Adolescent Dogs Are Like Teenage Humans

In the dog training community, the common wisdom about adolescent dogs goes something like this:

“Adolescent dogs are like teenagers. You wake up one day and your sweet, obedient puppy is suddenly pulling an attitude with you and ‘giving you the paw’. They’ve shredded half the house, they don’t listen to your commands and they’re lunging on the leash like Cujo. They’re testing your authority to see if you’ll give in. If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile. Stay firm so they will know who is boss!”

And this is, by and large, a load of crap.

An adolescent dog jumps on guests

This greeting was cute when I was a puppy. At full size? Not so much.

“One Step Before Total Anarchy” versus “Totally Normal Puberty”

Don’t get me wrong: Adolescent dogs are like teenagers — but it has nothing to do with testing your authority or challenging you for rank.

From the parent’s perspective, things that were never a problem have become massive issues almost overnight.  Their child/dog’s developing self control skills are questionable at best, and that makes for a rocky transition period when combined with a mildly-terrifying new level of independence.  It’s no surprise that it feels like everything is suddenly coming unglued.

But as with human teenagers, those things don’t signal a latent urge to take over the world.

What they signal is, well, a teenager.

A Sudden Reality-Check

The 6-10 month old period is by far the most common age for clients to contact me about dog training.  Roughly half of my overall clients and the vast majority of “out of control dog” phone calls that I get fall into that four month period.

To give you some perspective, those same four months that account for 50% of my new clients are only 3% of the average dog’s lifespan.  That’s a pretty narrow window!

So why is everyone reaching out for help at the same time?

Bigger Bodies, Changing Brains, Less Structure

There are three major types of issues that lead people to contact a trainer with their adolescent dog.  I sort them into the categories Bigger Bodies, Changing Brains and Less Structure.

Bigger Bodies Issues:

  • Frantic greetings/jumping up on guests
  • Pottying in the house
  • Pulling on the leash
  • Over-arousal/too hyper
  • Stealing food from counters
  • Jumping fences that used to contain them easily
  • “Throwing their weight around”
  • Mouthing, excessively physical play

Changing Brains Issues:

  • Dog-reactivity
  • Human-reactivity
  • Resource guarding
  • Inter-household aggression with other family dogs
  • Fights at the dog park
  • Pulling and lunging on leash
  • Not paying attention
  • Urine marking
  • Sudden phobias that didn’t exist two weeks before
  • “Forgetting” known cues and commands

Less Structure Issues:

  • Not coming when called
  • Counter surfing/stealing food
  • Straying from the yard
  • Pottying in the house
  • Not listening outside the house
  • Raiding the trash
  • Jumping on guests
(Note: A few of these things are intentionally on multiple lists, because multiple factors contribute.)

But that doesn’t mean you need to gear up for a show-down.  You can survive your dog’s adolescence with your sanity and your relationship with your dog intact.

Adolescent dogs often struggle with impulse control.

Impulse control? What’s that?

How Adolescent Dogs Are (Actually) Like Teenagers:

To start, it helps to take a step back and think about it from the dog’s point of view.

Bigger Bodies:

Like human teenagers, adolescent dogs suddenly have more agency, physical capability and responsibility for their own actions than they ever did as puppies.  Their world is bigger.  Their bodies can do more things.  They have more options to choose between and more physical capacity to act on those choices.  And with an expanded range of choices and capabilities, it’s natural that some of those new choices would be undesirable to us.

Changing Brains:

At the same time, their framework for navigating those choices correctly is still under construction.  In most cases, adolescent dogs (like adolescent humans) don’t have good behavior on autopilot yet. They may be able to succeed consistently with structure and guidance, but that’s not the same thing as being able to independently make the right choice outside of a training context. Their capacity for impulse control is a work in progress.

In addition to that, the adolescent dog’s brain is starting to mature and adult drives are starting to come online.  They are less likely to default to comfortable acceptance with strange people and dogs, especially if they didn’t have the benefit of an extensive socialization period during puppyhood. Other dogs are suddenly more likely to take offense at rude behavior that they were willing to tolerate from a puppy, but not a maturing dog, which can lead to increased tension between dogs.

Adolescent dogs may be at an increased risk for scuffles and fights

WHAT did you say about my mother?

There is evidence of an additional fear period that occurs around adolescence.  This is a short period of time, typically a couple days to 1-2 weeks, when the dog is easily spooked and likely to exhibit fear response to things which would not otherwise startle them.  During a fear period, there is also an increased risk that any fear responses triggered during that period will “stick” more easily and become a longer term source of anxiety.  (For example, a dog who is exposed to a loud thunderstorm during a fear period may become sensitive to percussive noises afterward, even if they were not afraid of them before the fear period).

Less Structure:

Their humans are treating them more like adults.  The buffers that were put into place when they were puppies are being lifted.  Less supervision, less management, less patience, less willingness to help the dog get it right. And inevitably, some of those buffers are lifted before the dog is ready.  Because the dog can succeed easily with management procedures in place, it is easy to believe that they “know better” if they struggle with the same skills once those management boundaries are lifted.

How The Adolescent Dog Navigates Their Changing World

So in light of all of those changes, the adolescent dog experiments with new behavior to see what works and what doesn’t in these new situations. Which is something that every living creature does and the foundation for all learning processes, by the way — teenagers absolutely do not have a monopoly on experimentation.

It’s important to remember that they’re not testing you. They are trying to figure out how to function in their expanding world. It’s not about you as a parent or leader or trainer. This is not a battle for supremacy. This isn’t about being the boss or putting them in their place. It’s not about putting your foot down.

Instead, it’s still (as it has always been, as it will always be) about showing your dog what works in a given situation and making desirable behavior pay off better than the alternatives.

That’s it.  That’s the whole secret.

And if that means going back to management while you solidify the good habits, then that’s a perfectly acceptable way to navigate your dog’s adolescence. The more often they get it right, the more likely they are to do the right thing in the future.  If that means you need to help them with continued training or management, that’s a small price to pay for a well-behaved dog in the long run.  Accusing your dog of “throwing a tantrum” and “pushing the limits” and “testing your authority” does nothing to show your dog what the desirable behavior is, and it unnecessarily sets up an antagonistic relationship between you and your dog.

Your dog isn’t the enemy.

Posted in dog training.

One Comment

  1. Right on! I work with teenagers every day, and there are many parallels between them and the adolescent dog. Their brains are changing, their hormones and emotions are all over the place. They can be sweet, affectionate, sometimes insecure and in need of reassurance. When something comes up that they don’t quite know how to handle, they suddenly turn to you for support, encouragement, and help through those insecurities. Then other days they are confident young adults who can conquer the world (or at least that math test!), followed by a day of being brash, overconfident, and even obnoxious, testing the limits of your patience. Stick with it, be supportive and encouraging and firm, and you’ll make it through! And just like with human teenagers, model the emotional state you want to see in your adolescent dog. This is the time when handlers freak out, because their dogs are so different. The handlers get nervous walking their dog, because now he’s a little insecure, or barks at other dogs. They tense up, they tighten the lead, they scan the environment for triggers… It’s no wonder their dogs do the same. We need to be the calm, confident ones who keep control of our emotions and maintain the steady course through adolescence; the dogs take their cues from us!

    Great article!

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