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Mini-Series Topic #3: Critical Fear Periods

This month we examine the issue of critical fear periods in dogs.  It is our experience that despite warnings to the contrary, there is a tendency for students who are team training to want to take their SDIT into public prior to being given clearance to do so. Most fail to either take into account the existence of critical fear periods, or when informed of this they underestimate the importance.  It is important that all teams in training receive instructions about critical fear periods and the fact that if they bring their SDIT into public prematurely and an incident should occur when an experienced trainer is not present to intervene immediately, they can damage their chances of future success as a team.


Puppies, like small children, have critical times during their development when they are particularly susceptible for the development of problems.  In puppies, there are what we refer to as “critical fear” periods.  A trainer must be aware of these time periods.

Critical Fear Periods

There are five separate time periods during the development of a puppy that they are susceptible to developing irrational fear of people or objects.  These time periods occur between the ages of:

  • 7-9 weeks; coinciding with the arrival of most puppies in their new home
  • 4-6 months
  • 8-9 months
  • 12 months
  • 14-18 months

This is important to understand.  Remember that most SD training programs last for 18 months, and many begin when the puppies are quite young.  This is a reminder to trainers that training can not be rushed.  Training should not end prior to the end of the last of these critical periods.

Training Implications

The timing of these periods has implications for trainers.  It is during these times that you may wish to proceed slowly with any outings or field trips, or introduction of the dogs to new situations.

What are the signs?

A dog who develops critical fear may for no reason develop an irrational fear of seemingly innocuous objects such as umbrellas, garden statues, trash cans or any of the other items, too numerous to mention, that may be found in your yard or when out on a walk.

Signs of critical fear can include but are not limited to:

  • excessive barking
  • growling
  • trembling
  • digging their heels in and refusing to approach an object
  • urinating out of fear
  • lunging at the object
How to address critical fear in puppies

It is important to address this sort of problem early on, as a SD must be able to go out into public and work in all situations with confidence.  A growling, cowering or otherwise frightened dog will not be of great assistance to a handler.

As with all else, prevention beats intervention.  During these critical time periods, make certain to introduce your puppy to new public situations slowly and in the presence of a skilled trainer, using ample treats and praise.  Counsel your students not to punish or reprimand their puppy for demonstrating fearful behavior, as this will only make the situation worse.

Introduce the puppy to new people and situations slowly.  When company arrives in your home, it is best to put the puppy in another room until everyone settles down.  Then let the puppy out to meet and greet people.  Encourage the guests to toss a treat towards the puppy while they remain seated.

Use praise and encouragement to increase your puppy’s confidence and comfort levels with strangers.  Remember to talk to your puppy, as the sound of your voice will provide comfort and reassurance.

Remind your students once again that stress and anxiety travel down the leash- if their puppy shows signs of fear it is important that they remain calm! 

Contact us for more information on early training of a future SD?  Our SD 103: Basic Obedience course is a comprehensive training course that is geared towards early obedience training for future SDs, and how to approach early task training to set a team up for success.  This course has been approved by CCPDT for 15 CEU credits for trainers.  The pre-requisite for this course is SD 101.

Classroom News

CB8: Advanced Class – during the month of December this class has been hard at work practicing public access skills, and fine-tuning their ability to perform basic tasks amidst the distractions of new sights and sounds.  They are also learning etiquette in public places.  Our class visited the Phoenix Art Museum this month, and displayed impeccable obedience around expensive art displays.  Kudos to all of our hard working teams.

CB9: Beginner Class – this class is at work to finalize potty training, and master some basic obedience commands such as sit, down and stay.  Our pups are also learning how to walk politely on a leash and heel.  We wish to extend a very warm welcome to our newest student, wounded military veteran Greg Guzman.  He has joined the class and will team train with his own puppy.

Both classes were on recess for the final two weeks of December so that our students and staff could enjoy the holidays with their families. 

Wellness Tip

Each year around the holidays, many families welcome a new puppy into their lives.  We remind all readers that though it is tempting to want to show off your new bundle of joy to all of your family and friends, new puppies do not have a competent immune system and the dangers of parvovirus are very real. Parvovirus is known to cause serious illness and even death in new puppies.  Some practical tips on how to protect your puppy include:

  • Schedule a wellness check with your veterinarian within 3 days of acquiring  your puppy so that you can receive expert advice on vaccinations and preventive measures.
  • Follow-up diligently on all required visits for booster shots
  • Limit exposure to other dogs with unknown immunization status
  • Do not allow your puppy to urinate or defecate in public areas, as parvovirus can be transmitted through contaminated feces.
  • Parvovirus can be tracked into a home on shoes – have visitors and family members remove shoes when they enter the home, and wipe down all areas where the puppy will play.
  • Do not permit guests to pick up your puppy, as parvovirus can be carried on clothing
  • Wash any potentially contaminated areas with a 10% bleach-water solution; be certain to rinse thoroughly to clean up all bleach.

Keep your new puppy safe this holiday season, and always. 

Our Sincere Thanks

We wish to express our sincere thanks to the following for their support of our program during the month of December:

  • Valerie Schluter
  • DAV Auxiliary Unit 1
  • Hills Pet Nutrition / Tim Ganahl
  • Barry MacKean
  • Sue Vereb
  • Tim Smith

A special note of thanks to Hills Pet Nutrition for their generous donation of coupons for free dog food and treats.  These coupons were distributed to military veterans and First Responders who have received SDs from our training program, to help them with ongoing expenses.

Photo Gallery

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