Life with a puppy, while it seems intense at the time, is actually a honeymoon compared to living with an adolescent dog. And it isn’t just your dog, it is all adolescent dogs, a little or a lot, that tend to bring out the worst in their human. There are specific reasons why, and the more you learn about this, the more you will understand, and the better you can do!
If you have human adolescent children, your going to see a bunch of similarities, which can either be funny, or a giant warning sign.
On a side note, I love this developmental phase, love it with a capital L.O.V.E. It’s a time of high energy, opinions, scampiness, testing, freedom seeking, and power. Your adolescent dog is bringing it all to the table, no hidden secrets, good , bad, or indifferent. Raw honesty. Everything feels acutely alive, and with this new amplification in personality and physical power comes specific obligations for the handler.
- A WORK IN PROGRESS – The adolescent brain is not a finished product but rather a work in progress. Major changes in the brain, like self control, judgement, and emotions happen between adolescents and adulthood. So it is safe to say, if you give your adolescent dog adult privileges, or adult responsibilities, they will fail each and every time. It isn’t because they are being defiant, or stubborn, or manipulative, it’s because they can’t. Their brain, much like or human child brain during adolescents, is not equipped or developed enough to handle life with maturity. Life with an adolescent dog will include poor decision making, recklessness, and emotional outbursts. However it can also include amazing training opportunities, relationship building activities, and balance.
- EMOTIONAL HIJACKING – It’s all about arousal, and how you handle it. Daniel Goleman coined this term and it is so fitting for the adolescent dog as well as the handler of an adolescent dog. Emotional hijacking is when ones own emotions overwhelms their system to the point of heightened arousal and emotional stupidity. Adolescent dogs can go from 0-60mph emotionally and it takes a patient and balanced handler to teach them how to come back down to a more balanced place. Thoughts and emotions drive one another, the trick is keeping them both in balance, when emotions sky rocket, thoughtfulness goes out the window. Learning how to modulate your own emotions and arousal levels is super important, because there is no such thing as an aroused and emotionally hijacked handler being effective. So on both ends of the leash there needs to be balance. This means choosing environments carefully, and choosing activities that are fun and exciting, but not to the point of emotional hijacking.
- FACIAL EXPRESSIONS – It turns out that our human adolescents lose the ability to read facial expressions, like anger or frustration, from the ages of roughly 13-16 years of age. This helps them explore their world more freely without the restrictions or hang ups of others. If you have been the parent of a teen you have seen this play out over and over again, and it can be super frustrating. With our adolescent dogs, it is very similar. They tend not to rely on facial expressions in their own species let alone us, during adolescent development. You can go to a dog park and watch an adult dog warn and warn and warn an adolescent dog to cool their jets, and it’s as if there is an invisibility cloak in the adolescent dogs eyes. It isn’t uncommon for the adolescent dog to look at their handler with a look of ‘do I know you?’. While body language is important, and a vital part of canine communication, it kind of goes out the window for a bit of a walk about during adolescents. FACIAL EXPRESSIONS
- EXPOSURE – In order to create balance and an emotionally supple dog, the adolescent dogs needs exposure to new and different activities, within their skill level, all of the time. This is not the time to leave your dog in the yard because they are driving you nuts, or turn your dog lose at the dog park so other dogs can exercise them for you, but rather a time to investigate new activities that challenge the brain and the body. Expose, expose, expose. The more activities you do together to better emotional balance, concept solving, and reasoning on both ends of the leash. Agility, scent work, hiking, tricks, freestyle, rally, tracking, skiing, fetch, tug, hide n’ seek, visiting stores, and the list goes on. Training, teaching, learning, focusing, trying new and different is vital for the adolescent Team.
- PLAN – Have a plan for your dog each and every day that includes exercise (mental and physical), rest, socialization (that your dog enjoys not what you want them to enjoy), play with you, eating, and more rest. Notice that the day is planned out, there is nothing that screams ‘permissive free time’, and no kinda sorta maybes, and for sure not ‘run and be free, Ill catch ya when the wind blows’. A clear plan.
- FOCUS – It is easy to get distracted by what others say, or tell you about your dog. It is easy to get distracted when your dogs behavior goes to hell in a hand basket in less than a minute. It is easy to get distracted if your life gets busy outside of your dog, and you give up. So focus. Just focus. Don’t let distractions get in the way of your core relationship with your dog. Breathe, take a few full deep breaths, and then do something that will reconnect you and your young dog. If you allow emotional clutter to get between you and your adolescent dog, the gap will grow to the size of a deep canyon in no time at all, and will last for a long time if not forever. So focus and don’t allow distractions that distract you from your adolescent dog. Remember why you have your dog, the importance of your relationship, and the potential of your Team together.
- ALWAYS LOOK FOR THE GOOD – There is a place in our brain called the Reticular Activating System, simply put, where your focus goes, attention flows. For example, if you notice your dog doing something that you like, you will start seeing more of that behavior. Whatever you’re interested in, this part of your brain will find more of it. And it acts like a spring board most of the time, motivating adolescent dog handlers to do more, because they are seeing more of what they like! Conversely though, if you only focus on what your adolescent dog is not doing or doing poorly (jumping on people, jumping on the door, barking, lunging, etc) you will see more of that, and it can adversely affect your relationship with your dog, and be seriously demotivating.
- PLAY – Some adolescent dogs are tender, but most thrive on explosive and dynamic activities, and play can fill that bill. Play is a successful way to make mistakes, as it isn’t about right or wrong, it’s about the relationship in motion. There is freedom on both ends of the leash, expression of ones self, movement, and connection of two living beings. Play needs to be safe and fun, but keep in mind you still need to focus on emotional balance, don’t go into wingy heightened arousal where one of you becomes emotionally stupid, that is where bad decisions are born.
- FEELING SAFE – During the first year of a dogs life they go through two significant fear periods. The first one is around eight weeks of age, the second one (referred to as the second sub fear period) is a little fuzzy and can happen any time between 6-14 months of age. Some adolescent dogs have a minor hiccup and move on quickly, while other young dogs dissolve before your eyes. It is like an open window into their personality, their being, and during this time they cannot have stress above their skill level, or be put in situations that cause them a great deal of concern. You will know your dog has hit their second sub fear period as what was seemingly okay before now causes reactivity, or complete avoidance. So, write this down, put this on your refrigerator, ‘dogs can only learn if they feel safe’. While your adolescent dog may be pushing all of your buttons, you need to look beyond that and ask yourself if you have created a safe environment, so your young dog can hear you, see you, and respond to you.
- CONTROL – Disciplining an adolescent dog with physical force or emotional manipulation just doesn’t work, if anything it is counterproductive. Relationships are natural and kindness counts, and this is 100% true with our adolescent dogs. Control is merely an illusion with the adolescent dog. If your adolescent dog trusts you, and feels safe with you, there is an agreement, an opening. Working and building life skills with your young dog, at its core, is cooperation, not control.
Have fun, have purpose, learn a lot, do more, and don’t take the little things too seriously. None of us are perfect, and sometimes I believe our adolescent dogs are simply a mirror, and reflecting what we as their handlers need to work on with ourselves… Who is the teacher, who is the student. ~ Nancy
Collaboration of Cornell University, University or Rochester
Scott & Fuller – stages of canine development
Daniel Goleman – emotional intelligence
12 years in the Paws & People classroom!