Sudden Behavior Changes in a Growing Puppy: The Second Fear Period

It's coming! You may be caught by surprise with sudden changes in your puppy's behavior during their SECOND FEAR PERIOD!

Let's discuss the different developmental periods for your puppy once they've left their litter and are making their way to you :)

As we all know, there are very important socialization and exposure needs for a puppy's development. As they grow up, it's important to make sure they are becoming familiar with things and experiences in life that they may run into in the future.

Most puppies are placed with their new family around 8 weeks of age. Depending on the experiences they had with their litter, as well early exposure to environmental enrichment, will determine how your puppy will handle the next window in the development: their FIRST FEAR PERIOD falling between 8-12 weeks of age.

During the first fear period, puppies are at a stage of development where they are tentatively exploring their environment. It's important that they have LOTS of positive experiences during these weeks. It's the responsibility of their humans to help them bravely build confidence and explore new things with patience, using lots of food/play/toys to create engagement and help navigate their nerves. This window of development doesn't just involve being sensitive to fear, but is also an opportunity to create the opposite effect- long lasting positive associations with things that could be scary later. I wish it were called the Sponge Period more than a Fear Period (because your puppy is soaking up the world, what's in it, and how to feel about it like a sponge)!

If you've got an older dog in the house, you'll often see your puppy trying to follow their lead - starting to build confidence and trust in that dog to help them navigate things. This is also a point in time where your puppy needs lots of rest and crate time to build positive association with their kennel, and good sleep/potty habits. This is window of development make your puppy so impressionable, that's why vet visits are full of treats for your puppy at their 8 and 12 week shots (and of course after that too, but especially during this window of development) and you should begin a relationship with a groomer who specializes in introducing puppies to that experience during this critical time.

The next period in puppy development that often catches owners by surprise is the SECOND FEAR PERIOD, starting anywhere from 6 months to a 1.5 years of age.

This second fear period starts as hormones start to kick in during our puppy's growth to become an adolescent. In addition to being more "rebellious" and not the stumbley baby puppy who wants to just follow you around like a shadow anymore, they also can start to display sudden behavioral changes that seem out of character - like barking and growling at things that didn't bother them before.

For example, a young dog may walk down the driveway on garbage day and do some insecure barking at the trash can - even though they've seen that trash can everyday since they've lived with you! Another example would be your puppy growling when someone enters the house or they hear or see a dog outside on a walk. Maybe your child put on their Halloween Costume, a baseball hat, or their shin guards for soccer practice and your puppy is barking or growling. Maybe you are having a party and brought balloons into the house, and your pup is barking like crazy at them floating in your living room.

All of these behaviors are in response to the insecurities that come with being and adolescent or "doggie teenager." The difference between our first fear period and this one, is that we have a maturing dog that may develop practiced habits of biting or using their mouth to express themselves about what they don't like. Before, if a puppy was scared during their 8-12 week Fear Period, they may just freeze or try to get away from the situation. Now, if forced to interact with something that makes them uncomfortable, an adolescent may try to avoid first, but quickly may try to use their mouth or body to express themselves. Most dogs who are biting or charging guests, barking and lunging on walks, guarding food, or getting into squabbles with dogs start expressing that behavior during their second fear period. It can seem like these unusual behaviors come out of nowhere, and that agreeable little puppy we once had is now learning to express themselves as the try to figure out who they will be as an adult dog in your pack.

So what do we do to help our adolescent dogs during this period of development? Hopefully, basic training has already started, but if not, getting serious about obedience training, manners, and leash behavior is a must. Just like children, dogs thrive on structure and guidelines - having a training routine gives owners a routine which creates predictability and guidelines for their dog.

Training can also help build confidence in a dog, as much of this behavior change (not all, but a lot of it) is coming from being unsure or insecure about how to handle triggers in their environment. Training helps create handler awareness and engagement, which gives you a chance to lead them through the obstacles and roadblocks they face.

As their leader, it's also important that we advocate for our dog during this time. That means not forcing them to interact with the thing they are triggered by, and taking control of the situation so your dog does not feel they have to. Many people make the mistake of thinking "he's barking at you, just pet him or try to give him a treat and then he will know you are a friend," and all that really does is put more pressure on the dog, by the person who worries them, and makes them even more worried and defensive next time.

We work a lot on interrupting/correcting the negative reaction and redirecting the dog to us with engagement with food/toy/movement/training. Our goal is to start building a pattern of "see your trigger, now check in with me for good stuff" so that we can create positive associations about it. However, this relationship of "you help me deal with scary stuff" can only develop if we make sure sure that the things of concern stay far enough away, initially, so that we can help our dog get closer - mentally and physically. You'd be surprised how the more you and your puppy face the fear period and practice teamwork, the quicker they pick up the patterns of engagement (through food chasing, using their nose around these things, or even practicing obedience patterns they are familiar with and good at) and react less to their triggers.

Here are some training tips when navigating things of concern:

When it comes to inanimate objects, once you've interrupted/stopped their over reactions, you can begin at a distance to build engagement and gradually move closer. The key to this concept is finding the balance of challenging your dog to face their fears, while also being fair to them in regards to how fast you move, if they seem overwhelmed or struggling.

For example, imagine a scenario where a stranger approaches you on a walk and your puppy starts growling. The first thing you will need to do is tell the stranger "No, you cannot pet my puppy." You will also need to address the growling from your pup. To help your dog feel better, make some space from the person and reinforce engagement with you.

Another example would be seeing a large blow up yard display that is out for the holidays, and your puppy starts barking and trying to avoid it. You can interrupt the reaction of your dog and then find space far enough away from the trigger that you can begin to engage your pup. Start practicing what they know - refocusing your pup using obedience and movement as a gateway to keep their mind busy as you approach the object. You can even toss food on the ground in the direction of it and let your pup move closer and closer on their own accord, as they gather the food. You may see them hop back, that's OK - encourage more exploring with food. Some dogs may even sniff the balloon, realizing it is not that scary in response to the food exploring, while others may only be brave enough to walk past it with your help.

The key to making it through this period is to always encourage your dog to do better, while also being fair to them about what is making them nervous. If you put too much pressure on a dog and you can send them into defense - too little and they may stay stuck and afraid for a long time. You can help them explore the world during this challenging time by being a leader, holding them accountable, and creating engaging experiences with you around triggers. Now you can help your adolescent dog learn how to observe and take in this world, without over reacting to it :)

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