It is widely accepted that adolescence in humans is a period of change that prompts big feelings, lots of uncertainty, independence, and at times, confusion. For people that live with human adolescents, much grace is needed to endure this period of teenage development. But what about adolescence in dogs? Is it any different? Apparently, it is equally challenging for dogs to go through adolescence, requiring similar grace and understanding from human companions that live with dogs that are displaying behavior issues during the teenage period. By having a bit of compassion and patience, you can help your adolescent dog through this period of its development without damaging your relationship – but it takes a lot of grace! Believe me, I am currently living with one and am experiencing it firsthand! Here are some suggestions that might help you and your dog through the adolescent period with your dog.
What is the adolescent time period for a dog?
Adolescence is the period between sexual maturity and social maturity which coincides with a lot of changes in the dog’s brain, the dog’s body, and the behavior it displays. Some days your adolescent dog can seem like a mature adult and everything is fine, and the next day it seems to fly off the handle at any little thing. Some days an adolescent dog seems unable to handle its emotions and appears to forget all of the basic manners you’ve tried to teach it from the moment it came into your home as a puppy. What’s important to understand is that many parts of the dog’s brain are still maturing during this development phase. In an FDSA podcast episode titled “The Science & Strategy of Raising Adolescent Dogs” from Fenzi Dog Sports, Sharon Carroll describes that “the brain is overly primed for action and less primed to inhibit action.” Click here to listen to the podcast.
In the podcast, Julie Daniels describes that stillness is especially hard for adolescent dogs, and describes the adolescent dog’s brain as “underbaked” during this stage of its development. Julie goes on to say that we should not focus our behavior strategies as “don’t do this, don’t do that” during adolescence, but instead, establish movement patterns like personal play which help the adolescent brain to calm down. It can be very difficult for an adolescent dog’s brain to sift through the myriad of stimuli coming at it from the outside world, so being aware that they need your help through this period is very important, rather than making them wrong for their undesirable behaviors. This is a time that you need to strengthen your relationship with your dog.
How can we help our dog through this time frame?
Be mindful that although your adolescent dog may look like an adult on the outside, it is still very immature on the inside. Learning can be erratic during this period – one day they seem to know lots of skills, and the next day they forget it all…which is simply a matter of their brain changing from day to day. Help your adolescent dog be exposed to different stimuli without over-exposing it to stressful situations. Pushing an adolescent dog to do things that it is not comfortable with is a very bad idea, as it could put a damper on your dog’s trust in you to protect it from things that it is worried about. Expecting your adolescent dog to perform tasks that are seemingly easy, such as a sit/stay, which you’ve worked on lots to date, is something that could be mentally challenging for an adolescent dog. The most important thing to do is maintain the dog’s trust in you – you need to be the person that has your dog’s back, no matter what happens. A secure attachment with you as their leader is especially important during this time period, with you being a reliable and trustworthy partner.
Managing the environment of your adolescent dog is huge
Managing your adolescent dog’s emotional state to ensure that it does not experience anything traumatic or negative during this period is critical. If you see that your adolescent dog is concerned about something, what it needs is for you to help it through the situation, because its brain may not be able to process the situation in a way that you might think it should be able to in that scenario. Ideally, you want to prevent your dog from rehearsing undesirable behaviors, which is where the use of a crate or barrier such as a baby gate comes into play during training. Using effective management tools like these will prevent your dog from learning unwanted behaviors, such as jumping on people coming into the house, or destroying things while you’re away. We can give our dogs a little bit of freedom at a time when they learn the appropriate behaviors. Over time, we can test what they know and if they make a mistake, we go back to managing the environment while we teach them what to do instead until they learn the behaviors that we want. For my adolescent dog Azure, I thought she would be capable of handling her freedom without the crate at around 11 months, and she did fine for about 2 months. Then one day I came home to a room full of pillow feathers all over the floor! So, the crate came out again for another 6 months, at which time I removed it again, and she’s been doing great ever since with no more undesirable behaviors while I’m gone!
Neutrality is an important skill to teach
Many dogs have big feelings, and we love that they are overly exuberant about us, people, other dogs, or life in general. However, you will be doing your adolescent dog a favor by building up neutrality about such things. If you want to take your dog to public places or do dog sports, you both will enjoy these events much more when your dog is able to be neutral about other dogs and people in the environment. Dogs who go regularly to places where other dogs are, such as a dog park or doggie daycare, often have a hard time regulating their emotions when they are on leash walking through the neighborhood with their owners and see other dogs but are not allowed to go play with the dogs in those moments.
Skills to teach and continue to reinforce during adolescence include stationing calmly at your feet – for the times you want your dog to hang out with you while at a dog-friendly restaurant, for example. Recalls are always a skill that you should actively work on with your dog, very much so during adolescence, which is a time that your dog will find being independent highly reinforcing! This is an issue I am currently working on with Azure, as she has decided that playing “catch me if you can” is her preferred game…but not one that I will play, making it challenging when I am ready to leave if I had decided to trust her off leash somewhere. Once that happens, it’s time to restrict her freedom again by not letting her off leash and working on more recalls until she earns her freedom again. We want the dog to learn to make choices that are cooperative choices. Adolescents find it harder to focus for periods of time, so keep your training sessions short and fun to maximize your dog’s learning. If you maintain a great relationship with your adolescent dog, even when it doesn’t seem to comply with your wishes at times, you should see a return to cooperation and compliance when the dog’s brain matures into an adult. I am looking forward to that reliability with Azure, and in the meantime, I am putting in the work to get us there!
Don’t expect too much
Remember your adolescent dog is still a baby, even though it may not appear so physically. Enjoying your dog’s adolescent phase relies on managing your expectations of it. Take each day separately based on the behavior you are seeing from your dog, as its brain may make some days more challenging than others. Teach your adolescent dog life skills that will help you create a future with it that is as pleasurable for both of you as possible. Finally, give your adolescent dog grace when it misbehaves, have patience with your training, and know that the foundations you are building in your training will pay off with a relationship that you both will cherish and enjoy for many years to come.