Do Fear Stages Exist and What Are They?
UNDERSTANDING FEAR STAGES & HOW TO APPROACH THEM
We’ve all heard how puppies can go through fear stages at specific ages where they are exceptionally sensitive to negative experiences. During these stages, puppies are purported to become fearful of the familiar. Do these stages exist? It absolutely seems so, and makes sense in the context of our scientific understanding of canine development. We are going to step away from rigidity here, and ask you to look at the puppy in front of you rather than how many days old they are.
In reality, every dog is different. Rather than approaching puppy-raising with strict numbers in hand, consider developmental markers as a guide. While we will talk about age ranges, always consider your pup to be an individual and allow for variation.
Puppies of more neotenous breeds (i.e. have ‘baby-like’ features such as floppy ears and rather short noses like a Cavalier) tend to take longer to emotionally develop than less neotenous breeds (i.e. like the pointy-eared, long nosed German Shepherd). Larger breeds also develop a lot slower than smaller breeds; a Neopolitan Mastiff is going to take a lot longer to reach maturity compared to a Pomeranian. Keep this in mind not only in relation to fear stages, but in relation to development in general.
Research suggests that those less neotenous breeds, notably the German Shepherd and Yorkshire Terrier, have an earlier onset of fear-related behaviour compared to their ‘baby-like’ counterparts (Morrow et al. 2015). One of the authors of such studies, Dr. Joy Pate, says that “We think that the important message here is that, while exposure to novelty and 'socialization' are necessary for development of stable adults of all breeds, the timing of this critical window is breed-dependent. In breeds with earlier onset of adult patterns of fear-related avoidance behavior (the GSDs and YTs in our study), it is critical that they be exposed to novel experiences earlier than some other breeds.” (Pate, 2015 via Todd, 2015).
How Do I Know It’s a Fear Stage?
It’s fear of the familiar; the pup is having fear responses to things they have been perfectly content with up to this point, and they have not had a recent negative experience.
It comes on very suddenly; it didn’t develop over a long period of time.
Why do Fear Stages Occur?
When we think about it for a moment, it’s obvious. Fear stages tend to coincide with developmental stages that allow dogs to sense and explore the world more keenly. Whether it’s at 5 weeks old or 18 months old, increased sensitivity is useful for quickly learning what is dangerous, and what is not.
How Long Do They Last?
It really depends! For some dogs, these stages may be fleeting and you might not even notice. For other dogs, they might experience this heightened sensitivity for days, weeks, or even months during their adolescence.
What Do I Need To Do Now?
You need to protect your dog from negative experiences, now more than ever. Single-incident learning can be more likely to occur in these heightened states, meaning a pup might learn that something isn’t safe from just one negative experience. Take things back a notch or five, and don’t add additional stress if your pup is already having a hard time. Experiencing minor stress they can practice recovering from can help build resilience. However, if your pup isn’t recovering from minor stress quickly, you need to take things back. This might mean changing walking routines or other plans you had for your pup so you can support them through these stages. If you’re unsure whether or not an experience will be good for your pup, play it safe. If you’re at all concerned about an increase in fear, touch base with your local APDTNZ registered trainer.
Onset ~5 Weeks Old: Starting to Explore
That’s right. Long before your pup is ready to come home they will have gone through a fear stage. Why? At this age, pups generally become physically capable of exploring their environment. Learning quickly what is dangerous and what is safe is important for survival.
Take this as a reminder that at least half of the experiences and exposures your pup has had by 16 weeks old were facilitated by their breeder.
Onset ~8-12 Weeks Old: Keener Senses, Change of Environment
The next fear stage is more well known - the 8-12 week period, where many have just brought their puppies home. At this age, their brains are rapidly developing to adapt to their surroundings while their senses are growing in acuity. They are learning a huge amount of information in a short period of time. Not only does this make them more open to learning good things about the world, it makes them more sensitive to negative experiences as well.
Onset ~6-24 Months Old: Becoming a Mature Dog
The last known fear stage/s occurs during the adolescent period, and ends before the dog is fully mature. At this age, dogs would naturally be branching out more, as they’re no longer completely dependent on the protection and security their family provides. Problem-solving skills are improving. Their brains are in developmental-overdrive, working to make connections and integrate everything together. They’re also being bombarded with important hormones during this time, which adds another layer of complexity to their cognitive and physical experience.
Lindquist/Killion, J. (2000-2020). Puppy Culture [Film & Podcasts]
Morrow, M., Ottobre, J., Ottobre, A., Neville, P., St-Pierre, N., Dreschel, N., Pate, J. L., (2015), Breed-dependent differences in the onset of fear-related avoidance behavior in puppies, Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Volume 10, Issue 4, Pages 286-294, ISSN 1558-7878, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2015.03.002.
Miklósi, A. (2014). Dog behaviour, evolution, and cognition. Oxford University Press.
Todd, Zazie (2015) Different dog breeds, different sensitive periods? [Article] https://www.companionanimalpsychology.com/2015/04/different-dog-breeds-different.html