When we bring a new puppy home, we expect to teach her the basics of potty training, bite inhibition and general good manners around the house. We hopefully make sure to socialize her, and do our best to get her off to a good start. What we often underestimate though, is how short the puppy months really are and how challenging the adolescence period can be. Adolescent dogs can be rambunctious and full of energy. There are times when all the hard work we’ve put into teaching them basic good manners, just seems to have gone down the drain. The pup has stopped chewing on our hands and peeing in the house, but is now jumping on our visitors, marking around the yard, barking and lunging at other dogs or growling when we approach his food bowl. Just like people though, all dogs go through that period of development, there is no way to skip over it. Expecting it and being prepared to deal with the changes in our dog’s behavior makes it easier to live through without getting frustrated and give up on the dog altogether.
By the time our little male puppy reaches the age of 4-5 months, his testosterone levels start to rise. The male hormone will keep on climbing and peek around 10 months of age, then very slowly go down to reach adult levels around 18 months of age (Dunbar, 1999). These ages can vary from breed to breed and among individuals, but the important factor to keep in mind is this: adolescence in dogs generally occurs between 6-18 months and during that period, their brain is flooded with more hormones than ever. High levels of testosterone lead to greater reactivity with faster, longer and more intense responses to external stimuli. In females, rising levels of estrogen and progesterone during the same period may increase irritability and problems with other dogs as well as resource guarding issues (O’Heare, 2006). A typical behavior problem that occurs around that time is when the younger female in a multiple dog household, starts going after the older female, even though they had been getting along just fine during the previous months.
As a service dog trainer, I’m always working with teenage dogs. I have witnessed more times than I can account for, young social and easy going puppies change into reactive, resource guarding and distracted adolescents. Studies have shown how little we can predict those changes of behaviors from temperament tests (Taylor & al., 2006). When looking for a service dog, as a client, it’s therefore critical to think twice before getting a dog under 18 months despite any breeder’s assurances.
Those adolescent months sadly coincide with increased rate of relinquishment. According to the NCPPSP (National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy), the majority of dogs are surrendered to shelter between the ages of 5 months and 3 years of age (47.7%) and at least one behavior problem was reported as the reason for the surrender in 40% of the cases. The most common behavior issues ranged from biting, aggression towards people or animals to disobedience and destructiveness (see fig.1) (Salman & al., 2000). These numbers suggest that there is a need for more information and support to dog owners who don’t expect the behavioral changes or don’t know how to manage their dog’s reactions during that period of development.
Adolescent dogs don’t necessarily display such extreme behaviors that they no longer make safe pets. They’re very much like human teenagers. As young puppies, their priority was to stay close to us for obvious safety reasons. As they get a little older (yet not old enough for any kind of wisdom), our four legged youngsters become bolder and more interested in their surroundings (Starling & al., 2013). They want to explore more and tend to get more excited by any stimuli. Full of hormones and energy, they become more challenging to manage and will test our boundaries and our patience.
Here are a few pointers, a survival kit for adolescent dog parents:
1/ Keep reminding yourself that your dog will calm down as he gets older and look for ways to help him burn off some of the excess energy. Although some breeds or some individuals can be more energetic than typical, most dogs’ energy level will subside and gradually become more manageable. When my dog went through that period of life, taking her out for an hour or more of intense workout became a necessity for my own sanity. Once tired, she would finally rest or at least calm down instead of constantly pushing for attention and activity.
2/ Train your dog on an ongoing basis. Training is not something that we do for a short while and then stop. As our dogs go through different stages in life, it’s important to keep working with them. Puppies are great learners and so quick at mastering loose leash walking, sit and other behaviors. But as their brain gets flooded with hormones, those acquired behaviors get sloppy. There will be moments where the dog may look at us with a blank stare when given a well-known cue. At other times, the dog may be so distracted, that getting his attention requires all sorts of gimmicks, let alone getting him to respond to basic cues. Backing up, even to the very beginning of a trained behavior is often necessary. Training never improves in any linear way. The dog’s responsiveness goes up and down and during that period, it can be a real roller coaster, but it’s worth staying on the ride as sticking all the way through will pay off in the long run.
3/ Get help from a professional dog trainer or behaviorist as soon as a behavior concern develops. It’s often during those months that the dog will start displaying fear or aggression problems. The longer any behaviors occurs, the harder it is to reverse the situation. When treating them right from the beginning, it’s sometimes possible to nip them in the bud so adolescent problems don’t become life long problems.
4/ Reinforce the dog for calm behavior. Teaching her to control those impulses is critical at this age. Any behavior that leads to a positive outcome will be repeated and over time become a habit that will continue during adulthood. A dog that gets let out or put on a leash before going for a walk, when barking or jumping will learn that you respond to barking and jumping. Getting out of the car, going to the dog park or dog daycare, greeting visitors, are all situations that are likely to generate excitement. They’re also opportunities to teach our dog that lunging, barking or jumping get in the way of what she wants. Patience, persistence and consistence are the key to teach our teenage hooligan to behave politely and appropriately (for more information see ‘Impulse control – the 6 keys to teaching our dog calm and polite behavior‘).
5/ Take your dog out for daily walks to keep his socialization up. Socializing puppies is critical, but just as important is providing our dogs with ongoing exposure to the world. During adolescence, many dogs will experience sudden fear of situations that they may have been exposed to earlier. Dogs that may have been a little timid as puppies, may now display reactive barking. Most aggression problems stem from an underlying feeling of insecurity. Safe and repeated exposure will help the dog develop more confidence over time (see ’10 effective ways to help our dog feel safe’).
6/ Expose the young dog to older, confident yet well-behaved adult dogs. Dogs learn to become socially acceptable around other dogs. They learn from other dogs how to play and interact appropriately and when it’s time to calm down or to stop. Older dogs will not allow for overly excitable rough housing and will interrupt a behavior when pushed too far.
Owning an adolescent dog can be challenging, but when we’re prepared, it can be a learning experience and a time to set good habits for both the dog and ourselves. Understanding that this is a temporary yet unavoidable developmental period in our dogs’ life can help us make better decisions. Just like we cannot give up on our teenage children, we should not give up on our teenage dogs. After all, they really can’t control their hormones and are just trying to cope with all the changes their body is going through.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.
enjoy the puppy cuteness, it is short and sweet:)
Thank you for this informative writing. I have a 22 month old male pit-bull mix and an approx. 6 year old female pit-bull mix, both rescues of course. My young boy is a handful at times, and she is too, but usually only when they see a squirrel…sigh.
What a great blog post!! So helpful. We have a 10-month old male puppy and learning about what’s going on with him is so eye-opening. Thank you!
This is a great article I approve!