Life Stages: Training “teenage” dogs

Some words came out of my mouth today in Basic Manners class that I never thought I would say: “Adolescent dogs are my absolute favorite to train.”   The students looked as though I had said “Llamas make great house pets.”  Maybe both statements are true, or maybe they are a little bit crazy.

Adolescence in dogs is hard to define. Search around and you will see that “teenage dogs” are anywhere between 4 months and 4 years old (“give or take”). Sometimes breed, background and other factors are mentioned. I am going to talk about dogs between the ages of 6 months and 3 years because currently, and most of the time, 75% of the dogs in our adoption and foster programs are in that age range, and I don’t believe that is a coincidence.

Most issues I see with adolescent dogs result from training and socialization that stopped at a certain point in puppyhood, or else were never attempted.   A cute puppy jumping up on people was encouraged to do so, and then suddenly he’s big enough adolescent dogs need new experiences and lots of ways to properly expend their energyto knock down the kids in the family.  Puppy biting which hurts a little starts to hurt a lot as adult teeth and jaw strength develop.  We understand the “my baby isn’t a baby anymore” moments like these and get serious about management and training. Other things can be a little more baffling and even scary. For instance, puppies tend to hang around us a lot and respond to our voice and body language by coming closer. Owners might mistake this as a dog that understands her name and comes when called. Then one day, instead of loping over to see what’s going on with her people, Ginger is running in the opposite direction because she associates being called by that word “comehereginger” with leaving the dog park. Congratulations, you have a trained dog, except she trained herself.

Another example is the shy puppy who hid behind his owner’s legs and turned away from the hands of strangers for the first few months of his life. Then his brain and body started to develop, and just like his human teenage counterparts, he tries something new to deal with his fear: lunging, barking and even snapping at the strangers. This new behavior definitely works, because people tend to move away from the dog who is showing teeth. Proper socialization at a younger age might have prevented this, but now it’s up to the owners to counter-condition the dog’s emotional response to new people with the help of a positive training and behavior modification program.

I think the reason that I enjoy working with these overgrown puppies is that they are still full of curiosity and energy, and it is easy to channel these things into appropriate activities that will make them excellent canine companions for the right people. The adolescent phase can be challenging, but it is so rewarding to see the great dog that emerges on the other side.