Aggravating Adolescents: Or, What Happened to My Precious Puppy?
Recently I attended a wonderful day-long seminar on canine adolescence, presented by professional trainer, breeder, and renowned author/speaker Suzanne Clothier. It was a great learning experience that improved my understanding and enhanced my own approach to reforming unruly dogs of any age.
Like the human version of adolescence, this developmental stage causes the greatest stress and frustration for parents who thought they had the perfect child/puppy. In dogs, adolescence starts around the age of 5-6 months, just when you thought things were going well. Suddenly your sweet, easy baby turns into an obnoxious “butthead,” as Suzanne calls them.
She explained that, just like two-legged teens, our four-legged ones are busy testing limits, learning who can be pushed and who cannot, and asking questions like Why should I listen to you? Why can’t I do (or have) what I want Now?! Other similarities: poor judgment, acting on impulse, and no understanding of risk. And they don’t notice the social signals of irritation given by others—humans and adult dogs.
This is also the stage when breed instincts kick in, so expect to see genetically driven behaviors, such as herding, guarding, digging, chasing prey, and sniffing/tracking.
Many pet parents make excuses for the crazy careening, lunging, grabbing, demand barking, and other poor manners: Oh, he’s just a puppy. He’ll grow out of it. But yikes, this stage can last up to age two—in some breeds even longer!
Those who get really exasperated may turn to a trainer or vow to “work harder” to get their jumpy, mouthy, pully, pushy juvenile delinquent under control. Unfortunately, most people (and old-fashioned trainers, too) tend to repeat commands and corrections, or resort to unkind equipment. But this method just does not work well when dealing with a perfect storm of excitement, immaturity, impulsiveness, and inadequate training. In my work, I hear a lot of No! Off! Leave It! or something like Baxter! You know better than that!
Others just give up. As some of you know, the majority of dogs surrendered to shelters (or worse) are adolescents. Too much energy and arousal combined with too little positive training usually leads to behavior problems. And yet so many of these problems are avoidable and fixable if we take the right steps with young dogs, to teach essential life lessons.
I love Suzanne Clothier’s approach because it’s so calm, clear, and non-confrontational. Just like good parenting of kids. Rather than cracking down with more human control, it works far better—and makes more sense—to teach dogs how to calm down and become more self-controlled. Yes, we can teach them that it’s in their own interest to be polite, thinking, and responsive.
1. Management, to prevent inappropriate behaviors from being practiced. Examples include:
- changing our own habits and routines where necessary
- putting up visual barriers for barking at others, and
- using barriers and containment, such as baby gates, crates, tethers, and sometimes other rooms to prevent jumping on incoming guests, counter-surfing, and unsupervised interactions with little kids.
Puppies and adolescents are just learning how to live in our world, and it’s our job to teach them how—with clarity, consistency, and kindness. Don’t expect them to know what to do, and don’t let them make mistakes by doing what comes naturally to dogs. Management physically prevents the practice of inappropriate behaviors. Because practicing any behavior (good or bad) only makes it stronger. Which leads to the second rule . . .
2. No training “in the wild.” For training to be successful, you’ve got to give it your full attention, be ready to reinforce the right behavior, and be able to control variables, especially distractions. This is how we set up for success, so learning actually takes place. Not using management in real life just sets up your dog for failure.
Saying NO is a default response for so many dog parents. But that’s not enough information for your dog to understand the right behavior. Simply interrupting the wrong behavior again and again with a verbal correction (No! Off! Leave It!) does not work. You can’t teach a Don’t. Well, not unless you use harsh punishment, which has terrible side effects.
The solution is to teach replacement behaviors, like Be quiet, Pay attention, Keep your feet on the floor while greeting people, Walk on a loose leash, Chew on your own stuff, Stand still while I put on your harness and leash, Wait for permission to jump on the furniture and in/out of the car, and so on.
3. Stick to Your Rules. Set very clear rules and be very consistent. We need to make sure that rudeness never pays off. That doesn’t mean we have to get loud, tough, or “dominant.” We do need to take the extra time to wait for calmness and responsiveness (see #5) before giving dogs what they want in the moment. Your patience and consistency now are an investment in life-long good behavior.
4. “Really Real Relaxation Protocol.” A simple but very effective way to teach dogs how to relax. With practice, dogs learn to self-regulate voluntarily, which is way better than trying to put them into a Down/Stay that’s not relaxed and not working!
Much of the time, the real problem is over-arousal (whether it’s due to excitement, frustration, anger, or fear). The solution is to help your dog learn how to calm down before she goes over threshold, where behavior is reactive, not thinking. Emotions block thinking and learning. So the more time your dog spends in a calm state of mind, the better she will behave.
5. “Puppy Politeness Poker.” Before granting access to whatever your dog values, ask for one or two behaviors she knows (Sit, Down, Come, Touch, Spin, Wait, etc.). Don’t always ask for the same ones; mix them up. Since we control all the good stuff (treats, meals, walks, toys, games, and access to friends, furniture, back yard, and car), we have plenty of opportunities every day to reinforce good behaviors.
Is your dog bouncing around, panting/barking, and generally ignoring you? Be quiet and calm. Look away and just wait for four-on-the-floor, quiet, and attention. This can happen within a minute or two when you are still, relaxed, and breathing. (We tend to stiffen up and barely breathe under stress.) Just hang on until your dog can collect himself and re-connect with you. That’s when he can respond to your cues.
This practice is not designed to make your dog “earn” everything. It’s about building a habit of paying attention and cooperating.
Copyright Lisa Benshoff 2016
Let’s Go to the Video
Here’s a very interesting video of Suzanne talking about recognizing and changing the mental state (“over threshold”) that produces some of the out-of-control behaviors we see in dogs: Thresholds, Thresholds, and Doing Nothing.
See more excellent videos, articles, and her books on many important topics at her website, www.suzanneclothier.com.
Copyright Lisa Benshoff 2016