Monday, June 5, 2023

Developmental Stages in Adolescents

Common Fears that seem to pop up at various ages.

This section is based on my own observations of hundreds of dogs over the last 30 yrs. I've never seen any scientific studies that break it down like this.

4-6 months old

Puppies when they hit this stage are suddenly afraid of anything new they have never seen before which could be a person of a different race, gender, or wearing a different style of clothing the dog was not socialized to or it could be something more common such as a flag blowing in the wind or a prey animal on a trail. The science behind this shows us that a puppy's field of vision nearly doubles at this age so before the fear period they only noticed distractions that were 10-15 feet away on average and now suddenly they see distractions that are 20-30 feet away. This means the fire hydrant we've been passing on our walk for the last month is suddenly a scary object because they are literally seeing it for the first time unless we've made a point of approaching those items asking our dog to investigate them before this stage hits. 

Nature has created this stage in our puppy's life as an exploration stage where they start to explore their world a bit more, often going away from "mom" a bit further. The world around them starts to open up which is why puppies start to struggle more with distractions and their recall begins to fade away. Before this stage hits, puppies were hardwired to stay close to mom and the other puppies because there is safety in numbers. At this stage, they start wandering further away as the distractions of the world become more interesting, exploring becomes more rewarding, and adventures start to happen.

8-10 months old

Adolescents  commonly start focusing more on sounds in their environment then they ever did before. Now that garbage truck that has drove down our road every week, suddenly becomes more of a distraction or that person they now hear talking inside your phone is troublesome. This is often when sound phobias develop! Granted sound phobias can develop any time in life, especially after a traumatic event involving a loud sound. But this particular age is when our dog's sense if hearing expands. Many dogs can hear sounds that are around 1 mile away, which is much farther then us humans can hear. The distance that a dog can hear grows rapidly at this age with some dogs having such strong hearing that they recognize common sounds up to 8 miles away.  My German Shepherds always knew the sound of my car crossing the railroad tracks that are roughly 5 miles away (as the crow flies) from our house! They always asked to go outside at this moment so they were waiting on the porch for me when I pulled in.

This makes it hard for us to pinpoint a sound that our dogs might be afraid of. Instead we often notice more subtle sounds like a dog tilting their head as if they are trying to figure out where a noise is coming from or suddenly barking when there is nothing that we can find that causes the barking. We can help our dogs by teaching them what sounds we find more interesting and are a call to action vs what sounds we don't find interesting.

Let's think about a knock on the door for a minute...Some of us want our dogs to bark or give us an alert when someone knocks on the door yet others don't want our dogs barking for every single knock. Susan Garrett has a great podcast about the "boring or non-event knocking" to help our dogs learn that when we hear a knock nothing exciting happens. Naturally in life, someone knocks on our door and our dogs and us rush to see who it is and spring into action, either greeting enthusiastically or trying to scare them away. Susan's approach to this is to get neighbors, friends or family to knock at your door and simply walk away. You do nothing and reward the dog for choosing to stay with you and do nothing instead of unintentionally rewarding the dog by allowing them to greet a friend at the door. We can also ask our visitors to call or text us when they arrive instead of knocking at the door to prevent our dogs from building the association that a knock means something exciting is about to happen. Once a dog becomes desensitized to the knock we don't have to follow this somewhat silly but effective practice. We can apply this type of training to nearly any sound that our dogs might find fearful during this young adolescent fear stage.

12 months - The Happy Birthday Stage

Moving from adolescence to young adult stage, most dogs will go through a fear period around 12 months old and possibly again around 16 months old that is quite possibly the scariest of stages where that fear causes a trauma that can last a lifetime. Yet this is also the stage where we as owners start to let down our guard and stop trying to protect our young dogs during this stage. If we've done our job right up to this point our dogs tend to recover more quickly from slight fears at this stage so we really only notice the fear develop when there is something ongoing that is happening multiple times. A common one is being rushed or attacked by other dogs! The first time it happens at this age, our dogs recover but the more it happens the longer and harder it becomes to recover. At this time anything traumatic can be very challenging to overcome. And surprise, surprise...this is often the stage where many dogs will show behaviors that people label as reactive, resource guarding, aggressive, etc. Dogs of this age are still trying to figure out their world and how they should act in certain situations, so if we as owners keep setting them up to fail by exposing them to trauma after trauma during this stage they begin it react in defensive ways trying to keep themselves or their resources safe.

With my experience and understanding of canine body language I did all I could to protect Azul's optimism at this stage. We stopped going to dog parks and playing with dogs we didn't know that well, instead focusing on playing with a few special friends as often as possible. Azul has had 2 bad experiences that could have impacted his feelings of other dogs. I think that's quite amazing that this number isn't higher. Truth is we've simply avoided doing anything that could lead to a bad interaction with other dogs. Now that Azul is an adult, I can use him as a demo dog to help fearful dogs learn to build better skills of teamwork with their person.

Of course I still do my best to protect Azul's optimism as an adult. But thanks to his resilient nature, I don't worry about dog interactions as much as I did when he was an adolescent. As team we now have the skills to keep each other safe by avoiding the interaction with unknown dogs.

(Edit for Update: After Azul turned 3 and really slowly down he lost interest in playing with adolescent dogs, especially males. He doesn't care for the energy level young adolescent males often put off. It's that same energy that would have gotten Azul into trouble. Needless to say, I'm back to closely monitoring Azul's interactions with unknown dogs and especially adolescent males 10-20 months old.)

Azul also is resilient when it comes to seeing/smelling changes in the environment and hearing sudden loud sounds.  Part of this is simply the genes he was given. But a great deal of his resilient nature comes from my understanding of the stages detailed above and being able to set up for success as Azul entered each stage. 

While he's great with sudden loud sounds, Azul doesn't appreciate loud environments with non-stop noise such as indoor events with DJ's or large numbers of children. He is resilient enough to work through most things but can become overwhelmed if I ask him to get too close to longer lasting noises. This is also a development that happened after 3 yrs old. The young adult life stage from 2-3 yrs old comes with a few additional challenges, but it's nothing compared to the crazy adolescence that happens from 1-2yrs old.

My goal as a Canine Coach is to help you learn to overcome your roadblocks and develop a strong team with the dog you love.

Understanding Adolescents Series

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