“Where did my puppy go” is often the first hint that your dog is an adolescent. We aren’t just talking size but behavior, attitude, self control challenges. That puppy who was so desperate for attention you only had to think about him and there he was. So many times I hear “well, our puppy is so well behaved we don’t need training or socialization. Then the dog gets to about six months of age, give or take, and they appear to go nuts.
Why does this happen? Well, there are a lot of reasons. Biologically they are in puberty. Even if desexed their brain is still developing until around the age of 2. And just like humans, the last part of the brain to finish developing is the frontal cortex. Guess what area of the brain controls impulse control? Somewhere between 18 months and 36 months (typically around 24 months) the frontal cortex is complete.
Many dog owners don’t think about this time period. Somewhere around 6 months, when the dog’s appears is less puppy and more adult, they begin expecting adult behaviors. To best explain this, just because a 13 year old human can reach the pedals of the car does not mean they are mentally mature enough to be able to handle the responsibility of driving. This is also why many adolescent “out of control” dogs are turned into shelters. The first step in this is to remember that your adolescent dog is not an adult, nor are they a puppy. They do, however, need training. Much of their puppy training goes out the window as they start to express behavior typical of an animal getting ready to leave the nest. Go back to the basics, build your relationship with your dog. Be sure to engage in play with your dog as part of the training. Don’t spend hours training do spend a few minutes here and there.
The puppy who never jumped may suddenly decide to jump. Why? To get your attention. Suddenly they aren’t the cute puppy that everyone wanted to engage. Now they are bigger, louder and kind of obnoxious. Most of the attention they receive is for bad, in your face, behavior. It’s important not to give that type of behavior any reinforcement, which includes your attention. From that first jump turn sideways, say “sit” and ignore the dog until that behavior happens. Remind them that only good manners should get them attention. Spending time training reinforces that good behaviors = rewards.
Even your dog’s sleep habits may change so they need more positive mental stimulation to help them sleep consistently. Physical exercise is good (check with your vet on what your dog needs) but if you only focus on physical exercise you will have a well conditioned athlete that constantly needs more activity to maintain. You want a good balance of mental to physical exercise.
Adolescent dogs have up and down behavior. One day on point and the next day checked out. This is perfectly normal. On bad days try to do shorter training session, more random requests for a behavior in exchange for a life reward.
Although you still want to keep socializing your dog to new experiences, animals and people understand that some days they may not want to be social, even fearful. Do not force them into a situation. If you are on a walk just turn around and go the other direction, talking softly and finally offering a reward when the dog’s attention is back on you. Let your dog set the pace. Most issues at this point are a result of not listening to your dog and pushing them into a situation they weren’t comfortable with which means the next time may be even worse.
The encountered dog on the walk may be a perfectly lovely dog but now an imprint has happened. Now your dog may be thinking “I was scared the last time I saw that dog and I had to go right up to it and that scared me even more. Maybe if I bark louder or meaner sounding that dog will go away and leave me alone.” We want him to remember nothing happened. He saw the dog, became uncomfortable and his handler turned him around and walked away from that scary thing. Guess what happens now? Your dog goes at his own pace, gradually getting closer until he’s able to be confident in his greeting.
Training and recall are going to be hit and miss during this time. Always EXPECT the right behavior but be PREPARED for the challenging behavior. I expect my dog to come when I call but I am prepared to have a special yummy treat and read to engage the dog in a game of chase the handler or a special tug toy if I need to. Remember, in the animal kingdom adolescence is the time that prepares an animal to leave the nest by learning the skills they need to survive. Teaching them new behaviors and furn tricks are ideal for this time. It keeps their brain active and learning. And it’s hard to get made at a dog doing a silly trick.