So you have a pup and they are out of the tiny cute sponge stage and they are doing pretty well and you socialised well, habituated well, your pup can go most places, do most things and you have nothing to worry about right...
But then your pup is suddenly freaking out at your neighbour, or for some reason the car has turned into a dog eating monster-machine...
What the heck is going on.
The chances are your pup is somewhere between 6 and 14 months old now, if its a little breed then nearer six if its a big breed then nearer the middle of that range and if its a giant breed probably nearer the end of that range.
This is the second fear imprint stage and I won't baffle you with science here, this is a normal development stage for animals (even people have them, when they are small people!).
This stage is in effect, Mother Natures way of saying 'now hold on there son... back up the truck.. wait a second'..
At the same time or thereabouts as this fear stage, your dog is also experiencing a ton of hormones that tell them 'woohoo, you will soon be able to reproduce' - those hormones tend to give a lot of confidence and cause your dog to push boundaries, find it 'what happens if I....' and 'maybe I can just throw my weight around here.... '...
Without a dollop of fear to put the brakes on, its really easy to get an over confident pup who hurtles around doing exactly as he pleases with no worries at all... and in nature, that leads to a dead animal!
So this fear is normal and it has its purpose - its really annoying and its often confusing, frustrating and upsetting for owners, but its good to know it is there for a reason.
So What Do I Do?
Now here's the tricky part - its easier if you are really in tune with your pup and you are willing and able to listen to them and react quickly if necessary.
Its a lot harder if for whatever reason you aren't doing that or if you have someone giving you duff advice or trying to tell you what to do - and I say this for a reason because often we are listening to our dogs.. and then someone belittles us or makes us feel silly!
First of all any situation you notice your dog is now uncomfortable with - stop immediately, take your dog away.
Now figure out what it was about that situation that your dog couldn't handle - don't get hung up on 'well he could handle it last week' thats not important. He can't handle it NOW, thats whats important.
Now you can figure out a way to avoid it happening again - great, and ideally you can also figure out a way to either dilute the situation or introduce your dog to a much less scary version of it at some point in the future when he is ready.
So as a working example, lets say that Fido used to be totally fine with having a whole load of guests come over to watch the football and drink beer and eat pizza. Suddenly he is not fine, hes cowering away from people, barking at them and wont shut up and backing off from them and if they leap up and cheer at a goal scored, he craps himself and runs out of the room and hides under the table and pees.
Step one, lets take Fido into another room, lets go there with him with some treats maybe a Kong filled with squeezy cheese or peanut butter, lets put some nice music on and chill out with him until the football is over (or you could go out for a walk or take him for a drive or you could kick out the footy fans and tell them to go watch it in the Pub!).
The point is, you immediately spot that Fido can't cope and you remove him from the situation or otherwise end the situation.
The next step is to think a little longer term - this won't be forever but equally, its not likely to be a one off.
So organise that football watching happens elsewhere, or that you are out when it happens or you are in another room if Fido can handle that.
The next step is to think about how we can remind Fido that the football watching thing is fine, the people are not monsters.
To do that we need to break the situation down, a crowd of beered up lads cheering at the tv in a small room is NOT the place to start.
Get ONE of those lads round, without any beer (give them some to take home afterwards!) and have them sit and eat some pizza on the far side of the room, whilst you and Fido do ten minutes of easy tricks or just enjoying a Kong with something in it, and then you take Fido out and your friend goes home.
Repeat this ideally a few times a week and when Fido has re-established that this person is actually fine, you can have them throw a few treats to him (but NOT approach him or try to bribe him with treats) you can start the process over again with a new person.
In addition to this process it might also be that Fido finds the sound of the football match on the tv upsetting, so you could play that sort of sound at a really low volume and give Fido treats, so you are counter conditioning to this experience. Football noise = goodies.
Its a good idea to move on quite quickly from 'trigger = goodies' to 'trigger = lets work on a fun trick/game/job that involves rewards' as this is much more constructive and gets him thinking actively about doing something useful.
Be sure not to move too fast, he needs to be eager and willing and able to comply with simple cues first - if he is still really worried then asking him to actively DO something will backfire - again, read your dog well and work at his pace!
The above is just one situation, the same thing applies to anything your dog suddenly finds upsetting.
Don't force him to face his fears, this doesn't work at all well even with people who can discuss and rationalise their worries.
Don't lob him in the deep end and hope he will just get over it - again, doesn't work well and its likely to make matters worse.
Don't JUST avoid all the situations and hope he will grow out of it - you do need to actively work on it!
DO - take a few steps back and work on much easier tasks, break things down and re-cover ground you covered when he was smaller, 'back to basics'.
DO remind yourself - this is normal, this is useful, and its just a stage.
DO - act confident and normal if you do get in a situation he is worried about, but get OUT of that situation as soon as you possibly can (even if that means being rude to people, leaving somewhere abruptly, telling people 'no don't do that' etc).
Final word - you will hear over and over again, people tell you not to 'coddle' your dog, that if you do you will teach him that being fearful is rewarding and this will make him more fearful.
This is total bollocks. You cannot make fear worse by doing something your dog actively likes, enjoys, seeks out for comfort etc etc.
HOWEVER - If your dog is scared and you do something out of character, if you run around getting hysterical and upset yourself, if you pick him up and cuddle him and he actually doesnt LIKE cuddles, if you hold him still and tell him 'there there its alright' and he actually finds that really frightening because despite your intentions he is now TRAPPED and being forced to remain in a scary situation...
Then yes fear will get worse. Not because you did something nice, not because you coddled him, but because you inadvertently added something MORE scary, MORE aversive, to an already stressful situation.
So if your dog is saying 'Hey Dad I'd like to get outta here'... do it, take him away. If your dog is saying 'Hey Mum, I'd feel better about this if I could sit on your lap' then fine, do that.
To turn your dog away when they are asking you for comfort and assistance is one of the nastiest, most horrific pieces of advice I see people give out and its totally unnecessary!