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Puppy Fear Periods – It’s A Vulnerable Time!

By Fran Jewell

Pele, one of my puppies, earned her AKC Canine Good Citizen title at 4 1/2 months old. The key to her being so well behaved was early training at home, and very positive life experiences, not forcing her to socialize in uncontrolled situations. Here, Pele is doing a sit-stay with a visiting youngster at a supply store while other puppies were on leash just feet away! Photo credit: Fran Jewell

Many of us have heard of the “fear period” for puppies that usually occurs during the ninth week of a puppy’s life. From six to eight weeks is also a critical period for puppies to learn bite inhibition from their mother and siblings. This is why many responsible breeders will not let a puppy go to their new home until after that time.

What is critical here is to understand what a fear period is and how complicated it can make “socializing” your puppy. Fear periods are certain times in every puppy’s development where overly cautious or fearful behavior seems to take over. Puppies that see something one day and are completely happy about it may on the next day be completely afraid of it. There are usual times that puppies go through these periods, but each dog is individual and may go through them at different times, so I hesitate to give you exact times they occur. Some dogs, because of their temperament, never go through noticeable fear periods. This is where the complication comes in. We simply cannot predict with accuracy when an individual puppy will go through a fear period. It just happens.

If a puppy has a bad experience during a first year fear period, that experience can ruin a puppy for life. As an example, if I take my puppy to a dog park that first year, she may be having a great time playing with other dogs, but if a dog comes along that hates puppies and aggresses that puppy, it can emotionally scar my puppy for life, making future dog-to-dog experiences traumatic and even very aggressive. Once this happens, it can be almost impossible to reverse that defensive, fearful behavior.

The dark side of socialization is that if the “socialization” is done incorrectly, it can put that puppy at HUGE RISK of emotional trauma that may never be fixed. We may never be able to anticipate when that fear period will happen.

When I socialize my puppies, I ONLY let them play with known dogs ,such as a very reliable dog belonging to a friend. I only let them play in a confined or fenced-in yard so that unexpected dogs cannot enter. I also take them to places where the other dogs are in control, such as a class, or in an area where all dogs must be leashed. Socializing does NOT MEAN letting your dog play with every dog it sees! Proper socialization is controlled so it is always a POSITIVE EXPERIENCE even during a fear period.

I may start a puppy play time with some basic obedience. such as a sit or down. I also don’t let a wild, jumping, crazy dog go play. If I do, then what I have done is to reward that crazy behavior with play. I want to reward nice manners with play time. That means the dogs I socialize my puppy with must have some manners too, if I ultimately want to protect my puppy during a potential fear period and want to teach my puppies basic manners when other dogs are around.

Owning a puppy can be very complicated. But, to have a puppy that has a healthy outlook on life, we need to protect them their first year and do our very best to make every experience a positive one!

Fran Jewell is an IAABC Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, NADOI Certified Instructor and the owner of Positive Puppy Dog Training, LLC in Sun Valley. For more information, visit positivepuppy.com or call 208-578-1565.

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