Around 5-6 months of age, puppies begin their journey through adolescent development, until they reach approximately 2 years of age give or take based on breed, size, etc.
There were rough times in the 2-3 months after you brought them home as you both learned how to navigate puppyhood together. Times when sharp puppy teeth and lack of sleep got the best of you, but you pulled through relatively unscathed. Everyone commented on your rockstar pup because he was walking well on a leash, didn't wander far from you, always came back when you called, sat when he wanted something, and slept a lot during the day when you were busy.
Adolescence comes with a new set of challenges for every dog and the humans who love them. Although you likely won't be dealing with housetraining or sharp puppy teeth, it will seem like they've forgotten the skills you thought they had already "mastered", or that they are deliberately doing the opposite of what you want. Let me reassure you that Fido has not forgotten!
All of the changes taking place in your adolescent dog's brain and body (yes, even if spayed/neutered) can make it hard to retrieve his previous puppyhood learning, especially under certain environmental situations. Biology is in the driver's seat now, all of their senses are becoming heightened, so attention is now easily drawn in opposite directions than what we were getting used to during puppyhood. It can feel like a cruel game, I know, but your pup now feels much more biologically compelled to explore and roam further outside their comfort zone.
It's estimated that about 80% of the world's dog population are free-ranging. The main biological drivers for living creatures are to: get enough to eat (and don't get eaten yourself), avoid illness/injury, and reproduce (aka pass on your genes to the next generation) and your dog, despite having a warm home and human to take care of them, is not different from a biological standpoint. There will be variations absolutely due to more or less human involvement with breeding, but these drives remain evolutionarily adaptive. It can be helpful to know that if your dog was a free-ranging dog with no defined home or yard, they would be spending their day toggling between finding food, resting, and finding a mate (all while avoiding potentially dangerous situations) – that's it.
Biology is the reason why your puppy has suddenly become a "different" dog and why our feelings of frustration are inevitable. Humans don't usually do well with drastic change and the change in your pup may feel incredibly drastic almost overnight.
Here are my top 5 pieces of advice for how to best navigate this development period with your dog.
Being patient is easier said than done, I know. Your bucket is nearly empty from overcoming housetraining, crate training, alone training, chewing, mouthing, etc., during puppyhood, and now you have to fill that bucket back up for this new road ahead. To keep your mind from wandering to dark places, remind yourself as often as needed that everyone experiences a similar time with their dog.
Take comfort in the fact that your dog does not have a sense of morality in the way you and I do. They don't understand right from wrong, and they're usually following their biological urges. It's to your benefit to try and work with it instead of against it to avoid winding yourself up into a tizzy. It can be helpful to have a couple of scripts to repeat to yourself when feeling overwhelmed, or for times when you feel embarrassed by their behaviour.
"Teenagers, am I right?"
"I know she's pretty, but consent matters, buddy!"
"You're never gonna catch that rabbit, bud!"
"Are the birds teasing you? I'm sure you deserve it!"
"I know you want to smell everything, but we can't go crazy walking all over everybody's lawn, dude."
Management is King
The answer isn't always to train a behaviour, but to set up the environment around your dog in a way that will prevent a certain behaviour from being triggered or practiced. It can feel like management is "the easy way" and that it's not really training, but logistically it can take just as much planning and energy as training an automatic behaviour or skill. The difference is that if designed well, management will work every time, right from the get-go (unlike new training skills).
Don't make the mistake of thinking you're going to do this without a baby gate, or an exercise pen, or a tether, or a long line simply because you've been tricked into believing it's more virtuous by some misleading information online or some nosey ill-informed friend. Being proactive and setting your dog up so he won't frustrate you by behaving in a way you don't like will work wonders for your sanity.
Some additional key things that I consider forms of pro-active management for an adolescent dog...
Daily Physical Exercise: I'm not talking about walks around the neighbourhood. This is not physical exercise unless you are training for a speed walking competition. Things like dog-dog play, tug, swimming, and fetch are good ways to exercise your dog physically.
Important: get clearance from your vet before doing things like long distance jogging/running, agility, or anything that involves a lot of jumping and/or jarring movements.
Daily Brain Enrichment: This is where walks come in! If you take away one thing from this blogpost, let it be to stop and smell the roses during leash walks. Remind yourself about the biological forces at play when your patience is being tested and be prepared to let your dog sniff on walks; if for no other reason than the fact that it will tire him out and calm him down! Get a few stuffable chew toys or puzzles and feed him his ENTIRE daily ration of food using different kinds of brain activities like foraging, games, and skills training spread throughout the day – DITCH THE BOWL! Pre-stuff a few puzzle toys with dog safe goodies like xylitol-free peanut butter, cream cheese, or cheese whiz and stash them in the freezer for times for when you need them (you'll likely need them often ;P)
Daily Short & Focused Training Sessions: This holds true for dogs of any age. Know what you're going to be working on during your session. When working on a particular skill determine what approximation of that skill your dog can do right now and what the end goal looks like. Map out the incremental training steps you think will be needed to reach the goal, and have fun with this while you learn together! If you want to work on your own training chops to improve results check out this post and accompanying videos by the late, great, Dr. Sophia Yin.
Give Them Choices
Dr. Zazie Todd has a great article on Three Important Ways to Give Your Pet Choices that I love and highly recommend reading. Choice has been shown to play an extremely important role in the welfare of a captive animal. Yes, I know it sounds strange, but Fido is technically a captive animal.
All dogs go through two fear periods, the first is between 8-12 weeks of age and then again at some point between 6-16 months of age (varies for each dog). These fear periods are certainly a beneficial adaptive trait for free-ranging dogs to help them quickly learn to avoid potentially dangerous situations, but for our urban dwellers with a home and human to call their own, it can present some challenges.
We must always balance socialization activities with the need to go at the dog's pace. For example, letting your dog choose to be touched by someone, choose to go in somewhere, and choose to play or not play with other dogs will likely serve them and you better in the long run when it comes to the development of a confident, well-adjusted dog.
Laugh and Embrace the Silly
Dogs are not here for a long time, and they have more than earned the nickname of "man's best friend".
I once heard my mentor, Jean Donaldson, say something to the effect of "when it comes time to say goodbye, no one wishes that they had given less treats."
This is such an important perspective when it comes to having a dog. When times are trying, remember that your dog is young and doing the best they can with the information they have collected about their world so far (nurture) which may be clashing with intense biological changes (nature). It can help to remind yourself what prompted you to want a dog in the first place. Reflect on what truly motivated you bring home a furball.
You're on the same team. Embrace all their unique quirks and be silly together because before you know it senior years sneak up and when it comes time to say goodbye I guarantee you won't be thinking about this frustrating time when they were jumping on visitors, pulled you around to sniff EVERYTHING on leash walks, or their over the top excitement to play with other dogs.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but I offer these words of advice and support in the hope it doesn't have to be that way for you and Fido. I encourage you to enjoy this special time with your dog because time sure flies.