[Updated December 10, 2018]
Is your once cute, cuddly, and well-behaved pup suddenly acting out? Is your dog ignoring you, taking off if he sees something interesting, and chewing on everything in sight? Did his once perfect “sit,” “down,” “stay,” and “come” seemingly disappear overnight? Are his friendly, social ways being replaced with rowdy, over-the-top greetings? Is he sometimes cautious or even suspicious? Does he occasionally look at you as if he hardly knows you?
If your dog is between six and 18 months old, he is in the adolescent phase of life – where his body looks full-grown but his brain is still developing. Many of the so-called problem behaviors seen at the age, such as chewing, overexcitement, and distractibility, are a result of normal physical and developmental changes. Along with the brain maturing, the adolescent body is also going through growth spurts, secondary teething, surging hormones, and fear periods.
The teenage months are often a dreaded stage in a dog’s development; many dogs are given up to shelters or rescues during this phase because they are destructive or out of control. But adolescence doesn’t have to be terrible. In fact, it can be an exciting and fun time. As with their human teenage counterparts, adolescent dogs can be energetic, playful, full of curiosity, enthusiastic about learning, and ready for just about anything.
These following tips will help you not only survive your dog’s adolescence, but also help you both thrive as you travel through this challenging age.
1. Exercise your young dog.
Adolescent dogs seem to have unending energy and stamina. Even an hour-long on-leash walk may fail to make a dent in your dog’s energy. Leashed walks often need to be supplemented with dog/dog play, high-energy games of chase, swimming, and opportunities to run and explore new areas. The more physical and mental exercise you can give an adolescent dog, the better.
However, adolescent dogs need down time, too. Quiet rest for a portion of the day can help keep his stress hormones from soaring too high (which can contribute to overexcitement). Balancing rest, physical activity, and mental activity will help your dog behave his best.
Also, keep in mind that adolescent bodies are still growing and that joints are not fully developed. To reduce the risk of injury, wait until your dog is more than a year old before you start repetitive, joint-straining activities such as agility, Frisbee, or long-distance running.
2. Create positive social outlets.
During adolescence, it is imperative that you continue to provide positive social experiences with humans and other dogs. To keep up your dog’s social skills with humans, take regular walks in your neighborhood or other areas where you will see people. Invite friends to your home so your dog will continue to understand that people are welcome in your house. Practice “four on the floor” or “sit to greet.” When people come over, use a leash if needed to prevent your dog’s jumping – and of course, use treats, attention, and/or petting to reward appropriate interactions.
For socializing with other canines, identify your dog’s favorite playmates and arrange times for romps and rowdy play. Walk in areas where your dog will see other dogs. For on-leash walks, be sure your youngster learns how to pass by other dogs politely, without saying hello.
For the opportunity to meet and greet new dogs, try beaches and hiking paths where dogs are allowed off-leash. Help your young dog learn to greet briefly and move on by reinforcing him with especially high-value rewards (whether super yummy treats or your dog’s favorite toy) for continuing with you on your walk.
3. Keep up your training!
Previous training often flies out the window when a dog reaches adolescence. When you say “sit,” your dog may sniff the ground. When you say “come,” he may act as if he doesn’t hear you. His attention may be everywhere but on you. Try not to take it personally! Developmentally, adolescent dogs (like human teenagers) are learning about the world, their place in it, and their own limits. They may be less interested in you and more interested in friends and the environment. They are learning to think for themselves.
Continue to train – or get started training if you haven’t already. Make training fun, and mix play and training time to keep your young dog engaged. Practice in the real world, but in situations that are not too challenging for your dog, so that he can get a lot of successful practice. Gradually work toward more distracting environments.
In addition, balance “impulse control” behaviors such as sit, down, and stay, with fun and expressive activities such as tricks. Reward your dog generously when he makes good choices on his own, as well as when he appropriately responds to your cues. Use not only treats and food as reinforcement, but also attention, running together, games (like tugging), and the opportunity to explore.
Your adolescent dog’s reliability may be hit and miss. Keep working with him, but remember that he is still growing, developing, and learning.
4. Manage your adolescent dog’s environment.
One of the most important pieces of surviving adolescence is managing your dog’s environment in such a way that he simply cannot get into a lot of trouble. For example:
-Limit your young dog’s ability to be destructive when he is not actively supervised by confining him in a crate or puppy-proof area, with plenty of exciting “legal” chew items.
-If your dog is still learning to come, always use a leash or long line when you are out in the world, allowing him to be off-leash only in areas where he cannot get into trouble and where you can easily capture his attention (or capture him physically!) when play time is over.
Your young dog will not know how to handle the world! Help him make the best choices; use leashes, long lines, crates, and baby gates to help prevent him from practicing unwanted behavior. Remember that adolescent dogs often forget what they are supposed to do, or get too overexcited to do what was asked. Be ready to help them in those moments.
5. Enjoy your dog’s youth!
Your dog’s adolescent energy, enthusiasm, and excitement can be contagious. Take the time to appreciate what your dog is experiencing and learning. And keep in mind that everything is not always easy for the adolescent dog. Other dogs and people are often annoyed with them. The world is sometimes overwhelming or even scary. Adolescent dogs don’t always know how to behave and that is stressful for them, too.
Celebrate your dog’s adolescent antics – his frequent invitations to play, zoomies through the garden, and his delight over the smallest things. Consider looking at the world through your adolescent dog’s eyes – explore with him, and try to enjoy where he may lead you.
Adolescence is the time your dog is becoming an adult. It is also the time your relationship is growing, developing, cementing. Think past surviving your dog’s adolescence to thriving with him through and beyond this developmental period.
Writer and trainer Mardi Richmond lives in Santa Cruz, CA, with her wife and her Cattle Dog-mix. She is the owner of Good Dog Santa Cruz where she teaches group classes and provides in-home training. She enjoys working with adolescent dogs because they are so much fun!