The Fear/Avoidance Period for Puppies

From 8-10 weeks of age puppies enter the fear/avoidance phase of their development.  This can be one of most crucial times for the pup and owners need to be aware that pups can be especially sensitive to traumatic experiences and poor handling which can result in long lasting emotional scars (The Art of Raising a Puppy by the Monks of Skete).

Sacajawea turned 8 weeks old on 8 March.  I know from experience with other pups I have raised and especially with rescued pups that I need to attend to my new pup with care.

For some rescued dogs that are older, they may have had unpleasant experiences during this phase.  We adopted Ruger when he was four months old.  He was timid, anxious, easily scared.  He gradually grew comfortable with us but at 7 years of age he still has anxiety.  When I go to town, I usually take all the dogs with me unless it is too hot or too cold.  Ruger always wants to go but once we get out of the yard and onto the road he starts panting and never really stops.  Sometimes when I park he will lie down but as soon as we move again he is up and panting which I see as anxiety. 

He is also a major barker and in watching him, if he is barking at someone on the other side of the fence, he is tall, tail up, ears erect.  I think the barking gives him confidence.  And I am sure that based on what I know of his history, he did not have a good 8-10 week period. He has definitely improved under our care but the old wounds still show up when he is anxious.

I asked Nancy Tanner (Paws and People), a trainer I respect, about this period of time and here are her comments:

“You don’t want to avoid things completely during this time period, you want to expose, but choose your environments carefully.

If you go for a walk, don’t go by other barking dogs

If you go into a store, make it for 5-10 minutes and not the afternoon.

All experiences should be paired with something the puppy perceives as rewarding – (chicken, steak, buffalo are pretty high value for a puppy outside of the home)

If your puppy has the memory of great tasting and smelling things when in a new location or with a new situation, they create a positive conditioned emotional response.

For sure building coping skills during this time is important too as long as the environment is not too much. Let our new pup wonder around the yard a bit during varied weather conditions or noise times of the day and let her work through investigating and gathering information. If she comes to you tell her good girl and pet her. If she balks at something, but not by much, sit down and just start rewarding her and petting her, and let her ease into whatever is a bit much.

If something is way over the threshold and she is coming unglued, pick her up and get out of dodge being as neutral as possible

Some dogs go through a terrible fear period and they are really ‘raw’ to the world and you have to be careful, others breeze right over it and you would never know… they are all different.”

I took Saca to town with me on Thursday; her first real test although I was confident she would do ok based on how she had responded to her first five days here with so many new things to deal with.

On the ride to town, she cried a few times but not much. When we reached our destination, we walked around outside.  It is a busy part of town with lots of traffic, people walking around but she seemed more interested in sniffing the grass, trees, etc. than focusing on the activity.

Then we went into the office where the meeting was.  As we waited, she was at first interested in her surroundings but since it was mid-morning it was nap time and she was nearly asleep in my lap when the person came out to greet me.  Immediately Saca was awake, tail wagging, went right over to the person who picked her up.  I then walked her around the office for a bit, to different rooms, all of which were very interesting to her.  She met one more person and was very excited to see her too.  We were only there about 10 minutes and I took her out to the car, put her in her crate where she waited with the other dogs until I was ready to come home.

I think it was a good outing.  I saw no fear or avoidance, just tail wagging excitement so it feels good that maybe we are on the right path and my girl will grow up without any painful issues that could be created during these very important two weeks in a puppy’s life.

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