“The Teenage Years”: words destined to strike fear into parents’ hearts everywhere! Stroppy sulks, uncommunicative grunts, long silences and slammed doors aplenty face carers of adolescents the world over. But what of our doggy friends? Do they go through the same perilous phase of growth and development? Should we expect our little pups to turn into slouchy, surly teenage dogs whilst we wring our hands in despair at their poor behaviour?
A recent study published by The Royal Society in their Biology Letters has looked into this very phenomenon. Some interesting results have been found. Observing increases in conflict with owners and a reduction of trainability amongst dogs of a certain age, as well as an alteration in the timing of puberty, mirroring some findings in human adolescents.
Puberty is known to be a very sensitive time for humans, with large hormonal and growth changes, and there is now evidence that this is equally true in dogs. This may go some way to explain certain behavioural difficulties found in dogs around the adolescent period. Why rehoming at this age is sadly common.
What exactly is ‘adolescence’?
Adolescence (in humans known colloquially as the ‘teenage years’) is technically defined as the final stage of development for reproductive function. The process by which the individual becomes an adult. It is accompanied by dramatic hormonal swings and large changes to the brain. This means there are often corresponding behavioural effects.
The age at which a dog will hit puberty is hugely dependent on breed. With small breeds maturing faster than larger breeds. This means that the ‘teenage’ phase can hit anywhere between six and eighteen months of age. So owners need to be on the lookout! Some puppies seem to transition seamlessly from cute puppy to crazy adolescent all at once, others mature more slowly and have more nuanced changes to their behaviour.
In humans, these changes commonly include increased irritability and parental conflict and a change to risk-taking behaviour. In dogs, these hormonal surges can result in heightened excitement and reactivity to certain things, and an increasing intensity in certain behaviours. So nervous dogs may become more nervous, and confident dogs more confident. Dogs can also go through a second ‘fear period’ around this age and may baffle their owners by suddenly responding differently to things they have previously seemed to be familiar with. Therefore requiring socialisation and habituation to these things all over again.
Do dogs really act like teenagers?
It turns out they really, really do. The study mentioned above assessed a group of guide dog puppies on their attachment to their carer. They then looked at what age they experienced puberty and what happened to their behaviour and training in this period.
In human teens, it is well documented that adolescence brings with it heightened conflict with the primary caregiver, especially if a less secure attachment is present. Insecure attachment is also linked with an earlier onset of puberty.
These findings were mirrored in dogs. Firstly, there was a marked reduction in trainability and responsiveness to basic commands (such as ‘sit’) around the time of 8 months of age, compared to at 5 months of age. Interestingly, this lessening of response to basic training was only present with the dog’s carer. When a stranger asked them to sit their scores were actually better at 8 months compared to 5 months, showing that the ‘parent’ is the one to bear the brunt of adolescent flack! Trainability scores with the carer were lower at 8 months than 5 months. However it rose again at 12 months, so if you are currently struggling with this phase – take hope!
It was also shown that a lesser attachment to a carer was linked to earlier sexual maturity. Just as in human adolescents. Dogs whose personalities seemed naturally more anxious or nervous did not have a change in their onset of puberty compared to their more confident mates. But the strength of their attachment to carer was significant. The difference in their trainability scores was also more affected in those with a lesser attachment score to their owner.
Is this significant?
Reproductive behaviour is known to be influenced by social factors as well as strictly biological changes, but this has previously not been known to happen across species. As human-child and human-dog relationships share some common features such as strong behavioural bonds, this opens up further study into areas such as the development of problem behaviours, and in how to manage this tricky period.
If you’re currently in the thick of it…
Take heart! Adolescent poor behaviour certainly exists in dogs, but it doesn’t last! Puberty is a very sensitive time for dogs, and may affect future behaviour, so understanding that your pup is going through huge changes can help to remain patient through their more testing behaviour.
Top tips to survive:
- A strong human-dog bond seems to lessen the impact of some of these changes. So putting the time and effort into lots of play, basic training and time spent with your dog in the early months of their life may pay dividends here. This may be difficult in some cases, such as rescues, but any form of bonding is beneficial at whatever age you can, it’s never too late to form a strong attachment.
- Have patience! Your dog is going through some serious changes, so cut them some slack and remember…. you’ll be getting the brunt of it as their primary carer – everyone else will still see them as the sweet natured puppy they were!
- Continue socialisation and training, even if it feels like you’re having to repeat the same basic lessons. You probably are, but the repetition will be worth it on the other side!
- Play and exercise: adolescent dogs have heaps of energy, and this can turn to frustration if not well managed. Play also helps with the owner-dog bond, and can have a very beneficial effect on training.
Remember, if you are struggling, or very concerned about your dog’s behaviour, talk to your vet and seek advice from a qualified behaviourist.
Try to relax and enjoy this new phase with your now awkward and excitable teenage pooch. All clumsy limbs and selective hearing, who suddenly growls at their best buddy for no apparent reason and forgets how to lie down on command. They may embarrass and frustrate you now, but this stage will all too quickly come to an end. All your hard work and dedication to patient training will pay off with a calm, loving and obedient adult dog!
Asher, L., England G.C.W, Somerville, R. & Harvey, N.D. 2020 “Teenage dogs? Evidence for adolescence-phase conflict behaviour and an association between attachment to humans and pubertal timing in the domestic dog.” Royal Society Biology Letters 16(5) Available here