What can you expect of your adolescent dog, and why? Learn how to make your dog’s adolescence easier on both of you. (Hint: prevention, prevention, prevention).
Doggy adolescence. The phrase conjures up a dog who’s rambunctious and out of control. Who no longer “listens” and has stopped being cute. It’s said that adolescent dogs “test limits” and “challenge your authority.” Oh, lots of things are said. This week, Teenage Dogalini and Zippy: what you can expect from them, and how to help them grow into a happy adulthood with you.
What Is Canine Adolescence, Anyway?
Ever notice how often we think we know what something is, or what a phrase means, only as long as we don’t examine it too closely? Dog adolescence is like that. Every Web page that discusses it seems to mention different starting ages and endpoints. Maybe adolescence starts at 18 weeks, or maybe it starts at 6 months. Maybe you can expect it to end when your dog’s about a year and a half old; maybe it’ll last till he’s 3. (To be fair, almost everybody says these ages are approximate, with lots of individual and breed variation.)
Some writers attribute the supposed adolescent-dog loopiness to the hormone surge of puberty. But where does that leave shelter dogs adopted as puppies and spayed or neutered early in life? One page I found describes adolescent dogs as having an insatiable curiosity about the world and as not knowing the value of objects such as shoes. This would make them different from puppies, how? For that matter, a dog could live to be a hundred and he still wouldn’t understand how money works.
To top things off, almost none of the dog behavior texts I looked through even has an index entry for “adolescence.” Does it exist?
Brain Development in Adolescence
I’ll take a leaf from the behaviorist Patricia McConnell, who’s been quoted as saying that she plans to write a dog book entitled “It Depends.” Obviously, there’s a transition period between complete puppyhood and complete physical maturation. Physical maturation includes the brain, and the brain’s development affects behavior. The catch is, it seems that nobody has studied exactly what is going on in dogs’ brains during that vaguely defined puppy-to-adult transition. The brains of different species develop in different ways; most of the research has been done on rats and primates, so there’s a limit to how much it can tell us about dogs. Our perceptions of doggy adolescence are about as reliable as any other eyewitness testimony, which is not very.
Puppy Behavior, but Bigger
The best I can do, then, is to tell you what I think is going on. It’s this: Adolescent dogs aren’t puppies anymore. Puppies are smallish and super cute, and the result of being smallish and super cute is that people see your behavior as harmless and sweet. A puppy jumps up, and people say “Awwwww.” Three months later, that puppy has spent his entire life jumping on people; he’s really good at it, and he weighs 50 pounds, so now he’s tagged an “out-of-control adolescent.” But is his developmental stage really the issue here?
Or take mouthing. We can and should teach young puppies to mouth chew toys instead of our arm, and to tug at a rope toy instead of our clothes. But many people don’t know how, or don’t know how important it is, or aren’t proactive and consistent. At 9 months old, Mouthy Zippy is doing exactly what he did at 3 months, only now it really freaking hurts and all your jackets are torn. Yep, Zippy’s an out-of-control adolescent!
See Also: Puppy Nipping
In these cases, the dog’s behavior hasn’t really changed, though a problem habit is more entrenched; what’s different is his size and strength, and our perception. Some behavior does change – for instance, many people report that their adolescent dog no longer comes when called. It’s reasonable to assume that as dogs mature, they grow bolder in exploring the world around them, and that our cries of “Dogalini, come!” just don’t seem as loud as they used to. We’re often encouraged to see this as “testing,” but I’m not convinced it’s our authority that’s at stake. That would be an awfully direct translation from teenage human behavior.
Is Your Adolescent Just Untrained?
I’ve noticed that many people who have trouble getting their adolescent dogs to come when called took their puppy’s nearness for granted, meaning they didn’t purposefully practice and reward coming to them on cue. From the dog’s point of view, a general preference for being near her people is quite different from understanding that “Dogalini, come!” is a signal to close the distance in a hurry right now. If you don’t teach and reward that specific behavior, it’ll go away, like any other behavior with little or no payoff.
Now, I’m not claiming there’s no such thing as adolescent behavior in dogs. But I suspect that a good bit of it reflects a too-casual approach to puppy rearing and a lack of mindful training. Besides, all animals, including our dogs and us, are always experimenting, trying new tactics, learning new things. Among dogs’ wild ancestors, the approach to adulthood would often entail separating from the home pack – meaning Mom and Pop and the siblings – to start a family of one’s own. That history alone makes it reasonable that adolescent dogs are especially likely to experiment with new behaviors. As always, reward the ones you like and either prevent the ones you don’t like, or prevent them from being rewarded. The task may be more challenging for a while, but there’s no big mystique about it.
Adolescence and Behavior Problems
Having said all that, I’ll add that adolescence is often the time when serious behavior problems start to emerge. To my clients, the trouble may seem to come out of nowhere. To me, not so much. It’s impossible to prove causes in retrospect, but here’s a typical example. The client says, “My dog was really shy when she was a puppy.” He goes on to describe how Shy Dogalini used to back away from people who tried to pat her, but then one day when she was 7 months old she snapped at somebody, and now she’s hit a year and a half and she’s lunging at people on the street. If Dogalini’s puppy history is known, it usually includes limited and inadequate early socialization. Those brain development studies I mentioned also find that chronic pre-natal stress can cause lifelong behavioral damage. (In case you need another reason not to buy from a pet store, remember the pre-natal environment for all those dogs is a puppymill.)
See Also: How to Handle an Out-of-Control Dog
Back to Snappy Adolescent Dogalini. I doubt she’s trying to pull rank. More likely, she was poorly prepared for the world, and one day she experimented with going on the offensive to drive away what scares her. To stick with our example, if what scares her is human strangers, then snapping at them is going to work for her almost 100 percent of the time, because when a dog snaps at a person, the person almost always backs off. (Even if you punish her immediately, the snap has been rewarded by the back-off, so skip punishment and go right to the competent behavioral help.)
Continuing Ed for Dogs
This coin has another side, as well. There’s so much emphasis on puppy socialization, many people assume that when the job is done, it’s done. Zippy hits 7 or 9 months, and that’s it for varied outings and intros to strangers. Important important important: Social skills fall to pieces if you don’t use them. You know those guys who’ve been living alone too long and stop cleaning the scrambled egg off their shirtfront? The dog who never meets new people may get stiff and awkward and start to see them as a threat. The dog who rarely visits new places can easily grow uncomfortable with them. So keep your already well-socialized adolescent and adult Zippy out there in the world. Think of it as continuing education.
That’s it for this week. Stop by and see me, or at least my avatar, on Facebook, and you can also write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and though I can’t reply individually, I may use them as the basis for future articles. Thanks for reading!