Strategies for Training Success with Adolescent Dogs
Adolescence is like puppyhood, only harder. This developmental stage is thought to begin around 6 months of age but can vary depending on the dog’s breed and size. Puppies are little and cute and suddenly they get bigger and go through a lot of changes, and that’s what encompasses the adolescent stage.
During this time, dogs begin to look physically more like an adult, but the brain is still very much a puppy brain and still developing. Changes in sleep also occur. Puppies sleep more, but adolescent dogs can be more alert during the day and then crash later in the afternoon. To improve these sleep issues, provide your dog with more daytime rest periods, such as putting your dog in a crate or pen. Then, in the late afternoon, schedule more active time so that your dog will be tired in the evening.
Sexual maturity happens between 8 to 12 months of age. An adolescent male dog has more testosterone than an adult male dog if he is still intact. If a female dog goes through the first heat cycle, she will also experience a lot of hormone fluctuations.
In addition, emotional changes can occur during the adolescent stage. While some dogs do not experience this, a lot will go through a fear period around 6 to 9 months of age. A dog might be more suspicious and fearful, and that is normal.
Food is an important tool to change your dog’s fearful behavior. Using high value food in a situation where your dog is nervous of new people can change your dog’s emotional response. If your dog is suspicious around an object, putting food around the object but never forcing your dog to go near the object will help.
Some pet parents can feel less connected or less bonded to their dogs during this development phase. For your dog, its brain is preparing itself for independence and to protect itself from danger. Dogs are less likely to listen to their owners at this stage. This is temporary, and it’s important to recognize this is normal. So many dogs are surrendered to shelters at this age, and it’s crucial to know this behavior will not last.
Common Complaints During Adolescence
An adolescent dog’s inability to listen is one of the biggest complaints. Impulse control issues like jumping, counter-surfing, and chewing can make life difficult. One of the biggest issues that isn’t discussed often is barking and leash reactivity. All these issues can be fixed ultimately.
Management + Impulse Control
You want to set up your home environment for success with an adolescent dog. You should trust your adolescent dog unsupervised in your home as much as you would trust a two-year-old child with a box of crayons. Even though your dog looks older, he still has an immature brain and does not have the impulse control of an adult dog. If you are leaving your dog alone, it’s important to leave your dog confined for that time. Make sure they have functional activities for the crate like a stuffed Kong or bully sticks.
It’s also important to set up professional environments for success with an adolescent dog such as a veterinarian or a groomer visit. If possible, ask your vet or groomer if you can give your dog a Kong or treat while your dog gets its vaccinations or hair trimmed. The restraint is what often scares the dog. Also, get your dog to the groomer at a young age and make sure the experience is always positive.
Ways to Teach Impulse Control
Be sure to teach the concept of “wait” whether that is waiting at the door or waiting for food. It’s all about teaching your dog to pause and check in with you before moving forward with any activity. This concept is important for safety as well. “Leave it” is also a good way to teach impulse control. Try this with a treat in your hand. Once your dog backs off or leaves the food alone, be sure to reward them right away. If your dog tries to take the treat, remove your hand. Only reward your dog from the other hand when the treat is left alone.
Practice these concepts in real life, so that your dog gets the relevant experience. This will set your dog up for success. Remember, three failures are too many, and your dog may be getting frustrated. Try making the practice easier to avoid this.
For most adolescent dogs, the motivation for jumping is attention. How is this behavior being reinforced? Is your dog getting petted after this behavior? You must teach them that jumping is not going to get them attention. You can do this by taking a step back so that your dog doesn’t make contact with you. You can also prevent jumping on guests in the first place by using a leash.
Another attention seeking behavior is mouthiness. This behavior gets a dog attention or a reaction. You want to examine how you might be reinforcing this behavior. Are you sometimes allowing this behavior to occur? Be sure you don’t allow this behavior at any time and don’t reinforce this behavior by giving your dog a toy instead. There should be a zero-tolerance policy with any mouthiness in adolescent dogs.
Counter surfing is a crime of opportunity. Best way to avoid your adolescent dog learning this behavior is to keep your counters as clean and clear of food as possible.
Loose Leash Walking
Your dog isn’t born knowing how to do this, so you must teach them. A front clip harness, like the Petsafe 3 in 1 Harness, is the best way to help teach your dog not to pull. For extreme pullers, a head collar, like the Gentle Leader, is preferred. You will always want to remember to reward the behavior you want. Make sure you reward the dog immediately on the side your dog is walking on. Pulling should always result in loss of forward motion.
This is potentially the most critical skill you can teach your adolescent dog. The earlier you start, the better, but this can be started at any age. You will be teaching your dog that a distraction is their cue to focus. You have to work starting at a distance further away than you think you should be to whatever the distraction is for your dog. Wait for your dog to look at the distraction, such as another dog, and say your marker word (“yes”) as soon as your dog looks at you and then immediately reward. This is training your dog to look at the distraction and then look back at you each time.
Tying it All Together
A dog’s first year is the most critical in their development. It’s an important time for the human – dog bond as well. This bond is tested during adolescence. Maximizing your dog’s positive experiences, teaching strong impulse control, and setting both human and dog up for success will help get you through this difficult phase.