Written By: Erin Wigginton, CPDT-KA
Most of us have heard recommendations to socialize our puppies and I think that we can all agree that appropriate socialization is a wonderful thing. But why are we, as canine professionals, so adamant that appropriate socialization occur while the puppies are under 16 weeks old? Surely a five-month-old puppy should still be socialized. Yes, of course, but here’s the rub…socialization can become much more risky and remedial once a puppy crosses the threshold into adolescence and enters what is known as the “secondary fear period” (also known as “fear of new situations” or “FNS”). The “primary fear period” or “fear impact period” occurs while puppies are, usually, still with their mothers and have not gone to separate homes. Therefore, I will be focusing on the secondary period since it is most often experienced by new owners.
Before I go any further, allow me to define the “secondary fear period”. The “secondary fear period” occurs anytime between the ages of four months and eleven months of age. It is a time during which puppies are developing quickly both physiologically and mentally and are learning to test and experiment with their surroundings. This stage of development has great potential to shape your adolescent into a fantastic adult dog. Lacking early, appropriate socialization, however, it also has great potential to traumatize your youngster and create life-long behavior problems.
To safely maximize the potential in your young dog you can follow these simple steps:
Pay attention: Watch you dog for signs of stress or insecurity such as yawning, panting, or refusing treats (Signs of Fear In Dogs). If you notice these signs, remove your dog from the situation and give him time to calm down in a safe place. Unless your dog’s safety is at risk (an emergency trip to the vet, for instance), NEVER force your dog to endure a situation in which she is over-stressed. These situations can quickly turn from anxious to aggressive if you don’t help your dog to feel safe. Dogs can’t learn if they don’t feel safe so, safety FIRST and THEN training!
Take it slow: If you see that your dog is nervous, give him options. Allow him to go at his own pace to explore/investigate/greet and never push/pull him toward something he’s unsure about. If someone tells you you should just make your dog “face his fears”, have them consider that if you take away a dog’s option to flee, all he’s left with is the option to fight…who wants that? It also demonstrates to your dog that he can’t trust you to keep him safe which hurts your relationship and will slow any training process!
Make positive associations: If you know your dog will be exposed to something new or potentially frightening, make sure you bring truly tasty treats with you. As your dog behaves appropriately and becomes less fearful of the new situation, reward him! This will help him to associate wonderful things with formerly stressful situations and help him be more comfortable in the future. I always do this when taking youngsters to the vet.
Practice often: Improvement doesn’t happen without deliberate practice. Practice short sessions (15-30 minutes) a couple of times each week. It’s also helpful to keep a journal of your progress. It can help you see what needs more work and also be rewarding to look back on and see how far you’ve come!
Get Help!: If you are concerned that your dog is very fearful or even becoming aggressive in certain situations it’s time to contact a professional. Talk to your vet about options and search for a reputable force-free trainer in your area (www.apdt.com or www.clickertraining.com). If you happen to be in the St. Charles, MO or St. Louis, MO area, feel free to contact Helping Hounds! We’ll be happy to help!