The adolescent fear period

My 15 month old pup is going through an adolescent fear period.  My normally laid back girl is suddenly acting jumpy and fearful of things like...the garbage can. Yep, the garbage can that sits in our yard, in the same place, and has her whole life. Granted once a week it disappears for pick up and then reappears, but suddenly she is leaning back away from it with her hind end like it is a scary monster while reaching towards it with her front end to try to sniff it from afar. And in general she is just a bit twitchy, a sudden noise behind her might cause her to take a little leap. She recovers but she IS jumpy and this is all new for her.

Am I worried? Not particularly. While not everyone knows it, dogs have multiple fear periods and one of them, sometimes called the Adolescent Fear Period, happens sometime between 9-18 months. Occasionally you will see it called the "Fear of Situations Period" and that is a really good name because it accurately describes what most owners see in their beloved pets.  In general, this period corresponds with a major growth spurt in the dog and many believe that is is adaptive in that this would be the time when a dog would go off from the safety of its family and such a fear would help keep it safe in the world. Who knows? Sounds like a reasonable theory to me. 

Frustratingly, the "fear of situations period" has a lot of unknowns including that it can start in a huge window, it lasts for an unspecified period of time and has a wide range of severity. My experience is that is more pronounced in intact females after their first heat cycle and, not surprisingly my own girl just had her first heat a month ago. Since it is growth related, its not surprising that small dogs often experience this phenomena earlier than large dogs.  

The important thing to know is that this adolescent fear period is real and needs to be handled like any fear period, with care and kindness and not exacerbated by the use of force, which at this phase can do real damage by frightening the dog. Training during this period needs to put the dog in a position of success so that she can build confidence while also working things through about what is, in fact, scary.

So no, I am not going to run outside and start implementing a counter conditioning plan for my pup around the garbage can.  I'm going to let her take her time, at her own pace and in her own way, to decide that garbage cans are nothing to be afraid of.

Beware the "Puppy Class"

Puppy socialization classes became a thing about 25-30 years ago. Before that, people took their dogs to obedience classes at 6 months or more and there was no "interacting" between the dogs. They were there to work with their handlers. Puppy classes nowadays happen when pups are between 8-18 weeks and they are a mixture of offleash play, techniques for dealing with puppy behaviors like chewing and biting, and some baby-level obedience like sit. Admittedly, puppy classes are adorable and people love the opportunity to show off their pups and they get the added bonus knowing that they are "doing the right thing."  The problem is:  What if its not? What if the puppy class you take your pup to is absolutely NOT the right thing --  either for that individual pup or for all of the pups?

Here is the deal:  a poorly run puppy class can do more damage than no puppy class. All puppy classes are not created equal. You can have problems with the mix of pups and sadly, puppy classes are too often where the least qualified "trainers" are found. After all, what could be easier than watching a bunch of puppies play?  But It should be the other way around. You need very experienced experts running puppy classes. Trainers with LOTS of knowledge about socialization, body language, fear periods and appropriate interactions. Ideally they also have a good understanding of breeds and breed types and how they differ in terms of play styles, rates of maturity, etc. Finally, they need to be able to see your pup as an individual and not just expect all pups of a certain breed to behave the same. 

The problem is that the damage done by a poorly run puppy class often doesn't manifest itself right away but as your dog matures the problems arise and can be traced back to the formative experiences that dog had in puppy class.  PLEASE, be sure to fully understand the credentials and training of anyone offering a puppy class. Loving puppies is simply not enough to qualify you!  And if, at any time, your gut instinct in a puppy class tells you that something is not right or that its not a positive experience for your pup, then LEAVE. Right that moment. Don't worry about offending the instructor. You are your pup's advocate and you must always have your pup's short and long-term interest at heart.

Get to know your puppy before taking him or her to a puppy class

Get to know your puppy before taking him or her to a puppy class