Doggy Training

The Science of Adolescence in Dogs

The Adolescent Brain

The ‘teenage’ months are well documented and commonly experienced phenomenon. It can be hard, hard work, but if you are anything like me, having an understanding of WHY it is happening may help you to weather those tricky months a bit better!

The Science-y Bit

As your dog grows, their brain changes from a puppy baby-brain into that of an adult dog. But it doesn’t happen overnight – parts develop quicker than others and it can often leave them with unreliable and unpredictable behaviour, which is often the thing that owners find most frustrating.

One of the last things to develop are their inhibitory neurons – the parts of the brain that make your dog stop, think, and control themselves. In fact, their brains often have large amounts of excitatory neurons (the ones that prime your dog to react) and few inhibitory neurons.

Can you imagine how that affects our dog’s behaviour?

They are primed to respond to every stimulus, with little control over themselves once distracting things appear!

Is it any wonder they just can’t help themselves from jumping when your neighbour pops round to say hello? Or when they see a doggy pal in the distance?

The good news

The good thing is that it is unlikely that your dog has forgotten all their previous training, even if it feels that way. It is buried deep underneath a fizzy teenage brain and the inability to think straight when things get exciting, but it is there! I know that seems a small consolation prize, but knowing that your dog DOES still know how to walk nicely on a lead, they just can’t exhibit this behaviour when life gets fun should reassure you that we aren’t starting completely from scratch.

Should we ‘wait it out’?

After learning about their brains, the most common reaction is – ‘so they will grow out of it?’
The short answer… Yes. Kind of.
The long answer… the brain will eventually balance. HOWEVER, if we give up on training through this adolescent period, your dog is likely to learn new favourite behaviours that start to replace their recall or loose lead walking. It is really important we not only keep training, but prevent them practicing the wrong things throughout adolescence.

What can we do?

A HUGE part of adolescence is management. As we said above, the things they practice during adolescence can easily become lifelong behaviours, particularly if your dog finds those undesirable behaviours rewarding. Therefore, we need to have measures of preventing the behaviours being exhibited whilst we work on them with training.

This may look like baby gates, long lines, pushing things back on our counters, or avoiding the locations they REALLY struggle in whilst we train for them.

In addition to this, the following training exercises can be helpful to develop their impulse control further…

Place / on your mat. Being able to pop your dog on their bed and have them remain whilst you do other stuff is not only a great way to manage things like answering the front door, pestering you whilst cooking, or snatching food, but also develops their patience and ability to control themselves.
Ask your dog to sit or lie down on their bed.
Wait a second.
Reward by feeding them whilst they still sit on the bed.
As your dog starts to get better at sitting and waiting, increase the duration of time they have to wait for a reward.
Then, things get fun…
Ask your dog to sit on their bed.
Step away, touch a door handle.
Reward if they stayed on their bed.
As they get better you can build in even more distractions.

Some ideas…

  • Open a door.
  • Open the fridge.
  • Do star jumps.
  • Sit down.
  • Make a cup of tea!
  • The ultimate… open your front door and say ‘hello! How are you?!’ to your imaginary friend.

Will the neighbours think you are mad? Highly likely.

Will they be envious when you next answer the door and your dog is sitting politely behind you? Absolutely.

Find your dog's custard cream.

When having a quick snack in the office the other day, I discovered something new about Bumble. He is a spaniel therefore he loves all food, but I offered him a custard cream and… he was feral. It is his absolute favourite thing in the world.
Now training with custard creams long term would not be practical, but it does highlight the importance of having a reward your dog really loves. So often I see people calling their dog back, giving them a biscuit, the dog goes ‘yeah thanks’, eats it, and promptly disappears again.

We need rewards that LIGHT OUR DOGS UP.
Thinking out of the box is highly encouraged.
Does your dog run off to chase wildlife? A long handled chaser toy could be the one.
Does your dog like to do tricks? Call them back to a middle or a hand touch.
Does your dog like food but get bored easily? Throw it! Scatter it! Bowl it along the floor!

If your dog wants to run off and have the time of their lives with another dog, calling them back and making them sit and eat dried kibble is unlikely to cut the mustard. Think about replicating the things your dog loves doing most (even the undesirable ones!) in the way you reward them and watch them come ZOOMING back to play the game.

Remember the good bits

Even in the thick of adolescence there will be something that your dog does well. At the start of every teens course I ask everyone to give me one thing their dog does well, and something they would like to improve.

It makes me sad sometimes how much people struggle to find something good because the bad can seem so overwhelming. There will be something though! Even if it is ‘gives good cuddles’ or ‘loves playing ball’.

Try to keep the things your dog does well at the forefront of your mind, and when things get tough – go and do that instead. Have a cuddle, throw a ball, and start fresh tomorrow.