I always remember the day O’Riley broke my spirit. He was the first dog I adopted as an adult. When he was about six or seven months old, he became increasingly destructive when I wasn’t home (this was in the days before we knew that crating a dog when you went out could keep it out of trouble). That day I returned to my apartment and found he’d chewed the wooden knobs off every piece of furniture I had carefully restored over several summers while home from college. A few days earlier, I had coped when he peed on the rug while looking right at me, but once I realized every handle on every drawer and cupboard was reduced to splinters, I sat down on the floor and cried. O’Riley quietly stood in front of me, as if studying my behavior. Almost magically, the vandalism ended. I assumed that he felt he’d won and moved on.
I look back and call O’Riley my “starter dog” because there was so much I didn’t understand about dogs. But several dog generations later, I realize that O’Riley, Dexter, Ruffy, and Marco all went through their rebellious teens. Through the years I’ve reassured many frustrated friends and colleagues on the verge of returning rebellious young dogs to shelters that things would get better.
Thankfully, researchers from Newcastle University, the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Nottingham have come up with data to explain what I learned as a dog mom, highlighting “adolescence as a vulnerable time for dog-owner relationships.”1
Working in partnership with Guide Dogs UK, the team monitored obedience training in juvenile potential guide dogs whose breeds included Golden Retrievers, Labradors, German Shepherds and mixes of the breeds.2 Several different standardized dog behavior questionnaires were administered to caregivers when the dogs were aged 5, 8, and 12 months. The three time periods were chosen to correspond with pre-adolescent, adolescent, and post-adolescent points in the dogs’ sexual maturity.
A press release from Newcastle University does a wonderful job of summarizing the findings in lay language:
The researchers found dogs were more likely to ignore commands given by their caregiver and were harder to train at the age of eight months, when they are going through puberty. This behaviour was more pronounced in dogs which had an insecure attachment to their owner.3
Dogs took longer to respond to the ‘sit’ command during adolescence, but only when the command was given by their caregiver, not a stranger. The odds of repeatedly not responding to the sit command from the caregiver were higher at eight months compared to five months. However, the response to the ‘sit’ command improved for a stranger between the five and eight month tests. 3
Caregivers gave lower scores of ‘trainability’ to dogs around adolescence, compared to when they were aged five months or 12 months. However, again trainers reported an increase in a trainability between the ages of five and eight months. 3
Dr. Lucy Asher from Newcastle University who headed the study explained, “This is a very important time in a dog’s life…This is when dogs are often rehomed because they are no longer a cute little puppy and suddenly, their owners find they are more challenging and they can no longer control them or train them. But as with human teenage children, owners need to be aware that their dog is going through a phase and it will pass.”3
Dr. Asher went on to explain, “Many dog owners and professionals have long known or suspected that dog behaviour can become more difficult when they go through puberty…But until now there has been no empirical record of this. Our results show that the behaviour changes seen in dogs closely parallel that of parent-child relationships, as dog-owner conflict is specific to the dog’s primary caregiver and just as with human teenagers, this is a passing phase.”3
For all of our new dog caregiver readers, this caution from Dr. Asher is especially valuable: “It’s very important that owners don’t punish their dogs for disobedience or start to pull away from them emotionally at this time. This would be likely to make any problem behaviour worse, as it does in human teens.”3
You can read the research report by Dr. Asher and her colleagues here.
For my own part, I realize that each of the dogs in my life have taught me a different lesson. To O’Riley, I owe continuing thanks for the gift of patience. I am sure that each canine lover who has weathered dog adolescence can share tales of rewards that await once your dog matures beyond that difficult phase.
My final advice to all new dog parents is that besides crating your dog when you are away from the house (it really helps to keep them out of trouble!), a round of obedience classes—even watching obedience videos—is time well spent to keep the peace and ensure your pup keeps its forever home.
1Asher, L, England GCW, Sommerville R, Harvey ND. Teenage dogs? Evidence for adolescent-phase conflict behaviour and an association between attachment to humans and pubertal timing in the domestic dog. Biology Letters. 13 May 2020.
2Supplemental Material for Asher et al. Biology Letters. 13 May 2020.
3Newcastle University. Adolescence is Ruff on Dogs Too. Press Release. 13 May 2020.
R.A. Kroft writes about her day-to-day journey in living a smaller, more sustainable life and other topics that interest her.