ClickerSolutions Training Articles

Canine Adolescence

It's really very predictable… Your dog has been a perfect angel, and then suddenly he starts acting like he's never heard the most basic cues before. What happened? Why is my dog blowing me off?

He isn't. He has entered that most dreaded phase… adolescence.

In an intact male dog this is the time that testosterone production spikes. It spikes at 3 times the adult level, and some dogs have a really, really difficult time dealing with it. However, although adolescence is about hormones, it's not just about testosterone -- or even just about sex hormones. If it were, neutered animals would be exempt. They're not. All social mammals go through adolescence. Nature demands it.

Social mammals are generally helpless and totally dependent when they're born. When they reach maturity, however, they are expected to be fully independent and capable of raising the next generation. There's a lot of growth and development and learning and skill development that has to happen between those two points. Adolescence is the phase where nature demands that they learn to make decisions themselves based on their own reasoning. "Because I said so" is no longer good enough. They are biologically pushed to separate themselves from their parents and to do things their own way. It isn't rebellion. It's Nature.

You may say, "But dogs don't become independent. I don't want my dog making decisions on his own!" Nonsense -- of course you do. Think about what it was like when your puppy was eight weeks old -- think about the amount of time you had to put into managing every element of his life. Now compare that to an older dog who has done and seen it all. That dog may not be out bringing home the bacon, but he knows his world inside and out and is way more trustworthy, reliable, and mature. Well, you have to go through adolescence to get to that point. :-)

How do you handle it? You set them up to succeed, and you make doing the right thing very, very reinforcing. Really work on cementing the basics as the "best thing for dogs."

In addition to this biological imperative, a puppy's brain is going through incredible changes. The cerebral cortex becomes a leaner, meaner thinking machine. During the period where it does all this new myelinization, however, it's not a very efficient thinking machine -- especially during the early adolescence period.

That's why adolescents can think one minute and not the next. Worse, what happens is that the signals that should go to the cerebral cortex get rerouted directly through the limbic system, so you get a completely off-the-wall emotional response. You see this in human teenagers:

"Please take out the garbage."

"You hate me!! You'd never ask that if you understood me! You never listen! I hate you and never want to see you again!!!!!"

Ask the teen later why he responded that way, and he'll say, "I don't know" -- and he DOESN'T. He had no control of those sudden emotions. It was a complete brain fart.

Adolescence in dogs generally starts around 6-7 months of age. It technically lasts until adulthood, which is somewhere between 3 and 4 years of age. However, the absolute worst phase -- the time when they are truly bears of little brain -- is usually over after the first 2-3 months.

So to break it down:

7-10 months, early adolescence. This is the hardest period of adolescence. No brain. If intact, huge amounts of hormones. The honeymoon of childhood is over! This is usually the time when temperament defects start to rear their ugly heads. Some dogs become very reactive in this time, and within a pack, social issues may emerge.

11 months-3 years, adolescence. Lots of change during this long period. He goes from an emotional, underdeveloped 12 year old to a gawky teen to a young adult. The "no brain" periods gradually become less and less. However, with physical maturity also comes social maturity, and you can see a lot of "issues" that coincide with growth spurts. A lot of aggression rears its heads for the first time during the early part of this stage, from roughly 12-18 months.

3+ years, adulthood. Hormones level off. Growth stops. Dogs reach physical maturity somewhere between three and four years of age. Some never reach mental maturity. ;-) Others calm down and sober up quite a bit during these years. Rate of aging beyond this varies greatly from breed to breed.

So to sum up, adolescence in dogs is worst from roughly seven to ten months, and then gradually improves until adulthood at sometime between three and four years. The overall path of "improvement" is generally linear -- he'll be a different dog at two years than he is as 18 months -- but on a day-to-day basis, it's a crap shoot. Your dog may have a brain, or he may not.

On days he doesn't, don't take it personally. He's not being stubborn -- he truly can't think. Just make things simple. With a human teen, that's when you give a written list instead of a verbal one! Or take a day off and give him both a chance to process and a chance to, maybe, have a... er, lucid, moment.

Melissa Alexander
mca @
copyright 2008 Melissa Alexander


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