Just like human children, our dogs go through that dreaded period of social development that strikes fear in the hearts of all parents – adolescence. This is a period where individuals will test boundaries and assert their independence. This is also the period when many dog owners give up, and many dogs end up at the shelter. People forget that this is a frustrating phase that their dog will eventually grow out of. Adolescence is an essential part of growing up, a period for developing the skills necessary to survive, and thrive, in the adult world.
When does adolescence begin for your puppy?
That depends on his size and breed. Small breed dogs mature more quickly than large breed dogs. Generally small dogs enter adolescence by about three-and-a-half to four months of age, giant breeds as late as six months. Small breed dogs reach social maturity by about one year, giant breed remain adolescent until roughly three. Females tend to mature a little more quickly than male. And some breeds, like Labrador Retrievers and Boxers, seem to take forever to grow up.
So what behavior changes can you expect to see from your adolescent dog?
People are often shocked when their cute little puppy, who looked to them for comfort, support, and guidance, seems to suddenly forget they even exist. Trying to get your dog’s attention on a walk becomes an exercise in futility. Any training has flown right out the window as the sights, sounds, and mostly smells of outdoors take over your dog’s brain. And indoors, your puppy, who used to spend a majority of his day sleeping, has now become a barking, nipping, chewing whirlwind of frustration and destruction.
So what’s a puppy owner to do? Here are some tips for successfully surviving your dog’s adolescence.
Safety First – Always!
Fair warning; remember the puppy who followed you around, constantly tripping you and getting in the way, coming easily whenever you called? By four or five months, he will be gone! Adolescence is not the time to take the leash off your puppy any place that is not completely fenced in and safe. Be on guard any time you open the front door, gates to the yard, or your car door. No matter how well trained you think he is, your teenager will be looking for any opportunity to take off and explore the big wide world.
Just about the time most puppies have mastered potty training and their families start giving them more freedom around the house, adolescence hits. Don’t be in too big of a hurry to give up the tethers, crates, and baby gates. It’s much easier to prevent bad habits from starting than it is to fix problems later.
Counter surfing is a perfect example. Now your puppy is big enough to reach the coffee table, the dining room table, or maybe even the kitchen counters. All of a sudden your sandwich disappears when you turn around to get a drink. Your dog didn’t do this to make you angry, dogs are opportunists! If you leave food unattended where they can reach it, of course they will take it. And the more times this happens, the stronger the habit becomes, and the more difficult it is to change.
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.
Patience and a Sense of Humor
There will be days when your adolescent pup sorely tries your patience, and you will wonder why you got the dog in the first place. Some days your adolescent dog will seem to have lost his mind – and he has! On these days it’s important to take a breath, relax, and remember that this is a phase. Your dog WILL outgrow it. It’s also important not to let frustration take over and cause you to do something that will damage your relationship with your dog. On these difficult days I recommend you take a break from training and just play with your dog. Have some fun, build on your friendship, and your dog will be much more willing to do what you ask of him.
Always important, but especially during adolescence, when you ask your dog to do something you must follow through. You are training your dog and ask him to “stay”, and then you get distracted by a phone call. Your dog gets bored, wanders off, and receives no feedback from you about leaving. Now, the next time you ask your dog to “stay” it becomes his moral obligation to test if you mean it. Is this a real stay, or can I just wander off like last time?
Before asking your dog to do something you should ask yourself, “Is this a behavior I have trained my dog for in this environment or this situation?” Is he likely to do it if you ask? If the answer is “no”, don’t give your dog the cue. For example, if your dog runs out the front door and you have not trained the dog to “come” in the front yard or down your block, don’t ask your dog to “come.” Try something else instead, like whistling to get your dog’s attention, and then run the other way. (See my blog post, and contact me for more help with doggy door dashing.)
Set your dog up for success by never asking him to do something he is not yet trained to do. But if you do ask, you must follow through.
Exercise, Exercise, Exercise!
The best way to ensure that both you and your dog survive adolescence is to be committed to providing him with plenty of physical exercise on a daily basis. The average large breed adolescent dog requires about 45 minutes of running a day (that’s right – RUNNING). The herding breeds, like Australian Shepherds and Cattle dogs, and hunting breeds, like Labrador and Golden Retreivers, require about an hour. And some breeds, like German Shorthair Pointers or Border Collies need around two hours or more per day, just to be mentally healthy. Daily walks are great for socializing and bonding with your dog but are not sufficient exercise for most adolescent dogs. The exception would be some toy breeds and some giant breeds that may do fine with just a half hour walk every day. For more information see my blog post Exercise For Your Dog.
When physical exercise is not an option due to health concerns, weather, or an overly demanding schedule, providing mental stimulation can offer a good temporary substitute. Teach your dog a new trick, take him to explore a new environment, or sign him up for a new training class.
I sincerely hope that these tips will provide you will some insight and some encouragement as you and your dog navigate your way through adolescence. The most important thing to remember: This too shall pass!