Mark Vette – Internationally renowned Animal Behaviourist, Educator, Author and TV personality

Training your teenage dog

TRAINING YOUR TEENAGE DOG

Yep, dogs go through puberty too! And if you have a teenage puppy in the house, you may have started to encounter some of the angsty, delinquent outward focused teenage behaviour that is typical in this period, just like with human teenagers. It all comes down to hormones, hormones, hormones.

Your pup’s teenage-hood lasts from around 5 – 18 months of age (the human equivalent of 10 – 20 years). It is a huge developmental stage, and it’s normal for your pup to push the boundaries during this time, much like a human teenager would. Their hormones are raging, and their focus can shift away from you and out to the glorious distractions of the big, wide world.

This time can be challenging, but it’s our job to guide our pup through this tumultuous period and maintain important boundaries (for their safety and our sanity!). Sadly, 80% of euthanasias in dogs under 3 years old are due to behavioural issues, and it’s when pups hit puberty that the wheels tend to fall off and owners feel that they don’t understand or don’t know how to cope.

With the right knowledge, you can come through this period with a beautifully well-behaved dog who is deeply bonded to you and can live safely and happily in this complex human world .

With teenage pups we often see

  • A tendency to become more stubborn and focused on the “outside” world
  • Emerging behaviour issues such as dominance, fear, separation distress, hyperactivity or poor recall
  • A perfectly behaved pup at home who stops obeying commands while out and about
  • A pup that seems to go backwards in their training or become less interested in what you have to say
  • A need for more exercise and stimulation
  • Over-the-top reactions to certain things as hormones sensitise them to a new range of stimuli
  • Becoming suddenly fearful of new or old things that move and make unusual noises
  • Sex and dominance order become an important focus
  • The territorial imperative kicks in from mid to late puberty so protective aggression can raise its ugly head

Sound familiar?

Some pups may show only one of these behaviours, other pups may show almost all of them.

During puberty, the smell and sight of other dogs will likely pull your pup away from you. Much like a human teenager, your pup will be testing boundaries, less focused on you and engaging with the wider world more deeply. Some pups more than others, of course! Some research was completed recently demonstrating how pups change during puberty, you can read about it here if you’d like to delve a little deeper!

Here are my tips for helping your dog through this time, and making sure you

1. Establish good training foundations, ideally before puberty hits. The critical Formative Period when your pup is 2-4 months old is when 80% of your pup’s brain is wired. This is an essential time to establish a very strong bond with your pup, build emotional resilience, socialise your pup with humans, dogs and other species. If you are able to put these foundations in place before your pup becomes a teenager, you will manage to pull your pup through adolescence much more easily.

It’s also important to teach all the most important basic commands such as sit, down, wait, stay, heel, leave it, no and come AND ensure you proof these commands in a variety of more distracting and complex situations than your living room. It’s important these commands are effective no matter where you are. Your pup may well go backwards a bit when puberty hits, but if they have a strong understanding of these commands, they’ll bounce back quicker.

 

2. Understand your pup may challenge you more, and try not to become frustrated and anxious. Your pup will sense this, and it doesn’t help – your pup will sense your anxiety, so try and exude calm confidence even if you’re not quite feeling it. Fake it ’til you make it! They are just growing up and working out what to make of the world, and you are their mentor, here to show them the way.

3. Continue to consistently set and maintain boundaries for your dog. You may need to be more consistent and firm with your teenage pup than you were your younger puppy in order to keep them focused. This is when it’s really important to ensure you’re doing Contrast Training: this means having a reward when your pup does the right thing, as well as a ‘natural’ consequence when your pup does the wrong thing. This contrast helps your pup learn much more quickly, and is essential with a teenager that’s pushing the boundaries.

4. De-sex your pup. Generally de-sexed dogs are easier to manage. I recommend de-sexing by 6 months for a male pup (before they start leg-raising and dominance and other hormone-induced  issues appear) and for female pups, after their first cycle (which allows them to become feminised).

5. Continue with your training sessions. Many dog owners are diligent with training sessions in the first few weeks of having their pup, but then often the novelty wears off, their pup has a basic understanding of a few commands, and they think their pup is “good enough for now”. It’s really important to keep up with your training sessions throughout your pup’s teenage months. If your pup becomes highly distracted, go back to less complex and distracting environments to practise the commands (e.g. back to your living room or yard), then again begin to gradually proof the behaviours in more distracting places and scenarios. This means you incrementally increase the difficulty and level of distractions as the pup learns to respond in these situations.

6. Proof your commands! This means ensuring your commands are effective in every place and scenario. It is the most important step in your dog training, and one so many people miss. They expect that if their pup obeys a “sit” or “come” command at home, the pup should be able to do the same while out in a dog park, surrounded by enticing smells and other dogs. When proofing, start in a low distraction environment (e.g. the living room), then slowly work your way up to more distracting environments e.g. the back yard, then the street outside your home, then a quiet patch of grass nearby, then a friend’s backyard, then a park, then a dog park, then the beach. As you move up to each new and distracting environment, ensure you follow some basic guidelines for effective dog training:

  • ensure your dog is hungry before you go so that they are more likely to focus on you and the clicker and training treats
  • use high value food rewards such as cooked chicken
  • use a clicker and treats to get your dog focused on you and in a Learning State
  • begin by running through some key commands such as Sit and Down
  • keep your dog on a long lead (even if it is just dragging behind them) so that you can regain control if you need to or your dog doesn’t respond for any reason

Only move to a new and more distracting environment once you are consistently successful in the previous environment.

7. Keep socialising. Because pups can become more challenging as teenagers, some dog-owners become nervous about taking their dog out and about. As they move through puberty, pups can become more protective and so reactive to certain people and dogs. Socialising on an ongoing basis with new dogs and people is so critical for your pup’s development and it’s essential that you keep this up, to ensure a happy, well-rounded and well-behaved dog in future. If you are nervous, keep your dog on a long-lead (even if it is dragging behind them) so that you can maintain or regain control and remove your dog from a situation if you need to. Coordinating formal “meet and greets” with other dogs and people can help your dog learn the appropriate way to greet others, start with dogs you know are friendly and stable if your dog has become more reactive to other dogs.

    8. Give your dog plenty of exercise, play and stimulation. A well exercised and stimulated dog is more likely to be a well-behaved dog! Your pup’s exercise and stimulation needs may be increasing. Give your dog an appropriate level of exercise, with plenty of it being off-lead (or exploring safely and freely on a retractable or long lead). We can’t expect our dog’s to stay in “heel” for an entire walk with no freedom to use their nose and explore their world. Ideally, allow your dog to have free play time with other dogs and time off lead to explore and sniff. Play with your dog. Give your dog plenty of toys to enrich your backyard when you are not at home. Train your dog to do new things, this is great mental stimulation and also keeps your connection and bond with your dog tight!

    9. Most important of all – make sure you have created a strong mentor bond between yourself and your dog. Having a strong bond with your dog, and having yourself firmly established as your dog’s trusted mentor who they look to for guidance in any situation, will stand you in really good stead for managing this period. This will help ensure your pup is always checking in with you. My techniques for building a strong Mentor Bond (especially Joining Up) are covered in my Virtual Puppy and Virtual Dog Schools.

    If your teenage pup’s raging hormones and other developmental drivers are proving a challenge for you, I am now offering a Virtual Teenage Puppy School which can help guide you through this time with the right advice and training techniques to manage your teenage pup.

    This school also gives you access to all of our puppy-training videos, which cover all the foundational training and basics, clicker training, crate training, house training, contrast training, building a mentor bond and much more. If you missed these key foundations with your teenage pup, these videos will teach you how to establish them now.

    Adolescence or teenage-hood has 3 key developmental stages:

    • Early adolescence 5 to 10 months
    • Mid-puberty 10 to 14 months
    • Late puberty 14 to 18 months

    We address each stage and help you to understand the new drivers at these stages and what to do about them.

    Find out more here. 

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