The Adolescent Phase
Just as we transition through different developmental stages in our lives, so do our dogs. One of the toughest to get through is the adolescent or juvenile stage. If your dog is roughly six to 18 months (range may vary slightly due to breed), your dog is an adolescent. They aren’t entirely puppies any longer, yet they have yet to fully reach social and sexual maturity. This can be quite frustrating for us pet parents, for our dogs have the bodies and size of adult dogs, yet their brains have not finished developing.
During this stage, you may observe issues such as overexcitement and chewing. Your dog may become distracted easily and seem to forget everything he once knew. In addition, his body is still developing. So, you may notice another teething phase, growth spurts, and periods where your dog seems afraid of things that he was fine with before.
This can be one of the most difficult and frustrating stages of development to deal with. But it does not have to be. There are many things you can do to make the transition from puppy to adult fun and easier for both you and your dog!
Don’t wait until your dog becomes mischievous and/or frustrates you. Be proactive by physically and mentally exhausting him. A regular walk around the neighborhood probably will not be sufficient, and neither will a small game of fetch.
Bring him on multiple walks that last 15-30 minutes each day. Try to interact with other dogs and people while on walks, and/or vary the environment by bringing him to a park, a new neighborhood, or by varying your route.
Play scent games by hiding treats in different toys, knotted towels or blankets, etc., and having your dog search for them. You can create an appropriate digging area by poking holes in the bottom of a kiddie pool (to prevent it from collecting water), filling it with dirt or sand, and hiding various toys inside.
Create a long-lasting “pupsicle” by placing various chews and toys in a large bork or food storage container. Fill it with beef or chicken stock or broth. Then, place the container in the freezer and allow it to freeze. Once completely frozen, remove the pupsicle from the container and place it on a tray or low table for your dog to explore and enjoy for a long period of time.
Feed your dog his actual food out of an interactive toy like a Kong Wobbler, Buster Cube, or even just a large plastic bottle that you’ve poked one or two holes in. This will simulate his scavenging, as well as stimulate him mentally and physically. By the time he is finished eating, he will have a full belly, and should be tired for a little while. You can also use these toys to dispense treats in between meal times.
Until your dog “knows better” and has fully learned certain behaviors, it is absolutely necessary to manage situations. For example, if he has a tendency to counter surf, then never allow him to be unsupervised when he is around your counter. When you cannot supervise, he should be in a kennel or utility room, behind a baby gate, in a bathroom, etc. When you are able to supervise him, you must redirect him every time you see him exhibiting this behavior.
To redirect, simply say “eh eh” (we use the word “no” too often in day-to-day conversation so your dog can become desensitized to that word), clap your hands, or make another sudden noise (you want to gain your dog’s attention, not scare him), and then redirect his attention to something else, like an interactive toy.
If your dog doesn’t have a dependable recall (come when called), then set him up for success by not allowing him to escape. Keep a leash on him when visitors arrive so you can step on his leash if he decides to bolt when the door opens. Always bring him outside on a regular 4-6-inch nylon or leather leash (retractable leashes are clunky, break easily, and encourage pulling while walking on a leash), and/or a 30-50-inch training lead. Using a training lead outside is a great way to teach a reliable recall and stay with distractions.
Use baby gates when new people come over to prevent your dog from jumping and potentially hurting your guests, when you’re having dinner to prevent begging, when you are bringing groceries in the house to prevent bolting, etc.
Remember that your dog’s brain is still developing and they tend to be awfully forgetful at this stage. Be patient and teach them how to replace unwanted behaviors with polite behaviors. How you handle your dog’s behavior now will leave a lifelong impression on him. Remember that fear or force-based methods will trigger his fight or flight response. Your dog should look to you as a pet parent/guardian. Don’t give him a reason to not trust you, fear you, avoid you, or fight you back.
If you’ve ever taken a training lesson with me, you have heard me constantly say, “Your dog learns ‘in pictures.’ You must constantly ‘retrain’ your dog every time ‘the picture’ changes.”
This is so important to remember. Dogs’ attention spans are very short–especially during the adolescent stage. So, when you teach him a new command, teach it over and over again in different environments, in different attire, using different rewards, etc. Just because your dog can reliably sit every time you ask him at home doesn’t mean he will do so at a pet store, in a park, when guests come over, etc.
Teach a new command in an environment with little or no distractions. When that particular behavior is very reliable and you no longer need a food reward, start substituting the food reward for “life rewards.” Instead of asking Fido to sit for a treat, ask him to sit for his food, to go outside, to be petted, to get a toy, to put a leash on, etc. Then, bring Fido to new environments, gradually increasing the distraction level. Each time the distractions get more challenging, your reward must increase in value. Tummy rubs and training treats may work at home, but you will most likely need Easy Cheese or boiled chicken at a public park.
Ask guests to help with training when they come over. Take 15-20 minutes to work on “on your spot/bed,” combined with “sit” or “down” and “stay” when people knock on your door. Repeat over and over until it becomes a learned behavior/conditioned response. Do not wait until you have guests over for dinner. Arrange training sessions with friends and family to set up the behavior and train repeatedly. Remember that consistence is huge.
Organize times with other pet parents to have play dates. Utilize doggy daycare. Take him on walks where there will be other dogs–like a hiking trail–and teach him how to pass other dogs with and without saying hello.
Patience and Love
Although the adolescent stage can be challenging, always remember that it’s equally as challenging for your dog. Things are changing physically and mentally, he realizes there is a huge world out there other than with his pet parents, and some of that world can be quite overwhelming and scary. Take the time to teach your dog, instead of expecting him to “just listen.”
Dogs are not robots or puppets–they are living, breathing creatures that experience love, trust, fear, anxiety, etc.–just like us. Be a parent and a friend to your dog without being a drill sergeant and slave driver. What you put into life is what you get out of it–this is no different than with a dog. If you show him patience, love and compassion, and teach him now, he will forever be the best friend you could ever hope for.
Our dogs’ lives are extremely short–don’t miss out on that or give up on him. He just needs you to guide and prepare him. Until next time…happy training!