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Nathalie Sari - Tiertraining & Verhaltensberatung

This article was written by TOBALIE in cooperation with Nathalie Sari - Tiertraining & Verhaltensberatung

For us humans, this is a completely normal developmental stage, the so-called stranger anxiety phase. In this phase, usually between the 4th and 8th month of life, most babies begin to show fearful and distrustful behaviour towards strangers. We human children have the peak of this period when we are 2 to 3 years old. Have you ever wondered if this phenomenon is exclusive to humans? Can dogs, for example, also have this phase? What should you do if your puppy suddenly becomes afraid of things that a few days earlier he was still curious and relaxed about? Could this be because of spooky periods in dogs?

Do dogs have a spooky phases?

Yes, indeed. Dogs also enter this developmental phase and can suddenly show fearful and avoidant behaviour towards the unknown, but also towards things they already know. This is also referred to as the “spooky period”. 

When this phase first occurs in a dog varies according to breed and size. On average, however, it is around the 8th week of life. You will learn more about the different phases later. 

How do I recognise the spooky periods in a dog?

Strangers in the street are suddenly barked at, the life-size statue in your neighbour’s garden is suddenly eyed sceptically and your little darling is suddenly afraid of the familiar hoover? These are signs that your growing four-legged friend is in this period.

In conclusion, you can now say that you recognise it when the behaviour of your young dog/puppy suddenly changes. People or things that have been joyfully welcomed and curiously explored up to this point suddenly pose a “serious” danger. Things that have been familiar up to now are re-evaluated and looked at with suspicion.

How the spooky periods become noticeable in the dog:

  • The dog’s behaviour changes abruptly.
  • An initially open, curious and seemingly fearless dog develops a more fearful-avoidant, sceptical and jumpy behaviour.
  • Things or people are barked at or growled at.
  • Cautious and sceptical behaviour towards the unknown.
  • People and things already known are not greeted as usual, but are reassessed.
  • Fearful posture: Flattened tail and ears, crouched posture,  lip is licked, etc.
  • Generally more skittish and more susceptible to stress.

Note: If your pet already has a naturally reserved and shy nature, it is of course a little more difficult to distinguish the stranger anxiety phase from normal behaviour. This is where your powers of observation come in. Which things or people in your beloved friend’s familiar environment are suddenly reassessed? 

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Do I have to worry if my dog starts to show this behaviour?

A clear no. This behaviour is completely normal and natural. It can even be good for the human-dog relationship. By being patient and protective of your young dog during this time, your best friend learns that he can rely on you 100 per cent.

However, it is important to be mindful of your dog during these phases and not to expose him to too many stimuli. Negative experiences made during this time can lead to more anxiety and stress later in life. 

Which spooky periods can be distinguished in dogs?

According to current knowledge, there are a total of 5 phases. Each phase lasts about 1 to 3 weeks.  Depending on size, breed and individual developmental speed, the different phases can appear somewhat earlier or later. Especially very large breeds are usually latecomers. 

1st phase (duration approx. 1 week): As this phase falls approximately in the 8th week of life, it is advisable to adopt your puppy at the earliest in the 9th week of life. The separation from the mother and the siblings is an enormous stress for your little darling. That is why you should not give your puppy away during this period. Breeders should know their dogs and determine the appropriate time of delivery individually.

2nd phase (duration approx. 3 weeks): This phase usually occurs around the 16th week of life. Often everyday objects as well as strange things and people are classified as “particularly dangerous”. 

3rd phase (duration approx. 3 weeks): Around the 9th month, the third sensitive phase begins, usually paired with the onset of sexual maturity. Strong nerves are needed here above all. 😊 

4th phase (duration approx. 3 weeks): Around the 15th month of life, the 4th spooky period occurs. During this time, most dogs (except for very large breeds) seem to have already grown up, at least in terms of their physical appearance. Behavioural changes are also not uncommon during this phase.

5th phase (duration approx. 3 weeks): Last but not least, another spooky period can occur around 26 months of age. As in the 4th phase, changes in behaviour can also be observed here. 

Where do spooky periods come from in dogs?

These phases can be traced back to adolescence in wolves. In the first phase, the wolf pups come out of the safe den onto the rendezvous place for the first time. At 3-4 months, they accompany the adult wolves on short forays and expand their outdoor range. At 6-9 months, the young wolves are taken on hunts. At 1 -1 ½ years, they slowly become independent and are exposed to new dangers without the parents. At 2-2 ½ years, the young wolves leave their family to start their own pack. Again, of course, they encounter new dangers. 

How can I support my dog during the spooky period?

If your beloved dog is in one of these phases, there are a few things you can do to help him. Your behaviour has a great influence on whether your dog’s behaviour manifests itself or passes. 

If you reinforce a certain behaviour – mostly through unconscious actions – it can happen that your dog will show fearful behaviour towards certain people or things in the future. 

What can you do now?

  • Avoid many and especially new stimuli during this sensitive time. For example, trying out new walking routes is counterproductive.  
  • Calmness is very important. An upcoming big family celebration, for example, should be postponed. Make sure your pet get enough sleep and rest.  
  • Show understanding. Try to make everyday life comfortable and avoid frustration in learning situations. Less is more. Keep in mind that under stress your dog may not be able to implement a desired signal. He does not want to annoy you, he is just busy with other things in a fearful situation.
  • Give your dog time to deal with the things and situations, to try them out for himself and to deal with them calmly. Without any pressure. 
  • Do not pay much attention to the things and people that are considered scary. For example, touch the objects without saying anything. This way your little friend will also learn that the things are not dangerous.
  • In the same way, you should not “force” your furry friend to deal with the people or things. So don’t drag him towards them and don’t tempt him with food or anything else. Give him time to deal with the scary things and reward him for exploring them. 
  • Punishment is also inappropriate. Not only will your pet be afraid of the things (possibly in the future), but he will also be afraid of you. 

 If you have any problems or questions, you can always contact a qualified pet trainer.   

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Summary

Just like children, dogs can also go through a stranger anxiety phase, the so-called spooky period. As an owner, it is particularly important to remain calm and accompany the dog confidently through the 5 spooky phases. A large portion of patience and empathy is never wrong here. Spooky periods in dogs is therefore completely normal and fortunately will pass.