If you think you just have to get through 6 weeks of puppy classes and a few months of house training before you can kick back and relax with the perfect dog, then you are very much mistaken. In fact, as your sweet pup goes through an interesting dog adolescence, you might yearn for the days when you had to get up 3 times a night to stand outside in the cold while your puppy decided whether or not she really needed a wee.
Dog adolescence is real and it’s challenging. It’s no coincidence that most dogs in shelters are between 7 and 18 months old. Their families simply found their teenage canine too much of a handful. With some patience and understanding, not to mention consistency in training, you can survive the adolescent period and emerge with a happy, well-adjusted dog.
What happens during dog adolescence?
Just like human teenagers, dogs undergo a lot of hormonal and neurochemical changes during adolescence. They also go through a natural period of exploring their independence (like kids). The world becomes more interesting than staying by your side. Because they’re more confident, they would far rather chase squirrels than come when you call.
While they push their boundaries, they’re also suspicious of the unfamiliar. Your previously happy-go-lucky, social puppy is nervous around strangers and doesn’t like strange dogs. She may not even like dogs she’s been friendly with before, especially if they have no sense of personal space and jump all over her.
On the other hand, some dogs become dog obsessed. All they want to do is play with other dogs. This can get them into trouble with older dogs who no longer give them puppy licence.
How long does dog adolescence last?
The standard answer is that it depends. It depends on factors like your dog’s breed, size, and socialization in puppyhood. Large breeds tend to reach adolescence later than small breeds and they tend to remain in adolescence longer. A yorkie may hit adolescence at 5 months, grow out of it by 10 months and be considered an adult by 12 months. A bull mastiff, might enter adolescence at 9 months and only grow out of it at 24 months.
As a rule, the dog adolescent period is between 6 and 18 months.
The more foundation work you put in during early puppyhood, and the better socialized your puppy, the less challenging dog adolescence can be. Note: That is less challenging, and not easy.
Common challenges with adolescent dogs
Previously trained behavior disappears, so your dog has no idea what ‘sit’, ‘stay’, ‘down’, ‘leave it’, and ‘come’ mean.
Household etiquette may slip. Your teen might have a few accidents in the house, jump on people and the table, chew pillows.
Impulse control may go out the window. Bite inhibition may falter and she might snatch food from your hand and lunge on lead.
Squabbling with other dogs may become more frequent. Adolescent male dogs have surges of testosterone going through their bodies. This can make them overconfident and cocky and could lead to them bullying other dogs because it’s fun. It is NOT DOMINANCE. Your dog is doing it because he’s having a great time, regardless of how the other dog feels. Testosterone is also called the ‘stupid hormone’ because it makes males do stupid things, and it can send normal play behavior over the top so that play fighting becomes serious fighting very quickly. This is especially common in certain breeds, like terriers and bull breeds.
Female dogs don’t have the stupid hormone, instead they have surges in estrogen and progesterone, which makes them irritable and iffy around others. Guarding problems could come to the fore. During adolescence, females are likely to take umbrage with other dogs in the home, especially older females, and you could have some nasty scuffles.
A lot of the challenges in adolescence are similar to the challenges in puppies. However, because your dog is bigger and stronger, the problems are on a larger scale. If you conscientiously work on your puppy’s behavior, consistently reward good behavior and ignore or manage unwanted behavior, and keep up training then dog adolescence is easier to weather.
What you can do to manage challenges and set your do up for success
Keep up with your training, but make sure that you always set your dog up for success.
- Use a long line when you take your dog on a walk. She can explore and roam, but you can get her out of trouble with other dogs. And, you can practice recall without giving her the option to ignore you.
- Carry treats with you at all times. This is so you can reward good behavior as and when it happens. If your pup ignores some joggers while you’re on a walk and stays with you instead, reward her. When she responds to recall cues (even if you have to use the long line to remind her) reward her profusely. Practice default sits when out and about, as well as attention and focus exercises and reward her for getting it right. Reward calm behavior when in quiet and exciting environments.
- Don’t put her in a position when she is likely to fail. If she is dog obsessed and you take her to the dog park, don’t ask her to hold a down stay before letting her go play. Chances are good she’ll keep breaking the exercise and you’ll both get frustrated. Ask her for something simple instead, like eye contact for a couple of seconds, and then let her go.
- Go back to training basics. A week ago your pup might had obedience exercises waxed. Now she looks at you as if you are speaking a foreign language when you ask her to sit. Instead of repeating the cue endlessly and turning it into white noise, rather go back a few steps and use a hand signal or even a food lure.
- Go back to school. In an ideal world, you would have gone to puppy classes and continued to other obedience classes. But if you considered graduating from puppy class then end of your training duty, adolescence is a good time to go back. Reinforcing training techniques will be valuable to both of you. Plus, you will be in the same position as the other people in the class. People who know what you’re going through, so you don’t have to be embarrassed if your dog acts out or has brain fade.
- Keep working on socialization. Your teenage dog might be going through an iffy period with other dogs or people, but you shouldn’t limit their exposure entirely because that will make the problem worse. Instead, pick your environments carefully, maintain a safe distance from other people and dogs (a distance at which your dog can focus on you and do some basic exercises) and reward her for being calm and for working with you. You can gradually decrease that distance, but we really do mean gradually. Your dog must be comfortable and able to focus at all times. If she’s distracted or reactive, you’ve gone too close.
Your dog may decide that fighting is quite fun, and try to initiate a reaction from others. Or she may react defensively when other dogs get in her face. If this happens, you need to manage her environment so she can’t practice the behavior. If the fights are quite serious, and she inflicts damage, contact an experienced behaviourist immediately. In fact, you should consult a behaviourist before it reaches that level.
Many pet insurance policies include cover for behaviorists.
If your dog is only a bit iffy around other dogs, and gives and warning growl or snarl when they come near, get that critical distance and reward calm behavior. When you’re able to close the distance, reward all positive interactions.
Note: Some dogs are lead reactive, which means they can look like ferocious demons when they encounter other dogs while they’re on-lead, but when they’re off lead they can be friendly and playful – or they might not show any interest in the other dogs at all. It’s fairly common because on-lead dogs are unable to control the situation. They can’t get away if they need to and they often feel threatened. When they’re able to make their own decisions about interaction, they are calmer.
If your teenager engages in argy bargy with other dogs in your home you have to manage the situation. Should play get over the top, monitor it and step in before excitement levels get too high. If guarding is the problem, feed all dogs separately and pick up bowls immediately afterwards. Give treats separately and make sure the treats are the kind that can be finished in one sitting, otherwise you could have fights over bones or hooves. If competition is a problem, play with them separately so everyone gets a fair share of your attention. And if space is an issue, reward them all for calm behavior in the presence of others.
Meet your dog’s mental and physical needs. Teenage dogs have a lot of physical energy, so you might have to go on two walks a day. Make one walk a high-impact, cardio workout and the other leisurely and sniffy, so they can engage their doggy senses and catch up on weemails.
You can also feed your dog in interactive ways. Take her breakfast on your morning walk and reward good behavior, including recall and attention exercises. Interactive feeding toys are great for making your dog think and work for her food. Kong has set the standard for interactive feeders, but there are plenty of other brands that test your dog’s mental prowess.
Play with your teenage dog, using a variety of toys, which you should rotate so that they keep their novelty value. When you play with your dog you become part of their reward system, which means they will want to spend more time with you. You can also use games to train recalls and impulse control without your dog realizing that they’re learning. Hide ‘n seek, for instance, is great for training recall.
Dogs who have their mental and physical needs met are less likely to be bored and to indulge in destructive behaviors like chewing, digging, and barking.
Surviving dog adolescence
Leah Roberts has written an excellent article on dog adolescence and how to survive it (definitely recommended reading) and she reiterates: Persistence, consistency and patience. Don’t give up on your teenage dog – after all, you wouldn’t give up on your stroppy teenage child, would you? Instead, take these tips to heart:
- It will pass. Your dog will grow out of it. She will calm down and settle, but you have to help her find the way.
- Your dog is not being willful or stubborn or intentionally disobeying you. It’s not a personal vendetta. It’s a natural stage of growing up and it encompasses experimenting and exploring, and cognitive changes and hormonal changes that make dogs (like kids) unpredictable and irritable.
- Keep going to training classes. If you are sick to death of obedience classes then you can channel your dog’s physical and mental energy in other ways, including agility and trick training.
- Reward all the behavior you do want and it is more likely to be repeated. Ignore the behavior you don’t want; if it doesn’t work for the dog it will fall away.
- If you feel overwhelmed, contact a trainer or behaviourist. They can provide the support and advice you need to work through the challenges of dog adolescence.
Consider your dog’s teenage period a learning phase for you, so that when you both come out of it, you are both older and wiser.