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Ages and Stages
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However, the situations in which dogs’ behavior is influenced by their age far outnumber those in which their age is taken into account. This discrepancy creates the possibility of misunderstandings and frustration, which are counterproductive to developing and enjoying a close relationship. In fact, relationships between people and dogs can be tested during adolescence, and it’s no coincidence that dogs are the most vulnerable to being surrendered to shelters and rescues at this stage.
Like human adolescents, some dogs have a rather mild time and others have a more extreme experience. Still, the “teen” period can be a shock, coming as it does right on the heels of the adorable-puppy stage. Sure, during a dog’s puppyhood, there are usually some accidents and interrupted sleep, but puppies’ cuteness largely distracts us from viewing this as a terrible part of our dog’s life. People are rarely blind- sided by the trials and tribulations of puppyhood—nobody is surprised by the occasional chewed-up shoe.
Not so adolescence. This is the time when many of the kindest, most patient guardians in the world are left wondering where their sweet puppy has gone. There’s an understandable urge to say, “Who is this monster, and what has he done with my dog?”
People are often surprised by the sudden independence of their adolescent dog. The lovable pup who always wanted to be with you and gleefully dashed to your side at the “Come!” cue now seems not to hear you. There’s no reaction—none at all, not even an ear twitch. Sigh. The perfect recall that brought you such pride seems to have disappeared. The same dog who loved to lie down when asked now looks at you as though considering his options: “Hmm, is that really what I want to do right now?” Often, teenage dogs seem to have forgotten everything you worked so hard to teach them.
Don’t panic when you see a training slump in early adolescence; it’s a common, and temporary, phenomenon. The work you’ve put in with your puppy will pay off later. The well-trained, responsive puppy is likely to mature into a well-trained, responsive adult, even if the adolescent in between bears little resemblance to either. As professional baseball player Earl Wilson said, “Snow and adolescence are the only problems that disappear if you ignore them long enough.”
Besides behaving like classic human teenagers, it’s common for adolescent dogs to become more fearful than they were as puppies. At around six to 10 months, some dogs suddenly act timid in situations that they’ve seemed comfortable with previously. New people, loud sounds or going to a new park may cause a dog to hang back, hesitate or startle. Mild cases of this “juvenile-onset shyness” are just a phase, and many dogs pass through it no worse for wear. (This is in sharp contrast to dogs who are truly fearful. Dogs don’t simply outgrow fear, though with knowledge, patience and hard work on their guardians’ part, they can overcome it.)
Though many dogs move past juvenile-onset shyness without assistance, it’s wise to be proactive in helping a dog through this challenging period by associating whatever triggers the response with something that the dog loves. For example, if an eight-month-old dog suddenly seems nervous when a man approaches, I would pair that approach with something the dog adores, such as a ball or the best treats ever. This conditioning goes a long way toward preventing shyness from escalating into a deeper fear.
Dogs’ behavior is not static. Many differences are predictably related to age, with especially big changes occurring during adolescence. They’re easier to handle if we recognize these changes for what they are: a normal part of development. We naturally do this with humans, but often fail to accord the same courtesy to dogs, though age is relevant to behavior in both species. Adult dogs understand the change from puppyhood to adolescence and react accordingly. Perhaps the best course of action is to follow their lead.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 68: Jan/Feb 2012

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

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