Living together with our four-legged “youngsters” can be very entertaining, but also extremely exhausting for humans and dogs.
We ourselves are currently accompanying our youngest four-legged family member Levin, a 12-month-old field trial (working line) Golden Retriever male, in his youth development. This exciting time is called “adolescence” (lat. Adolescere = “grow up”).
The transition from puppy time to juvenile phase is a fluid development. When the tooth change is complete, one no longer speaks of the puppy, but of the young dog.
The dog has now grown out of its puppy shoes, has said goodbye to its milk teeth and the hormones are starting to do their job more intensely and herald the next step in its development.
At Levin we could even smell the young dog. The pleasant smell of the puppy evaporated slowly and for a while his fur smelled very neutral. As overnight, however, from now on we noticed that the little man suddenly smells of “dog”.
But it is not only the sex hormones that are now working hard, the brain is being opened to a large construction site. But more on that later.
Juveniles reach sexual maturity during puberty. This occurs very early in most domesticated animals (and also in humans), but this does not mean that the individual has grown up automatically, that is to say has a certain emotional and mental maturity.
In theory, they could now “produce” offspring. However, being sexually mature does not mean that the dog shows great interest in reproducing. The sex drive often develops more slowly. If, for example, a 2-3 year old male who is to be used for breeding does not have a great urge to mate with a bitch, this is not immediately behavioral. In many cases the male is just not that far in his development.
Bitches experiencing their first heat often give the impression that they do not know what is going on with them or why a male dog is suddenly so interested in them.
Once the dog has reached sexual maturity, puberty is complete and adolescence follows seamlessly. There are different definitions of adolescence and therefore different names of this time window. Puberty, flailing years, maturity, etc.
Words create images in my head, so I find the definition that separates puberty and adolescence very important and appropriate. If we call development until full maturity puberty or flailing years, we easily open a drawer for behavior that could change our view and how we deal with the dog. A flail doesn’t respect us. That attacks our personality. Adolescence is simply the time of detaching from the parents and developing one’s own personality.
Adolescence describes the development “phase” between sexual maturity and adulthood. In dogs, this phase of life affects approximately the time window from the 5th to the 24th month of life.
It can take even longer for dogs of larger breeds. One reads in some breed descriptions of the larger dogs that they are “late developers”. This means that these dogs take more time for their youth development and reach their mental and emotional maturity only after 3-4 years.
The same applies to early neuters. Dogs that are neutered very early are said to remain playful and “childlike” for longer. This is based on slower brain development during youth development. In early neutered dogs, the time window of adolescence remains open longer.
There is a gender distinction in dogs as well as in bipeds. In dogs, too, the males develop somewhat more slowly than the bitches. Brain growth in male mammals is not complete until later.
During training, the question always arises: “Is my dog already in puberty?” or “Has he grown up already? How can I tell that my dog is now in puberty?” For example, the males are said to be so as soon as they start lifting their legs and showing marking behavior.
So far so good, Levin lifted his leg very securely when he was 9 weeks old and scared us first ;-). At the time I thought to myself: “Oh dear, what else can we expect if he shows this behavior now? How much testosterone does he already have in him? Is he going to be a little premature, daring mess?”
He’s a little lovable mess, but none of what I imagined regarding the very early leg lift occurred. Like so much, you can’t just generalize. And each individual shows a different development. By the way – Levin did not show any marking behavior, even though he raised his leg.
The transitions from puppy age to puberty and the subsequent adolescence are gradual processes. One cannot say exactly where one window of youth development closes and the other opens. But you can feel the changes in your dog.
How do I know that my dog’s adolescent development is progressing?
I would like to show you a few behaviors using Levin. Levin lets us participate in his youth development very much …!
We could and can observe the following:
- Sensitivity to touch has increased, ie he flinches more often when touched spontaneously. Therefore, we pay even more attention to announcing actions that we take on him, such as opening the harness buckles, before we take the action. It was not easy for him to enjoy quietly when acquaintances caress him and it is also more difficult to keep still when he dries up.
- Relaxation signals with direct contact are more difficult to condition or to charge.
- Sometimes he wants to do 1000 things at once, that is, he starts one action and while he is there, he has to do something else without ending his first plan. Example: Levin nibbles on his Torgas chewing root. Then he remembers that he hasn’t shown his love to us for a while and on the way to us he stumbles across another toy that piqued his interest. When going for a walk, it can happen that he wants to leave his business card at a very important junction and then has no time for it because he has something else in mind.
- Its radius has expanded and environmental exploration takes place more frequently, meaning that its interest in the environment has increased significantly. It moves farther away from us than a few weeks ago.
- Marking behavior is clearly visible. We notice this from the fact that he takes more time for smells before he sets his brand. He likes to turn around again because he has a smell in his nose that he doesn’t want to miss. Above all, the frequency of urine has increased and it is often involved when our other two dogs have chosen a common job.
- Urine licking started, which is also a form of communication among dogs. The dogs lick up “smells” to get a more intense impression. The substances are absorbed through the Jakob organ at the back of the palate and the dog receives information about, for example, the health status, hormone status and / or cycle status of a dog.
- His arousal level skyrockets more violently. Levin makes it from 0 to 300 faster. Some reactions are more impulsive and things that didn’t interest him a few weeks ago suddenly become very exciting again.
- His “mouth activity” increased again enormously, we assume that this is based on the increased activity of the stress hormones. It shows an even greater need to chew – to the detriment of our facility. Everything that goes over the mouth, be it licking, nibbling, biting or eating relaxed in many cases.
- Learning has its ups and downs, that is, there are situations when the little man surprises us enormously with learned behaviors that can be called up or with new tasks. Especially those who enjoy it and meet their current needs. I often think: “How quickly he accepts things.” On the other hand, in some situations there is his questioning look: “What do you want from me? I’ve never heard of that …!”
- Resources are becoming more important to him. We can see very nicely that he can no longer nibble so gently on chewing items in the presence of the other dogs. He begins to bring objects that are important to him to safety. He defended our dog for the first time against another male a few weeks ago. But all of this in a very nice context with the means of communication available to him.
… ultimately a normal dog?
I often hear as a trainer: “My dog is terribly pubescent!”,
“He is disobedient and tests his limits daily.”, “My dog is rebellious, dominant and questions the ranking …”.
What is it about these statements?
Will sugar-sweet puppies suddenly become monsters who want to take over the world and behave just to annoy us? NO!
These are completely normal reactions to a physiological process, which unfortunately are all too often associated with human emotions and interpreted. No dog shows behaviors to annoy us – in this situation he simply cannot do anything else. There can be very different factors involved that “cannot” affect this – and this is not only the case with dogs that are in adolescence.
For example, the stimulus from the environment is too strong, health problems can play a role, the dog is afraid, may be under the influence of stressors that we are not even aware of in the situation, or the fur nose simply did not yet have the possibility of desired behavior to learn this situation.
But what happens in this time of youth development?
There are a lot of “alterations” and related changes taking place in the brain.
- The almond kernel (= amygdala) is the emotional evaluation center, which controls the perception and the reactions. The almond kernel grows during this phase and reacts more sensitively and intensively to stimuli from the environment. This means that reactions are more emotional. Unfortunately, this is a good breeding ground for fear and aggression behavior.
- The cerebral cortex, in which conscious processes, cognitive processes, planned action, arbitrary execution of movements, etc. are processed, breaks down synapses. These synapses are contact points between cells and serve to transmit signals and store information.
- The prefrontal cortex of the cerebral cortex is the seat of the “working memory” and for conscious decisions. It receives the processed stimuli and the emotional evaluation from the almond kernel and the next reaction results. This area of the brain only matures later and becomes smaller during youth development.
- The stress hormone level is highest in all mammals during adolescence. Therefore, it can also happen that the dog had no problems with the harness during his puppy years and suddenly thinks that harnessing is scary. The body surface is much more sensitive during this time.
- The receptor density and sensitivity for dopamine changes in different areas of the brain. This is associated with increased curiosity behavior and has the consequence that the reward system is much easier to excite. Self-rewarding behavior becomes more important. It is more difficult for the dog to let go of things that are important and worthwhile for him.
These are the reasons why the dog becomes more difficult for us to assess and control, because it reacts more emotionally, has a more concentrated and irritated effect on its caregivers. His emotional excitability is easier to trigger and he shows changes in behavior on stimuli known to him. Separation stress can suddenly become a challenge for a family, although it was thought that the young dog had already learned to stay alone well.
The play behavior of the young dog changes, which can mean that he becomes more researched or even more choosy in the selection of his friends. Competitive behavior occurs whether in connection with sexual behavior or other resources.
The dog begins to chew off and curiosity and exploration behavior increases. Hunting behavior can also appear. The risk behavior of the young savages is more pronounced and they are more difficult to assess dangers. The young dog is more susceptible to stress and therefore his reactions to stressors are more intense! We should not forget that the four-legged friend’s brain decides what stressors are for him – and not us.
This behavior during youth development has nothing to do with dominance or ranking! The dogs cannot do anything else in places and are “victims” of their own development.
This is not to mean that we lean back and rest on the motto: “It is a development phase and the” problems “grow together when the dog is older.” If everything goes well, we humans tend to go one step further and continue to raise our own standards.
The huge advances in learning during the puppy period (steep increase in the learning curve) spoil us and we are horrified when the training suddenly stagnates or there are even setbacks! I think sentences like “He never did that!” fall particularly often in adolescence. Due to the misjudgment “The dog does this on purpose”, or “He clearly refuses to cooperate”, it is often advised to treat the dog more strictly and hard. However, this almost always turns out to be a shot to the rear. On the one hand we do the young fur noses wrong and on the other hand this has serious consequences because:
- The human-dog team continues to rock each other emotionally. Very often severe punishments are used. As a result, trust in one another is disappointed and the bond crumbles. Attachment is characterized by a disproportionate exchange of POSITIVE behavioral reactions! Our greatest wish is not just to be in any relationship with our dogs, but to build a common, beautiful and stable bond.
- The dog develops fear and / or aggression behavior even more easily.
- The dog can slip into the so-called learned helplessness, which means that it bends to its fate and takes the path of least resistance, which usually testifies to chronic stress.
- The dog is becoming more and more frustrated because it cannot meet its current needs. This opens other unwanted valves in our darling’s behavioral repertoire.
What does this mean in everyday life with the young dog?
- In training and everyday life, we should pay attention to prevent undesirable behavior and capture all desired behaviors with the help of the marker signal and reward them adequately.
- Let your dog act once and increasingly reinforce the behavior he shows, because before every unwanted behavior, the dog shows what is desired!
- Try to increase and tighten your dog’s frustration tolerance to a healthy degree. A list of priorities is very helpful because the resource “impulse control” in the dog’s brain, which is responsible for self-control, is not endlessly resilient! The “impulse control potty” is exhausted at some point!
Therefore, focus the dog’s self-control on situations in which the triggers result in an increased level of arousal. This does not necessarily include waiting in front of the food bowl or “walking” for minutes, but rather encounters with fellow species and / or various everyday situations. Here, important aids are “pointing & naming” and training relaxation signals.
- In order to be able to restore emotional balance in challenging training situations, it is advisable to work on the dog’s arousal level with conditioned relaxation signals.
- Bring your dog closer to the world with a lot of tact and support it in difficult learning, life and everyday situations.
- Accompany your youngster through this phase of life with a lot of understanding and fun.
- Take a step back in training and adjust your expectations by reducing the performance claim to the dog. Consolidate what your dog has learned so far and give him security!
- Try to integrate exercises, occupations and rewards into everyday life and training in such a way that you meet your dog’s needs (e.g. allow distance to be increased) in order not to overuse the arousal and frustration behavior.
- Work on your tolerance, patience and understanding for the young fur children!
Finally, something personal from our junior. Levin is still our class clown and our endearing terror crumble! We have really good days and also less good days. The knowledge of this biologically necessary process makes it a lot easier for us to deal with and deal with it every day! No, Levin has no foolishness and we certainly don’t put adolescence as an excuse.
Learning theoretical background knowledge is necessary to understand the youngster because its physical and mental development ticks differently than we imagine in our wish.