Ages and Stages in the Life of a Dog

Dogs go through many of the same life stages as humans, though their stages are stunted, chronologically speaking, compared to ours, due to their relatively short life expectancy as relative to our own.  Scientists and behaviorists break down a dog’s life cycle based on both physiological and psychological markers, and while there is some variation in terms of how nuanced we want to be when we speak about a dog’s life stages, most experts will agree that their lives can be compartmentalized into at least four distinct stages: Puppy, Adolescent, Adult, and Senior. 

When we think of these stages contextually in terms of daycare, it’s important to note that a dog’s needs for socialization and energy expenditure will fluctuate depending on the stage of life that they are in.  For example, most puppies are highly social whereas senior dogs may prefer solitude or the company of just one or two other dogs.  You can liken this to your own stages of development from childhood through adolescence to young adulthood, middle aged and the senior years. I, for one, loved Chuck E Cheese as a child, but have no desire to go there now at the age of 41!  As we evaluate the appropriateness of daycare for our dogs, let’s be sure to keep in mind the stage of life in which they currently reside.

The Puppy Stage

The puppy stage lasts from birth to about six to nine months of age (depending on the size and breed).  Puppies are decidedly cute, and most are deferential – eager to please as they learn about the people with whom they interact and the world in which they inhabit.  They have the capacity to learn, but their brains are not yet fully developed, so basic training as opposed to more complex problem solving or decision making is paramount at this stage.  Most puppies need to eat at least three times per day.  At this age dogs are learning how to successfully socialize with humans as well as their conspecifics.  It is important to introduce them to a wide variety of people and places in order to familiarize them with potential triggers that may cause anxieties later in life.  Like human children, puppies are like little sponges and will respond well to positive reinforcement, but one must also take care to instill boundaries which will be critically important in the next stage of development: adolescence. 


The adolescent stage lasts from roughly six months to two years of age and is, based on most accounts, the most challenging time in a dog owner’s life.  Adolescent dogs, like adolescent humans, are primed to challenge authority and assert their own autonomy, without yet having all the necessary tools required to be successful at these assertions!  If and when a dog needs to be excused from daycare, it is typically during the adolescent stage.  During a dog’s adolescence, rules, boundaries and imposed limitations are critical.  Owners need to be firm and consistent when it comes to an adolescent dog’s training and schedule.  Dogs respond best to calm, confident and balanced leaders and they function most highly with consistent and clear routines.  If you are the owner of a challenging adolescent dog do not fear: this too shall pass!  In addition to professional training, the other thing that helps during this stage is simply time.  Often an adolescent dog that was once dominant and pugilistic will temper around age two or three and become more socially intelligent, more patient, more mannered, and less reactive.  The old adage that with age comes wisdom holds true not just for human species but for all species, especially a species as emotionally intelligent as our canine companions.   


Ah, adulthood.  You’ve weathered the puppy stage, and survived adolescence, now it’s time to enjoy the fruits of your labor in a companion that is fully grown – physically, emotionally and cognitively – and, for the most part, calm, stable  and (ideally) balanced.  Adult dogs are reliable, and predictable.  Their brain has matured to the point where they are able to discern between good decisions and bad.  There’s a reason that dogs are called man’s best friend and I swear it’s because of this stage in a dog’s life.  A friend is someone who takes and gives equally in a relationship and by adulthood, dogs are engaging with us in this way.    

Many adolescent dogs who became overstimulated in a high-volume dog daycare environment can transition successfully back into a pack simply because they have matured sufficiently and are now able to handle the excess sensory inputs of daycare; in other words, inputs that are not commensurate with life outside of daycare, are now manageable for an adult dog.  If you are the owner of a dog who struggled with daycare during adolescence, you may want to try again after age two or three.  While daycare is not for every dog, the energy expenditure and social engagement it provides is a strong predictor of future health and wellness, two factors that are critically important in the final stage of a dog’s life: seniority.


Seniority amongst dogs varies widely depending on their size.  Small dogs – those under 20 lbs. – hit “old age” between 7 and 10 years while medium dogs are considered seniors at age 10 and over.  Large and giant dogs are considered seniors after only age 6!  The exercise requirements of a senior dog are much lower than that of their younger conspecifics.  They are also less likely to crave lots of social interaction the way in which they did when they were younger.  If you think about yourself, a dog’s penchant for socialization is probably not unlike the trajectory of your own – as children we delight in large birthday parties, and in adolescence and young adulthood we might choose to spend our Friday night at a raucous frat party, but by middle aged, a dinner party with a small group of friends or movie night with our family sounds a lot more enticing!   Still, in order to remain sharp and to slow the signs of aging, senior dogs should maintain a baseline level of socialization if possible; and getting a minimum amount of exercise each day is also important for senior dogs, though exercise requirements will vary depending on the size, breed and age of the dog.  

Sometimes, a senior dog who had previously been a daycare staple for most of his/her life will begin to show signs of anxiety or agitation at daycare.  They may begin correcting younger dogs a lot more, and needlessly so, or they might start to become reactive.  When this happens, it is a telltale sign that the dog is ready to tie up his daycare Break Away collar and retire from pack participation.  This is also okay.  The best thing we can do for our four-legged friends is to listen and respond to them appropriately when they communicate with us through their actions and behaviors.  

Whatever stage your dog is in, he/she has an exercise and socialization requirement that, as owners, we need to remain cognizant of.  At the end of a dog’s life, that exercise requirement may be two short walks a day; the socialization requirement may be simply snuggle time with the owner only.  Whatever stage your dog is in, we are here to support you and your dog in order to maximize that particular time in your dog’s life, and in turn, yours as well.

Wag more.  Bark less.  Dingo’s Dogsitting.

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