Originally published on my dog training website, High Spirits Dog Training. Still my writing, still my thoughts, still useful!
Brace yourselves, folks. This is going to be a LONG post, but that's because it is SO. FREAKING. IMPORTANT.
If you have a working breed dog, this is critical reading.
German Shepherds, Herding dogs, Hunting dogs, any kind of dog that was bred for a purpose of working with humans in partnership to perform a task.
What I'm going to talk about in this post is responsible for about 80% of the dog training clients I see. Meaning, this is the thing that was the primary cause of their dog's current problem behavior. Namely, reactivity.
So perk up your ears, grab a cup of coffee, bookmark this to read a couple times, and settle in for storytime.
I first learned about the mysterious "Adolescent Fear Period" from my instructor and mentor Gail Fisher. She even wrote a really great article on the subject, which you can read here.
Unfortunately, it was after my Border Collie Mica had already had a negative experience that I was working to fix.
This event usually happens between 8 -11 months of age, depending on rate of growth. Larger dogs like German Shepherds can experience this around 12 - 14 months of age. (Nearly ALL of my GSD clients contact me around 1.5 - 2 years old about issues that began at 1 year old. Nearly ALL are attributable to the adolescent fear period.)
It lasts anywhere from a couple days to a couple weeks, and it tends to catch pet dog owners unawares. Their puppy looks like a dog now, he or she is well on their way to growing up, and they don't suspect that something new and important is coming. They don't know to look for it.
During the adolescent fear period, the brain goes through growth and what I call (in my non-neurological non-medical expertise) a reset. Similar to what happens in puppies between 8 - 12 weeks old.
Except this time, instead of the dog responding with fanciful, resilient rainbows-unicorns-rays-of-sunshine curiosity like they did in their puppihood, they respond with fear.
Fear is POWERFUL.
Let me say that again.
Fear is POWERFUL. VERY powerful.
It can cause a negative event to become "stamped" upon the brain, and it can happen in an instant.
During this adolescent fear period, a negative experience can have long-lasting, negative outcomes. That's because, unlike a negative event happening in normal, everyday life, the brain is going through a change during this time. Everything has a much more significant impact than usual.
Let me give you two examples from my own dogs that may illuminate this concept a bit more.
When Mica was about 10 months old, we were off leash hiking at a local park. There were rarely people here, and it was great for him to stretch his legs and explore. I knew nothing at the time of what an adolescent fear period was or what to look for.
In retrospect, he may have been acting a tad mushy, a little more clingy, a bit more apprehensive when exploring. Hard to say.
He was out ahead of me and just going up a small hill. Right before he got to the top, two people came over from the other side, hiking on the trail. Their sudden appearance startled Mica, and he let out a couple strong "woof's," tucking his tail slightly and skittering back down the hill. Keeping one eye on them as he retreated.
At the bottom of the hill, he turned to face them again and barked some more. I called him to me, leashed him up, passed the hikers, and we continued on our way. He settled quickly, and I thought nothing of it.
A couple of days later, while we were out and about doing something or other, someone approached us wanting to say Hi and to pet him. Normally, my amazing, friendly puppy would love this, eagerly going up to the human with wiggling body. This time, he went stiff, upright, and barked at them.
"Please do not come any closer!" he said, in no uncertain terms.
We left, perplexed.
From then on, Mica was reactive.
Any time someone made what I call a "full frontal" approach (which in dog body language is quite rude anyway), Mica would bark and try to back away.
It took months of counterconditioning and patient training to restore Mica's faith in humanity and to happily and willingly approach people for pets again.
I'm happy to say that, today, you would never know this had happened. He is incredibly social and resilient.
But it sure opened my eyes to the powerful impact a negative experience during this critical time can have on a dog.
I'll say again, fear is POWERFUL.
To counteract the effects of fear, one must convince the subject that the scary things are not actually scary. As you might imagine, that takes a long time and a lot of consistent, patient work.
So, why is this so impactful to working breed dogs?
One word: sensitivity.
I've worked with a few non-working breed dogs. Dogs bred for pet purposes. Small, lap-type dogs. Large dogs bred for docility. They often tend to have no discernible response to the adolescent fear period. Owners report seeing no change in behavior.
When I started seeing a pattern among my clients with working-type dogs, though, I realized that this was more significant than just the experiences I had with my two dogs.
Dogs bred for a purpose and usually bred to be sensitive to something in the environment.
Herding dogs, for example, must be very visually sensitive to detect slight changes in the herd dynamics and adjust accordingly. They are incredibly perceptive.
German Shepherds, bred to work very closely with human beings in a variety of tasks, must be in tune with their handlers and also notice and respond to environment cues.
I could make more distinctions about dogs bred for hunting or other tasks, but I think the point has been made. (was that a pun?)
So, what can you do to prevent fallout from this fear period?
1. Look for the signs.
You may notice your dog being "velcro dog" or more mushy/clingy than usual. Your dog may become less curious than usual. They be a tad reluctant or more cautious; not their usual outgoing puppy selves.
They might look at something they've known their entire lives as if it is an alien sent to start the apocalypse.
This is where, as Gail states in her article, people can get themselves into trouble. "What's up Fido? You've seen that garbage can a million times! It's just the garbage can! Look, see? Not scary (as they drag their now terrified dog closer to the scary object)." This cements in the dog's brain that, yes, in fact, that IS something to be feared.
You may see overt fear, or the signs may be more subtle.
Regardless, if you notice that something is off, best to just take it easy for a few days.
2. Put the kid gloves back on!
Take all the pressure off. No new things. No vet visits, unless strictly necessary. Hang out at home and watch Netflix.
You can continue to add food/treats to experiences that your pup finds uncomfortable, but do not lure him towards something he is scared of. He does NOT need to face his fears.
I treat this VERY SERIOUSLY.
Maybe I'm going beyond what is practical in responding to this fear period, but I've seen the results, and the ramifications for pushing even a little bit are not worth it.
It takes a LONG. TIME. (repeat, LONG TIME) to get back to normal (and some dogs never get there) after a negative experience in the adolescent fear period, so I say be extra cautious. There is no "crazy dog mom" responses that are too extreme. Because if you can prevent fear and trauma during these two weeks, it is so worth it.
That being said, sometimes even if you do everything right, like I did with River, knowing everything I know, s**t can still happen.
We were doing the Netflix & Chill. I knew she was in it. I knew what it meant and what to do. We were taking it easy.
And River still had something happen that scared her.
And I'm still dealing with the outcomes from that.
While relaxing on the couch, River napping beside me, my neighbor arrived home and slammed his car door. It startled River awake with a cautious "woof? woof" and a whipping head trying to find the source of the sound.
And that was that.
We had several months of reactivity and barking to sounds outside from sources she could not see. Camping was fun, let me tell you...
Lots of alarm barking. And it was difficult to reassure her that everything was fine.
We have improved her response a LOT over the past year (yep, year), but it is still her go to response to certain noises.
It is not the end of the world, but I think it's important to know about. It can do a great deal of explaining "why" about current behaviors, and it can prepare you if you still have a young puppy for what to expect.
It's also not doom and gloom. Some dogs have uneventful adolescent fear periods or just happen to be more resilient or have a lesser or non-existent response during this time. You might be one of the lucky ones.
But it's important to realize that these dogs are inherently more sensitive and to know that it can require more support from us at times. That same sensitivity is why they are SO GOOD at their jobs, and why we love them so much.
Danielle Lindblom CPDT-KA (certified professional dog trainer)