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Teenage Troubles: Surviving Adolescence

Updated: Jun 13, 2023

People often think they’ve survived the hardest part of dog ownership when they’ve cracked toilet training and got their puppy sleeping through the night. The cute, neediness of puppies, as well as the novelty of them, can make those troublesome puppy days feel worthwhile. The challenges are worth it because the puppy is adorable and harmless and it NEEDS you so much.

Just when you’re thinking things are going rather well and what a well-behaved puppy you’ve got … BAM adolescence hits and suddenly your lovely puppy has turned into a nightmare.

Sometimes it feels like it happens overnight. One day you’re gushing about how perfect your puppy is, and the next you’re in tears thinking “what happened to my dog”. This is the part of dog ownership that many of us are completely unprepared for.

We might know about teenage phases and the challenges of adolescence but we don’t really think about what it entails.

Adolescence can begin at around 5-8 months old and can last until they’re up to two years old. It depends entirely on the individual, some will breeze through with no challenges, while others will hit one hurdle after the next. It’s at this age that most dogs are rehomed as owners struggle to cope with the changes and instability that tends to occur.

In adolescence, hormones are continually changing and the brain is being ‘rewired’, it also encourages individuals to explore beyond their family group and learn self-sufficiency.

Some typical behaviour changes can include:

  • Lack of focus, short attention span or seeming to lose interest quickly

  • Increased frustration levels (which may lead to barking, mouthing, or other challenging behaviours)

  • Easily over-aroused, over-stimulated or stressed. Excitement levels may be higher, but anxiety may also increase

  • Increased fear. Most dogs will experience ‘fear stages’ where they can become spooked by things they have previously not taken notice of

  • Testing boundaries … increased independence may mean recall slips and the dog goes further from their owner

  • Increased risk taking: dogs will begin straying further, ignoring recalls, hassling other dogs, pinning other dogs and testing new behaviours

  • Changes in sociability. Some dogs will become increasingly interested in other dogs or people, while others may become less tolerant in social situations

  • Hormonal changes. Your dog may show more interest in other dogs (excessive sniffing), may become obsessed with following scents, may mark in the house or excessively on walks, or may become the target of other entire male dogs. For the girls, your dog may start guarding resources when she comes into season (or as she finishes her season)

What should you do?

Don’t Panic

First things first, remember this is a phase. It doesn’t mean your dog will be difficult forever, many behaviours change and pass relatively quickly. You may bounce from one challenge to the next, but gradually the changes will slow down and your dog will become more consistent and stable.

That doesn’t mean you should ignore any challenges. All too often people think “I’ll just see what happens” or “I’m sure he’ll grow out of it”. But that won’t happen.

Dogs don’t just grow out of problems, they’re far more likely to grow INTO them as they practice it more and more. So don’t panic, but also don’t allow them to keep practicing unwanted behaviours.

Seek Help

It can feel overwhelming and worrying if your dog’s behaviour changes suddenly, so asking for help from a professional is always a good idea. Even just to have someone who can support you and tell you that it won’t last forever, can be a huge reassurance.

It’s also important to handle adolescent behaviours appropriately, at a time when the dog will be experiencing lots of changes internally, they can quickly feel confused, fearful or frustrated if they’re not supported in the right way.

For example, a dog who is barking because he’s been spooked by a random object will only become more fearful if you start shouting at him to be quiet or if you drag him over to the ‘scary’ object to make him ‘see that it’s not scary’.

This is more likely to further reinforce his fears and teach him that he can’t trust you.

Having a trainer working alongside you can be invaluable to ensure you handle adolescent behaviours in the best way and to find strategies to reinforce more desirable behaviours from your dog.

Put Management in Place

Once we’re out of the initial puppy phase, we often relax our management strategies, giving our dogs more freedom and trusting them more on walks and at home. It’s great if your dog copes with less management, but it’s important to be willing to bring those strategies back if they start to struggle.

Management prevents unwanted behaviours being practiced and sets our dogs up for success. This is crucial in the adolescent months where behaviours are quickly reinforced and our dogs are often seeking ways to gain reinforcement.

It’s not a step back to put management in place. Be prepared to do this multiple times throughout the adolescent phase.

You might go months with your dog off-lead, coming back when you call and generally being brilliant, but then suddenly recall slips and he’s testing how far he can go, he’s running off after other dogs and you’re losing control. Don’t try to stick it out without the longline, put it back on and reinforce his recall again! You will get through that stage so much quicker if you go back to using the longline and working on teaching a good recall.

For a dog who was trustworthy at home, it can feel like a huge step back if they start counter-surfing or chewing furniture again, but just like with recall, management is often the key to improving those behaviours. You may need to use the crate, a safe room or baby gates to help avoid unwanted behaviours being practiced. You may also need to puppy-proof your house again and remove temptations from your dogs reach.

Reinforce Calm and Focus

Many dogs struggle with over-arousal and frustration during adolescence. With all the hormonal changes, their tolerance of excitement, anxiety and frustration tends to be much lower so you will see challenging behaviours appearing from these.

Make sure your dog is getting plenty of rest, young dogs can’t always regulate their sleep on their own, they want to be busy and be involved in everything. This means they’re prone to becoming over-tired and it quickly leads to difficult behaviours.

An over-tired dog will also struggle to cope with frustration, they may be experiencing constant stress which leads to anxious behaviours and less ability to handle stressful situations.

If your dog can’t rest and switch-off by themselves, use a crate or quiet room to help them get proper sleep time throughout the day.

They may benefit from activities which provide an outlet for frustration or built up energy, but in a calmer manner, for example, scent-work, enrichment activities, calm training sessions or chewing.

Use any opportunity to reinforce calmness from your dog. That could be calmness before leaving the house for a walk, boundary training at home, or capturing any moments of calm throughout walks.

Have Fun!

When we’re faced with new or difficult behaviours from our dogs, the aim is often to ‘fix’ it straight away. We want to work on it until it improves. This can turn your walks into constant ‘training’, or your life with your dog becomes focused on tackling different issues. We feel frustrated when we want our dogs to do things which they simply aren’t ready for.

This is where you have to ask yourself: does it really matter?

  • Does it really matter that your dog can’t sleep under the table in the pub for two hours?

  • Does it really matter that your dog can’t walk in the busy park because he runs off to all the other dogs?

  • Does it really matter that you can’t walk your dog down the High Street because he’s pulling on the lead?

  • Does it really matter that your dog can’t sleep on his bed when you have visitors round?

Take a moment to think about your dog right now, not the dog you dreamt of or the dog you hope he’ll be in a years’ time, think about where he’s at right now.

Lower your expectations. Stop thinking about what’s wrong with him and try to enjoy the dog he is right now. It’s good to have goals, it’s good to want to work with your dog, but make sure those goals aren’t breaking the bond with your dog.

If you’re too caught up on what your dog ISN’T, you forget to enjoy the dog he IS.

Adapt your goals to fit better with your dog and be prepared to put some goals on hold for a while. It might mean you swap the busy park for a quiet field until you have more focus from your dog again. Maybe your dog has less freedom in the house or he doesn’t come with you to the pub for a while. It doesn’t mean your dog can never do these things, but if you feel like your relationship is affected by what your dog isn’t capable of, then spend some time enjoying other activities with him and work on building your bond, having fun, and taking the pressure off!

At Adolescent Dogs, we work with dogs of all ages, but as the name suggests, we know how hard the adolescent phase can be. It’s such a crucial stage, where our dogs are learning so much and developing all the time. Unfortunately, it’s a time where behaviours can unintentionally be reinforced very quickly and it’s essential to handle behaviours carefully, adolescent dogs can often come across as confident and bold, but actually many will be feeling unsure, they need guidance and support to make good choices and to help them through those tricky months

Written by Naomi White

Join our Online Academy to watch our Webinar on Surviving Adolescence! Along with accessing over 400 video tutorials covering training, behaviour, management, tricks, fitness, scentwork and more!

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