What you need to know
Many owners are very unaware of just how significant the adolescent developmental stage is in dogs. Young puppies get a lot of attention and coverage on social media and online, and most new owners know about common puppy issues such as toileting accidents, puppy biting, and the need for socialisation. However, many pet dog owners have a worrying lack of understanding of just how big a deal adolescence is for our dogs.
When does my puppy become an adolescent, and how long does it last?
The precise timing is difficult to pin down. Puberty, which is about the dog reaching sexual maturity, happens somewhere between 6 and 9 months of age in males, and between 6 – 16 months of age in females.
Behavioural and social maturity takes longer though, and may not be reached until between 12 and 24 months of age. As a general rule, the larger the size of the dog, the longer he or she will take to reach maturity, and larger breed dogs tend to have much longer adolescent stages.
Why is adolescence such an important stage?
Adolescence is about a young animal transitioning from being dependent on their parents, to becoming independent adults capable of looking after themselves. The brain has to change quite significantly in order to support this transition, and so during this time we see many of the behaviours we may also associate with human teenagers for example increased risk taking, not listening, more impulsiveness.
Adolescent behaviour can be very challenging for owners. The vast majority of dogs who end up in rescue are between 6 months and two years of age, and the biggest reason for dogs being given up is problem behaviour/s. Many of these dogs sadly end up being euthanised, so raising awareness and educating dog owners on this developmental stage is vital.
What problems can arise during adolescence?
- Wanting to explore more, not staying close like they did as puppies
- More independent and not listening – some owners may see this as stubbornness
- Less able to stay focused and concentrate for any length of time
- An increase in energy levels
- Much less able to tolerate any kind of frustration and/or constraint
- Not responding to previously well learnt behaviours e.g. recall
- An increase in risk taking and impulsivity
- Increased fear based behaviours, reactivity and or aggression
- Increased emotional reactions to things previously well tolerated
How can I help my adolescent dog?
Research has shown that adolescent dogs typically show both reduced trainability and a reduced responsiveness to requests from owners. This reduction was more evident in dogs who also showed a less secure attachment to the their owners.
So relationship is hugely important here. We really need to understand that this is a difficult time for dogs, we need to be patient and understanding, and support them through the challenges of adolescence. Take note of when or where your dog shows increased arousal, excitement, frustration or uncertainty and try to avoid or minimise exposure to those situations during this phase. Make sure they get plenty of quality sleep – a big factor in behaviour problems in adolescent dogs. Provide suitable enrichment opportunities; foraging, chewing and slow sniffy walks are all great for promoting calmness. Be there for them, expect things to be tricky for a while but remind yourself it will pass. There will be some great days, and other days where you are pulling your hair out with exasperation, but your dog is not being ‘bad’, they are just being a teenager.
If you are struggling with your adolescent dog’s behaviour then reach out to a professional for help; have a look at my Teenage Tyrant program which focuses on many of the very common issues experienced by owners during this stage of their pups life and helps you restore some peace and harmony to your relationship.