Do you remember when nothing fazed you? The fastest rollercoaster, tallest building, scary movies, as a youngster, nothing is scary right? Well, for puppies it’s kind of the same thing too. As they mature they go through what we call puppy fear periods, critical periods or sensitive periods and they’re a normal part of puppy development, from tiny pups to full-grown adult dogs.
Fear is a normal part of being in the world as an animal – it helps with survival. What we want to make sure of, is that it’s within a typical spectrum, and that our pups are supported through these fear stages so that they learn that the world isn’t a completely terrifying place!
As puppies develop they explore and interact with their environment – fear periods start on average around 7 weeks of age and this first one lasts for just a couple of weeks. In some breeds, they can start a bit earlier or start and go on a bit later. Puppies have several fear periods before they become an adult, each with its own challenges.
In this article, we’re going to be helping you understand what puppy fear periods are, how to tell if your pup is in a puppy fear stage, and what you can do to help and support them through these ‘scaredy-cat’ stages of their development.
For more information on supporting your puppy through all of their emotional highs and lows, how and why these developmental periods matter to them, and how to teach them to be well-rounded, confident members of dog society, download a trial of the Zigzag puppy training app. We’ll take you and your puppy on a journey, share all the good times, and help you through the not so good times with our team of expert puppy coaches. They’re available 7 days a week, 24 hours a day on the phone, on WhatsApp or email to talk you through it all. If we could cuddle you, we would.
What are Puppy Fear Periods?
In the table below, we’ve laid out puppy fear periods and what approximate age puppies are when they go through these puppy fear stages.
|Hazard Avoidance/Initial Fear Stage||7-11 weeks|
|Adolescent fear stage||12 weeks – 6 months|
|Flight instinct period||6-9 (up to 14 months)|
|Adult fear period||12 -18 months|
*It’s important to note that some puppies will go through their puppy fear stages a little earlier, and some will go through them later, so we’ve put an average in for the age. If you own a German Shepherd, you should know that the initial fear stage starts around 5 weeks, not 7 and that Cavalier King Charles start their hazard avoidance a bit later, around 8 weeks old. For more of the science, check out emotions-r-us.
In larger breeds, their emotional development is often slower, so their later stage fear periods may extend longer than toy breeds, who are maturing faster.
How do I know if my puppy is in a fear stage?
Your puppy’s behaviour and response to stimuli (that’s a fancy way of saying ‘things’) will often tell you if they’re in a puppy fear stage.
Signs that your puppy might be in a fear period or sensitive period:
- Your puppy can become spooked by things they were previously totally fine with. Their water bowl, a carrier bag blowing down the street, a man in a cowboy hat!
- Your puppy has a poor startle and recovery rate – this is where they stop what they’re doing, hide, won’t continue, pull toward an escape route, or bark in a ‘keep away from me’ manner.
- Acts afraid of objects, people, or unfamiliar things.
- Massively overreacts to something fairly neutral like a broom, the vacuum cleaner, or mop and now won’t go anywhere near it.
What can I do to help my puppy during each fear stage?
If you feel like your pup is going into one of their puppy fear stages, there are things you can do to help comfort them and teach them to be big and brave. Follow some of our tips below so your puppy’s fear periods don’t become long-lasting phobias.
Puppy fear periods should feature positive exposure, not just exposure
When teaching your puppy to explore new places, environments, sounds and smells, make sure that your puppy is having a good time and enjoying the experience, use food and praise to create positive associations. Take a look at whether your puppy’s having a good time by reading their body language.
Let your puppy go at their own pace
Don’t rush your puppy to ‘get involved’ or lure them into scary situations. Let them investigate things in their own time, and when they’re ready. Puppies take in a lot of important information just watching. Check out the ‘watch the world go by’ lesson in our puppy training app to see how this works.
Puppies in a fear stage need time to recover
The ability to startle and then recover is such an essential part of your puppy working through their fear stages. Checking out what’s going on in the surroundings and then returning to what they were doing is vital for learning. This is normal, and you should not be concerned. Don’t rush them, or try and move them along. Patience is key.
Avoid travel or transport when in a fear stage
Many puppies go to their new homes at 8 weeks of age, and this can be in the middle of a fear period. If you’re bringing your puppy home at 8 weeks, we advise a quiet car journey with a family member being there for reassurance to minimise stress on your pup.
Bringing your puppy home in a fear stage
Puppies often go to their new homes during the first fear period, and how this is handled can negatively impact the puppy. It should be done carefully so as well as travelling to their new home as we described above, do your best to minimise exposure to intense and brand new situations. We know you want everyone to meet your puppy immediately, but keep visits from strangers or meeting strange dogs for later on. Oh, and make sure you’ve puppy proofed the house too!
Use classical conditioning when in a puppy fear period
Use food to teach your puppy that the noises they’re hearing, the sights they are seeing, or the smells they are sniffing in the air are lovely by pairing these potential stressors with something yummy!
Don’t force interactions when your puppy is in a fear stage
‘Pass the puppy’ is a game that used to be played at puppy classes. How lovely we could all cuddle each other’s puppies! But for many puppies, being cuddled by a stranger is terrifying. Allow your puppy to approach and say hello, but don’t force them and don’t pass them around. They need you for security, not a random person they don’t know.
PRO TIP: You can’t reinforce fear, but you can teach your puppy to be brave and confident by not forcing them into situations or pressuring them to go past their comfort zone. Keep things light, cheerful and low stress to build your puppy’s self-assurance, and give them a choice to opt out if they’re not comfortable.
Most of the time, the way you treat your puppy when in a fear stage won’t be much different to how we advise you to teach, train and school them when they’re not. That is, go at their own pace, watch their body language, use food to create positive associations, and remember you are a great comfort, and they look to you for direction. Fear periods can extend until a puppy is almost an adult, so treat their emotional health with care, love, patience and support.
We’re here to help you support you and your pup through this time of their lives, download the Zigzag puppy training app and speak to the experts for more ideas of how you can help your puppy as they go through puppy fear periods. We have a team of qualified dog trainers and behaviourists all over the world (yes, both hemispheres!) to speak to you on WhatsApp, email, or maybe you need a reassuring chat on the phone?
All of the training in the Zigzag app is set out for your puppy’s emotional journey and developmental periods, we also cater to your puppy’s breed! No other app is as personalised as that! Give it a go and start your puppy training journey today.