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Pet Column: Raising an adolescent dog

Olive had her fair share of destructive behaviors during adolescence. Photo by Elle Williams.

By Elle Williams, CPDT-KA  
Pet Columnist, Canyon Lake Insider 

If you got a puppy over the holiday season or have recently adopted a dog, chances are you now have an adolescent dog. Adolescence in dogs takes place between six months and two years of age. It can be the most difficult time for both you and your dog.

More dogs are surrendered to shelters during this time of their life because the once cute and innocent puppy has become somewhat of a rebellious teenager. Destructive chewing, uncontrollable energy, running away, humping, barking, not listening, and boundary testing are some of the more common behaviors dogs display during this time of their life.

But they are not trying to give you a hard time, they are going through a hard time. With hormones running rampant and a brain still developing, you may not recognize the dog you have as the puppy you once had. 

And that’s normal!

Hormones can be the root cause of many new behaviors. Your dog may be darting out the front door simply because its hormones are saying “You need to find a mate.” Or maybe your pup has found a mate or your leg, and it seems like a good place to practice procreation.

Pet Columnist Elle Williams is pictured with her rescue dogs Bear, Gracie, Olive, and Bandit. Photo provided by Elle Williams.

Hormones can cause a female dog to start nesting (digging weather in the garden or in a pile of sheets) and resource guarding. It’s only natural since her body is telling her to prepare for a litter. Males may find themself competing for territory and mating rights among other household dogs. 

Males and females may display territorial aggression towards new people or dogs in the home. Play time may quickly turn into play aggression. It’s not their fault, so have patience and be one step ahead to avoid conflict. 

And then there’s the brain. A human’s brain takes about 26 years to fully develop while a dog’s brain on average takes two years. The prefrontal cortex is in charge of many things, one being impulse control, and it takes a while for that part of the brain to learn impulse control to its full potential. 

You might find yourself constantly telling your dog “off” while it searches the countertops, repeating “come” over and over or simply being unable to get your dog’s attention. It will be something you constantly manage, for now, by setting boundaries in the form of learned cues.

This doesn’t mean giving up or ignoring your dog until they have hit adulthood, learned behaviors form during all points of your dog’s life. These unfavorable behaviors can turn into a lifetime routine if you’re inconsistent.

So what can you do?

Management will be a huge part of adolescence. If you leave the house only to come back to a destructive mess, then manage the environment in which your dog is left without supervision. 

Crates are great for short periods of time (one to six hours). Baby gate off parts of the home that you don’t want your dog to access, and make sure to put away anything you don’t want your dog getting into while leaving out plenty of appropriate toys as a replacement. 

A huge part of an adolescent dog’s “bad” behavior is caused by boredom and excess energy so give them a long walk first thing in the morning, training time sprinkled throughout the day, and enrichment activities before their energy becomes destructive. Look for patterns in your dog’s behavior so you can be one step ahead of a pending disaster. 

You’ll need to work on yourself as well. If you are prone to becoming angry and/or frustrated, just know that level of energy may exacerbate your dog’s frustration or excitement. Nothing good will come from taking out your frustration on your dog, If anything, it can seriously harm your relationship. If you want a dog who listens, you need to be worth listening to. No one wants to come to someone who’s angry, so why would your dog?

This brings me to training. Many dog owners will do a puppy basic obedience course and their puppy will shine up until adolescence. Then the dog will seemingly forget all it learned. Remember its brain is still developing, and if the basics aren’t practiced, they are likely to forget basic cues. Continue maintaining cues like sit, down, stay and come using reward-based training in short intervals, five minutes at a time max.

Everyone in the home must maintain these behaviors consistently to avoid confusing the dog. For example, if one person teaches the dog to come using treats and another person teaches the dog to come and then scolds them, your dog will be less likely to come to anyone in the future since avoiding being scolded outweighs the chance of getting a treat. 

Or maybe you’re using stay at the doorway to avoid door dashing. If one person always has the dog stay before going out for a walk and another doesn’t, the dog will feel unsure about what to do at doorways and it’s likely the dog may dash out if the opportunity presents itself.

Continue socializing your dog in new environments, allowing them to experience new things at a distance they feel comfortable. Socializing is not throwing your dog into close proximity with a bunch of new people and dogs. 

Although puppies usually are much more open to new people, dogs, and experiences, adolescent and adult dogs may be selective of new people and dogs in their personal space. I suggest walks around the park where a dog can hear, smell, and see new things with plenty of room to move away if it feels uncomfortable.

Socializing is all about maintaining neutral responses. It’s not about being overly excited about new things. When your dog notices a new dog, person, item, sound, etc, reward the dog with a treat when they look back at you. This can help avoid all kinds of overreactions in the future. If getting them to look back at you is difficult, I recommend teaching them a focus cue.

If this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. You’ll get what you put in, and seeking advice from a qualified professional is a great way to set yourself up for success.

So be patient. Adolescent dogs are going to have lots of ups and downs. Celebrate the little wins as much as the big ones and take a deep breath when times get frustrating. The more you come from understanding the easier adolescence will be for the both of you.

Elle Williams is a local in-home dog trainer and the owner of Give a Sit Dog Training. She is certified in dog psychology, nutrition, and grooming, and specializes in basic and advanced obedience, puppy prep, and behavior adjustment training.

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