Remember this picture? Little bundle of fluff happily following at your heels, sleeping quietly when you settle in the evening and always coming when called? It’s now 6 months down the track, pup is 8 months old and what do you see? Raging hormones, endless energy when you don’t want it, destructiveness and a complete disregard for your rules, regulations and for that matter, your very presence.
So What Happened?
Canine adolescence, that’s what. Dogs go through adolescence, just like humans. Depending on the size of your dog, the dreaded ‘teenage’ troubles can be evident anywhere between 6 months and 2 years, later in very large breeds. It is no surprise that the majority of dogs that will be surrendered will find themselves re-homed between these ages. If you are unprepared, the teenage canine phase can be challenging at best!
Human neuroscience has indicated that adolescence in people isn’t just about being obsessed with the opposite sex or getting hair and spots. As the brain matures it undergoes some startling changes – bits get pruned and other bits get turned on for the first time. Not all bits run to the same schedule so there’s a mismatch between ‘drives’ and ‘control mechanisms’.
The net result is a teenager: emotional, irrational, peer driven and risk driven. No wonder parents go nuts; teens just don’t think the way adults do – the science shows it. (If you are science minded, just do a search for ‘brain changes of teenagers’ to find a heap of interesting research.)
So what’s that got to do with your young dog? Well, I have a theory…
***When I first wrote this blog there wasn’t any research to back up the idea that adolescent dogs undergo cognitive changes in the same way human teens do. That research has now been done! You can read it here.***
Although no-one has as yet done the research on canines it would be reasonable to assume that the canine brain goes through a similar maturation process to the human brain.
Science has shown that most mammals undergo very similar processes of development and change from birth to sexual maturity and onwards to death. So, can we, as dog trainers and owners, learn anything from the current research on human teens?
Canine Adolescence and How it Compares to Human Teens
What do I mean by this?
In humans, teens tend to be more aggressive, argumentative, easily upset and more likely to see insult or slight where none is meant. Everything is a BIG DEAL!
In dogs, your previously unflappable pup suddenly starts barking at things, getting over aroused around other dogs and is generally less able to control himself.
The smallest thing may set him off – especially things that startle him or that ‘may’ be socially threatening. Some dogs start showing signs of possessiveness or defensiveness when none were evident before. Impulse control is non existent; waiting and patience is definitely a struggle.
What can you do?
Be aware that your dog is going through a ‘transition’ stage and he isn’t behaving like a ninny on purpose – he can’t help it.
Don’t punish him! If he spooks at some innocuous item, make a game of fussing The Scary Thing – coo at it, stroke it, play with it (but don’t use food to try to lure him up to it!). Reward approaches, no matter how cautious, with a food treat tossed AWAY from the scary thing. Let pup approach in his own time, if he wants to. Yes, you’ll look silly but your dog will take his lead from you and The Scary Thing will turn into a FUN Thing instead. If your adolescent was a confident individual as a puppy then chances are this is just a minor blip and he’ll get over his spooks very quickly.
If he is emotional in social situations, take measures to avoid situations of conflict and teach alternative behaviours. So, if your dog is getting reactive around other dogs and he seems worse at club or in the dog park, take him to quieter places (or classes) and systematically reward him every time he sees another dog without losing his cool. If you nip the problem in the bud AS SOON as it appears, the easier it will be to stop it escalating and becoming a fixed behaviour.
Increased Social Awareness
In humans, teens spend a huge amount of physical and mental energy on social relationships. Peer groups are everything, never mind the dramatic increase in sexual awareness.
Canine adolescence gives a picture which is very similar. You will be fighting an on going battle between whatever you have to offer and what social/sexual information your pup can pick up from the environment and other dogs around him. In other words, he’ll have the focus of a gnat! This seems to be the case to some degree or other whether the dog is neutered/spayed or entire. Entire males can be particularly difficult as this stage, and for some, the answer is neutering. For others just waiting it out will fix the problem.
Some ‘teens’ will start to throw their weight around and experiment with bullying behaviour. They’re not being ‘aggressive’ as such, more testing to see what they can get away with; chasing, harassing, posturing by standing over other dogs, are all behaviours that are best extinguished early.
Now is not the time to be allowing your young thug to intimidate younger, small dogs or those who are shy or timid. Practice makes perfect and a young dog that learns that bullying is fun may escalate to aggression as maturation progresses. If antisocial behaviour is stopped quickly most dogs grow out of it without any problem.
Bitches will have their first season during this time and many new dog owners are surprised at the emotional changes this can bring about. Usually the girl in question will be right as rain soon after her season but some will suffer emotional upset, becoming clingy, moody and sometimes volatile. See your vet if things are seriously out of kilter.
What can you do?
Your best defence here is patience, persistence and management.
Many people find that going back to training on a lead helps, especially if you just keep quietly moving him on when the nose obsessively adheres to the floor/tree/bush etc.
Another way to deal with compulsive sniffing is to put a cue to it and allow sniff time after pup has complied with you or given you attention; remember to reward well for compliance; either with a food reward, a game or a return to sniffing.
As for training around other dogs, now might be the time to increase the distance between you and them, at least until Pup has gone through this socially driven stage.
Recalls can evaporate at this age very quickly.
Make sure you practice regularly (every 5 min or so on a walk) when Pup ISN”T very distracted, and pay well for each success. If you have trouble around other dogs use a long line or drag lead to prevent Pup from choosing to ignore you.
Now might be the time you increase the value of the rewards you use when you are out and about. No way is a boring bit of kibble or commercial treat going to cut it against the lure of forbidden fruit! Bring out the big guns: cooked meat, cheese, tuna cake and liver bake, the smellier the better. Be generous, remember this a is a big decision you are asking your young dog to make. If Pup loves play then use toys in your armoury as well. A great game of tug, chase or fetch can be incentive enough for your dog to leave that enticing other dog and come when you ask.
In humans this leads to parental conflict, the pushing of boundaries and the disregard for rules.
Canine adolescence seems to lead to the same things! All of a sudden Pup is doing things that you either thought he’d outgrown or he’d never contemplated before. At home, stealing, counter surfing and escape behaviours are high on the list of ‘fun things to try’; suddenly your dog proof yard isn’t and your lunch is no longer safe on the bench! Out on walks your dog’s ‘comfort zone’ may increase exponentially and you’ll find yourself wondering if you actually brought the dog as you’ve not seen him for most of your hike. Check-ins might become a thing of the past, lost to the siren song of the smells and hunting opportunities.
What can you do?
As your dog’s ‘parent’ it is your job to maintain boundaries of what is or isn’t expected. That means setting yourself and your dog up for success by using positive training to maintain rules: reward good decisions and use management or the removal of rewards to prevent and reduce bad ones. In the short term this might mean some inconvenient changes to your daily habits (don’t leave lunch on the bench!) but it will pay off in the long run by allowing you to establish good habits in your dog with reward based training. if you’d like some ideas on how to maintain boundaries without turning into an ogre, check out this little ebook.
Don’t fall into the trap of being the ‘fun police’, always shouting or correcting him.
That’s the way to make yourself really unpopular in your dog’s eyes and he’ll try even harder to find fun ways to entertain himself without your involvement! Take the time to invest in fun play and training with your pup so he continues to see you as an important and valued part of his world. If you don’t, you’ll be constantly disregarded when he’s faced with a more appealing alternative. He’ll think “hmm, go back to Grumpy over there (owner bellowing and gesticulating wildly) or play with that sexy little border collie girl – no brainer!!!!”
Many human teenagers tend to find that they have a ‘fluctuating’ memory for facts and figures.
Learning becomes a struggle and the effort required doesn’t seem to pay off. Dog owners notice the same things. You may find that Pup will have lapses when it’s as if he can’t remember his own name or what ‘sit’ means. Simple learning appears to have melted out of his ears! Take heart – he’s not being defiant of difficult on purpose. As the brain is restructured during adolescence the wiring responsible for learning and memory can be temporally disrupted. New lessons don’t sink in and older learning is hard to remember – not surprising, especially when you consider the emotional upheaval that is underway at the same time. It’s no wonder our ‘teen’ dogs can seem scatty and untrained!
What can you do?
Be patient and keep training short, exciting and very rewarding for him.
Now is the time where training is especially important as it will help to keep him engaged with you and working out how to get what he wants by working with you, not against you. Sometimes it will feel like pulling teeth and you will wonder why you are bothering but the effort is worth it. It won’t be too long before his thinking bits are back on line again.
Do Not Despair
Over all, canine adolescence is a frustrating time for everyone. Remember it is temporary and you will get your perfect pet back once the turmoil is over.
– Sarah and the Gang
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