Few dog owners I meet know that there is a first fear period. Even fewer know about a second one.
It’s easier to pinpoint the first ‘Fear Imprint Period’ – some say between eight and thirteen weeks, others as small a gap as between 8 and 10 weeks.
The Second Fear Imprint Period or Fear of New Situations Period (also called Secondary Fear Phase) can be anywhere between six and eighteen months.
That’s not very helpful, is it.
How can people know when to be extra careful as their dog approaches a second fear period? How long will it last? Is it the same duration with big dogs and little dogs, working dogs, companion dogs and so on? I can’t find any real research on the subject.
As the second fear period seems to be associated with the dog’s maturing sexually, it will mean that in large breeds the fear period may develop later than with a smaller dog.
It’s important to accept that if a dog becomes suddenly fearful a fear period is worth considering but it may be to do with something else altogether. It goes without saying that any sudden change in behaviour warrants a trip to the vet to make sure there is nothing physically wrong.
PetHelpful.com explains, …’During these distinct periods dogs may gradually become more and more fearful of situations they once appeared to be accepting of. The fear may be manifested by overly cautious behaviors, where the puppy or dog approaches people or items tentatively or defensive behaviors involving barking/lunging/growling. In some cases, dogs may act bold towards certain stimuli and uncertain with others…’
According to Meghan E. Herron, veterinarian and Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, ‘…fear period is therefore a stage during which the puppy or dog may be more apt to perceive certain stimuli threatening. During this time, the puppy is very sensitive to traumatic experiences and a single scary event may be enough to traumatize the puppy and have life-long effects on his future behaviors.’
This is what I believe had happened with a dog I went to the other day and why I have been trying to find out more about it.
Herron continues, ‘It is a survival mechanism because, as explained by Patricia McConnell in her book ‘For the Love of a Dog’, lack of caution now they are fully mobile may cause them to easily get killed’ This also, unfortunately, also coincides with the time most puppies are separated from their litter mates and go to new homes.
Dogs may suddenly start to appear fearful of new things that they would have coped with easily previously including inanimate objects. It can result in barking and lunging and pulling on the leash so this fear period has a big impact, causing the owner to worry about the dog’s behavior.
Clarence Pfaffenberger, author of The New Knowledge Of Dog Behavior, suggests there is a third fear period taking place in early adulthood. During this time, the level of aggression may increase and the dog may appear more protective and territorial. Some believe there may even be a fourth period as the dog reaches early adulthood.
Nancy Frensley, behavior and training manager at the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society in California, gives four possible fear periods. ‘Fear periods in puppies generally occur during these ages: 7 to 9 weeks; 4 to 6 months; at about 1 year; 14 to 18 months’.
Gail T Fisher calls the second fear period ‘Fear of New Situations’ (FNS), when the dog is reluctant to approach something familiar, as if seeing it for the first time. She says it occurs between 6 and 18 months of age and may occur more than once. Her theory is that FNS is related to adolescent growth spurts.
‘During these periods, puppies may show fear of items, situations or people with whom they formerly felt safe,’ says Frensley. Submissive urination, crouching, shaking and other related behaviors might be evident.
Laura McAuliffe of DogComm explains the second fear period nicely. Suddenly spooked. The Secondary Fear Phase. ‘Your teenage puppy may suddenly show fear, backing away or perhaps even barking at things they coped well with before- people with hats, flapping carrier bags, people on ladders, bikes and scooters, black or flat faced dogs etc are all top ten triggers.’ Inanimate objects can suddenly become a source of terror!
McAuliffe says, ‘Secondary fear isn’t very well defined in the scientific research and there’s some debate about when it occurs (which is likely to influenced by breed and genetics) and if it actually occurs. It’s well reported though that dogs may suddenly (and hopefully temporarily) become more fearful about certain things…
‘Secondary fear is thought to occur anywhere between around 6 and 18 months old, during the period of social maturation where dogs change from puppyhood into adults. There are complex hormonal and neural changes that also occur around this time and sudden fear may well be linked to these physiological changes within the body. The primary fear centre in the brain, the amygdala, is enlarged at this time meaning that it reacts more sensitively to the environment and stress hormones are at their highest levels in adolescents.
In evolutionary terms, secondary fear also often corresponds with the time (around 8/9 months old) when older puppies of wild and semi feral dogs would have left their family group and ventured off alone into the big wide world. It is thought that a scaredy period at this time would protect puppies from venturing too close to things that could present a danger to them. Perhaps we still see throwback behaviour to this time.’
McAuliffe continues, ‘Not all dogs will have a secondary fear phase and some dogs may have more than one (if you are unlucky!) It typically lasts between 1 and 3 weeks and needs careful handling as there is a risk that dogs may become permanently fearful of certain thing if they are exposed to a very traumatic experience at this sensitive time.’
So, do we wait on tenterhooks for our teenage dog to develop ‘sudden spookiness’, to become territorial and maybe suddenly reactive to other dogs and people or refuse to go out of the house?
I hadn’t myself much considered the second fear period until recently, but it is really important. How many adolescent dogs are there in shelters? It speaks for itself.
I guess it can be comforting to know there may be a reason for sudden ‘out of the blue’ reactivity, that it’s to be expected and not something we ourselves have inadvertently caused.
To go to my main website and read case stories of many dogs I have been to and helped, please go to www.dogidog.co.uk.