Hoodlum in the house

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By Tracie Korol

When my son turned 13, I bemoaned to a friend that a hulking stranger who ate enormous amounts of cereal at a sitting and smelled vaguely of monkeys had replaced my charming little boy.  She replied, “It’s normal. It makes it a joy when they leave.” Her son was 18 and off to college. She had survived and I settled in for the tumultuous teen years.

Of course, there are parallels in the dog world. The sweet and cuddly baby morphs into a teenage hoodlum in a New York minute. Your sweet, fuzzy puppy that stubbornly refused to walk to the end of the driveway a few days ago now adventures alone to the wonders of the neighbor’s compost pile.  The sound of the doorbell that was once ignored now elicits shrieks, mad scrambling and the inevitable crash as he bounces off the front window.  Depending on your dog’s individual personality and breed, starting at around five months, teenagerhood lasts anywhere from one year to three years. This is their experimental age. Oh, dear.

Each change you see tells you that puddles on the floor and high-pitched yaps in the pre-dawn hours are almost behind you. The future promises an adult dog, wise and compliant. Yet the present reality can be jarring.  As your pup continues to mature, you find yourself in the company of an animal you no longer understand, and one that is filled with boundless energy and the desire for all things doggy.

While many pups sail though adolescence with an angelic, cooperative attitude, most dogs frazzle their families with confusing, fluctuating behaviors.  That’s because major internal and external metamorphoses are going on, fueled by physiological changes.

Breed-specific characteristics such as a desire to herd, or adult traits such as scent marking, “turn on” or intensify.  Owners discover they are now being taken for walks, gasping for breath and hanging on for dear life. Squirrels take on a fascination as never before and new people and dogs are greeted with full body force or unfortunately sometimes, suspicion.  Responses to simple requests, such as going to crate or sitting on command, may result in a doggie version of “nuh-uh!” ranging from playful avoidance to downright refusal. A teen-beagle friend of mine expresses his willfulness for command by grabbing up the nearest fabric item — pillows, socks, his blanket — and running full-out through three levels of house. By the time he’s concluded his run, his owners have forgotten his command. Clever beagle, isn’t he?

The teen dog’s rapid changes, physically and mentally, qualify this period as a “critical” one. The socialization phase — from three to 12 weeks — is also “critical”. (Any fast organizational process in the development of a living creature is considered critical.) When behavior changes rapidly, something important is going on and owners must be just as fast to do what they can to modify pet’s behavior to their advantage.

In the first critical phase, your pup should have learned basic skills of good dog behavior — sit, come, leave it, potty outside, this is yours, this is mine and don’t jump on Grandma. Because you’ve taken your pup with you in your daily excursions and introduced him to variants of the human world, he is a congenial easy-going, “hey, what’s that?” kind of companion.  When the teen years hit, your pet will begin to test the parameters you’ve set and may attempt to create a few of his own behaviors through trial and error.

An undesirable behavior is most easily altered in the initial learning phase, before it stabilizes. And for sure, it can stabilize in a split second. An example is territorial barking, which can escalate rapidly if not checked.  The very first time sweet puppy lunges at the door, screaming hysterically at the mail carrier is the time to step in. Unchecked, you’ll have a frenzied, territorial adult dog who has taught himself a routine, difficult to modify. The best time for families to work with undesirable behavior is as it emerges otherwise the dog will gladly take on the job.

Families need to understand that teen-dogs want more freedom and will certainly test the limits. It’s up to their humans to use this period to guide development of adult behavior.  Spaying and neutering helps modify emerging territoriality, marking and wandering behaviors. Socialization must be continued to impress on the dog that the world does not end at the front door.  The world is big and wonderful but we all have to be polite about it.

Canine adolescence can’t be avoided, but the period is much more than just annoying.  It’s the time between puppy hood and adulthood during which good dog temperament stabilizes. Make the most of it.