Adolescence, or your dog’s teenage years, usually begins between 9-12 months, although smaller dogs will start earlier and large breed dogs will start later (and end later, even up to 2 years of age). The first year of a dog’s life is equivalent to the first fourteen years of life for a human. (After the first year or so, it slows down to roughly 7 years of doggie life/year.) Just as human teenagers, individual dogs experience adolescence differently, but understanding what our dogs are going through and how to best handle it will do a lot for your sanity and your dog’s behavior.
Let’s begin by understanding that during this time, your dog is going through physical growth, sexual development, hormonal change, and bio-chemical changes. Suzanne Clothier, the well-respected dog behavior expert, likes to say that your adolescent dog’s brain is “under construction” during this time. It’s like starting a renovation of your bathroom and leaving the pipes disconnected for 3-6 months. Things just don’t work right 🙂
But as helpful as it is to understand what our dog’s going through, it does not change how difficult it can be to live with your teenage dog. Here are 5 helpful tips to surviving your dog’s adolescence:
- Begin training with your dog LONG before they reach adolescence. Working with your young puppy on basic manners (and socialization) goes a long way in establishing a good foundation for your relationship with your dog and your dog’s behavior.2.
- Use positive training to teach your dog what you want. But, as they say “positive does NOT mean permissive.” We believe whole-heartedly in using positive training methods to teach our dogs what we want and reinforce the behaviors we want. Along with that is setting up rules and expectations for your dog, so he can predict exactly what is expected of him. Some expectations I have with my dogs – wait at doors until released, politely sitting while I prepare and serve meals, asking for petting in a polite non-pushy way. I started teaching my dogs early that these are some of the expectations I have, and work to maintain this structure every day that we live together.
- Teach attention – teaching your dog that checking in with you is rewarding (treat time!) and worth it (I can provide you with further instructions on what to do next) is FUNDAMENTAL to living with your adolescent dog. Reward generously and frequently for your dog looking back at you in the yard, on a walk, or while hanging out at home. When you see those teenage eyes checking in with you, reward with a treat, love and affection, or by going and getting a toy to play with.
- Management – just about the time most puppies have mastered potty training and you start giving them more freedom around the house (often unsupervised), adolescence hits. To prevent common behaviors like chewing, barking and counter surfing, continue to manage your adolescent dog’s environment by limiting access to areas unsupervised. A problem prevented is much easier than a problem fixed. Supervision and confinement are as essential with an adolescent dog as with they are with a puppy. Keep your dog from making mistakes while you are still in the process of teaching him the rules of the house. Your dog, your home, and your family will thank you.
- Use your leash. When your dog was a puppy, they probably did not stray to far from you – after their momma, you became the center of their universe. As your puppy grows into adolescence, he will begin to venture out further from you to experience the world on his own (does it sound like we’re talking about a human teenager here?). That’s what we want! During adolescence, keep a leash on your dog (we LOVE using a long line during this time), so that when their brain is distracted by the amazing scent of skunk in the far corner of your yard – you can help them remember how to come back to you when called. Save the off leash training for after this period is over!
- Exercise – in addition to physical exercise, you need to provide your young dog with adequate mental exercise. A bored adolescent dog is a dog looking for trouble. Is your dog RUNNING or swimming for 30+ minutes a day (likely broken up into a couple of exercise sessions). Most adolescent dogs need this much physical exercise! To tire our your adolescent dog’s brain – include training sessions, leash walks (allowing time to sniff the ground), and nose work into their daily life. We love using food toys and other problem-solving toys as well! Remember, daily walks are great for socializing and bonding with your dog and even giving them a bit of mental exercise (sniffing, taking in the world, etc.), but for most dogs walks are not sufficient physical exercise.
- Finally, keep up the socialization! Although puppy socialization prior to 16 weeks is PARAMOUNT, limiting your adolescent dog’s world can lead to serious de-socialization. As puppy classes and play groups are coming to an end, and families settle into a routine with their dog around 5-6 months of age, your dog’s world shrinks. At home, your dog begins to interact with the same familiar friends and family, and is walked along the same route where they encounter the same old people and same old dogs. Consequently, many adolescent dogs become progressively desocialized toward unfamiliar people and dogs until eventually they become intolerant of all but a small inner circle of friends. Prevent this from happening! Keep up your dog’s socialization through this period!
Keeping these things in mind will help you and your dog make it through this glorious period of boundary-pushing, selective hearing, and a new found sense of independence. Remember – avoid getting angry with your pup, punishing, yelling, or otherwise getting rough with him. None of these things will change the fact that your dog is a teenager, and will likely otherwise harm your relationship. Having a good sense of humor about the construction site that is your adolescent dog’s brain, while instilling rules, manners training, and an outlet for their energy is a great way to survive this period without too many bumps or bruises (figurative, of course). Rest assured, your dog will grow up. It may take a few months, but it will happen.