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Facets of Canine Adolescence

Why is it that dogs seem to lose their common sense or suddenly forget a basic skill during adolescence? Adolescence in dogs can vary widely by breed, gender and the individual dog, generally occurring between the ages of 4 months to 3 years old.

Training dogs through these phases can be challenging and offer opportunities for improvement. There are many myths about dog behavior and motives. Anthropomorphism -- attributing human traits to dogs -- accounts for many of these human errors in judgement. Here are some common myths and obstacles people may have with teenage dogs.

MYTH: The dog deliberately toileted in the house to get revenge because he was mad at the human for something such as witholding rewards or enforcing house rules.

FACT: Dogs live in the moment. Mistakes must be corrected as they occur or within moments of your dog's error. Any later than that and your dog cannot associate the consequences with what he did earlier. If he does not know what he is being reprimanded for, he cannot learn from his mistake. He will be confused and resent an unfair correction or trust less because he can't make sense of your actions. Dogs aren't intentionally spiteful, especially with housetraining.

Besides having an innate sense of fairness, dogs can have a sense of humor. Rarely, a clever dog may do something wrong on purpose that he knows is not what we want, displaying this sense of humor. Cole swapped Kirsten's fuzzy pink slipper for a fuzzy pink dog toy; obviously this was something he did deliberately because of the sly look and goofy grin that came with it.

Dogs sometimes test people by pretending they don't know something like "sit," when someone else tells them to do it. My dogs do this to my mother all the time. They know she's a push-over. But these tend to be sins of omission, not commission. Teenage dogs are inconsistent, highly distracted, and often regress on toilet training and basic skills they've already learned. This is just a young dog being a young dog.

This is especially true in spring, when a dog in adolescence is very likely to experience increased distractibility. Spring is when dogs' biological clock starts ticking telling them its breeding season; if they are intact, hormones can start to kick in, further distracting your youngster. Animal activity is on the increase, scents of other animals are everywhere and dogs feel more energetic and interested in their surroundings. They're getting out more after spending the winter more or less indoors; its spring fever. The school kids get it too. Even adult dogs will perk up in spring, and senior dogs seem to thrive. Adolescent dogs seem to get spring fever in stronger doses.

Young dogs, particularly those between about 5 months and 18 months old, tend to go through "learning plateaus." These are periods when their brain, or parts of their brain, take a mini vacation. Something they knew well yesterday has suddenly vanished today. You look into their eyes and there's no one home. No sparkle and sly grin, just a vast open "duh." Sometimes you can almost hear them humming to themselves inside their heads, "la la la." This is adolescence. However, there is hope.

MYTH: A young dog is trained to do the behavior that was asked for (like sit on command), and suddenly won't do it because she doesn't focus.

FACT: This is why adolescent dogs are in training. The dog can understand the desired behavior, have been taught the command and skill that goes with it, but its not yet a trained behavior until it has been reliably proofed amid high levels of distraction over time. This is the difference between a dog who knows some commands, and an experienced, well trained dog. A dog can have an awareness of a concept without fully knowing it.

Do not rely on your dog's own ability to focus. Its the trainer's job to keep her attention, and not just with treats. This is when you get to enjoy embarrassing yourself in public! You have to make yourself more interesting than everything else that's going on. That means talking to your dog in a high pitched doggy voice and making lots of animated funny noises to keep her focus on you. It means wiggling your fingers, clapping your hands and making sudden unexpected changes in direction so she has to focus to keep up. It's incredibly hard work, but this is the time you really need to hit it hard, even if it doesn't seem to be accomplishing anything. This is a teaching opportunity, an important one. This is your opportunity to teach her how to deal with distraction and how to concentrate.

As far as the house training goes, and this also applies to any commands she suddenly forgets, when a trained behavior goes on vacation, the trainer must back up to square one and start over again. That means you go back to house training 101, day one when you brought her home. Keep her on high surveillance for one solid month before lowering your watchful eye again. Each time she toilets indoors at this time will permanently weaken her toilet training reliability for the future, so adopt a zero tolerance policy right now. By zero tolerance I don't mean beat the dog for doing it, I mean don't permit it to happen in the first place (which means vigilance on your part).

If you put the effort in now, right now, and stick with it even if it seems you are training a rock instead of a dog, it really will pay off. Usually in about 2 weeks the missing skill will reappear as mysteriously as it disappeared. The "sit" command will suddenly return, overnight, just as solid as it was when it went missing. No one really knows why this happens, but it is very common with adolescents.

Adolescent dogs typically experience several learning plateaus, so don't be surprised if she goes "duh" again. Cole did this with a teeter totter. We went over it a few times and all was well. Then suddenly one day, he wasn't having any part of it. I worked patiently on it, but he just kept acting like an idiot for no good reason I could find. I got frustrated and started working on his competition obedience instead. Then suddenly a couple of weeks later, in the middle of a long sit, he broke his stay and ran over to the teeter totter and started doing it over and over again. He never gave it a second thought after that day. Just did it whenever asked, joyfully and confidently, as if it was old hat. But that's when he forgot what a stay was and we had to go back to practicing them in front position and on a leash for another 2 weeks.

They really do grow out of it. Patience and consistency are key to managing and training adolescent dogs. They really will grow up and grow into their brains sooner or later. Before you know it, this will pass, and you'll wonder where all the golden years went when that teenager is a senior dog, and look forward to seeing him suddenly feeling chipper again in spring. Hang in there!