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Fear Periods, Socialization and Development

An internet search for socialization of dogs will yield a multitude of articles including lists of other dogs, people, places, sensory experiences and things. The most comprehensive and interesting list that I have seen is 200 Absolutely Essential Puppy Socialization Experiences published by the Oregon School for Clever Dogs.

In previous articles we have covered many of the principles of socialization practice. I’ll encourage you to review those articles if you have not already done so. While you practice exposing your dog to other dogs, people, places and sensory experiences you inevitably encounter scary things in the environment. No matter how specific you intend a socialization outing to be, you inevitably encounter the spectrum of dogs, people, places, sensory experiences and things. So, plan your outing with intent and purpose and be prepared for anything.

Socialization, Canine Development and Fear Periods

We have discussed that the first 20 weeks of a puppy’s life followed by adolescence is the critical time for socialization. The biggest challenge though is it’s also the time of two developmental periods of susceptibility to fear.

Veterinarian, Jennifer L. Summerfield describes this dilemma:

“I have discussed the socialization period for puppies in a previous post – this is a developmental phase in which puppies are learning about the world. Things that they see and experience in a positive way during this period will be seen as normal later on.

But – and this is a big BUT – the flip side is also true. Young dogs go through two separate “fear periods” as they grow, which are essentially times when the pup is extremely sensitive to bad experiences.

The first occurs fairly predictably at around 8-10 weeks of age. The puppy is very young at this point and owners are (hopefully!) managing her environment carefully and exposing her to lots of great stuff for socialization purposes, so often times this first fear period passes without any obvious signs or behavior changes – many owners never notice that it has taken place.

The second is more variable, but for most dogs it occurs as a 2-3 week period in late adolescence, somewhere between 6 and 14 months of age. This one is sneaky – it pops up when owners least expect it, long after their tiny pup has become an independent teenager. By this point, most of us are giving our dogs more freedom and no longer micromanaging how they interact with the world. It can be a shock, then, when something happens at this age that turns all of our assumptions upside down.

So what happens during the fear period, exactly?

You may notice that your previously friendly, confident adolescent dog becomes spooky about certain things that don’t normally bother her… perhaps she refuses to go near a new garden flag in the yard, or barks at a man with a beard who says hello to her on the street. This sudden increase in suspicion and reactivity towards things in the environment is normal – as long as you are cheerful and don’t make a big deal of the problem, it will pass on its own and you’ll have your familiar, happy-go-lucky companion back in 2-3 weeks.

The dangerous part is this: during this particular developmental stage, your dog’s brain is on a hair trigger, exquisitely sensitive to anything “bad” that may happen. A single frightening or painful experience during the fear period can have a lasting impact for the rest of your dog’s life.

This is a phenomenon called single event learning – meaning that it only takes one experience to result in an intense, permanent emotional reaction to the trigger that caused it. It makes a lot of survival sense in the wild, when a young wolf needs to steer clear of a dangerous predator without requiring multiple near-death experiences to teach the lesson. But in our pet dogs, this peculiar little “glitch” in the brain’s memory processing system can have devastating consequences. …

So what can we do with this knowledge?

Unfortunately, we can’t keep our dogs in a bubble. The world is an unpredictable place, despite our best efforts… we cannot always control everything that happens to them or how they may react. But, we can try to ensure that scary experiences are few and far between during these sensitive periods of development.

And if bad things do happen – we can recognize them for what they are, and be proactive in responding and addressing the fear before things get worse.”

Trainer, Casey Lomonaco concludes:

Remember that the solution to fear is confidence.Through patient and consistent training, careful management, and developing positive associations, your dog will gain confidence in you and himself.

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