What many people forget about when they’re picking out an adorable puppy, is that they don’t grow directly from puppies into adult dogs. Just like humans, their bodies move ahead of their brains, hormones go out of control, and what you’re left with is a canine teenager. My older dog is almost two, and he’s nearing the end of adolescence. The younger two are just shy of a year old, and are working diligently to slowly drive my husband and me to vice. This is a prime age for dogs to end up being passed around from home to home, or worse, in a cell at Animal Control.
It is, admittedly, a difficult age. Behaviors you thought were mastered are now completely forgotten. Boundaries are tested. Forbidden items are stolen, chewed, and shredded. The tiny puppy that used to sleep most of the day and tire quickly now has the stamina of an adult and the self-control of a toddler. He’s also grown to most of his adult size, which in my case, means that an 80 lb dog is now taking a renewed interest in jumping on me. It can be a lot, but it’s also the price you pay for adopting a puppy or adolescent, instead of the many adult dogs that need homes. People know they’ll have to deal with potty training, and teething, but they forget that training is ongoing for 2-3 years.
What’s a dog owner to do? Firstly, have realistic expectations. Dogs actually chew the most a couple of months after their adult teeth are finished coming in, so don’t think that your six month old is done chewing. New hormones and levels of cognitive development mean that things the dog used to tolerate might frighten, over excite, or cause an aggressive reaction, so don’t be off your guard and be ready to manage inappropriate behavior. A second fear imprint period towards the end of the first year may cause your formerly easy-going puppy to become an aggressive and fearful dog, and could result in a difficult or impossible to remedy phobia, so be ready with positive associations and continue to carefully manage socialization. This can be a particularly dangerous time to use electronic shock collars, or other painful or frightening punishments, because the dog’s brain is programmed to make connections and help a dog learn what to fear as an adult, outside of his mother’s den. Different breeds and sizes of dogs go through these phases at different rates, and with different levels of intensity. Generally, toy and smaller breed dogs mature more quickly than larger dogs.
Sometimes, it’s better just to wait it out. Our English Coonhound mix, Bramble, is naturally a reserved and shy dog, so as a puppy I spent a lot of time working on his fear of strange dogs and strange people. He made a ton of progress, but he’s currently taken a big back step. He’s at about the right age for that second fear imprint period I mentioned, and he’s in a particularly excitable phase as well, so I’m very careful about who I have him around, and I’m not working to make any progress. He’ll be better able to manage stranger-danger in a few months, and I won’t be burnt out with months of training with little improvement. Similarly, Biscotti, our Border Collie/Lab mix, has excellent recall off leash, but if he knows the walk is about to be over, he’ll stay just out of reach. I could spend buckets of time working with him, but instead, we have him wear a drag line. He’s easy to catch, and he gets all the benefits of off leash exercise. He’s improved a lot as he ages, and I’m confident that by next year, we’ll be able to quit using it.
In other cases, you have to accept that it’s time to go back to kindergarten. Boundary testing means that most adolescents will experiment with jumping, stealing things off the counters, or other inappropriate behaviors you thought were gone. Now they’re bigger, better, and smarter about it, but if you know it’s coming, you can be ready to train instead of getting mad. Use the same techniques you used the first time around, and usually they’ll relearn the behavior quicker the second time around. If you’re like me, and a positive reinforcement training class isn’t feasible, I recommend one of the excellent training books by Dr. Sophia Yin, Kathy Sdao, or Karen Pryor. While this is an important time to work on new behaviors, be ready for slower progress than you previously saw. There is a lot going on in their heads, and sometimes training isn’t at the top of their list. Also, remember that training should be quick-paced and fun, or they’ll likely blow you off. Good method is important, but the execution needs to be interesting, or they’ll be doing the dog equivalent of texting their friends, like real teenagers.
Exercise and stimulation are particularly important at this age. While an outing won’t solve everything, a dog that’s gotten out of the house, been mentally stimulated and run off some energy is much better able to remember the rules. Change up your walks, and go to different stores or arrange a doggy play-date if it’s cold or raining. Save the quite evenings under a blanket for next year. Just having access to a yard isn’t enough, very few dogs will actually exercise themselves without help. If you can, keeping your dog in a class at this age can help you both keep up with training, and give them some valuable entertainment. Keeping plenty of toys on hand, and making time to interact with your dog are invaluable. If there is a behavior you just can’t stop, like digging, try to set up an appropriate place where they’re allowed to dig, or make noise, or whatever else they’ve decided they must do. Be especially conscious of this if you’ve got a working breed or mix, I’ll never train my coonhound mixes out of acting like hounds, and that means I have to provide an acceptable outlet for sniffing, digging and howling.
If you can’t keep up with your dog’s energy, doggy daycare is an option. I know many people who are only able to raise their own puppy because doggy daycare is there to wear them out while they’re at work. If you’ve got enough money to throw at the problems of adolescent behavior, there are places that will exercise your dog, keep him groomed, provide individual training, and deliver him fresh smelling and ready to cuddle to your doorstep. If cost is more of a concern, many vet’s offices that offer boarding are starting to offer a more basic doggy daycare for very reasonable rates. You’ll have to do your own washing, and I’ve heard complaints that the staff will reward dogs for jumping up, or other undesirable things, but at the least exercise won’t be a problem.
The biggest, and most important thing to do, is have a sense of humor. Adolescent dogs are difficult, but they’re also goofy, awkward, and hilarious. Accept that they’re going to make mistakes, keep your valuables out of the way, and have a good laugh when they spin-out on the kitchen floor. I count to 10 in my head many times a day, but I also thoroughly enjoy my dogs at this age. They’re more enthusiastic, energetic, and expressive than they’re ever going to be again. I have to hide the couch cushions, but I also get to watch them learn to swim and discover turtles. Adolescence will be over sooner than I think, and if I put in the work, I’ll have well mannered, even tempered, exceptional dogs at the end of it. In my opinion, it’s well worth the effort.