Tackling the Teenager Phase
Sharing your life with a teenager can be overwhelming. Just as soon as you finally make it out of puppyhood, suddenly your teenager is starting to behave in ways you have never seen before, or certain skills you have been working on have started to unravel. What does all of it mean? Is this just a phase, or will my dog be this way forever?
Puppies are typically considered teenagers when they are around the ages of six to eighteen months of age. At this point in their development, you may see more of their personalities emerge, while they are also going through many development and hormonal changes. Sound familiar to any human teenagers you may know? In many ways, the teenage phase in puppies is very relatable to the teenage phase in people, too.
Puppies enter this phase relatively around the same age range, but you can also look for certain hallmarks that signal the change from puppyhood into a teenager. These include:
● Your puppy is starting to become more environment-focused instead of human-focused. Puppies generally have a natural inclination to be very human-oriented, whereas teenagers may start to pay more attention to their environment as they grow and continue to discover the world. You may notice that it is taking more work to get your puppy’s attention when something in the environment is drawing them away.
● Your puppy is starting to get more increasingly excitable and over-aroused, even when there’s not a lot of excitement happening around them. Teenagers will get very excited over small things- sometimes something as small as encountering an interesting leaf out on a walk will get them super worked up!
● Your puppy is starting to demonstrate a low frustration threshold. This means that they are becoming less and less tolerant of frustrating situations, and may start behaving in ways that appear like “temper tantrums” if they aren’t able to access what they want (although we don’t like to use these kind of labels as they don’t describe the reasons behind the behavior).
It’s very important to remember that, although teenagers are starting to grow up and appear to be adult dogs physically, they are still very much “puppies” when it comes to their mentality. So, although it may be tempting to start treating your teenager like an adult dog as they start to look the part, you must remember that they still have a lot of developing to do.
So, what types of training should teenagers be working on?
At this phase of development, it’s most important to prioritize working on life skills with your puppy instead of any kind of specific, fancy tricks. That can come later on! Working on skills that create a well-rounded and emotionally-stable dog are going to be the most important to focus on while your puppy is in this phase. You’re also going to want to make sure that you’re training “on the go” as much as you can in the contexts that you want your dog to perform the behavior in. If you ever see your teenager behaving in a way that you like throughout the day, make sure to capture it and pay them for it. You will see more behaviors that you capture and reinforce. To make sure that you are always able to pay your dog for good behavior “on the go,” it’s helpful to set up treat jars around the house for easy access, as well as make sure you bring treats and reinforcement along with you on all outings.
Alongside capturing good behavior as you see it, you can also practice teaching good “life skills” to your teenager that will make them easier to live with and train as adults. Some examples of good life skills can include:
● Reinforcing “Four on the Floor” when meeting new people to discourage jumping, or as a means of reducing counter-surfing behaviors. Your teenager only gets access to reinforcement when they are not jumping on people or surfaces, and all four feet are on the floor.
● Relaxing, or remaining calm before releasing your teenager to greet other people or dogs. Waiting until your teenager is calm before greeting helps them with learning to regulate their arousal levels, as well as helps with their ability to greet others politely.
● Settle on a mat. Teaching your teenager to settle on a mat in several contexts can be extremely helpful to encourage calmness, which is a skill most teenagers need to be taught. When you (the human) are stationary and relaxed, reinforce your teenager for also relaxing on their mat nearby. You can practice this while in the kitchen cooking dinner, while eating, while sitting on the couch, or while sitting at your desk on a zoom call.
● Keep up with your management. Although management is not typically a long-term solution to solving behavior issues with your teenager, it is a great tactic to keep them safe and prevent them from practicing unwanted behavior while you work on your training. Just like when your teenager was a young puppy, utilize crates, play pens, or tethering when needed to make sure your puppy isn’t practicing any behavior you don’t find desirable.
What about my teenager’s needs beyond training?
So, you’ve got your game plan on what to work on with your teenager training-wise, but what about meeting their needs as they grow? Teenagers will definitely have increased exercise requirements from when they were puppies, so it’s important to keep in mind that you may have to increase their exercise as you train. However, be wary of any high-impact activities that may damage your teenager’s growing bodies, like fetch or extended periods of jumping and running. We recommend utilizing exercises that work your puppy’s mind as well as their body, and incorporate training into your walks as much as possible. Make sure to continue to incorporate enrichment into your teenager’s daily life frequently, as well as encouraging rest and calm behavior outside of times of exercise.
In terms of play time with other dogs, your best bet is going to be setting up small playgroups with other dogs of a similar age, size, and play style. In the teenage phase when your puppy is struggling with regulating their arousal levels, larger and more variable playgroups like in daycares and dog parks may end up encouraging detrimental interactions with other dogs, as opposed to small, familiar play groups.
When should I seek out professional help?
Any time you are running into trouble that you don’t understand or aren’t sure how to resolve, you may benefit from seeking professional help. All work you do during the puppy and teenage phases are going to set a foundation for what behaviors you will see in an adult dog. There are some situations that benefit from professional help including:
● Fear periods are popping up. Fear periods can be a common experience in the teenage phase, and manifest themselves as circumstances where your puppy may be more sensitive to new stimuli or situations than normal. For example, your puppy may start getting spooked around trash cans when they never did the several times in the past that they’ve walked past one. If your puppy is experiencing a significant fear period, it may be helpful to get professional help with working through it.
● Teenagers who are starting more frequent scuffles or arguments with other dogs and people. As your puppy ages, they will likely develop more preferences about what types of people and dogs they get along with more than others. However, if you notice that your puppy is getting into more scuffles and arguments with other dogs and people than you believe is normal, consult a professional.
● Your dog is becoming increasingly reactive to certain triggers. If you notice reactivity developing in your teenager despite being sure to socialize them well as puppies, you may have a dog with a genetic predisposition to reactivity, which may require a professional to help you through the process.
Pawsitive Futures offers both in-person and online classes specifically tailored to helping pet parents with teenage puppies. Both class types cover the exact same skills, so you don’t need to be worried about missing out on learning opportunities regardless of the class you choose. These classes provide detailed assistance on how to tackle common teenager issues, like encouraging focus from your teenager and settle work, as well as continuing to troubleshoot more difficult skills for your puppy that may have regressed in this phase, like loose leash walking and impulse control.
Remember that just like puppyhood, this phase too will pass. If you put in the foundational work and seek professional help when you run into trouble, you will set yourself and your dog up for success through adulthood!