I was walking Rosie, a happy, well-socialized 9-month old Chocolate Lab through my neighborhood when she uncharacteristically barked and stiffened. I could tell that something had spooked her even before I looked up to see a man with a big hat and huge sunglasses working on his mountain bike in his front yard. Luckily, he was unfazed by her reaction, and even more luckily, he was dog savvy and kind. He immediately removed his hat and glasses, knelt down and said to Rosie, “Hey, there, I’m not really that scary am I?” in a calm, cheerful voice. She responded by wagging enthusiastically from the shoulders back and greeting him in her usual, friendly way.
It was the second time in two days that Rosie had been startled by someone who previously would not have bothered her, so I knew that she was entering a new developmental fear period that is common as puppies approach a year of age. Many young dogs become more fearful of new people and new things than they were as puppies. My mentor, Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D. half-jokingly called it “Juvenile Onset Shyness” because so many sociable dogs become a little nervous as they emerge from puppyhood and enter adolescence.
If your adolescent dog suddenly seems a little skittish, but has previously been more confident, it is likely that your dog is just entering a normal developmental fear period during which new things (and even not-so-new things) seem scary even though they didn’t used to. It’s so useful for guardians to know that this stage is temporary and that it is completely normal. Within a few months, your dog is likely to be just as social and happy about whatever the world brings his way as he was when he was a puppy. (If your puppy always found the world to be a scary place, he will most likely continue to be cautious or fearful as an adult, but he may be even more so in adolescence.)
What does a fearful dog look like?
Fear-based behavior can vary widely—from cowering under the table when a truck roars by to lunging at and even biting visitors—people don’t always recognize that the dogs exhibiting this behavior are fearful. Fearful dogs may also adopt telltale body postures: crouching in a lowered body position or lying down and freezing. Many dogs whine, bark or make other distress vocalizations.
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Most dogs move past this “fear period” without any special care on the part of guardians. However, your behavior can make big a difference in how this fearful period affects your dog, and there are ways to help your dog as he is going through it. When your dog is spooked by something, follow these general guidelines.
How to Help Your Puppy During a Fear Period
Talk in a relaxed, cheerful way to your dog, perhaps saying, Yes, that’s a really loud truck, isn’t it? Oh, look, there it goes down the road. Obviously, your dog won’t know what you are saying, but your normal conversational tone of voice can help your dog calm down.
If your dog wants to be near you, feel free to pet him or play with him. You want him to come to you when he needs to feel more secure. There is no need to worry that you are reinforcing your dogs fears. You are just providing comfort, as you should.
Don’t panic or react dramatically. If the dog is out of control, it is all the more critical that you stay relaxed. Try to control your own startle response to your dog's barking or lunging if possible.
Don’t force your dog to approach something that he fears. That will just make him more scared, and that is counterproductive. If your dog wants to get away, that is fine. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is minimize his exposure to something overwhelming, even if that means turning and heading the other way. Don’t make a big deal of stopping suddenly, saying, “Oh, no!” and hightailing it out of there. Just calmly turn and move away from what is scaring the dog so that he doesn’t get any more worked up. If your dog can count on you to get him out of situations that scare him, that is good for his confidence and builds his trust in you.
Show your dog something he loves whenever he is nervous. So, if your suddenly widens his eyes and looks nervous when he sees a new person, try to have as many new people as you can toss him a great treat when they are far enough away that he is okay with them. If the garbage truck sets him off, give him a treat or pull out a tug toy every time one goes by. The important thing is that it is something the dog loves. The more you can teach him that things that spook him predict good things, the easier it will be for him to overcome his adolescent fears.
I immediately came home from the walk during which Rosie was unnerved by the man in sunglasses/hat and worked on associating both items with treats. Several times, I put on my sunglasses and gave her a treat, and did the same thing with hats. I want her to have good associations with those items, which make many dogs nervous. I also asked several men in my neighborhood to give her treats and to play fetch with her.
How have you handled dogs while they were experiencing “Juvenile Onset Shyness”?