Critical Fear Imprint
All puppies psychological growth is learned / affected through their environment, regardless of mix or breed. For a new puppy there is a very special and delicate time frame during their first 3 to 16 weeks of life. This is called the Critical Fear or First Fear Imprint stage.
It is during this stage particularly, that if puppies have a 'bad' or 'scary' experience, the impressions are likely to last a lifetime and resurface during maturity. Once a behaviour has been learned through fear, it is much more difficult to remedy later (or possibly just manage), requiring a lot of compassion, patience, consistency and love, because....
Fear is Not a Behaviour, it is an Emotion
Fear is an intense, aversive and subjective emotion. What can be fearful for one puppy may not be for another. For dogs and animals in general, fear is closely linked to survival. Things puppies perceive as dangerous, that may cause pain, injury or loss of life can become overwhelming if they feel trapped and unable to flee. They may just give up; stop moving and freeze, in a state of learned helplessness.
Fear also interferes with learning. When a puppy is fearful, there is little space for learning. If you try to train a fearful puppy you are unlikely to get any response, simply as they are unable to focus. It would be highly unlikely they would be able to take their favourite food or toy as the fear is over their threshold.
Being aware of your puppies critical fear imprint stage can equip you on how to best prepare, prevent and manage your puppies environment during this delicate time. To help prevent adverse conditioning we suggest;
Try to avoid frightening puppy during this time.
Children or other animals should not be allowed to hurt or scare puppy.
If your puppy becomes afraid for any reason, honour what your puppies behaviour is showing you (dangerous or not) and swiftly step in and remove him/her from the situation. Be calm, don't make a fuss, then direct your pup to something else they he or she loves. i.e/ Fetching their favourite ball, tug of war, other fun interactive play with you.
Second Fear Imprint
Dogs may go through several fear periods in their lives not specific to any age or breed. The one that is referred to as the Second Imprint Fear Period or Second Impact Fear Period is the most prevalent. It typically begins when the dog is around 6-9 months to 18 months of age.
During this period a puppy / dog's behaviour may gradually becomes more and more fearful of situations that they once appeared to be accepting of. They may become overly cautious when approaching people or items tentatively. They may behave defensively by barking/growling/lunging.
So how do you handle the Second Fear Imprint period?
First and foremost, with patience, love and kindness. Dogs do not have the capability to rationalise their emotions, so when fear takes over they cannot talk themselves out of it, like people (sometimes) can. It does take time.
Help your dog during this period by;
Teach and hone your dogs skills; focus, nose work, agility exercises will also help build their confidence in assisting them through this stage.
Teach your dog how to 'relax'. For high energy breeds, puppies, dogs that are timid or anxious, teaching them to relax and be calm is helpful to their overall health and well being. This can be provided through mat training and specific massage called 'Tillington Touch' (view videos below for more information about this method).
Whilst there are many views on the subject of second fear imprint and how best to help your beloved dog through this process, we take the view of Suzanne Clothier who explains it more beautifully than I ever could!
“Comfort is for all seasons, and something that we can offer anyone we love, especially our dogs when they are feeling anxious or outright afraid. Yet in some animal training circles, there is a persistent belief that to comfort an animal who is afraid will only serve to "reinforce the fear." A life spent with many animals in many situations has taught me that providing meaningful comfort is the sensible, loving response to any friend in need.”
Calming a Fearful Dog – Suzanne Clothier, Relationships Centered Training
Also, recommended viewing on 'Tillington Touch'....enjoy!