Our well-socialized puppies are generally playful and confident, so it can take people by surprise when these same puppies become spooked or fearful seemingly overnight—welcome to your puppy’s first fear period!
Puppies go through an emotional growth stage of life from approximately five to seven months. This is an important time in puppy's development and it’s important for them to be safely and intentionally exposed to new sights, scents, and sounds, as well as meeting new people, dogs, and other animals. During this critical period and as puppies go to their new homes and families, we are careful to watch them closely and help hone their coping skills.
Knowing that puppies are little sponges, soaking up everything they see and hear, you want to be thoughtful about what your puppy experiences during this time. It’s important to not overwhelm puppy and instead to create situations where they can explore meeting new people and having new experiences without being pressured or forced to interact. Even the boldest and experienced puppies go through a phase of being worried or scared about something that might seem silly to us. Just because we know that the vacuum cleaner turning on, a plastic bag is blowing in the wind, your puppy doesn’t have the same understanding of the world. Fear periods are a developmentally normal part of growing up for dogs and something for us to be thoughtful and intentional about preparing for. If you approach the situation in a orceful way, it is far more likely to backfire and create a bigger and possibly long-lasting fear. Instead of making your puppy do things that scare them, give them the space to explore and take their time. Try to turn the scary situation into a positive learning opportunity.
Allow your puppy to move away from whatever they are scared of. They will look to you for guidance. Let your puppy control how close they get to what scared them, and don’t pressure them to get closer. Praise and reward with treats or toys for any positive curiosity or interaction including looking at the object, stepping towards it, sniffing, etc. Keep the training session short and fun. It’s okay if your puppy doesn’t overcome the fear and get completely comfortable with the object that worried them. Try not to make a big deal about the thing your dog is afraid of, but incorporate it into future training sessions. Reward your puppy for looking at you, and any engagement with the thing they are scared of. If possible, engage your puppy with a toy. Let the puppy control the pace and stay at a distance they are comfortable with.
Fear periods can take everyone by surprise but try not to panic. It can be helpful to keep a list of things your puppy is nervous about and try to incorporate those into future training sessions. You might be surprised to discover that the balloon that terrified your puppy yesterday might not faze them tomorrow. Try to remember this is a normal stage of development and, although it can be tempting to want to quickly show your puppy there’s nothing to be scared of, there are no shortcuts through a fear period. Your puppy is taking in an overwhelming amount of information about the world and is looking to us for reassurance and guidance. It should be our training goal whenever possible to make those experiences safe, fun, and positive.