They won’t be breaking curfew or begging to borrow the car, but if you have a canine teenager, they may be terrorizing your household.
Dogs have a much longer adolescent (or teenage) phase than most people realize and it can affect them, and those around them, in many ways. If you find yourself using words like “crazy” or “out of control” to describe your young dog, you may have an adolescent on your hands!
What is an Adolescent?
The Inner Details
Adolescence in dogs is their teenage phase. Exact age can vary, but generally 6 months to 3 years is considered adolescence. While a dog’s body may look fully grown by 1 year, they are still maturing. Specifically, adolescence is marked by the changing of your dog’s brain, and their behavior, as they transition to adulthood.
During adolescence, a dog’s brain is developing. However the different parts of the brain mature at different rates. Like a teenage human, a teenage dog has more development and activity in the limbic system compared to the prefrontal cortex. Don’t remember your high school biology? Basically, the limbic system is all about instant gratification and reward seeking while the prefrontal cortex handles impulse control. This leads to a young dog that is eager to explore the world and seek out fun, but that doesn’t yet have many brakes on their behavior.
During this transition period, a dog will develop new requirements for physical exercise, mental stimulation, and training. All of which can disrupt your household, if you’re not expecting them!
The Outer Effects
What does all this mean for you: the proud owner of an innocent puppy that has suddenly gone wild?
Your little angel is going to be trying out a whole bunch of new behaviors – and you might not like all of them. Adolescent dogs can become more confident and bold: trying to grab what they want from your hands or blowing you off at the park. Or they may be more cautious or less tolerant: balking at walking past an unfamiliar sight or resisting nail trims. All of this relates to their brain maturing and starting to ask a dog’s main questions: what is safe, what works, and what doesn’t?
No More Angel Puppy
It’s completely normal for a teenage dog to have less-desirable behavior than when they were a puppy. They are pushing boundaries and testing new ways of interacting with the world. What they had learned and what they put up with as a puppy is flying out the window (for now).
Conflict between resident dogs may increase as one dog enters adolescence. The teenage dog is trying to figure out where they fit into the home as an adult, but may not be making the best decisions along the way. Adult dogs who were tolerant of puppy naughtiness often stop being so forgiving. This can lead to new conflict over resources (like toys) or inappropriate play. It’s also good to note that either dog can be the instigator, not just the teenager.
Surviving a Teenage Dog
So now you know what’s going on and what you’re dealing with – what can you do about it?
More Management Now, More Freedom Later
This is not the time to loosen the rules, especially if you’re seeing unwanted behavior. Your goal is to prevent bad habits from forming. Management is your best friend during adolescence. If you can prevent your teenager from learning that undesirable behaviors are fun or payoff, they are less likely to do them as they become an adult.
You can learn more about management here. The main goal here is to prevent your dog from having the option of an unwanted behavior so that it doesn’t become a problem to solve later. Over time, your dog will be more trustworthy and able to have more freedom but maybe not right now!
Reward What Goes Right
Some days it may feel like a struggle, but your dog isn’t actually doing everything wrong! Keep on the lookout for any behaviors that you like and reward them. Your dog is learning what works and doesn’t, make sure they learn the lessons you want by reinforcing what you want them to keep doing.
Give them food puzzles and special chewies to enjoy during quiet times (like your work meetings). Take treats on walks and reward each time your dog looks at you. Ask them to sit and then toss their favorite toy. You can learn more about teaching your dog desirable behaviors here.
Work Their Mind and Body
All that energy and curiosity has to go somewhere. During this phase of your dog’s life, appropriate mental stimulation can do a lot for promoting good behavior. Mental exercise burns energy, relieves boredom, encourages calm, and more. Feeding out of food puzzles is easy and a great tool for adding mental stimulation. Sniff walks, where you encourage your dog to explore with their nose, can add mental exercise to your dog’s daily walks, making them more effective in combating unwanted behavior. Training, even just fun tricks, is a great way to work your dog’s brain.
Physical exercise matters, too. There’s that common adage “a tired dog is a good dog.” Be cautious though. No one is their best self when they are exhausted. Notice if your dog’s behavior is actually worse at the end of a long walk or busy day. If they come home exhausted after daycare, do they struggle (or you struggle with them) the next day? That could be a sign that they are too tired and need more time to rest. Try switching some of your physical activities to more mental enrichment.
Hang in There
Adolescence is just a phase. In the end, your dog will come out at the other end as an adult. Most dogs outgrow much of their impulsive behavior and “chill out,” at least a bit. Your goal will be to continue to reinforce the behavior you want, minimize opportunities for your dog to develop bad habits, and then to stay the course until their brain catches up with their body.
Seriously, This is Normal
In conclusion, your wonderful little puppy has not lost their mind; they’re just becoming a teenager. An increase in frustrating and problematic behavior in your home is normal. While some dogs take it to the extreme, in most cases, you will make it through with a little work and lots of patience. It’s also normal to feel overwhelmed though, so remember that you can always talk to a positive-reinforcement trainer about these issues. They can guide you through and help you raise a well-mannered dog. You can do it!
If your teenage dog has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.