Just like human children, puppies go through an adolescent or ‘teenage’ phase, most commonly between 6-18 months old. The exact time frame will vary between individuals and breeds. The effects adolescence has on your dog’s personality will also vary.
During this time your once-little pup will be hitting puberty (between 6 months – 2 years depending on breed and genetics). They will be losing their puppy coat and growing their adult coat, sometimes causing a lot of shedding. The world becomes an exciting place to explore, but fear stages will also sometimes hold them back. This is a year where your dog needs your unwavering support and guidance, to reinforce their training, help them navigate tricky situations and help ensure they only have positive interactions with other dogs.
Common concerns at this age include:
Overly boisterous, excitable and hyperactive behaviour. Teenagers have a lot of energy to burn! Giving your pup plenty of opportunity to exercise is important to help manage this, but you don’t want to overdo it as the growing teenage body is also prone to growth-plate fractures, sprains and hyperextensions. Try lots of stimulating toys and activities at home such as snuffle mats, kong toys, sandpits and ball toys so your dog is mentally tired out at the end of the day, as well as physically.
Suddenly ignoring or not responding to training commands such as recall. This is a consequence of your teenage dog being distracted by so many other competing drives at the same time. Dogs at this age are naturally starting to venture further away from their owners on their walks and are more likely to be distracted by the presence of other dogs than they may have been as a younger pup. You may have to be patient and take your dog back to basics for a while. Go back to practicing recall in a non-distracting environment at home and gradually build up to training sessions at the park with distractions all around. If you are not convinced your dog will come back when called then always have them on a long-line (very long lightweight lead) for added security. Teach your dog to walk politely on a lead and focus on you. Offer them plenty of treats and rewards for checking in with you and ignoring other dogs until you give the go-ahead to play. Your teenage dog will be naturally focussed on other dogs at this age so keep reminding them you are also a great source of fun and food on walks too so they don’t get too fixated.
Humping and mounting behaviours. Jumping on and mounting other dogs can be a normal part of playing for a dog, but when they are repeatedly humping another animal or object, this usually has a sexual, hormonal cause. Therefore, this behaviour may disappear when the dog is desexed. If it does not, then it has become a habit and you should gently teach your dog that it is not a polite behaviour you want to encourage. Do this by distracting the dog and asking them to do something else for you, such as ‘SIT’ or ‘SHAKE’, whenever you catch them humping or mounting. If they hump a person’s leg, or another dog, get the person/dog to stand up and walk away so the dog learns it is not an appropriate play behaviour.
Chewing objects and furniture. Teenage dogs have usually got most of their adult teeth in place, but at 6-12 months old these teeth are still setting in the jaw, causing the jaw to ache. These dogs need to chew things as pain relief, just like they did as a small puppy. So if your well behaved dog has suddenly started chewing the furniture again out of nowhere, they may not be destructive, they might just need some durable adolescent chew toys to gnaw on.
Fearful behaviour in adolescence
Teenage dogs will commonly seem fearful of new things or act nervously around things that never seemed to phase them before. Shy dogs might become even more shy, and even confident dogs might show hesitation with new or scary experiences. Much like the early fear imprinting phase when puppies are 8-10 weeks old, teenage dogs experience a ‘secondary fear imprinting stage’. This usually occurs at 6-14 months old and is usually just a phase that lasts around 2-3 weeks. Some dogs can have a few different fear stages across this time frame. During this time, your dog will be extremely sensitive to any bad experiences that occur and may learn to be terrified of that experience for the rest of their life, just from one bad moment. This is known as single-event learning and can be very powerful and problematic if they are unlucky enough to have a bad experience at the wrong time.
It is important to protect your dog from bad experiences if you notice them being uncharacteristically nervous. If you think your dog might be in a fear stage when they are booked in for desexing, discuss with your vet whether delaying the procedure might be beneficial. Always supervise play between dogs and focus on interacting with dogs and people you know rather than lots of strangers. If your dog is reacting strongly to something, don’t force them to ‘face their fears’, instead be their protector, lead them away to a safe distance, reward calm relaxed SITs and STAYs, and then try again or take the dog home.
If your dog does have a bad experience such as a dog fight during a fear stage, they may become reactive or aggressive towards other dogs in the future. The earlier you recognise signs of this reactive behaviour and seek help from a positive reinforcement trainer, the easier it will be to overcome this learned fear.
Remember adolescence is just a phase, and its impact really varies from dog to dog. Like all developmental phases it will pass, so with a little patience and support, you and your dog can work through it together.