When does it happen?
The time the fear period can happen in adolescent dogs can depend on the breed of the dog and their age and growth range but generally it’s between 6 – 18 months. It’s important to remember that some dogs as a breed can be more sensitive than others. In the book ‘Hardwiring Happiness’ by Rik Hanson there is an excellent description of the brain that explains how the brain is like teflon for good experiences (it washes off easily) and like velcro for bad (it sticks). The good experiences need to have lots of repetitions to stick to the brain – and the same goes for dogs. It’s important that we still manage their life experiences, monitor them and step in when needed. In male dogs testosterone is at its peak so you may find that they get shouted at in the park by dogs a lot more so it’s important that these experiences are managed. Do the 3 second rule (whatever age your dog is) allow them to greet for 3 seconds then encourage them away – if both dogs want to greet again allow them to do so for another 3 seconds.
Why does it happen?
In terms of the canine brain it’s thought that the amygdala is enlarged and that more experiences will go to this part of the brain as it’s easier to reach. If they’re positive experiences like sniffing and enrichment and playtime then this is great but if they’re experiences such as loud noises, intense experiences with other dogs that jump up or walking sticks then they can stick and become worrisome for the dog. The amygdala is thought to be an almond shaped structure in the brain that controls our emotions, however there are some researcher who argue against this – check out How emotions are made by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
What should I look for?
Dog’s show a wide range of body language signs to show us that they are uncomfortable with a situation – they may bark and lunge at the item in question (sometimes offence is the best defence) and I read a great analogy somewhere, (I can’t remember where) that a dog can react one or two ways if they’re scared of something, just like a person would if a burglar came into their house –they might run and hide and stay silent (as a dog behaviours shown may be them shutting down and licking their lip or trembling), or we may go shout and confront (as a dog this could be seen in behaviour like growling, lunging or barking).
There are other dog body language signs that dogs show but because they can be very quick they can often be hard to miss unless we look at them very closely.
I’ve divided these up into key body and facial parts:
The facial area-
Ears – if your dog has pointy ears then they may turn these outwards or down if they are feeling uncomfortable.
Nose – you may notice your dog sniffing the air to get more information about the area and what’s happening. It’s important that we remember that a dog sniffing a person isn’t an invitation for the person to pet them – they are gathering information so a hand’s off approach is best.
Eyes – your dog may show the whites of their eyes if they’re uncomfortable – this is known as whale eye.
The Mouth area –
they may turn the corners of their mouth upwards in a Wallace and Grommit style grimace.
The tongue – they may lick their lip ever so quickly.
They may yawn to take an in breath of air as this is a calming signal and helps them have an intake of breath.
The body –
Main body – they may do a shake off as if they are trying to shake off water – this can be a state of heightened arousal – so could be fear as in “phew!” I’m shaking that off as it was stressful.
Tail – dogs gain vital information about each other by sniffing each other’s backsides. If the dog tucks it’s tail over its rear end they may be trying to conceal vital information about each other.
It’s important to remember that dog’s have different face and body shapes so some dogs will find it harder to communicate their body language as they can’t – pug’s and bulldogs have tiny tails so they won’t be able to tuck their tail to show their insecurity. Similarly, Shar Pei’s and Pug’s have folds on their face so if they are furrowing their brow this is very hard to see, if not impossible!
How can you help your dog?
Sometimes fear, reactivity or aggression can be due to a underlying medical condition, pain or mobility issue so it’s important to get a vet check to rule out anything medical.
If your adolescent dog is scared then it’s important to manage their introductions to things in a calm and managed way. Watch things from afar and give treats while they are watching them.
Make a note of the things that scare your dog and let dog walkers and anyone who cares for your dog know about this.
If your adolescent dog or puppy is barking or lunging don’t tell them off as this may make the behaviour worse – they may suppress the behaviour and escalate to higher signs next time such as growling or biting as the other signs they’ve shown to highlight they’re uncomfortable have been ignored.
Sarah Whitehead, Learn to talk dog course.
Grisha Stewart, The Ahimsa Dog Training Manual.
Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions are made.
Animal Training Academy Podcast, Sam Turner, Adolescent dogs – Development & proprioception training.
Rik Hanson, Hardwiring Happiness.