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Fear-Based Puppy Responses & Continued Training


Throughout the life of your puppy, you will experience many changes and by now I’m likely preaching to the choir! There are windows of time when certain types of behaviors (e.g. fear responses which is the focus of this post) will flare up and this is totally normal and certainly some will do it more than others depending on the continued training they get at home. We have a very detailed program to get them thru the first 8 weeks and to prepare them for the additional training you’re doing at home. If you are not doing anything, you need to give serious consideration to getting a trainer or enrolling in an online video training platform like Baxter & Bella (see attached for coupon code that gives a big lifetime discount). We have done our part, but this training must continue long after they go to their new homes. We try to communicate the need to either get a trainer or to enroll in Baxter & Bella but we wanted to try to hit this straight on and explain why this is so important and how to do this safely during the first 16 weeks when the puppies are not fully vaccinated.

Across most all breeds, including mixed breeds like bernedoodles, you’re going to come across two primary fear-based periods. The first fear-based period will flare up anytime between 8-12 weeks and then you’ll hit a second fear-based period between around 6-14 months. Fear-based periods can include fearful responses to noises, dogs barking, music, really anything that could be interpreted as a threat. Although dogs have been domesticated for a long time, they still carry DNA from their wolf lineage and that includes protective puppy behaviors such as quickly scampering to cover when a threat is perceived. Between 8-12 weeks you’ll see more of this type of behavior. Between 6-14 months these types of responses can be manifested by cowering behavior but can also include barking, growling, ears back and tail down, and in some cases just a bit of unsureness about the stimulus causing this reaction. Keep in mind that these behaviors manifest from a genetic basis that likely came with wild populations of dog ancestors (e.g. wolf).

One might ask what’s the point of doing the puppy training in the first 8 weeks then? Well, there are several key socialization periods as well and the first one occurs during the first 8 weeks, and this is when puppies begin to bond and trust their human family. Without a thorough socialization program, you will be battling that on top of puppy-fear based responses at a whole new level. Trust me fear-based training does make a difference when started in the first 8 weeks and research corroborates this and that early puppy training the first 8 weeks helps to temper these responses, but every puppy is different, and every home and environmental conditions are different as well. Just keep all of this in mind during the training period that these genetically programmed responses helped the puppies survive before becoming household pets that we have today. Unfortunately, they carry the genetic baggage from their past ancestors, and we just need to work around this. Understanding this is the first step toward puppy training…

Ok so what to do!? Is there hope? Absolutely and the above information just sets the stage for how to train the puppies and help them thru these two fear-based periods.


Remember when the puppy goes to their new home their owners are great people and they know it, but the puppy does not, and their world has literally been flipped upside down from being with their brothers and sisters 24/7 to not at all and surrounded by people they do not know and in many cases new dog and cat friends as well. This can be extremely overwhelming and can manifest itself in many ways (wanting to be with you all the time, depressed immune responses, etc.). The main thing is to use the first fear-based period between 8-12 weeks to absolutely bond to your new puppy and make sure they feel secure, protected, and not frightened. Many families have young kids and although they were raised with kids of all ages this first 8–12-week fear-based period can kick in and when chased by a young child, grabbed, pulled, or petted and handled can induce a fear-based response that may be hard to detect at first but can slowly creep in. There’s a German word called Umwelt, and this is a cool word that explains how organisms perceive the world around them. A dog’s umwelt is going to be different than a human’s so also keep this in your back pocket as well. Make sure that whoever is interacting with the puppy is doing so in a very friendly and non-threatening way. If your puppy is mouthing you (ie puppy biting) chances are it’s feeling pretty secure! Yes, they will outgrow this and yes you can still tell them “No bite” sternly when it’s too hard and then when they stop quickly and excitedly praise them when they start licking. But remember kids can induce a fear-based response as can other dogs during this initial fear-based period. During this time, it’s critically important to continue to get your puppy in an environment with other people and new places. Never force this and always give the puppy the option to move away from this situation if there’s any indication of a fear-based response. Allow the puppy to initiate contact with new people. Now this is tricky the first 16 weeks due to the puppy not being vaccinated and you’ll have to allow for safe interactions such as allowing people to talk to your puppy in a very positive way. You can take them to training facilities where they can see and hear other dogs but hold the puppy and don’t allow them to touch surfaces or you can use a wagon with a tall rail or other such device. Don’t overdo this but slowly and gradually introduce getting them into new novel situations and places. Early traumatic experiences to a hostile child or dog can have a lifelong impact on the puppy and in many cases, this can cause permanent behavioral changes (and why we do not advocate for dog parks or other situations where lots of dogs are together without proper supervision). You can also use a Bluetooth speaker and occasionally play novel noises during the day (search in YouTube for Puppy Culture noises). If there’s certain noises that seem to promote a fear-based response (alertness is ok, but high tailing it would be a bit more dramatic) then only play those noises for a second or two and build up slowly. NEVER EVER make a big deal of novel noises that bring forth a fear-based response. Don’t just grab the puppy and coddle them but talk in a positive excited way and get on the floor and have the puppy come to you and refocus on some basic obedience training. During these very positive training episodes you can again play novel noises but very brief and have lots of treats ready to redirect their behavior.


For bernedoodles and large breeds usually this second fear-based period starts closer to 10-14 months and from the literature and experience these fear behaviors are directed at situations more so than other people and dogs, but the latter can still induce this. If your dog is fearful of something during this time DO NOT force them into it. Such as they are fearful of going into the back seat. Your job is to create a positive experience by getting into the back seat. Maybe get some raw meat and put into a Ziplock bag and let your dog smell it. Then if they put one foot up onto the back seat treat them. Then two feet only gets a treat etc. This can be the case for many situational fear-based responses, but you must go slowly and at your dog’s pace while reassuring them everything is ok with your positive excited voice. Keep it fun. But you must be abundantly patient during this time. Dogs that routinely go thru basic obedience training school during this time seem to fly thru it with flying colors, but patience and praise is the key.

The bottom line is that training and socialization is going to happen the rest of their lives. This is not a one and done kind of thing that’s going to be finished after the first or second fear-based periods. Certainly, it gets easier! But we can’t stress enough the need for a good dog trainer and if this is not practical then we highly recommend either Puppy Culture or Baxter & Bella (B&B has an exceptional online puppy video system and trainers available to talk to). Your investment now will have a lifelong impact on the well-being of your fur baby.

Chris Carmichael, Ph.D. (Animal Behavior/Molecular Genetics from the University of Southern Mississippi, one of the nation’s pre-eminent and leading doctoral research institutions by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education).


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