I was fortunately to have elder Sessan as a caregiver for adolescent Laddie (in the background). Sessan routinely came up with her own games which entertained Laddie!

Adolescence Defined

Dogs have a relatively short puppy-hood before entering dog adolescence. Just some quick clarifications:

Puberty defines the changes in sexual and physical characteristics.
Adolescence is the period between puberty and adulthood.

So, the term adolescence includes puberty changes, but you’ll soon read that it also includes other changes that have nothing to do with puberty.

Time Period: Dog adolescence typically runs from 6 to 16 months, with the average age of puberty ending around 12 to 14 months. These time periods vary according to the size of the dog.

Many of the changes that happen to adolescent dogs occur despite a dog being neutered or spayed. In the old days (fortunately this doesn’t happen much anymore), shelter dogs might have been neutered or spayed as early as 8 weeks. So, there is plenty of data showing even these dogs exhibit the body and brain changes that non-altered dogs exhibit.

As I learned during a seminar about adolescence with Dr. Amber Batson, all these changes are natural — and it’s up to us to be gentle with our dogs during this time period.  It’s an important time for their development. What happens during adolescence can shape who they become as adults!

Here are some facts (similar in human teenagers!):

Dogs undergoing adolescence are primarily developing their limbic brains. This is the part of the brain involved in emotions and reward seeking. The development of the pre-frontal cortex is limited during this time (rational thinking, self control, focus, planning, emotional control, problem solving).

As a result, the dog is primed for incentive seeking, risk taking, and exploration. But, as with teenagers, this is coupled with poor decision making, heightened emotional responses, and more reflexive responses. So, it’s a tough time for dogs and teenagers when they can’t act out what their body desires.

The brain of dogs during adolescence develops at a phenomenal speed so the brain’s need for sugars is high (indirect sugar through food – not feeding sugar!). If the dog is put through situations where the muscles demand sugars too (ie: fast exercise), the dog becomes super hungry (like the always hungry teenager).

Adolescent dogs are motivated by the reward, whereas adults are motivated by the anticipation of the reward. So, since stress negatively affects reward pathways, a stressed adolescent is much harder to train (or, an adolescent in a stressful situation).

– Adolescent dogs feel uncomfortable with strangers and do better with friends. They actually need time with friends and not just family members. (Think of the teenager who just wants to hang out with his/her friends!) Although they are driven to explore, it’s more about personal exploration and exploration with friends.

– And finally (for now), adolescent dogs are primed to leave their primary caregivers. So, research shows the adolescent dog’s response to carers decreases while their response to a non-household members increases. Again, this is not a choice they are consciously making – it’s part of their development to become independent adults (if they ever make it!).

Now, how might we inadvertently make things worse for our adolescent dogs?

Just like teenagers, adolescent dogs experience an increase in frustration with some common constraints placed on them by us:

  • leash frustration (they are driven to explore now),
  • delayed rewards or reduced rewards (expectation of hot dog and they get a dry biscuit) cause frustration because it’s the reward itself that motivated them,
  • intrusions into private space (think teenager and his/her room),
  • someone taking their resources (brain NOT set up to have things taken away — so in households where people take things without exchanges, the adolescent dog is much more likely to react than the puppy).

A lot of these things were tolerated pre-adolescence but adolescent brain and body can’t handle them anymore!

And, despite all this “independence” – dogs need familiarity and adolescent dogs actually need social contact with the same 2-6 dogs. When they meet unfamiliar dogs, it takes them a while to recover from the stress of this change. So, regular meetings with familiar dogs during this time is beneficial, but regular meetings with unknown dogs is detrimental.

So how can we help our adolescent dogs thrive during this sensitive time?

  • Remember they get frustrated easily so be clear and patient with your requests. Make sure you train in small, easily understood steps.
  • Try to arrange regular meetings with familiar dogs, even if just walking on leash or off so they can explore together.
  • Try to limit exposure to areas with unfamiliar dogs and people.
  • Increase the amount of times you feed your dog per day. Frequent feedings (at least 3x/day) help them maintain blood sugar levels.
  • If you use puzzle toys or do anything involving finding little bits of food at a time, make sure they’ve had a good portion of their meal first so there is no food frustration during the puzzle or search games.
  • Limit fast, intense exercise to 5 minutes at a time so their bodies can recover. It’s fine if the dogs don’t do any fast, intense exercise too!
  • Reward frequently and raise the difficulty slowly to minimize training frustration.

Remember, this is a special time for our dogs — just like our teenagers. If behavior changes during this time, it is most likely due to the body and brain changes that naturally happen during adolescence. Of course, it’s always worth a veterinary visit to make sure the changes are due to adolescence and not because of any medical issue!

And, as a final story of how adolescent dogs can really benefit from our helpful reminders (versus us getting frustrated), here’s a story from a recent (August 2021) experience I had with a budding adolescent male who is part German Shorthaired Pointer and part Labrador.  The lesson was at his home – not the training center.

When I entered into the house, the dog (for privacy’s sake I’ll call him “Spot”) was responding well to his person, but when we started chatting about training needs, Spot came over to check me out (we knew each other from previous lessons).  He got a bit pushy – trying to get at my treat pouch and jumping up.  I gave the normal calming signals of turning away from him, but this seemed to make him more excited and enthusiastic, not less.  I started to walk away and he jumped on me the whole way to the door.  Even when I was outside of the door, Spot started whining and trying to get closer to me.

Did I mention Spot just hit his seventh month of life?

So, from what I saw, the rational brain was not working very well – calming signals meant little to him even though he was a champion at understanding them just a few months ago.  I thought quickly….what does he need?  What will help him?

I decided this adolescent needed guidance and reminders of other ways to handle visitors – behaviors he had been trained to do and enjoyed doing.  I had his person put Spot on a leash.  Then, I asked her to do the “look at that” exercise with her dog.  (This is when a dog learns that triggers mean to look at their person and receive a reward – instead of moving closer to the trigger.)

Since I was the trigger for the excitement, I started just calmly walking around.  Spot sat at his person’s side and did the exercise perfectly.  I made it harder by becoming more animated.  Spot barely blinked an eye and sat calmly next to his person giving eye contact.  He was like a different dog entirely!

I then left the house, knocked on the door, and came in exclaiming how nice it was to see Spot and his person.  Spot looked at me as if I was a bit crazy, and then looked back at his person.  He was unshakable.

I was amazed.  Here was an example of an adolescent brain that had lost impulse control – but with an easy reminder and a little guidance, Spot was able to access the training he had from before.  Plus, he was able to perform the behavior at a higher level!

So the moral of this experience?

Be patient with your adolescents.  All the work you did with them as puppies is still there – just buried a bit.  And, if you adopt a dog at an adolescent age, remember that it might be a little more challenging for them as their puppyhood was not stable.  Keep things steady, with lots of routines and lots of reinforcement.  At least will only last for less than a year!