two young dogs playing energetically

The Adolescent Dog

Adolescence in dogs occurs, roughly, from six to twenty-four months of age.  John P. Scott and John Fuller in their classic 1965 volume, Genetics and the Social Behavior of Dogs, further categorized this period into stages such as the “Flight Instinct Period” (from 4 to 8 months) and the “Puberty/Young Adulthood Period” (from 18 to 24 months).  And while there is some disagreement among researchers and behaviorists about what age range officially encompasses a dog’s adolescence, it is widely agreed upon, and backed up with new data from Lucy Asher, PhD, a behavioral ethologist at New Castle University and lead author of a recently published study on Adolescent dogs in Biology Letters, that the adolescent period  is the most difficult period in which to train (and some may argue to live with) a dog.  

During this time of development, a flood of hormones begins to surge within the dog’s body, changing him both physically and psychologically.   Adolescent dogs, like adolescent humans, are often willful, obstinate, and brazen. They will often defy authority and forget the deferentiality of their “puppyhood”.  They will  ignore social cues from their conspecifics and fail to respond to previously learned commands from their owners*. While puppies are curious and eager to explore their new environments, albeit sometimes destructively (by chewing, for example), adolescent dogs are recalcitrant and will challenge their environment (and those in it) as well as assert their independence. At the onset of adolescence we may start to see socially unacceptable behaviors begin to manifest: mounting and dominance displays like growling, lunging, snapping, and guarding can appear, even in well socialized pups. The good news? This too shall pass, provided it is handled appropriately. All dogs, but especially adolescent dogs, thrive with the security of knowing they have a consistent, dependable leader. Your job, and ours, is to ensure we fill that role.

While I hesitate to anthropomorphize, an increasing amount of scientific research is being published around the same theme: that far from unfeeling, unaware animals, dogs are sentient beings with more nuanced emotions and motivations than science has ever acknowledged (even if, anecdotally, many of us dog owners have known this all along). And though I do not have teenagers of my own (yet), I was a stereo-typical teenager back in the late 90’s/early 2000’s; I could be rude and dismissive, not only to my mother, but also toward other authority figures such as teachers. And while my teenage angst and antics were generally benign – skipping school here, cracking jokes in class there – the teachers with whom I was the most compliant were the ones with very clear and firm rules, boundaries and expectations. If you gave me an inch, I was going to take a mile. From my experience, adolescent dogs are no different.

So how does one help their dog thrive during this difficult period? Well for one, dogs need to be admonished when their behavior is poor and praised when it is good.  Skilled dog owners claim their space as their own. They make eye contact. They use a resonant and firm voice. They stand tall with shoulders back. They walk (and even stand) with purpose.  This is a cursory list only. Dogs that are able to be redirected using their name and a few consistently obeyed commands – and there needn’t be many – are more likely to do well in more settings than dogs who have not been trained or owners who take a more laissez faire approach.

If you are the owner of loveable but at times intolerable adolescent dog, have no fear, for most trying adolescents mature into thoughtful and well-behaved adults (I include myself in that description). With the correct approach you will not only be able to tolerate the adolescent years with your dog, you might even enjoy them.

*Interestingly enough, Lucy Asher, PhD, a behavioral ethologist at Newcastle University and lead author of a new study on adolescent dogs published in Biology Letters, found that dogs only rebelled against their caretakers while obeying relative strangers, such as their trainers.  Those of us who work at a dog daycare may beg to differ!  Unless said dogs look at us as their “caretakers” or their owners away from home?!

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