While the title may seem a bit dramatic, I definitely consider it a Sin to get a dog and then spend no amount of time, money or energy helping prepare him to live in our human world. We humans have high expectations and it’s not fair to expect our dogs to blend in seamlessly with little or no preparation.
I’m currently experiencing the joys of adolescence with my recently adopted puppy, Quincy. I haven’t raised an adolescent dog in about 10 years, so it’s a challenge – it can be exasperating and frustrating but overall it’s a lot of fun! Coincidentally, I’m also working with quite a few clients who have adolescent dogs – so it’s a topic very much on my mind.
Once puppyhood is over, adolescence is the next critical period of maturity. It is during this time that important lessons are finalized and opinions about people, dogs, places and things become fixed in their brains. Resolving problems after your dog has reached maturity is not nearly as easy as preventing them.
An adolescent is a dog who is still maturing mentally and emotionally and, to some extent, still physically changing. I consider adolescence to be from about 6 months to 3 or even 5 years of age for the bigger breeds. What this means, behaviourally, is that they are still subject to events or circumstances that may effect their long term behaviour. A large percentage of dogs in shelters are adolescents and many of them have mild or not so mild behaviour issues resulting from a lack of training. They’re out of control and hard to handle. The reality is that many of these dogs end up dead.
Below are 7 key areas that dog owners need to concentrate on during the adolescent stage. Ignoring these areas (or getting poor advice) can result in some serious behavioural issues. Worse yet, you may not see any behavioural “fallout” until your dog is well into their adult years. For example, you may not notice the very subtle signs of resource guarding in your young dog. However, it’s not uncommon for a dog to one day discover something so wonderful that it’s worth hanging on to and then resource guarding behaviours suddenly surface. You know those news reports where the dog “the bite came out of nowhere”?!
I’m not suggesting that every dog will develop problem behaviours, but why take that chance? Besides – it’s FUN to work with your dog and FUN to help them learn things – that’s why you got a dog in the first place, right?!
If you focus your training efforts on each of the areas listed below, you can prevent behavioural issues from creeping up. Even if you have adopted an adult dog, it is well worth your time to spend time working on these things, too. It’s never too late to help your dog live a better life with you.
1st Deadly Sin: Having a dog who jumps up on people or other dogs.
“It’s okay, he’s friendly!” is a phrase I hear far too often and it always makes me cringe as I brace myself and my dog for a rude onslaught. Why people think that their dog jumping on me or slamming into my dog is “friendly” completely baffles me. It’s rude and it’s dangerous. And dogs don’t like being body-slammed any more than humans do. This behaviour can easily result in a fight erupting as the hapless dog victim tries to defend his personal space and impose some manners on the perpetrator. Dogs need to learn to respect the personal space of humans and other dogs. They aren’t born knowing this, they need training – and “No!” or “Off!” is not training.
2nd Deadly Sin: Having a dog who can’t be easily handled.
These are the dogs that require a muzzle and restraint to have their nails clipped, the dogs who can’t be disturbed when they’re sleeping, need to be chased to get their collars or leashes on, hate their harnesses, and are a struggle to bathe. It’s unpleasant and unfair to have a dog completely unprepared for human handling and attention. Very few dogs come out of the womb loving the touch of a human. It’s your job to positively prepare your dog for the things that humans do: hug, kiss, grab, clip nails, clean ears, put on equipment, trip and stumble, go to the vet, use a groomer, etc. Not teaching your dog to happily accept and even enjoy human handling can create a highly stressed and anxious dog who may feel the need to defend himself one day.
3rd Deadly sin: Having a dog who objects to losing his “stuff”.
This is the dog the kids can’t go near when he’s eating, you can’t easily get illegal items away from, or growls and barks (“protects you”) when another dog comes close to you. Resource guarding is very common in dogs because it’s a natural behaviour for them – “when I have it, it’s mine”. They understand it that way and it’s our job to teach what humans expect: “actually everything is mine and I will lend it to you, but I may need it back at some point”. Dogs can resource guard people, places and things. Resource guarding often goes unnoticed because dog owners don’t pick up on the early, subtle signs that your dog may display: speeds up eating when you approach, freezes slightly when you reach for a toy, looks cute with ears back and wiggling but dances just out of teach when you try and grab a stolen item, etc.
A piece of advice – make everything a Trade, never a Take. Anything you need to get from your dog should always be traded for with something of equal or greater value. If possible, give them back the original item you took, too. I do this with my dogs as much as I can throughout their life – not just during adolescence. If you set this practice in place, your dog has no need to guard any resource he feels is important to him and you won’t be a position of having to risk life and limb to get something away from your dog. Your dog will learn to good-naturedly give up valued items because generally they always get them back or something just as good so there’s no reason to object.
4th Deadly Sin: Having a dog who pulls on leash.
Everybody has seen this dog – the one hauling his owner behind him down the street – choking, leash tight, bouncing all over the place. Or you’ve passed the dog who is barking, growling and lunging hysterically at every dog, skateboarder, cyclist and jogger they pass. Polite leash walking is a critical skill for dogs to learn. A pulling dog can very easily turn into a leash reactive dog who barks and lunges at everything. Who wants a dog that only the strongest person in the family can hang on to? Good training teaches your dog that walking politely on leash is his job. We need to keep him thinking and working with us so that reacting and pulling doesn’t even enter his head.
5th Deadly Sin: Having a dog who nips or bites when he’s startled or frightened.
This is the dog who will whip around and nip you if you grab him when he’s busy barking hysterically at something. It can also be the dog who gets so excited during play that he will nip you, grab your clothing or grab at treats or toys hard enough to leave marks. Dogs need to learn how to use their mouths appropriately and that training MUST be done positively and thoughtfully. We want dogs to think that humans are so ridiculously fragile, that they must be very careful to never use their mouths. Any use of punishment for growling or biting – no matter how benign it seems – can really backfire and cause serious problems.
6th Deadly Sin: Having a dog who is destructive or barks all day when he’s alone.
If you have a dog who can’t safely be left alone at all, you may be dealing with Separation Anxiety and you should contact a trained professional who is experienced in force-free training AND has experience with Separation Anxiety. This is a serious behaviour problem and is not easy to fix once it develops. It’s usually preventable if you get the right advice early in puppyhood.
There are, many dogs who may not have Separation Anxiety but are destructive or noisy out of boredom when they’re home alone. Aside from physically satisfying our dog’s needs we also need to mentally satisfying our dog’s needs. Keeping your dog mentally content and exercised can be as simple as feeding him his meals out of treat dispensing toys and/or using these toys as entertainment when you’re not home. There is a fast-rising market of treat dispensing toys and puzzles available at any pet store. Giving your dog puzzles to solve using his meals is mentally stimulating, confidence building and pleasantly tiring. Dogs who spend hours getting their food out of puzzles and toys are generally better behaved, calmer and a treat to come home to at the end of the day.
7th Deadly Sin: Dogs who don’t get along with other dogs.
If I had a dollar for every time I heard some helpful individual say, “it’s okay, the dogs will sort it out themselves”, I would be a wealthy person. No – they can’t always sort it out themselves nor should they be left to do so. Dogs need to learn and develop social skills in order to be able to communicate with each other. Our modern dogs live a fairly solitary existence compared to many generations ago. It’s up to us to provide appropriate opportunities and good direction to teach our dogs how to safely interact with other members of their species. This requires short, well-monitored interactions from puppyhood through adolescence. It definitely does NOT mean long hours in the dog park where they can learn to be bullies or afraid of all but the softest dogs. This requires thoughtful and careful exposure to many dogs.
There is nothing nicer than having a dog who is relaxed around virtually any dog and can safely interact with a dog who may be more or less socially skilled than they are. There’s nothing worse than having a dog that blows up at the sight or sound of another dog and can’t even enjoy play with his own kind – how sad for them.
So maybe all these “Sins” aren’t always “Deadly” – but they certainly CAN be for the dog. Some dogs do manage to be okay without much training but life could be that much better for them if they had it. Most dogs, however, desperately NEED direction, support and appropriate preparation in order to live up to our high expectations.
Adolescence is an important growth stage in the life of your dog – don’t waste the opportunity it presents. Get some good advice and some good, positive and force-free training when your dog is young and carry on with that same training until your dog is a mature adult. It’s should be fun and it gives you both a better quality of life together.
In Partnership With Dogs holds classes specifically designed to teach dog owners how to navigate adolescence and help with the key areas listed above. If you aren’t in our area, find a good, positive trainer near you and see if they would consider setting up classes for adolescent dogs.
Remember to keep it positive and force-free!