy seems excessively fearful where she doesn’t make progress or is reactive or aggressive, make an appointment with a behaviorist or positive reinforcement trainer with experience in such matters.
What NOT To Do: Don’t Try This at Home
There are certain actions that you should not take when attempting to have your puppy successfully pass through the trying fear phases.
1. Don’t make a big deal when your puppy shows fear
If you show your puppy that you’re upset or excited, it will feed into her fear.
Puppies read our scent, tone of voice, and body language.
So don’t let her think that anything’s wrong. Instead, do a “jolly routine.” Be upbeat and calm.
2. Don’t punish your puppy for her fearful behavior
Even if your puppy growls and snaps, don’t punish her. Doing so will escalate the situation.
Just don’t put her in situations that are too much for her to handle.
And get professional help if you need it.
3. Don’t push your puppy into situations she can’t handle
It’s crucial that you don’t expose her to what she’s afraid of too soon. Be your puppy’s guardian.
Don’t let people or other things that she’s afraid of approach her during this time if she’s fearful.
4. Don’t ignore your puppy if she seeks out comfort
Contrary to old beliefs, comforting a puppy when she’s afraid won’t be rewarding the fearful behavior.
So tell her what a sweet puppy she is and pet her if she enjoys that.
My puppy’s suddenly scared of the air coming out of the vent near her crate. Now she doesn’t want to go in her crate. Should I lure her up to the vent with treats?
No! Instead, move her crate to an area nearby that’s not too close to the vent. Continue to make her crate a welcoming, safe place.
Eventually, her fear of the vent should pass if she wasn’t afraid of it prior to her entering a fear period.
My puppy is afraid of my toddler now but wasn’t earlier this week. What should I do?
Puppies and children can be a great combination.
But this may be a fear period or it may be that something your toddler did scared the puppy.
In either case, never leave any puppy with any child.
A young child may not yet understand that the puppy’s a living being.
And accidents can happen. A child may fall on, step on, or pull on a puppy’s body.
Then, reintroduce them. Have your puppy play in the room with your toddler far enough away that your pup’s not scared.
Make sure that your toddler’s occupied and have someone else watch her.
Over many sessions, you should be able to have them (each occupied with something positive) become closer distance-wise.
Also train your toddler that the puppy is a living creature and should be respected and not handled or approached.
A toddler should learn to interact with a puppy gently and only if the puppy approaches him.
My puppy’s afraid of the vacuum cleaner. Should I hold her and put her near it while I give her treats?
No! You shouldn’t force your puppy to be that close to something that she fears.
Instead, if she can handle it, have her at the far end of the room where the vacuum (not running) is placed. Play with your pup and give her treats.
Fear periods are a normal part of puppyhood. They usually last only two to three weeks.
You just want to do all you can, gently, to get your puppy through this time.
Don’t force her to engage with what she’s become afraid of. Just expose her to the world at her own pace.
And don’t panic. This too shall pass.
Has your puppy gone through a fear period?
If so, how did you handle it? With what results?
Please tell us about it in the comments section below.
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