So the fear period…that’s fun. I distinctly remember the day Shelby started going through it. She was about 6 months old, and we were in the backyard training. The neighbors’ kid came outside with one of his friends to play baseball. Shelby took off after the ten year old who she had played with at least three times a week for her entire life with us, barking and growling, hackles raised like she was going to attack. She stopped about twenty feet away from him and kept barking. When he tried to come up to her, “Hey Shelby, it’s me, it’s just me,” she turned and hightailed it back to me, hiding between my legs, tail tucked, head stuck out from behind my legs, growling deep in her throat.
I sighed, walked to the boy, handed him a few treats and had him throw them at her. She didn’t eat them, just stayed far back and barked. I went back to her, clipped on her leash and took her inside. It had begun.
While dogs go through several fear periods in their lives, it’s this one, sometimes referred to as the Second Imprint Fear Period, or Second Impact Fear Period, that is most prevalent. It varies from dog to dog and breed to breed, but typically it begins when the dog is around 6-9 months old and lasts anywhere from 9 months of age to 18 months. For brevity’s sake, I will skip a majority of the science and just mention that most species of animals go through fear periods, domestic and wild alike, though the ages they go through them vary drastically (with wild animals beginning the fear period much sooner than domestic ones).
So how do you handle the fear period? With patience, kindness and perhaps several dozen bottles of wine.
Most trainers (traditional and punitive trainers included) will tell you that patience is foremost on this list. Dogs don’t have the capability to rationalize their emotions, so when fear takes over they can’t talk themselves out of it like people can (sometimes). It takes a lot to overcome it, and some of that can only come with time, which means you, as the dog parent, need to be patient (this is where the wine comes in).
From a positive training perspective, overcoming the fear period also includes a renewal of socialization and more treats than you can imagine. It’s also a good idea to try and find the dog some work, be it trick training or herding sheep. If the dog is working, their SEEKING system (the curiosity system and reward center of the brain) is turned on, which means they are much less likely to become afraid.
The socialization now is going to be more delicate than the socialization you did when you first brought puppy home. When you brought puppy home, he/she was pretty much a giant sponge, accepting everything you introduced him/her to. Now, he/she is just the opposite. For that reason, it’s important to be very conscious of your dog’s behavior and remove him/her from any situation that has become too stressful. The best way to tell if your dog is experiencing fear overload is to note when and if he/she stops eating treats. If he/she is no longer eating the treats people are throwing for him/her, you should quickly but gently remove him/her from the situation, because he/she has mentally shut down and the socialization session is no longer productive. Put him/her in a crate with a bone or a room where he/she feels comfortable and relaxed.
Here’s the situation: A friend or two has come over to pay you a visit. Even if your puppy has seen them before on multiple occasions, he/she is acting like they are complete strangers, barking his/her head off and growling in what appears to be an aggressive fashion. However, when one of your friends moves toward the puppy, the puppy either turns and runs, or backs away. He/she may even tuck his/her tail. What do you do?
The best way to approach the above situation would be to ignore the behavior entirely. Instead, go to your friend, greet him/her as you normally would and give him/her a whole bag of your dog’s favorite treats. Have your friend throw the dog treats from wherever the dog is standing (where the dog is positioned is the place the dog feels the safest, and you don’t want to force the dog any closer than he/she feels comfortable). Go about your conversation with your friend as best you can without paying any attention to the dog at all. Let your friend keep throwing treats. If the dog settles or just stops barking, praise profusely while your friend continues to throw treats. This is when being a clicker trainer really comes in handy. If your dog is pre-programmed to feel happy when he/she hears a click you can click even the tiniest moments of silence whereas just using praise or a verbal marker may take longer to get out and by the time your praise comes out, the dog may be barking again, leading you to praise the “wrong” behavior. Either way, however, it’s okay if you mess up, as long as a majority of the praise gets in at the “right” moments, your dog will get the hang of it.
Here’s where we had a problem.
One of our most common visitors is the neighbor. She’s great, and we love her dearly, but she believes very strongly in the “alpha dog” model. She also thought that Shelby’s fear was actually the beginning signs of aggression and the only way we were going to get that under control was to “dominate” Shelby. When we explained to her we weren’t going to do that and that it was a typical developmental period in a dog, especially among the herding breeds, she decided to take matters into her own hands. Quick as a flash, she moved forward and aggressively touched Shelby on the neck, making a loud “Acht” noise as she did. Shelby submissively peed all over the floor, yipped and hid behind my legs. I did every breathing exercise I could think of, then said, “See? Fear.”
She quickly agreed with me that it was indeed fear and even agreed to try our methods. Now, when she comes to the door, she throws treats at Shelby, and Shelby is starting to warm up, licking her hand occasionally or shoving her head in our neighbor’s pockets, sniffing for food.
The moral of the story – not everyone is going to be on board with your methods. The best practice is to brief guests on what is going on with your dog, explain to them that you are going to give them treats and for them to just be patient, throw treats and wait for the dog to come to them. Warn them that sudden movements may cause the dog to start up all over again, and urge them not to make direct eye contact with your dog. I’ve found that most people are receptive, especially when they try it and the dog settles.
Another really great way of combatting the fear period that we’ve been using with Shelby is a game that Carolyn taught us that she calls “Rules of Human Engagement”.
The game is simple, and you can play it with friends and family alike, and it actually teaches your dog not only to love people, but also how to be handled by other trainers and/or members of your household (a big plus in my family, since Shelby is much less likely to respond to Joe than me).
Start out with you and your dog at the threshold of the dog’s safety point, far enough away that he/she can focus on you. (I’ve found it’s best to teach this game to your dog with someone he/she isn’t afraid of like a member of the family and start about five to ten feet away). Cue your dog to perform a behavior that you are 99% confident he/she is going to respond to (normally a sit or a lie down). When the dog does it, feed them a treat. Then, tell them, “Go visit [insert the name of whoever you are playing with]”. The other person should call the dog’s name while you (the primary handler) become a tree, looking up in the sky and staying still, ignoring the dog. If the dog still doesn’t budge, the other person should run in the other direction (live prey trumps dead prey). When the dog reaches the other person, the person throws a treat at his/her feet. Then the other handler immediately says “Go visit [insert your name here]”, you come alive again and the dog gets to come back to you.
The other half of this game can be played the same distance away, separately or as a joint training session. You (the primary handler) tell your dog to sit, then use a verbal marker (it’s important that you don’t use a click for this exercise) such as “good” or “yes”. The other person (secondary handler) mimics your verbal marker and then throws a treat at the dog’s feet.
In my blog on the Critical or Sensitive Period, I strongly urged even those who were intending on using traditional or punitive methods to avoid physically correcting their pups during this early developmental stage. I will repeat the same urging here.
I know that there are those out there who disagree with me, and that’s fine, but I want everyone reading to have all available solutions, so they are able to decide for him/herself which method is right for his/her dog and his/her family.
In my short life, I have experienced a lot of fear, and though we don’t know exactly how dogs experience fear, and we most likely never will, science has determined that a dog’s fear is very likely similar to our own. That sucks. I hate being afraid, and I don’t mean seeing a horror movie at the movie theatre afraid (which I love), I mean the truly hopeless, horrible situation afraid, the kind of fear that creeps up inside you and makes everything else disappear. The nauseating, permeating kind of fear that takes hold of you, that either causes you to lash out or to just want to crawl in a ball and hide. I’m talking about the kind of fear that makes you feel like you’re standing exposed to gunfire in the middle of a crowded room, chained and unable to move. That kind of fear is debilitating, and if that’s what dogs are going through during this period of their lives, that really sucks. Even if it is closer to that awkward teenage fear of social rejection or stage freight, that still sucks. If someone hit me or choked me or even yelled at me in a state like that, I don’t think I would be less afraid, and I don’t really think it makes your dog less afraid either. In fact, I think it most likely makes them more afraid, and possibly angry.
In a species that doesn’t have the capacity to rationalize their own emotions, it doesn’t take much for fear to escalate into aggression, and that’s just a sad situation for everyone.
This solution may take longer than you want. It may take a lot of work and a lot of patience and a lot of wine, but in the end, it’s really the most humane way to handle the fear period. I was listening to a psychologist speak about hoarding behavior recently, and I heard her say, “Sure, we can come in, and we can clean the house in two days, but if we come back in six months, it’s just going to be the same, if not worse. The only real way to solve the problem is to change behavior and that takes time.” Correcting your dog’s fear is not changing behavior; it’s just coming in and cleaning the house.