Canine Adolescence: The Great “Unconsidered” Life Stage

The other day the New York Times published an excerpt from canine behavioral researcher and author Alexandra Horowitz’s newest and most excellent book, The Year of the Puppy: How Dogs Become Themselves, (Viking, 2022). The excerpt was about canine adolescence, a period of a dog’s life that Horowitz calls “woefully understudied by researchers and often completely ignored by dog people.” I was thrilled to read this, because often, owners are unprepared for this phase and shocked by the changing moods and needs of their new dog.

Perhaps because of the greater emphasis on the changing nutritional needs of a growing and then adult dog, it seems like the whole world divides the stages in dog lives into two, and perhaps three major categories, each with specific challenges. There’s puppyhood, when we are carefully managing the puppy’s diet (so as to provide him with precise nutrition for a just-right rate of growth, neither too fast nor too slow), as well as managing the puppy’s environment and setting behavioral expectations. Usually, folks then skip right to adulthood, when dogs are frequently switched to “adult maintenance” diets and expected to have achieved a certain standard of civilized behavior. Sometimes, the nutritional and medical needs of the senior dog are also given separate consideration.

But few people talk about the phase of a dog’s life that humans find the most challenging and frustrating: the “teenager” phase, when the behaviors that our adorable puppies have been performing on cue for months suddenly seem to be missing from our adolescent dogs’ memory; when the dog who, since adoption, has cheerfully greeted humans of every size, shape, and color begins barking, growling, or even lunging at strangers; and when so-called “nuisance” behaviors like escaping confinement, barking, fence-fighting, and chewing furniture start emerging.

It’s no coincidence that more dogs are surrendered to shelters at this phase of a dog’s life than any other. People who were prepared for this phase sometimes find themselves wondering if they made a big mistake in adopting; people who spontaneously brought a puppy home without preparation often bail on their responsibility for the dog’s well-being at this time. The dog is no longer cute and easy; without good management and training, he can seriously disrupt people’s lives, even cost them a marriage or housing!

My foster-fail puppy Boone is right there: 9 months old, gangly as all-get out – and no longer the pudgy puppy who was content in confinement as long as he had something to chew on. Now he knows there is a whole world of action and fun he’s missing out on when he’s been left in my office or the outdoor dog pen while I go on a bike ride, and he objects! If he sees so much as my bike helmet come out of the closet before I’ve put him in temporary safe custody, he’s learned to be wary of being lured into said enclosures. Or rather, he’ll go, while looking for the fresh bone I took out of the freezer that I generally lock him up with – but he’s not past trying to dash out the door with the bone if I’m inattentive while leaving the enclosure myself. That’s not a witless puppy’s move, nor a responsible adult dog tactic; that’s a teenager’s ill-advised stratagem!

Fortunately, WDJ has plenty of articles we’ve published in the past about this fraught phase of a dog’s life – or, I should say, the fraught phase in the dog/human relationship (dogs probably don’t perceive the phase as a problem; it’s their owners that do). I’ve been reviewing them myself, and they are extremely informative. If you have a dog in the adolescent phase – approximately, between about 6 months and 2 years old – you might want to read some of these helpful and encouraging articles. If you can continue to guide your dog through this developmental phase with patience, humor, and understanding, you’ll end up with the best dog ever. I know, because I’ve done it at least twice so far, and I couldn’t love the results any more.

Read more on adolescent dogs: (This article contains a half-dozen links to even more WDJ articles on adolescence.)

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