Fear Periods - Watch Out For That Secondary Fear Period
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
One days when Amidi was thirteen months old we were getting ready for bed. My husband turned on his electric tooth brush, which he's used every day of Ami's life, and suddenly Ami flung herself into a corned, shaking and cowering. I shook my head and looked at my husband and said "Secondary fear period. I've been wondering when that would happen". He closed the door to muffle the noise, and I got Ami back on the bed and relaxing. This is a very typical experience when a dog is entering a secondary fear period.
One thing that modern puppy manners classes have become extremely good at is talking about a puppy's fear period. Most trainers will tell you this is a period between (roughly) 8 weeks-14 weeks. This period can also be called the critical or sensitive socialization period. In short, this is the time when puppies get the most bang for their buck - they get the most impact (positive or negative) from the least exposure. That's why most trainers will tell you during this time it is incredibly important to introduce your puppy to as much of the world as possible while also making sure they have only positive experience.
One period that is talked about less often, because it is quite common for owners to only attend a Puppy 101/Intro Puppy/Puppy Kindergarten class and then not return to group classes, is the secondary fear period that occurs when dogs are "teenagers". Often what is emphasized is that teenage puppies are testing boundaries and exploring their independence. This is true, but what is less talked about is that teenagers go through a secondary fear period that involves environmental sensitivity, breed instincts developing strongly, and general insecurity. It can manifest itself in a great many different ways.
A couple of lists detailing growth stages in dogs. Essentially, you'll find slightly different information everywhere you look:
When I was working at a large training center, I'd say that 80%+ of the dogs that came in for our 3 week Training Camp program were dogs between the ages of 8 months and 18 months. Usually, their owners felt they had a handle on their dog's behaviors until they hit that teenage phase. They often came to us despairing and confused as to why their dog was suddenly simultaneously wild, defiant, and scared of everything. Sometimes, you could even see the difference in between weeks of our program. One week the dog would be walking confidently through the door to the training room or outdoor. The next week the dog would be terrified of walking through the door. And I cannot emphasize enough, this is completely normal.
There is the odd dog that never goes through a noticeable fear period as a teenager, you'll sometimes get people who dispute the secondary fear period's existence because "their dog never went through one. You must be doing something wrong with your dog." No joke. I've literally heard people say this and it is such a rude thing to say, especially because like I said, secondary fear periods are the norm. I'll also add, it's likely that their dog did go through a secondary fear period, it was likely just mild and they didn't notice. It can be as subtle as a lab who adores all people hesitating for just a moment when meeting a stranger or an agility dog refusing jumps occasionally for a few weeks.
What I'd really like to focus on though is the secondary fear period in Azawakh, because it can be a doozy and no one really talks about it. Anubi was a fearless puppy. He mostly went through his puppy fear period before I brought him from France at 16 weeks. When I brought him home he would jump up on anything, say hi to anyone, play with any random dog. I knew, as he aged, that he wouldn't always be like he was as a puppy. I knew his guarding instincts would kick in and he'd grow wary of strange dogs and people. But it was jarring when it actually happened. His first dog show he stood like a rock for examination. His next dog show less than a month later he spooked at the wind and shrunk heavily from the judge's examination. I knew what was happening but the abrupt and distinctness of the change was honestly mind boggling for me.
Anubi hit his secondary fear period at 9 months. It lasted on and off until he was almost 2 years old. It wasn't continuous. Sometimes at shows he would be a pro and the judge's examination would be no problem. Sometimes it was terrifying. Sometimes at agility he would boof and bark at my agility instructor and balk at contact obstacles. Sometimes he was focused and relatively carefree. Flyball was the hardest for him due to restrained recalls. He was about 15 months when we started flyball training and he was deep in a fear period at the time. We tried restrained recalls (a person holding him while I ran away and called him) and he freaked out. It took a very long time before we could successfully do restrained recalls because of that bad experience. The fear and insecurity definitely came in waves, sometimes with defiance, usually without it.
With Anubi I learned when to push and when not too. There were days in the show ring that we excused ourselves. There were days in agility where we didn't do coursework because he wasn't up to it. In flyball he held a sit/stay instead of being held by a person. I slowly learned how to adapt and help build my dogs' confidence back up. He continued to do neutral dog work for me because it was one of the few places he remained unflappable, but I was careful of how often I used him and I used my mentor's lab far more frequently just to give him a mental break.
By two years old, Anubi had settled substantially. We no longer had to modify any activities, he would let people pet him in public. Therapy dog work became a complete joy again. By three years old Anubi was more wary than he was as a puppy, but I can put him with any dog and ask him to be pet by anyone and he'll oblige. I wasn't sure if I'd ever see those behaviors he'd as a puppy again, but they resurfaced once he was fully an adult. I was talking with another Azawakh owner recently who was remarking on how well her boy was doing in the show ring as soon as her turned the "magical three". I would agree, that seems to be the age of complete mental maturity in Azawakh.
When I brought home Amidi her mental development was slower than Anubi's. She seemed to hit the same benchmarks as Anubi two months or so after he did. Her puppy fear period was closer to 16-20 weeks, which has seemed pretty common within the breed. It makes sense, she is from different lines and I didn't know how she'd develop necessarily. 9 months came and went with her still friendly with people and wary of dogs (something she'd always been). Then 11 months rolled by and no changes. I first started to see a fear period with her around 13 months when she became reactive to dogs and people in her crate - something that she hadn't previously been. Ami has a huge guard dog bark, so this was something that we worked on daily to help her relax. At 15 months she became afraid of noises that she'd been exposed to every day of her life, including the electric toothbrush example above and dremeling nails, something she'd always been good about, became a huge chore and involved a lot of counter conditioning. Unlike with Anubi, I didn't push her, because I'd learned hugely from my first Azawakh and she got over her insecurities much quicker. At almost 2 years old, she is starting to come out of her fear period but I can still see some underlying insecurity.
Amalu has been very similar to Anubi in development. Her puppy fear period was roughly 14-18 weeks and she hit her secondary fear period at the same time (9 months) as Anubi. She's always been a serious pup and quick to mentally mature, so this didn't surprise me in the slightest. Even being my COVID puppy, I think I've been the most successful exposing her to the exact right amount of stimulus so she doesn't end up over threshold. She debuted in her first show at 12 months old and though she was wary of the hands on exam, she tolerated it very nicely.
Some people say hide your dogs away during a secondary fear period, but I like to keep mine out and active, just on their terms rather than mine. If your teenage dog suddenly develops resource guarding or reactivity or fearfulness, please know this is normal, common even (yes, even in breeds that don't have any guarding instinct). My biggest bit of advice is get them into group classes again. My ideal is a teenage dog based class but reactive rover or fearful fido classes can be great too. Even a scent detection or agility class can be great for confidence. But, just because something is a normal part of development, don't let them practice those behaviors, seek out a trainer for help if you need it. When I teach classes I always try to emphasize that you want to take a Puppy 101 class for socialization and basic manners. But it's almost more important for you to come back and take a 102/Teenage Puppy class. I try to make clear that this isn't me trying to upsell classes, I don't care who you take the class from, it doesn't have to be me. I do care that you continue to work with your dog as they enter their secondary fear period.