The most common definition for adolescence is that it is a transitional period of physical and psychological development that occurs between childhood and adulthood.
Teenage humans linger in this stage for years and require extra teaching, training and patience from their parents to cope with the special challenges (although some seem to struggle with adolescence for a lifetime). Luckily, dogs go through adolescence for a far shorter period, roughly between 6 to 18 months.
Just as in humans, a dog’s adolescent period is marked by wide fluctuations in ability to “toe the line” or self-regulate. Mental processes are becoming more fluid, ability to focus is sharpening, and thought organization is beginning to appear. Unfortunately, these skills come and go, usually at the most inopportune times.
On top of adolescence, dogs have a few unique issues that you may not be aware of. The most important is that dogs don’t generalize well. This means that a dog must learn the same skill in a vast number of circumstances before he gets the big picture and realizes that the response to a command is constant although the environment might change drastically. If you have been training, your dog should be close to accumulating the many, many experiences he needs to overcome this diminished ability sometime during adolescence.
Hormonal changes can make life tricky, too, but spaying or neutering will help to level out these fluctuations.
The last unique issue is the possibility of a secondary “fear period.” Even with careful socialization and inspired leadership (that’s you), a dog can enter into a second period of insecurity and fear. Suddenly, your dog balks when walking past fire hydrants or barks wildly at the horse he has seen a hundred times. This can be bewildering to the dog owner that didn’t see it coming. Careful re-socialization and patience are the keys. Thankfully, this second fear period is usually short-lived.
One of the most common stumbling points that I have seen with dog owners is the mistake of thinking that a full-sized dog is a mature dog. Last week I worked with a dedicated owner of a beautiful German shepherd who was confused and frustrated by his dog’s misbehavior. Jon had been working hard to get Nikko to walk well on leash and remain calm when meeting other dogs. While Nikko had been doing well in circumstances that Jon gradually made more and more challenging, Nikko suddenly began to act as though he had never had a day of training in his life. Three weeks ago, Jon and I struggled mightily to control this 80-pound dog whose head tops out above our waistlines. After some fine-tuning of our training techniques, we agreed that it was probably just as important to remember that big ol’ Nikko is, after all, still just a 9-month-old puppy. Again, size does not equal maturity.
Our follow-up meeting went surprisingly well. Jon had worked consistently with his dog and Nikko was three weeks more mature (a long period in the life of a 36-week-old dog). We were both proud to watch Nikko maintain a heel and remain calm and collected when he saw oncoming dogs.
Nikko is not done maturing and will have many other wild and woolly days that make Jon scratch his head, but he is at least part way through the roller coaster called adolescence.
Julie Winkelman is a certified pet dog trainer and a certified dog trainer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.