Puppy Adolescence

Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA

They grow up so fast.  But honestly, some puppies just can’t grow up fast enough.  They go from cute to incorrigible in no time.  Then they seem to get stuck, for months, or for years.

We call it puppy adolescence, probably because it so horrifically mirrors human adolescence.  Our dear sweet puppies who followed us around and learned their manners so quickly, suddenly go wild.  A dear client of mine said she hardly recognized her own dog when he suddenly went rogue at the pet  store.  Atticus was a 5-month-old Rhodesian Ridgeback, and a model puppy.  Then in aisle 7 he met a boxer who he absolutely had to play with, right there, right away.  Atticus learned in that very moment that he’d grown in size and strength.  He pulled hard on his leash to reach the other dog (who was barking and growling, by the way) and gave my client’s shoulder a good hard strain.

Welcome to the next year of your life with an adolescent puppy.

The early months of puppy development are all about teaching him that the world is a safe place.  Before they come into our lives, puppies learn to interact with siblings and their mother.  We hope they also have healthy interactions with humans in their birth homes (dogs born on the streets and in puppy mills aren’t so lucky).  Once they come to us, we introduce them to the various types of people and human activities they will encounter throughout their adult lives.  The goal here is to show them that those crazy humans and their weird ways are really quite safe and great fun for puppies.  We coo, praise, and offer lots of tasty treats.

By 4 ½ to 5 months, our best efforts have produced calm and confident young dogs.  We’ve been to puppy class for some beginner manners.  Potty training and puppy biting are both under control.  Now we have a developing dog who is growing in size and intelligence.  They’ve had a taste of the exciting world, and they are hungry for more.

Atticus already weighs 45 lbs.  He’s strong, and he’s sharp.  He’s also is a savvy learner.  That’s good news because Atticus has an excellent early history figuring out how to respond appropriately to humans, especially his human family.  That can be a double-edged sword though, because Atticus is also quick to learn what to do to get his way in general.  For example, jumping up on counter tops gets him free snacks (sometimes).  And, pulling toward that boxer in the cat toy aisle gets him closer to an impromptu play date.  Our adolescent dogs discover that behavior pays.  Good behavior or bad, those are our labels.  It’s all the same to our dogs.  Whatever behavior works is good for them.

Helping your dog through adolescence is similar to getting him through early puppyhood.  It’s all about structure, and setting your dog up to succeed.  But the specifics are a bit different.

  1. Focus on what you want your dog to do, not what you don’t want him to do.  Teach him skills and practice daily. For puppy people who have already been training, much of this will be review.  Start thinking about basic manners as solutions to problem behaviors.  Sit prevents jumping on people.  Down teaches your dog to relax and slow down hyperactivity. Coming when called averts many varieties of mischief away from you.  Eye contact while on-leash prevents pulling and lunging.  Reinforce the behavior you want and you will get more of it.
  2. Teach impulse control.  Stay, leave it, and drop it are all good starts.  Just remember point one: focus on what you want your dog to do.  Impulse control isn’t about your yelling “no.”  Stay means your dog holds his position and focus on you.  Reinforce this activity.  Leave it means your dog takes is eyes off of trouble and looks at you instead.  Clicker training is a great way to teach him to do that reliably when you call “leave it.”  Drop it is also an activity.  Release the object in your mouth.  Yes!  Good dog!
  3. Turn play into learning.  Our adolescent dogs are eager for activity and play.  Integrate playtime and training time.  You can reinforce all of the lessons above with tug, fetch, and other types of play.  Experiment and see what your dog wants to work for.  You can also use treats.

Exercise and a healthy diet are also very important.  You might want to ask your vet if your dog’s breed and overall physical development are appropriate for dog sports like beginner agility, fly ball, or dock diving.

Now, pause for a moment.  Imagine who you want your adolescent dog to become.    Think about walking your dog down the path toward that goal.  What will you teach him along the way?  How will you let him know when he’s getting it right – smiles, praise, clicker train, play?  Choose to let the bad stuff fall to the wayside.  You already know that punishing behavior gives it too much of your attention.  Watch your dog grow in size and strength, but also in spirit and maturity.  Imagine the noble old dog he will someday be.

You will make it through your puppy’s adolescence.  I bet you’ll even forget how hard it was.  If you’re like me, you’ll wish time had moved more slowly.  Darned if the little guy didn’t grow up too fast.

(This blog originally published on Chron.com)