Surviving Your Puppy's Adolescence
By Tehani Mosconi
I was curious to see how Webster would define adolescence, and found "youthful, exuberant, immature, unsettled." That pretty much says it all! I always take a deep breath before I announce to my puppy classes that they shouldn't think their work is done just because their puppy is five or six months old. Quite the opposite: adolescence is a challenge, both for puppies and their people, and the real work is just beginning.
Like most animal behaviorists, I consider the period from seven to 12 months as being adolescence for most dogs. (The larger breeds mature slower so their adolescence falls later.) As in humans, adolescence is a bridge or transition between youth and adulthood. Because all dogs have their own personality and breed-specific traits, adolescence manifests somewhat differently in each. Nonetheless, most dogs exhibit at least some of these common adolescent traits: selective hearing; refusal to do previously learned commands; reversion to puppy behaviors such as mouthiness, destructive chewing, jumping and barking; lapses in housebreaking and just about anything else to drive their guardian insane. The good news is that this period in a dog's life doesn't last long; the bad news is that it isn't short enough.
There are many things you can do to make adolescence easier. Spaying or neutering your companion prior to adolescence will help a great deal: the last thing a "teenage" dog needs is raging hormones. Obviously, sterilization will not keep a dog from going through adolescence, but it will spare them the additional physical and emotional changes of becoming sexually mature. Taking a young dog to a puppy kindergarten or pre-school will teach you how to get your puppy's attention, handle the puppy and do some basic commands; you'll graduate the class with increased control of your dog. At the same time, your puppy will learn the rewards for "doing the right thing" whether these are treats, verbal praise or petting.
Sometimes it helps to enroll a "teenage" dog in a more advanced class. While dogs are harder to train during this period, the help of an instructor and the support of other people with adolescent dogs can be valuable. Because many dogs become antisocial with other pooches during adolescence, it is important to start socialization early and continue it through the dog's young adulthood. Key to the program is regular off-leash recreation with other dogs; a fenced-in dog park or other designated off-leash area are ideal locations. If antisocial behavior continues and becomes serious, you may need to seek the help of a private trainer who can work with you and your dog with other dogs around.
Young dogs need a constructive outlet for their seemingly boundless energy. Regular aerobic exercise such as speed walking your dog, running with them on a soft surface (like sand, grass or dirt) and playing fetch are all good options, as are allowing your pooch to run and play with other dogs. Remember: a tired dog just wants to find a spot for a good snooze instead of eating the remote control to the big screen television.
When I counsel people about crating their puppy for housebreaking, I always tell them to buy a crate that will accommodate the dog when grown to full size. If your dog has some inappropriate urination or defecation episodes during adolescence, reintroduced them to the crate before the problem becomes chronic. The crate is also the safest place for your dog when no one is able to supervise them.
When you are available to watch your canine companion, use the time to establish rules and define what is acceptable and what is not. For example, playing with a chew toy is great, but jumping up on the sofa may not be, and the behavior needs to be corrected with a quick "No!" or a squirt of water. The six or so months of adolescence can seem much longer for a dog who has no guidelines or direction.
Bringing it home
One of the things that I love about Lenny is her desire to please. Over the last few months this has changed in one very important way. She will still do things for me, but I have to make it worth her while. I did some extensive research into exactly what motivates my dog, and found that -- luckily -- Lenny is driven by food. She will eat almost anything, but I wanted to find treats that she really liked. After much sampling I came up with her favorites: freeze-dried liver, jerky treats, Pup-Peroni and vegetarian hot dogs.
These days I always have treats in my pockets so I can reward her when she does something I've asked her to do. For example, Lenny has a crate in my car. When I open the door and say "kennel" I want her to jump in her kennel. Lately she has refused to jump in the car unless she knows she will get a treat. I will continue this little game for a few more months and then gradually wean her off the treats. Food as a motivator is not a bad thing; dogs do not get addicted to it. Eventually Lenny will only occasionally get a treat for jumping in her kennel. The rest of the time she will just receive verbal praise, a scratch behind the ears or a pet.
Lenny's adolescence has brought other behavioral changes as well. She now gets very excited when visitors stop by our office. She has started jumping on people and barking when someone arrives. Lenny jumped as a puppy; I was able to get this under control by telling her to sit when she came up to me or anyone else. In return for the sit she was rewarded with a treat. The barking is a new behavior. It's almost as though she just discovered her voice and now wants to use it. She especially enjoys barking while she has something in her mouth. Lenny also gets very mouthy when she gets overly excited. This whole greeting ritual is really cute but totally out of control. I've asked visitors not to enter the office unless Lenny has all four paws on the ground and is not barking. If she starts getting mouthy visitors have to leave or else completely ignore her (not easy to do!).
As Lenny grew out of puppyhood she also changed her night-time sleeping spot. When she was about four months old I started letting Lenny sleep out of her crate in a dog bed next to mine. She never left the room even though the door was open, and never had any housebreaking problems. All was well until one night about 4 am when Lenny jumped in bed with me. I thought it was cute so I let her stay. Well, every night thereafter the jumping on the bed happened earlier and earlier. One morning I woke up at 3 am clutching the edge of my bed while Lenny sprawled diagonally across it. Clearly this could not continue! The next day I put Lenny's crate together and took it to the bedroom, and since then she has spent every night in it. In a few months I will probably experiment with letting her sleep in her bed again and see what happens.
I am living proof that a patient puppy "parent" can survive adolescence. (Of course, Lenny and I are not quite through it yet.) The first key is to understand what adolescence is and know that it doesn't last forever. If I hadn't known about adolescence I would have thought that Lenny had something physically wrong with her or that she had experienced a major regression and forgotten most of what she had learned. The second key is to know that when adolescence starts you have to change the way you interact with your puppy to accommodate the new behaviors. If you are consistent and patient, adolescence can actually enhance your relationship with your dog.
(Tehani Mosconi is the animal behaviorist at PHS. If you have questions about your puppy's adolescence, call our free Animal Behavior Helpline at 650/340-7022, ext. 783.)