Where is my puppy? (Or, why adolescence is so tricky)

In what seems like only minutes, your butter-wouldn’t-melt puppy turns into a lanky, boisterous teenager; Decker at about 6 weeks and about 6 months.

Puppies are adorable and goofy, bringing joy and smiles to even the grumpiest faces. And while new puppy owners often lament at the difficulties of puppy rearing, those are nothing compared to the drama that comes with canine adolescence.

Teenage dogs are the most at risk of becoming unwanted; Irish pounds and rescue organisations are filled with adolescent dogs needing homes and help. Adolescence is hard for adolescents and their owners.  

I promise you that your teenage dog is not trying to give you a hard time, they are having a hard time. 

Your dog’s brain on adolescence

Teenagers have to progress from baby helplessness toward adult independence and to do that their brains and bodies need to go through a lot of change.

They have to become more independent, be able to make decisions and think about which information to apply to different situations – adults have to do things that are basically the opposite to puppies!


During this stage the brain is gradually becoming a better thinking, decision-making organ but while this is happening it doesn’t function very well as a thinking, decision-making organ at all.

Parts of the brain that look after learning, concentration and impulsivity are busily being built rather than helping the teenager with coping with stress and self calming.

And just like when a motorway is being remodeled there are diversions; information and messages in the teenage brain are diverted, to more reactionary areas, while the brain is getting its make over. This often results in over-the-top reactions and emotional outbursts (we’ve all been through it so this should be no surprise).


Along with this re-modelling of the brain, the teenager’s body is bathed in a chemical soup especially if entire (not neutered). Intact male teenagers have spikes of testosterone elevated several times greater than that present in adult entire males while females also play victims to hormones preparing them for mating, motherhood and maturity.

Not to mention that adolescents are getting their adult teeth and their adult bodies – this growth and development can be  painful encouraging the teenager to seek out comfort by chewing, vocalising, being restless and attention seeking.


To add further complexity to canine adolescence, fearful and aggressive responding are likely to spike as dogs enter adolescence, and throughout. Teenagers are not necessarily any more fearful or aggressive than other dogs, but now, with their adult bodies and less-puppyish, but still immature responses, their expression of distance increasing signalling becomes more refined, and demonstrative.

This is stress related behaviour and canine adolescents don’t have the best recovery strategies.

Throughout behavioural development, dogs go through a number of periods during which they may be more sensitive to fear and less well able to recover; these are called fear impact stages or fear periods.
During puppyhood, these periods tend to be a little more predictable, happening at about 5 weeks, 8 weeks and 12 weeks (roughly) but from about 18-20 weeks, brief fear periods seem to become less predictable but no less impactful. Another adolescent challenge.

This means that adolescent dogs need really careful exposure and lots of appropriate support, just like during puppyhood.


Wild & crazy is NOT what they need

The temptation is to try to tire the teenager, to run them, to have them engage in high-octane activities like group dog-dog play or repetitive fetch games.

Dog parks, daycares and play groups may not be the best place for adolescent dogs to develop appropriate social skills, and may cause teenagers to associate high arousal with other dogs and the related excitement.

Regular repetitive exerting activities are also likely to lead to increasing arousal, difficulty with calming and becoming harder to live with.

Appropriate social and environmental exposure, along with suitable mental and physical exercise, are the keys to helping you and your dog through adolescence. Get help, get committed and remember that your teenage dog is not trying to give you a hard time, they are having a hard time.


Start preparing for adolescence in puppyhood

We can begin to help our dogs deal with adolescence when they are still puppies, just by having a little awareness of what’s about to happen in the coming months.

Puppies appear more tolerant than they often are. They don’t have complete and mature behaviour patterns so they might not show discomfort in ways that are easily recognisable for pet owners.

We tend to do a lot of handling of puppies and presume, and expect, that they like it. We allow every one and every thing greet them and get close to them. We carry them about, preventing them from choosing how they would like to proceed. We do lots of stuff to puppies that we just don’t do to adult dogs, probably because adult dogs wouldn’t tolerate it so well.

While puppies, they are more flexible in how they learn about the world around them. This means that the things that happen to them are more impactful.

You can imagine the associations puppies are making during this impressionable time. As they move into and through adolescence, they become better at saying NO! or WAIT! We think they have become more difficult, but they may just have had enough, and now they can let us know more obviously.


Growing Pains

The perfect puppyhood honeymoon is over…adolescence has hit and some typical teenage traits rear their ugly heads.

Adolescence brings an increase in activity, strength, fitness, vocalisation, ‘reactive’ behaviour, destruction, spookiness, aggressive responding, distress, humping, distraction, toileting & marking, difficulty with calming and interest in the opposite sex.

Sounds like fun, right?

Training Through The Teenage Angst

Adolescence starts slowly from about the time adult teeth come down through to adulthood; from about 5 months to about two and a half years of age we can expect adolescent changes to slowly start and slowly come to an end. The peak is usually somewhere in the middle with nine-twelve months of age often considered the prime time for teenage trouble.

Having a good start with puppy training and appropriate social and environmental exposure certainly helps, but for the most part, adolescence brings challenge.


Surviving Canine Adolescence – general guidelines

Manage to prevent adolescent behaviours sticking: although teenage behaviours are caused by transient changes, these teenage behaviours can become permanent fixtures if practiced.

Management means we set our adolescent up for success by preventing them being put in situations where they may carry out unwanted behaviours.

Continue with appropriate social and environmental exposure: teenagers are probably more likely to appear to over-react when experiencing emotional swings, which are just more dramatic during adolescence.

Make sure teenagers get lots of space from triggers of over-reaction, get to choose how they engage in social interactions, and continue to pair good things with exposure to social and environmental stimuli.

Supervision and observation: although most associated with puppy training, supervising of the teenager is useful too to stop destruction, humping and leg lifting before it happens, by redirecting the teenager to other more appropriate outlets.

Close supervision of dog-dog interactions is especially important, particularly where a number of teenagers hang out together.

Teach them to be good human trainers: teenagers tend to have trouble with waiting their turn, calming themselves after getting wound up and engaging with their people in the midst of distractions.

Teach teenagers how to train humans to get the things they want to help them to choose their human over the goings-on.

Physical and Mental Exercise: teenagers are stronger and more active than puppies, all of a sudden. They will need increased physical and mental exercise, while carefully monitoring physical exertion.

Improve the value of rewards: puppies bask in their owner’s love but it’s not so cool to be seen with your parents when you’re a teenager.

Building motivation for interaction with you, choosing you, and for play and fun with their person certainly goes a long way to boosting engagement.

Remember, rewards are things the dog chooses – what is the dog already doing? That can often give you information about the things that your dog likes to do. Making sure they get to do these activities is important, just as participating with them, keeping it fun and helping them choose engagement.

Clarity and Consistency: more than at any life stage teenagers need to be able to predict what’s going to happen to them. This is largely about you being consistent and clear in all interactions with them.
While management to prevent unwanted behaviour is important, rewarding desirable behaviour is just as essential.

Take responsibility for your dog’s behaviour and set them up for success .

Accepting responsibility: the ‘Teenager’ label is used to get pet owners out of all sorts of trouble but the human end of the leash must take on the challenges of living with and supporting an adolescent.
Humans tend to hold the teenager more accountable for their behaviour; they are not so cute anymore and “should know better”.
The popular opinion that teenagers are stubborn and belligerent is flawed; teenagers can’t know or do better; some days their brains are not going to be working quite right and on most days, teenagers, as opposed to puppies, will not put up with mixed signals from their teachers.


Surviving Canine Adolescence – some specifics

Just like humans, dogs can have a hard time during this teenage phase.

Your teenage dog is not trying to give you a hard time, they are having a hard time!

Early training and appropriate social interactions during the first few months of life can help the teenage phase run smoother, but continued work and careful guidance is required for teenagers, throughout adolescence.

Here’s a handy reference guide to training and support that might help you and your canine adolescent that we give to our teenager class attendees.

Boisterous behaviour: teenage dogs are often more active, more destructive and more interactive with their world. Their growing body means that they are stronger, and may be less in control of their movements.

Things that might help:

  • make sure your dog has appropriate physical AND mental exercise
  • your dog’s behavioural needs must be met – this may include needs related to breed or type of dog
  • teenage dogs need lots of down time – they know how to go crazy, they need help learning how to be calm
  • careful management and supervision around children or other vulnerable people may be needed
  • default behaviours such as polite greetings, matwork, and autofocus will help and need consistent and ongoing training


Mouthing behaviour – just when you thought puppy nipping was long gone, then the teenager begins to mouth and bite…and it’s painful & bruising!

Things that might help:

  • carefully look at situations in which this behaviour occurs; it’s usually related to excitement
  • prevent your dog mouthing in these situations by using baby gates or your dog’s lead or give him something to hold or carry
  • your dog’s needs must be met so that he has all the things he needs and outlets for important behaviour
  • teenage dogs need lots of down time – they know how to go crazy, they need help learning how to be calm
  • careful management and supervision around children or other vulnerable people may be needed
  • default behaviours such as polite greetings and matwork will help and need consistent and ongoing training


Destructive behaviour – as teenage dogs are more powerful, and as their teeth and jaws mature over their first year, they will often be capable of doing more damage when they chew. Adolescent dogs might seek out chewing and destruction, especially when they become excited or distressed and seek calming and comfort.

Things that might help:

  • get your teenager hooked on chewing dog-safe chews such as stuffed and frozen Kongs
  • make sure forbidden chewable items are out of your dog’s reach so chewing your valuables doesn’t become more established
  • if you can’t remove the chewable, confine the dog from the area, especially when unsupervised
  • give your dog lots of appropriate outlets for chewing and destruction
  • providing your dog with appropriate mental AND physical exercise also helps; #100daysofenrichment is pretty much essential viewing for teenagers!
  • always take care with chews and toys for your adolescent dog as they might ingest dangerously large or harmful pieces


Excessive barking – dogs bark for different reasons and working out the cause of barking is important in helping the dog. Generally, excessive barking is most often due to there needing to be some improvement to their lifestyle and environment.

Things that might help:

  • carefully list the situations in which your dog barks – what happens just before, what happens just after
  • barking might happen because the dog is seeking attention and interaction, is spooked by a noise or something they can see outside, because they’re bored and under stimulated, and/or because they are frightened of something or someone and they want more space and distance
  • make sure your dog has appropriate physical AND mental exercise
  • your dog’s behavioural needs must be met – this may include needs related to breed or type of dog
  • teenage dogs need lots of down time – they know how to go crazy, they need help learning how to be calm
  • block visual access to triggers for barking, such as closing curtains or confining the dog from open fences
  • bring your dog away from things that he is barking at, and try to give him that space before he feels the need to bark
  • don’t shout or scold your dog for barking – instead try to distract their focus by moving away from them excitedly as if you are engaging in something fascinating
  • reward your dog when he’s quiet, rather than waiting for him to start barking and then making a big deal out of his behaviour.
    Reward the quiet teenager with attention, food rewards, treats, toys, play, and access to the things he wants.


Separation related behaviours – it is to be expected that dogs may become a little upset when separated from their family, but some dogs may display more concerning behaviour when left alone. This is most likely to be seen at more intense levels during adolescence.

Things that might help:

  • help to prevent escalation of separation related behaviours by teaching your dog to settle and be calm when confined, adding in separation carefully and gradually
  • beginning alone training is especially important, on a preventative basis, with dogs recently brought into the home, regardless of their age
  • film your dog’s behaviour when left alone – that footage can give you information about the sort of behaviour the dog engages in when alone
  • note especially concerning behaviour such as attempts at escaping, chewing or destruction at doors or windows, pacing, distress vocalising, salivation, not eating or being able to settle, being very quiet and still when alone
  • teach your dog to settle while you are in the room with him but ignoring him; gradually add separation to that, a little at a time so that the dog doesn’t experience distress at any stage
  • make little separations of just a few seconds, a normal part of everyday life
  • as soon as you suspect that your dog may be distressed at being alone, get help as soon as possible
  • never rely on allowing your dog to ‘cry it out’ as this is likely to contribute to your dog feeling more distressed when alone


“Reactivity” – this behaviour is usually seen on lead or behind a fence, with the dog barking and lunging toward a trigger, such as another dog, traffic or jogger. This behaviour may be seen due to frustration, at trying to get to the trigger or trying to get away from it.

Things that might help:

  • make sure your dog has appropriate physical AND mental exercise
  • your dog’s behavioural needs must be met – this may include needs related to breed or type of dog
  • teenage dogs need lots of down time – they know how to go crazy, they need help learning how to be calm
  • work on teaching nice loose leash walking and focus skills
  • teach your teenager that the approach of other dogs or triggers means that you will feed them three HIGH value food rewards, one after another, and then turn and move in the other direction
  • don’t put your dog in situations in which he is likely to demonstrate this behaviour – distance is your friend, so move away
  • walk your dog in places that allow him to sniff and roam on a loose lead, away from triggers


“Spookiness” – teenage dogs can have greater emotional swings, and may have strong fear responses. This is sometimes unpredictable and seems inconsistent. This may be seen as avoidance behaviour, barking and even behaviour that appears aggressive.

Things that might help:

  • give your dog plenty of space from things that cause him to show ‘spooky’ behaviour – he might dart away, he might stiffen and stare, he might bark, or lunge.
  • learn to talk dog and listen to your dog
  • get your dog out of the situation as quickly as you can – adolescent dogs will quickly learn to use aggressive-looking behaviour to try to get distance from things they find scary or suspicious
  • comfort your dog when he is scared – talk softly to him, provide him with contact if that’s what he needs
  • teenage dogs may show sensitivity to sounds, such as thunder, alarms, traffic, fireworks – get help as soon as you notice this behaviour


Resource Guarding – this is normal animal behaviour, even humans do it! Dogs may guard access to food and food related things, chews, toys, their bed, sofas, favourite sleeping positions, and even people, by stiffening, growling or even snapping and snarling.

  • provide your dog with his own space to eat, play, chew and relax
  • never just grab things from a dog or remove them from their bed or sleeping spot
  • make sure children understand never to disturb a chewing, eating or sleeping dog, and supervise all dog-child interactions directly
  • tidy away forbidden stealable items that your dog might take
  • if your dog gets something he shouldn’t, don’t make a big fuss and don’t pursue them; if the item isn’t harmful, or valuable or destructible, ignore your dog. Divert his attention by pretending to engage in something exciting in another room.
  • if you need to get the item back, create a diversion by tossing food rewards or a toy in the other direction, pretend to go to the fridge or get ready to go out for a walk
  • don’t recover the item until your dog has moved away from it
  • practice exchanges and “thank you” exercises with a range of items


Handling discomfort – puppies are presumed to tolerate handling and manipulation, but this is not really the case. A lot of puppy biting behaviour is seen due to them being overwhelmed with handling, restraint, hugging and being picked up. It’s likely then, that teenage dogs will continue to express their discomfort, but in more serious ways.

  • pair touching, grooming and handling of body areas with high value rewards
  • learn to talk dog and listen to your dog
  • if your dog shows discomfort, immediately stop and work on handling exercises on a nearby body area until you can build his comfort in more sensitive areas
  • visit the vets and groomers for social visits – just go in, eat some treats and leave again
  • always bring high value food rewards to the vets and groomers so that your dog associates these places with yummies
  • practice handling exercises every day


Your dog doesn’t grow out of behaviour ‘problems’, they just grow into them

Keep up your training and excellent management throughout adolescence. All these behaviours don’t stop because your dog has matured. If anything, these sometimes worrisome behaviours just become more established and honed, and more serious and adult-like.

Remember, your adolescent dog is having a hard time rather than trying to give you a hard time. But this is your time to step up, keep supporting your teenager, and helping them develop coping skills for adult life.

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