Teen Angst Part II: Emotional Development in Your Adolescent Dog

Parents of human children will tell you that adolescence may be one of the most trying stages of parenting. From the Wikipedia entry on adolescence:...


Parents of human children will tell you that adolescence may be one of the most trying stages of parenting. From the Wikipedia entry on adolescence:

Adolescence is characterized by a number of cognitive, emotional, physical and attitudinal changes, which can be a cause of conflict on one hand and positive personality development on the other….Adolescents who have a good relationship with their parents are less likely to engage in various risk behaviors, such as smoking, drinking, fighting, and/or sexual intercourse.…For the first time in their lives adolescents may start to view their friends, their peer group, as more important and influential than their parents or guardians…In the search for a unique social identity for themselves, adolescents are frequently confused about what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong.

Granted, this article was about human development, but there are a lot of parallels here with how dogs mature. Adolescence is a time of boundary testing. During puppyhood, you may be the most important thing in your dog’s world. During adolescence, your dog is becoming aware of and sensitive to the wide world he lives in, a world full of smells, intact females, dogs, new people, squirrels, distractions and may find these things more interesting than you. The wiki excerpt above mentions that adolescents who have good relationships with their parents are less likely to engage in risky behavior – I see this in dogs as well. Adolescents who as puppies were taught correctly with positive reinforcement and were well-socialized are more likely to respond well to the challenges this stage of development brings.

Adolescence is a time for management and boundaries. Dogs don’t have a concept of “right” or “wrong,” they operate on the principle of hedonism, specifically in adolescence. If it feels good, do it! To learn more about “normal” dog behavior that you may expect to see during adolescence, read this blog.

The length of adolescence is highly variable across individuals and breeds. Generally, smaller dogs and breeds tend to reach physical and emotional maturity far sooner than their larger counterparts. Adolescence begins around 4 months of age and may continue for 1 – 4 years! (Yes, years.) During adolescence, dogs go through two critical stages of development.


4 – 8 months

This is a time of boundary testing. Even if your puppy had a stellar recall, the use of long lines or practice in securely fenced environments is advised throughout this stage (and for many dogs, even beyond this stage into later adolescence depending upon the progress of training).


6-14+ months

This may last significantly longer in larger breeds and certain individuals. During the second fear period, your dog is trying to develop concepts of what is “safe” and “dangerous” in the world – he may react suspiciously even to things and stimuli to which he was well-socialized as a puppy. Certain breeds and individuals (often livestock guardian breeds, breeds which are commonly used in protection, primitive breeds and many terriers) really struggle through this stage as their genetic behavioral legacies become evident – it is also a time when territoriality begins to develop.

During this stage, owners must be exceptionally patient. They must be vigilant about managing the environment to set their dog up for success. This is a time for using positive reinforcement to teach your dog that new things in the environment are “no big deal” or, even better, predictors of reinforcement!

I often take Cuba to puppy class with me – it’s nice for the puppies to meet a friendly, playful, well-socialized and tolerant older dog. Last week I took Cuba to class and we had a new puppy, a 12.5 week old mastiff named Billy start class that night. Cuba’s hackles raised, he lunged to the end of his leash, and barked at Billy. The students looked shocked – “I’ve never heard Cuba bark at another dog before!” I instantaneously launched into rehearsing “Look at That” (LAT) from Leslie McDevitt’s phenomenal book Control Unleashed, which is simply using the clicker as a tool of classical conditioning. Cuba looks at Billy? Click/treat. Cuba takes a step toward Billy on a loose leash? Click/treat. Cuba looks away from Billy and back at me? Click/treat. Daisy, Billy’s owner, was doing similar exercises with Billy. Within a few minutes, Cuba was sitting just a few feet away from Billy, watching as Billy played with his new friends.

This provided a valuable educational opportunity for my clients. I was able to explain to them about the second fear period and demonstrate one good technique through working through fear episodes or times of increased territoriality. I was able to explain to them how a physical or verbal correction may have backfired – I wanted Cuba to feel better about being around Billy, not worse! Billy and Cuba did not end up playing by the end of that class, but I suspect it’s only a matter of time.

My husband was walking the dogs recently and said that Cuba began to bark and pull on the leash toward another dog they encountered. He was concerned and said, “it was almost like Monte used to do!” In truth, while the responses may look very much the same, they have different motivations. Monte was using distance increasing signals toward another dog – “Get away from me! Go away!” Cuba is showing demanding, pushy teenage behavior – what he actually wants is to decrease the distance (“I want to check that dog out/sniff him/play with him NOW!”) and he is still in the process of learning how to earn those opportunities politely. A caveat is that this demanding teenage behavior could very easily turn into a full-blown reactivity problem if handled inappropriately. With Monte, I could use something like Grisha Stewart’s Behavior Adjustment Training using increased distance as a reward for socially acceptable behavior. With Cuba, I have to flip the protocol – a decrease in distance is the reward for socially acceptable behavior.

While these are the two major stages of development to be aware of during adolescence, there are some other characteristics which typify adolescence in dogs. We’ll talk more about those tomorrow!

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