Fear periods and understanding how a puppy develops is critical in raising a stable dog. Unfortunately, few breeders or new puppy owners understand how to raise a confident dog and the importance of fear periods.
A confident pup begins with a confident brood bitch. Her behavior often maps the behavior of her offspring and if she is a shy, hesitant bitch that startles easily, there is a good chance that her pups will be similar. Behavior is genetic to a degree but it is also learned and if mom reacts to loud noises, her babies will react in a similar fashion. A confident bitch will raise confident pups.
Pups are born with only one sense – the sense of smell. They spend the first few weeks sleeping and eating, reacting only when mom walks away or steps on them. Interaction with humans is essential at this time. It causes the pup a mild stress reaction but that stress reaction helps them to develop into stronger, well-adjusted adults.
At about three weeks of age, their eyes open and slowly their eyesight comes in. They also begin to hear about this time and move from crawling to walking. They start interacting more with their mother and siblings and will begin to react favorably to familiar humans. Oddly, there is very little fear at this period in their life. They may complain and huddle together when mom leaves the nest but they do not react fearfully to loud noises or sudden movement.
The first fear period begins at five weeks old and peaks between eight and ten weeks of age. This period also coincides with the first big adventures the pup will experience – its first car ride, visits to the vet, leaves the litter to go to its new home, etc. Anything traumatic that happens during this critical stage imprints in the pups brain and a fearful dog begins to develop.
The next fear period is between six and eight months of age. This one is worse then the first – perceived traumas are greater and the impact on the pup’s behavior is greater. This period also coincides nicely with when the pup is normally spayed or neutered and begins their obedience training.
So what do you do to keep your pup from becoming a fearful dog? Start with the brood bitch. Does she seem stable and confident? Is she friendly, outgoing and intelligent? Is she a good mother – disciplining her pups when needed, playing with them periodically, checking on them and generally interacting with the litter? Now what about the litter? They should be curious, friendly, happy, playful and interacting with their siblings.
Question the breeder about their practices for vaccines, vet visits and socialization. The first visit car ride should happen when the pups are at the beginning of this fear period and it should be to a ‘happy’ destination like a friend’s backyard for a play session. The first vet visit should also happen around this time and it too should be ‘happy’ only – just a chance for the vet to go over the pups but no vaccines or awful pokings at this point. The more the pups get outside and explore their environment in a positive way, the less fearful they will be as adults.
The next thing would be what is the best age for bringing your new pup home? Most breeders say eight weeks but this can also coincide with the peak of their first fear period. Although the two weeks between eight and ten weeks is one of the best times with a new pup, it may be best to leave them with the breeder and their mother until they are a little older. Try taking the pup home for a few hours a day for a few days so that their first night away is less traumatic and ease them gently into their new life.
At ten weeks old, the first fear period is usually over and your pup should be ready to take on the world. The more they are exposed to at this time, the better off they will be in the end. During the next fear period, try to shelter the pup from traumatic incidents – have them spayed or neutered at four months of age (there is no harm doing this early and in fact, early spay and neuter is actually becoming preferred for many reasons).
If after all that you have done, your dog ends up fearful or maybe you have adopted a fearful dog, there is much you can do to help them recover. Exposing them to what scares them in a safe, supportive manner will help. Take the fear of the vet for example. If the dog has only ever been to the vet for vaccines, nail clipping and ear cleaning, of course they are going to have issues with the vet, his staff and the building. Begin by taking the dog by once a week or so for a ‘meet and greet’. Have the staff and vet give him a biscuit and pet him, then leave. A quick, happy, positive visit did not involve anything scary. You do not want to force him too much, nor do you want to coddle him. More importantly, stay happy yourself and ignore his fear – he will take the cue from you that there is nothing to fear. Over time, he will associate the vet with these happy visits and not always the horrible place where bad things happen to him. This should be done with young pups as well although phone ahead to ask when is a good time and if there were any infectious animals in the building in the last 48 hours to prevent your pup being exposed to any diseases.
Fearful dogs can be a handful but patience and work will see them through the trauma.