Congratulations! Your puppy is everything the doggy and wider community could wish for. You did your research well, you have a well-socialised and habituated puppy who loves people and dogs, and who sits quietly during more challenging distractions. You’ve attended reward based training classes and your pup follows every signal you give perfectly. So now you can just sit back and enjoy the holidays in the hills; the job is done, right?
Wrong! The challenge is only just beginning. Sorry folks, those first few months are just an entrée into the canine community, as the main event is yet to arrive. Dogs enter sexual maturity and adolescence around 6 months of age, and these terrible teenage times can continue until the dog is 18 months to two years of age depending on the breed, as there is substantial variation between breeds and individuals. Larger breeds generally taking longer to mature both physically and socially with some appearing to end this stage at three years, while some smaller dogs may pass through this phase at eight months. So, as all dogs are individuals, there is no way of knowing how this developmental phase will impact your dog and the only certainty is that those teenage times will be a challenge.
During this time your dog will develop their hunting and competitive skills with the emergence of (until now) unseen behaviours, such as a keenness to herd or chase people, wildlife and anything that moves. Their competitiveness will increase, meaning they will try any way they can to get what they want, and as their learning abilities are now fully developed they will learn rapidly what works for them, from their very personalised perspective. The result can be attention seeking that may test your tolerance levels!
All these negative impacts of adolescence will happen, even if your puppy was a bundle of perfection up to this point. But if your dog was not well socialised and habituated, and there was not plenty of appropriate reward based training, then things can really go downhill now. This is because during adolescence the dog becomes more reactive to threats and is now strong enough, bold enough and quick-learning enough to find better ways of dealing with challenges of life.
The outcome of this teenage turmoil is that dogs start to not come back when called, they bark for attention, and may even begin to use aggression to resolve emotional conflicts such as anxiety, fear and frustration. The herding breeds will herd just about anything, while others will become obsessive to retrieve, to bark, to run and generally dogs become a challenge to live with.
Thankfully, as long as you are well prepared you can sail through these challenging times relatively unaffected. The key is to go back to basics and return to thinking your adolescent dog is a new puppy without training, patience or manners. So firstly it’s important to change your expectations and manage the environment better to allow your dog to learn what is required. Develop a good level of patience as you return to the equivalent of teaching your 16-year old human to add 2 plus 2 and get the correct answer of 4, which for dogs is sitting for 20 seconds before getting what they want and coming when called. This will require a short training sessions at home and on walks every day as well as the use of a long 5m or 10metre training line on walks.
If your dog is getting up to mischief then give them something more appropriate to do, such as ‘find your treats’ games by scattering food on the ground or more challenging ‘find’ games such as searching for specific-named toys. Make sure your dog is getting two good walks a day, but add training to every walk so your dog is remembering the basics of how to respond to signals when out and about.
It’s important to keep positive; this is just a phase, and if you do the right things it could soon be over. Returning to classes, or ideally not leaving regular classes at all, is the best route through this difficult time as then you can get support and guidance and realise that everyone else is going through the same thing.
If you find you are struggling to cope then you may need one-to-one help from a qualified clinical animal behaviourist, such as a member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, an ASAB Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist, or an Animal Behaviour and Training Council Registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist.
The terrible teenage years are a challenge, but by seeing them coming, and going back to basics, then once you have sailed through the storm life does settle down and many happy years with your well-mannered adult dog in the countryside are laid out before you.
Graham Thompson is the Technical Editor of Trail Magazine. He also has an Msc in Companion animal Behaviour Counselling and is a Full Member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, a Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist and he is on the Animal Behaviour & Training Council Register of Clinical Animal Behaviourists.