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Adolescence is a challenging time for humans, and it's no different for dogs. If you've ever raised a puppy, you know that the early stages are filled with cute moments, cuddles, and lots of training. However, as your puppy grows, they enter their teenage years, and just like human teenagers, they start to be challenging, exhibit new behaviours, and push your patience to the limit. Adolescent dogs are more likely to end up in rescue than any other age bracket. In this blog post, we'll explore the challenges that adolescent dogs can present and provide some tips on how to deal with them.
The Adolescent Stage in Dogs: What to Expect
The adolescent stage for dogs typically begins around 6 to 18 months of age, depending on the breed and size of the dog. Each puppy's development stage can vary dog to dog. The adolescent phase can be characterised by several challenges, each owner might experience some or all of them.
It can feel like your adolescent dog is challenging your authority and the boundaries you have been setting. You will find they listen to you less and it will feel like they are less responsive to what they are asked to do. However, this has less to do with them ‘disobeying you’ and more to do with the changes they are going through. As well as the hormonal challenges they face, their brain is also undergoing changes. If you have a hound or gundog, they will also be developing their ‘nose’. If all these elements collide, it is like taking a bottle of fizz and shaking it then waiting for the bubbles to pop out.
Much the same as humans, the brain matures from the back to the front. This means part of the brain (the frontal lobe) has not finished developing. It is this part of the brain which has the capacity for self-control, which results in a lack of impulse control. Basically, the parts of the brain responsible for dampening emotions are not fully formed, this happens at the end of adolescence. Communication between two key parts of the brain (frontal cortex and amygdala) is decreased during this phase which makes learning skills harder. In addition, the part of the brain that is used to help forget experiences is impaired. If your dog learns something here (wanted or unwanted) it will be remembered more, likewise, if they experience something negative. These behaviours are more hard-wired into the memory banks, they are more vulnerable to stress.
For intact male and female dogs, this is when hormonal changes can lead to increased marking, roaming, and in the case of females, their first season. Hormones can reduce appetite (especially in male dogs) and in some instances an increase in aggression (less likely to do with hormones but something else).
Many adolescent dogs experience a surge in energy levels, making them more rambunctious and prone to destructive behaviour if not properly exercised. Exercise is not just in physical form but mental exercise through training and enrichment to ensure the extra energy is channelled well.
Adolescence can be a vulnerable time for your dog's emotional development, leading to an increased likelihood of separation anxiety. Though signs would probably have been present prior to adolescence, it will be more obvious once in this stage.
They can also become more selective with their interactions with other people and dogs. Once friendly they can become fearful or reactive in unfamiliar situations or start challenging dogs of the same sex. This is also a time when issues might be experienced in a multi-dog household.
Dealing with Adolescent Dog Challenges
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Stay Patient and Understanding
Remember that your dog's challenging behaviour is just a phase. Stay patient and understanding as they navigate this crucial developmental period. Yelling or punishment can exacerbate the issues. Instead, reinforce good behaviour and redirect undesirable behaviour
Exercise and Mental Stimulation
An energetic dog is more likely to act out. Ensure your dog gets plenty of exercise through daily walks, playtime, and possibly dog sports or training classes. Mental stimulation is equally important; puzzle toys and interactive games can help keep their minds busy. There are dedicated Facebook groups and books on enrichment if you are stuck for ideas.
The key to managing an adolescent dog is to maintain consistent and positive reinforcement-based training. Even if your dog seems to be regressing in their obedience, continue to practice basic exercises and reward them for good behaviour. If an exercise is hard for your dog, strip it back to its easiest version so they can be successful.
Don't let your dog's social skills deteriorate. Continue to expose them to new experiences, people, and other dogs. Puppy classes, playdates, and trips to dog-friendly locations are excellent ways to promote positive social interactions. Ensure these are positive though and protect them from negative experiences.
Managing Hormonal Changes
Hormonal changes can be a tricky one to manage with many owners opting to neuter to ‘fix’ problematic behaviour. Unfortunately, neutering to help with issues rarely works and is in fact an old wife's tail. If anything, neutering can make the issue worse, why? Well, it probably wasn’t hormonally driven but brain-driven. In addition to that, there will be an element of learned behaviour. This needs unravelling before any drastic changes, remember neutering is permanent. In all the challenges an adolescent dog is having, leaving them in an unknown, unfamiliar, noisy, and smelly environment (the veterinary practice) for an entire day can be detrimental to their mental health. Yes, the veterinary environment is ‘smelly’ for dogs, remember their senses are much more heightened than ours and they can even smell pheromones.
Addressing Separation Anxiety
Many adolescent dogs experience separation anxiety, which can lead to destructive behaviour when left alone. Start by leaving your dog alone for short periods and gradually increasing the duration. You can also use training techniques to help them feel more comfortable when you're away. If this is too much for them, you very likely need professional help.
Get Professional Help
If the challenges become overwhelming, don't hesitate to seek help from a professional dog trainer or behaviourist. They can provide tailored guidance and create a training plan that suits your dog's specific needs. If you find yourself in this position, feel free to get in touch.
Adolescent dogs can be a handful, but with the right approach and plenty of patience, you can help your friend navigate this challenging phase. Consistent training, exercise, and socialisation are essential components of raising a well-adjusted adult dog. Remember that it's just a phase, and your commitment to their well-being will pay off in the long run. Your dog will eventually mature into a well-behaved, happy, and loving companion, and you'll have the satisfaction of knowing you played a significant role in their development. So, stay strong and keep guiding your adolescent dog with love and understanding as they grow into the wonderful adult they are meant to be.