Neophobia, Genetic Transmission and Developmental Periods

Humans are not homogenous in their personality traits and neither are canines. There will be personality variation within a litter of puppies, within a line, throughout the breed, group etc. Just because there have been no affected individuals before doesn’t mean the personality trait (combination of genes) does not exist. Fear is a biological survival mechanism and is necessary for the survival of a species. If all individuals of any species were bold most would be killed off so try to understand that fear/avoidance/neophobia is a necessary survival trait. Onset of neophobia (fear of new things/people/places etc.), approach/avoidance conflict is hard wired into all species developmental sequences. In canines the first “critical fear period” begins at approximately 12 weeks which is why we have such a short window for socialization. This time frame is not set in stone as there are always individual variances. There is a second critical fear period around six months and in some breeds a third with onset around 12-14 months. Some puppies/dogs sail through these periods with no observable or noticeable changes and others present with more exaggerated responses. Even dogs who are well socialized prior to 8 weeks of age can exhibit more extreme fearfulness during the onset of the first soft period. Keep in mind that even puppies who never had socialization opportunities can and do develop normally. This is most definitely a Nature AND Nurture situation. Making this issue even more complex is that more extreme neophobia which is genetically linked can and often does occur within a 5th or 6th generation, therefore, when we’ve never seen this before in any of our dogs, doesn’t mean we won’t and that it doesn’t exist. There is no genetic marker for neophobia and neophobia is represented across all breeds as well as mixed breed dogs. Most individual dogs come through their soft periods with appropriate confidence but many do not.


Humans are linear in their approach to other humans meaning that make direct eye contact, move forward in a frontal position and usually lean in and make physical contact. Canines (and most other animal species) are not linear but rather circuitous, meaning their approach behavior involves curving their bodies, turning their heads away and averting their eyes. This is appropriate canine greeting behavior. Straight ahead approaches, eye contact and leaning in can be perceived by some canine individuals as rude, threatening or aggressive. Some canines are not affected at all by frontal approaches and others have extreme reactions. Canines are contextual and they do not gen eralize well. Canines also have limited visual memory and herding dogs in particular have very limited visual memory.


At six months of age many puppies go through a developmental “soft” period. Herding dogs are particularly susceptible to shyness, reactivity to sudden noise, movement and novelty in their environment. Herding dogs can also be somewhat stranger shy or sensitive. This is why early training is so very important.

LEADERSHIP is crucial when you have a sensitive puppy. I will include my Shaggeypaws Species Specific Leadership protocol in this report. Ensure your dog is on the earn to learn program and that you have access and control over all resources. In order for your dog to feel confident about his safety, sense of well being and security, he must have complete confidence in your leadership. That is first and foremost.

MANAGEMENT of the dog’s environment is also important. Dogs have triggers and thresholds to events just like people do. When a pup is in a soft period we want to be able to have as much control over the dogs’ environment as possible. I would not allow a dog out doors or in a fenced yard without direct supervision. If you are working during the day, have your puppy stay in a nice quiet closed off area, preferably in his crate or use an X-pen to confine him in a small room or area. Be sure and leave his with recreational toys – stuffed kongs, marrow bones and a nice soft stuffed toy. Leave a radio or tv on for him with the volume turned low. A lot of dogs are very reactive to the noises of their surroundings – cars coming and going, squirrels in the yard, lawn mowers, buses, kids playing, people talking etc. This can be sensory overload to a puppy so we want the puppy’s little world to be somewhat controlled and quiet when you are not around.

Puppies can go through a critical fear developmental period that starts around 6 months. It is very important to instill confidence in these dogs at this sensitive time. When dogs hear sudden loud noises I use my “jolly up” voice – I make like that was a fun, funny, exciting and good thing. It doesn’t matter what words you use, what is important is the tone of your voice. When I have puppies on the ground that are experiencing their first thunderstorm, I laugh and make a party of all of the loud thundering and give out delicious treats. I do the same thing when opening an umbrella. When it makes the noise I pretty much ignore the pups and use my “jolly up” voice and toss treats around the opened umbrella. I DO NOT coach the pups to approach with my voice or my body – I simply toss really high value treats around the “scary” object. The purpose of this is that (hopefully) the dog’s desire to gain access to the really yummy treat at a “safe” distance from the scary thing, will encourage the pup to get closer to the “scary” thing and thus be rewarded (yummy treats) and learn for itself that the “scary thing” isn’t really so scary.

TRAINING: With signal sensitive dogs we want to engage their precious little brains so they will do more thinking than reacting. Keep working on your training exercises.

Redirection exercises such as palm targeting and puppy sits ups are really valuable. When we are able to keep our dog in cognitive mode or in thinking dog mode, then we are better equipped to prevent our dog from over reacting. How we (the humans) respond to the dog’s being spooked also comes into play. Hard as it is, try NOT to reward your puppy for fearful or spooked behavior. Ignore it. When puppy bounces back reward him with your attention and speak to him in deep (think alto tones) registers and say something like “good boy” in a real confidence inspiring mode as opposed to a higher pitched (think soprano) more whiney tone. Again, what we say to dogs is far less important than the pitch, volume and rhythm of our voices.

Try to keep socializing your puppy. Get him out. Take him to Petsmart, Lowes, walk him in pet friendly areas on a weekday (week-end too busy for now). A lot of really well socialized dogs do get “spooky” during this 6 month period. During this time, try to set your puppy up for success in his social outings. Learn how to “read” your dog. Look for signs of nervousness such as lip licking, head turning, sniffing, yawning and of course excessive panting. Watch his body language. When you see him crouch, or see him assume a stretching posture with his back legs stretched behind him understand he is stressed. When he is on leash use your “jolly up” voice and make a U Turn and just turn around and walk away from the “scary thing”. You can also use your own body to do a “body block” which means you will move your body directly in front of your pup – this lets him know t hat you are in charge and you are the leader and will take care of him.

Think about using high value food treats when working with your puppy. Some suggestions are cooked turkey or chicken, string cheese, leftover hamburger etc. Most commercial type treats are not very healthy for dogs. The more high valued food treats are also essential for motivation.

Katherine Smith

Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, (International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants), Professional Member APDT, (Association of Pet Dog Trainers), AKC Canine Good Citizenship Evaluator, Animal Behavioral College Mentor