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The Spooky Days of Fear Stages

It can be confusing and surprising to witness your dog suddenly spook at something which has never bothered them before. It could be a wheelie bin that has them backing away and barking in fear, or another object which they’ve encountered many times before without issue.

Perhaps they appear abnormally shell-shocked when you accidently drop a pan in the kitchen, or they cower behind your legs when an unfamiliar person approaches you.

A sudden behaviour change or seemingly out-of-character reaction can leave us wondering what is going on. There can be a temptation to take your dog over to the ‘scary’ thing and show them that it’s nothing to be worried about, or maybe we tell them off for being so silly and reprimand the barking and ‘over-reaction’.

When an unexpected reaction like this from our dog catches us off guard, it’s only natural that we too react, and we may be guilty of handling the situation badly.

Being prepared for these moments can help us respond more appropriately and support our dogs through it rather than adding to their worry and confusion.

What are fear stages?

Firstly, it’s important to understand why a dog may react unexpectedly to something which has never caused them any concern before. Once we understand where the behaviour may come from, we’ll be better able to handle it more positively.

Most dogs will experience what’s known as a ‘fear stage’, this is a period of time in which their fear responses are heightened and previously innocuous things may cause a feeling of fear and anxiety. These periods function to teach dogs what is safe and what should be avoided during a time where a dog is becoming more independent and self-sufficient.

When exactly these stages happen varies greatly between individuals, some may sail through developmental stages without a noticeable ‘fear stage’ while others may experience several of these.

Within the stages of puppy development, there are several key weeks to consider …

Around 5-8 weeks, the fear response is developing and novelty can become scarier to a puppy, this is an important part of survival and acts as a way to keep puppies within a safe area as their desire to explore further is increasing.

From this stage onwards, socialisation can no longer be purely exposure because the element of fear needs to be considered and not everything a puppy encounters will be assumed to be safe and normal.

Gently exposing puppies to new experiences and mild stressors must be done in a way that avoids them being overwhelmed and paired with positive feedback and support, to ensure the puppy continues to feel safe, secure and able to process the experiences positively.

Around 8-16 weeks the fear imprint stage really kicks in. Traumatic experiences in this time can increase the risk of generalised fear responses developing in the future, essentially individuals who experience trauma or repeated stressful events in this stage are more likely to struggle with fear and anxiety later in life.

The learning that occurs in this critical stage can really shape how the puppy deals with novel situations and stressful events in the future. Puppies who have positive early experiences will be better able to handle stress and novelty as they develop and mature, while those who have limited experiences or negative ones, will be far less resilient later on.

At this stage, we must also remember that what we deem positive, may not always be what a puppy deems positive. Some puppies will naturally be better at coping with stressful moments and able to bounce-back with more resilience, while they still need supervision and support, they may not need as much as more sensitive puppies.

More sensitive puppies, or those who have had limited or negative experiences, will benefit from a more gradual approach to socialisation, they will need more support and feedback, and plenty of choice so they are never forced into something they find stressful.

Most notably, this fear imprint stage is often occurring during the weeks where a puppy is moved from the security of their mother and siblings, and into a new home where they’re encountering endless new experiences. Understanding what a puppy is going through at this stage can make-or-break their future development, so handling their early socialisation and experiences carefully and positively is really key.

Secondary Fear Stages

A secondary fear stage (or multiple fear stages in some dogs) can occur from around 6 months to 18months, these stages tend to last between 1 – 3 weeks and these are often the weeks which take us most by surprise and it can feel like a dog has suddenly changed drastically

It’s hard not to panic if your puppy has been developing confidently and appearing to be a relatively well-rounded young dog, when they begin to spook at random things or display out-of-character behaviours, we can be quick to assume the worst or feel the need to ‘fix’ the problem immediately.

While it’s important to handle fear stages carefully, it’s equally important not to swoop in and start trying to fix things straight away.

These stages are rarely a good time for learning, the adolescent brain is a messy place at the best of times, so when fear responses are heightened and the dog is finding everything more overwhelming, trying to teach them anything at this point is unlikely to be very beneficial.

During a fear stage, there’s a balance between accepting it’s a stage which will pass, but also avoiding negative experiences which will have a lasting impact on your dog. We should also be careful not to label everything as a ‘fear stage’; a fear stage is typically a sudden onset of behavioural change and a noticeable change from a relatively confident individual to a suddenly spooky one.

For an individual who is naturally more fearful or who has been displaying signs of nervousness, anxiety and fear from an early age, these dogs need ongoing support and waiting for the stage to pass is very unlikely to do them any good so seeking help from a knowledgeable professional is highly recommended.

What should we do?

In a fear stage, it’s best to minimise exposing your dog to anything which may overwhelm them or trigger a fear response. This may be difficult if your dog is finding a lot of things scary or overwhelming so it depends largely on the individual and their environment. Aim to stick to environments your dog is familiar with, avoid any new places and new experiences, and keep things normal and stable for your dog.

Recovery time is also really key. If your dog does have a fear response to something, giving them time to rest and recover after allows their body to return to normal. When the brain is firing fear signals and remaining on high alert, it’s tiring and draining, it makes it harder to process information and having too much to think about can quickly feel very overwhelming, making stress levels even higher.

Giving your dog more time to sleep or engage in activities they enjoy will help give their brains a break and allow time for their stress levels to normalise again. They will benefit from a quiet place to sleep without being disturbed so their sleep is more productive and restful.

Adolescent dogs are known to have more disrupted sleep patterns and this can have a detrimental effect on their behaviour so it’s even more vital during fear stages to encourage undisturbed sleep.

During a fear stage, some experiences can be so traumatic for the dog that it leaves a significant impact long-term. Known as ‘single-event learning’, a fear can develop from a single event which the individual finds scary or traumatic, and it can leave a lasting association, in some cases this can quickly generalise to wide range of trigger points. We may perceive the experience to have been relatively insignificant, but to an individual during a fear stage it can be highly traumatic.

Take for example, a dog who lives in the city and walks around many people daily, they’ve never shown any sign of fear previously but during a fear stage, a person walks past shouting into their phone and it spooks the dog. To us, a person shouting into the phone is a common event, something which has happened countless times before and we barely even notice. Yet for the dog, that event spooked them so dramatically that they now anticipate it happening again. To begin with, the dog might shy away when they see someone holding a phone to their ear and they may be wary of people talking loudly nearby, this can rapidly escalate and generalise to a wider range of people or trigger points.

The problem with single-event learning is that while sometimes it may be really obvious to us, things like being attacked by another dog or an unexpected firework going off nearby, we can pinpoint the event and understand where the fear started from.

But many times, we are likely to have no idea what the event was, it’s only when we start to see our dog shying away from people, flinching at certain noises or barking and lunging out of fear, that we realise something must have happened.

These single-event learning incidents can be incredibly difficult to undo, especially in individuals who are less resilient by nature or pre-disposed to nervous or anxious traits. This is where the learning which occurred in the early stages of development, primarily in the first fear imprint stage, can become more noticeable and important. Individuals who were exposed to more stressful events or who had negative experiences in these early stages, are likely to find it harder to cope with the experiences they face in adolescent fear stages. They won’t have prior experiences which reinforce to them that they can cope when faced with high stress from fear-inducing moments, so these experiences can leave them unable return to baseline stress levels.

Fear Stage Survival Tips

  • If your dog spooks or reacts to something unusual, don’t try to approach it with them or encourage them to go closer, give them the choice to move away and reinforce this choice with praise or treats. It’s a vital skill for a dog to learn to move away from anything they find scary

  • Try to remain relaxed and positive even if a reaction surprises you, the best thing to do is encourage your dog to walk away from whatever caused the reaction and calmly praise them for moving away

  • Fear stages aren’t optimum times for learning or building associations with scary things, but there’s no harm in using treats to help your dog out if they’re worried by something. You can’t reinforce fear responses so even if your dog is barking and lunging, aim to move them away and reward with treats until they can relax

  • Know your dog’s limits and don’t try to work specifically on any fears during a fear stage, deal with any unexpected moments, but otherwise try to stick to relaxed environments where your dog can feel safe until the stage passes

  • Encourage plenty of rest time and undisturbed sleep, the power of sleep should never be underestimated!

  • Play games which your dog enjoys, either on walks or at home, sniffing or searching games, trick training, food enrichment, and toy play can all be great ways to help your dog relax and avoid any fear-inducing situations

  • For individuals who are very overwhelmed during a fear stage, taking a complete break from walks can be beneficial to avoid any negative experiences, or choose quiet locations until it passes

  • If your dog is displaying ongoing fear behaviours before or after a fear stage, make sure you seek help from an experienced professional who can guide you with force-free training methods and ways to build confidence with your dog

Fear stages can come out of nowhere and single-event learning can occur before we’ve even realised what’s happening, so being aware of when these stages may happen and the warning signs of fear can help reduce the likelihood of negative experiences.

If your dog is struggling with fear-related behaviours, whether it’s a fear stage or not, we always recommend seeking help from an experienced professional. Fear is a complex emotion and it can be hard to know how to help your dog, so working alongside a professional is hugely beneficial.

Written by Naomi White

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