Why is my dog suddenly afraid?

17th May, 2022

Written by Nicola van Ass – Qualified Dog Trainer, Groomer and Feline Behaviourist

Have you ever noticed a change in the behaviour of your dog where they have gone from being playful, happy, excited animals to nervous, timid, or even aggressive?

One of the potential reasons for this behaviour is what we call “fear periods”.

What is a fear period?

When a puppy is born, they have a finite amount of time in which they need to be socialised in order to know what’s dangerous for them and what’s safe.

If we look at our pet’s ancestor, the wolf, we can better understand why it’s so important for wolf pups to learn at a very young age what’s dangerous and what isn’t. They’re born in the wild, which is filled with experiences both exciting and hazardous. Wolf puppies start what’s called the “critical period of socialisation” before they can see or hear. They’ll use their sense of smell to explore their environment. This happens when they’re only two weeks old!

In contrast, our own pets start exploring their environments almost two weeks later, when they’re about a month old and can almost completely see, hear and smell. This means that after a pup is born at home, they have roughly eight to 11 weeks to get in as much stimulation and exposure to different experiences before the critical period of socialisation is over. After this period is complete, most new things that the puppy is introduced to will be approached with fear.

Much of an eight-week-old puppy’s life is made up of leaving their mother and siblings, travelling to a new home and meeting their new family. Because we’re so aware of this new little bundle of joy, we take extra care in ensuring that they’re looked after, have positive experiences, and are supervised most of the time. We take them for training and puppy socialisation, and this, before they reach three months old, allows them to develop into well-rounded, happy, and confident pets.

What most dog owners are unaware of is a second period when your dog will start to look at new (and often old) things with a wary eye and a timid, shy, or even aggressive approach. This period happens to dogs between the ages of six months to 14 months. It lasts about two to three weeks, and it will vary between breeds, personality, size (small dogs tend to have this fear period sooner, whereas larger dogs fall at the later end of the period), and their environment.

What are the signs?

When we first encounter this change in their behaviour, it can be quite alarming. But knowing that this time of fear is normal for dogs means that you’ll be able to watch for the signs:

  • Your normally friendly dog suddenly starts to act afraid of people, animals and/or strange objects

  • Your dog suddenly starts to bark or react to something that’s been around for a while (like a statue in a garden, for example)

  • They startle easily at noises and voices

  • They start barking or becoming afraid of their own reflection

  • Your normally happy dog backs away from new things and shows signs of fear, such as a tucked tail, ears pinned back and, sometimes, urination

  • Your dog starts to react aggressively to new experiences

How to deal with the fear during this time

It’s really important to remember that if your dog has a negative experience during this time, there’s a good chance that they’ll never forget it. You always want to try and help your dog have positive experiences with whatever you’re doing, be it playing, walking, doing sports, etc.

  • Leave or avoid the situation where your dog is suddenly fearful. If you notice that your dog’s acting fearful on a walk, for example, allow them to leave the situation with you so that they’re not forced to “deal” with that fear. Pushing any animal into an environment that they’re scared of and forcing them to come face to face with whatever they’re worried about, will only make the problem worse.

  • Stay calm. Use a normal tone of voice, don’t shout or over comfort them, but rather use a relaxed, calm tone to allow your dog to listen without reacting to your reaction. If you freak out, there’s a good chance your dog will too. So stay calm.

  • Change their focus. If your dog has a favourite toy or activity, use it as a distraction from whatever is making them scared. A ball, favourite toy, and basic commands like “sit” and “paw” work really well.

  • Use treats to your advantage. If you have a food-driven dog, make sure you have a tin/Tupperware of treats wherever you go. When you need to go to the vet or the groomer, make sure you have treats handy. When you go to dog training classes, make sure your pup has an empty stomach so that they’re much more likely to focus on you and the food instead of worrisome stimuli.

The last thing to remember is that these periods should only last two to three weeks and should cause a sudden onset of behavioural changes that fades away once the period has ended. If your dog is experiencing changed behaviour for longer than three weeks, or has gotten worse over time, please speak to your vet or animal behaviourist to make sure there aren’t any underlying issues.