Congratulations! You’ve made it through the puppy months pretty much in one piece and hopefully laid a solid foundation for your many years together to come. You breathed a sigh of relief when the last of those needle-sharp puppy daggers were replaced by pearly-white adult canines as your pup turned 6 months. You posted photos on social media when she graduated with honors from her puppy kindergarten class with a repertoire of solid good-manners behaviors including sit, down, polite greeting, come-when-called, and more.
But suddenly, your lovely pup has turned into an apparent wild and crazy stranger. She’s jumping on visitors, no longer waits politely for her food bowl, she’s chewing up household items more than ever, and when you call her to come back to you on your hikes, she doesn’t even look over her shoulder as she takes off down the trail. What happened?
In one word: Adolescence. The scientific term for this is “adolescent-phase conflict behavior.” A 2020 study conducted by a team of researchers from several universities in the United Kingdom confirmed a reduced canine responsiveness to well-known cues during this period.
WHAT’S DRIVING THIS?
Adolescence is a transitional stage of physical and psychological development. It generally begins around the onset of puberty and ends when the individual is considered an adult. Though there are no hard and fast demarcations for these canine life stages (puppyhood, adolescence, adulthood), most animal behavior experts consider dogs to be adolescents at around 5 to 6 months of age. Depending on individual and breed development, adolescence usually finishes around 18 months to 2 years. (Smaller breeds tend to develop and mature more quickly than large-breed dogs.)
Dogs, like many other species (including humans), are programmed to start becoming more independent as they mature. This is a necessary part of mammalian development, as they cannot be dependent on their parents forever – they are supposed to grow up, leave home, and have their own adult lives. Their brains are programmed to prepare them for independence.
Here’s the rub: Most dogs – and other domesticated species – don’t ever really get to grow up and leave home. We don’t let them have their own lives or even make many decisions for themselves; we control almost every aspect of their lives and keep them dependent on us forever. They just don’t know that! And so, until their natural urges to pursue independence subside and are channeled into behaviors we approve of, our wishes often conflict with theirs.
THINGS THAT HELP ADOLESCENT DOGS
Of course, not all dogs seem to go through this phase – or, at least, not all dogs are as challenging during adolescence. And when there are variations within a population, researchers try to investigate the factors that account for those variations. That’s how the researchers in the study I referred to earlier found that adolescent conflict behavior was more likely to occur with dogs who have less secure attachments to their caregivers.
Sadly (but not surprisingly), the researchers also confirmed that this is the period of time when caregivers are most likely to relinquish their dogs to an animal shelter, often citing “not enough time” as the main justification – which could very easily translate to “I don’t know how to cope with this wild and crazy dog who used to be so sweet!”
The good news is that, if you’ve done all the right things with your puppy early on, you’re less likely to be overwhelmed by your adolescent dog’s natural, normal process of testing and maturing. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen – it just, we hope, won’t be as serious. If you’ve been consistent and diligent about training and properly socializing your puppy, it shouldn’t be as difficult to get her back on track when she’s experiencing adolescence. Keep in mind that she’s not being “bad.” Don’t get mad at her; she’s just being a teenager, and this too shall pass, aided by your continuing attention to training, good management, and relationship-building.
With these explanations for her “wild child” behavior in mind, let’s look at how you can negotiate some of the most frequent teen-dog behavior challenges with a secure relationship between you and your adolescent dog intact!
- Housetraining and chewing
If you’ve done a good job up until now, your pup rarely has accidents in the house and has learned to focus her teeth on appropriate chew objects. Don’t stop now!
I don’t consider a well-managed dog fully housetrained until she is at least a year old. Don’t push your young dog’s limits; continue to take her out more often than she has to go. If you set her up to fail (have accidents in the house) during adolescence, she’s likely to be much less reliable about housetraining for the rest of her life.
As for chewing, while it’s easy to think that your dog will stop chewing now that all her permanent teeth are in, those teeth will continue to settle in her mouth for several more months. You can expect her to engage in intense chewing until she’s at least 18 months old. (Though most dogs will enjoy chewing for the rest of their entire adult lives, the extreme drive to do so fades a bit after adolescence.)
Until you see the intensity of her chewing start to diminish, continue to manage your dog’s environment so she has access only to appropriate chew objects. Then, and only then, can you stop holding your breath and start relaxing about leaving your valuables within her reach.
Beware the Adolescent Fear Period
It can be quite perplexing to have your outgoing, confident young dog suddenly start acting cautious and fearful in response to people and things she was previously quite comfortable with. Careful – she’s probably entering a fear period! It is critically important to pay attention to this.
While not as fixed as once thought, we now know that fear periods can occur anytime during the first 18 to 24 months of a dog’s life. The first fear period often occurs between the ages of 8 to 11 weeks. Your adolescent canine is well past that. One or more additional fear periods may occur between 6 to 24 months, depending on your dog’s individual rate of maturity and growth.
It’s important to be aware if your dog is entering a fear period (which will usually last two to three weeks) and to protect her from significant negative experiences during this time. During a fear period, a single intimidating or painful experience can have a lifelong impact on the way your dog responds to that stimulus. This phenomenon (referred to as “single-event learning”) means that it can take only one negative fear-causing incident with a particular trigger to cause an intense, permanent emotional response to that trigger in the future, regardless of the circumstances.
If your dog should, unfortunately, experience a negative incident during this time, studies indicate that the sooner you work to repair the damage, the better able your dog is to recover. This would be a good time to seek the assistance of a qualified force-free professional.
What about your previously well-trained, star-of-her-puppy-class who now seems to have forgotten everything you taught her? She hasn’t really forgotten; she has just put things on hold while attending to the biological priority of finding her place in the world. She’s not being stubborn, she’s not doing things to spite you – she is genetically driven to spread her wings at this time in her life (or her paws, as the case may be), and she can’t help it.
How should you deal with it? Keep training, while you add management safeguards – and remember to make training irresistibly fun!
Sometimes we get too serious during training and can end up turning it into a battle of wills about getting those cued behaviors the moment we ask for them, rather than a conversation and time enjoyed between friends. We want them to respond to our cues, but teenagers just want to have fun. To get what we both want, use lots of happy praise after the mark and treat. Play! Toss a toy, play chase, play tug, act silly, cheer on your dog – in every way possible, make your training super fun.
Here are some tips for getting through common training tasks during the adolescent phase:
- Recall If your dog has suddenly forgotten how to come when you call her, put her back on a long line. This will both keep her safe and prevent her from enjoying the excitement of running away from you when you call. Instead, make your “come when called” practice even more fun with “run away recalls.”
Start with her close to you, say her name, and when she looks at you say “Come!” in your happiest voice and run away fast so she can chase you. For more fun and excitement, squeak a squeaky toy and toss it to her as she runs after you. Use high-value treat reinforcers so “Come” means “Chicken!” – or whatever her all-time favorite treat is.
- Review. Do several short remedial review sessions daily with the basic good-manners behaviors your dog used to perform so reliably: sit, down, wait, touch, and polite greeting. Note that I use the word “short,” which means just a few minutes at a time.
If you practice only in “real life,” you risk distractions and lack of focus. If you practice in a controlled environment, you (and your dog) are more likely to be successful – and your dog will be better able to generalize that success to the real world. (And remember, keep it fun!)
- Play. Find new ways to have fun with your dog. Since her brain is encouraging her to explore her world now, do things to encourage exploration, like scent work, solving puzzle toys, eating from food-dispensing toys, and cognition games. Play hide & seek, and let your dog use her nose to find you. Name her favorite toy, hide it, and ask her to find it. Hide treats around your house or yard and ask your dog to find them. Use your lawn as a grassy snuffle mat. Discover the fun of teaching your dog object, color, and shape discrimination.
- Exercise. Providing adequate exercise will help minimize your dog’s high-energy adolescent hijinks. Structured exercise can help avoid ever-escalating arousal; this is easier than it might sound – just ask her to “sit” before you throw the toy or “wait” before you invite her to grab the tug toy.
Important note: Remember to check with your veterinarian to determine how much exercise is appropriate for your dog’s age; you don’t want to damage those young joints! Swimming is an excellent low-impact exercise for youngsters.
Play sessions with carefully selected compatible playmates are also an excellent exercise option and nurture your dog’s developing social skills.
And don’t forget mental exercise! Those previously mentioned cognition games are surprisingly tiring as well as fun.
- Empowerment. A frequently overlooked piece of the adolescent puzzle is about empowering your dog to make her own choices as much as reasonably possible. At this point in her development, when she is programmed to become more in charge of her own world, the more agency you can give her, the more emotionally and behaviorally sound she will be.
We tend to exert tight control over everything our dogs do, much to their detriment. Think about how you would feel if your life were as controlled as most of our dogs’ lives are. Then ponder how you might be able to give her more choices. Which toy would she rather play with? Which treat would she rather eat? Which path would she rather take on your hike? Would she prefer to stay inside or go out in the back yard?
Combine empowerment with all the above suggestions for management and training, and you and your canine companion are likely to make it through her adolescence with flying colors, and your relationship not just intact, but stronger than ever. Go on, get started on it right now – there’s not a moment to lose!
Past WDJ Articles For More Information
“Games for Building a Reliable Recall Behavior for Your Dog,” Sept 2014. Tips on making recall practice fun and effective.
“Best Food-Dispensing Toys,” April 2019, and “Five Tips for Food-Stuffed Dog Toys,” Sept 2021. How to harness a dog’s drive to forage for food in order to keep him out of trouble, fill his alone-time, and enrich his life.
“Understanding Your Dog’s Nose,” September 2019. Putting your dog’s nose to work is a fun and effective way to improve his behavior and responsiveness to you.
“Are Canines Cognitive?” October 2017. Dogs have greater powers of reasoning and intelligence than we usually give them credit for. Learn how to teach your dog to show you how and what he thinks! Teach your dog object, shape, and color discrimination.
“Training a Dog to Make Choices,” November 2016. How empowering your dog to make small decisions in his life can lead to a big, positive change in your relationship.