Sunday, September 17, 2023

Getting Help for Your Crazy Canine Adolescent!

Reasons Why You Should Get Help Training Your Adolescent Dog!
Understand how nature plays a role in the developing brain during adolescence.
If we look how human adolescents behave or think about the things we did as a teenager, it's often easier to understand why our dogs are doing the crazy things they are doing. Yet adolescence is often the time when most dogs end up in shelters or being rehomed. Dogs enter adolescence around 6-8 months and most mature somewhere between 18-24 months, while XL breeds and high drive sporting breeds tend to mature closer to 3 yrs old. People simply don't understand why their dog is doing these things either for the first time or repeating behaviors that had been worked on but are not getting better. This is the #1 reason to get help from a trainer during this time! 

Beware of the trainer that tells you they can stop a behavior quickly with tools. Seek a trainer that can help you understand why your dog is doing those behaviors and teach you how you can support your dog during this challenging stage.

Here are some common adolescent challenges and how a skilled trainer can help you work through them.

Impulse Control
As nature walks your dog through various developmental stages, their brain basically becomes scrambled. Often dogs make bad decisions here, generally leading to self reinforcing behavior such as grabbing that food off the counter while no one is looking. You may have started training them not to jump on counters as soon as they were tall enough to reach, but suddenly it's become a recurring problem. Adolescents often lack the ability to make good choices when something is tempting. That guilty look they give you when you use a scolding tone of voice or physical punishment is not really guilt, but more of an appeasement behavior a dog would give another dog if they felt threatened. Punishment works to stop behaviors but never teaches a dog what the right behaviors or good choices are. A good trainer can give you multiple games to play to help teach your dog to control their impulses and make better choices. 
Puppies are basically hardwired to stay close to their mom and littermates, per the whole safety in numbers philosophy. Yet adolescents are going through changes that encourage them to spread out, meet new friends (or make new enemies), find their own food, and explore the environment. This doesn't happen over night! Nature has laid out this plan to slowly develop as the dog learns how to survive in their growing and changing world. This process can cause a dog to go through heightened periods of fear while the brain is literally adding new neural pathways. A dog might suddenly become fearful of anything "new" in their environment. Your pup might have seemed totally confident walking around Halloween decorations but suddenly they are afraid of the Christmas decorations because they are new during a time of heightened fear. 

One of the biggest misconceptions out there is that if you reward a dog for barking at something then turning back to you, then you're teaching them to bark. Yet most commonly adolescents bark because they are afraid of something. You can't reinforce fear! But you CAN support that fear by being a person your dog feels safe coming back to when something scary happens. You CAN teach your dog to follow you away from extra scary things that surprise both of you. You CAN help your dog learn to process scary things when it is safe to do so. A good trainer can teach you how to support your dog through these stages of heightened fear responses.

Boldness or Bravery
Along with periods of increased fear, your adolescent will also have stages where they feel stronger than their are. This is similar to human teenagers who feel invincible and ready to take on the world. For dogs this can lead to increasing intensity during play which can easily escalate to a fight between friends. This bravery can also lead to extra barking, lunging, and pulling on the leash to try to reach distractions such as people, other dogs, wildlife, etc.

A good trainer can help you determine if your dog's behavior is naturally developing according to their age or if it seems to be extreme or something to worry about. Plus a good trainer will teach you the skills to better handle these situations to prevent injury to yourself, your dog, and/or other animals.
Environmental Processing
Just like human teenagers seek freedom to explore the world around them, adolescent dogs need to explore their world too. As dog owners, we control how large that world really is. A working farm with lots of land might teach a dog the farm boundaries are the edge of their world where dogs never leave the farm except maybe a trip to the vet. Owners who live in more urban settings often walk their dogs more starting with their neighborhood and branching room to other places often  including visits to other locations such as camping, friend's houses, hiking trails, etc. Service Dog owners have the largest worlds of all dog owners, needing their dog to be resilient in a wide variety of environments.

It's during adolescence when our dogs are learning how to do risk assessments for their world. What in their world causes potential danger? A farm dog might have to learn to avoid the tractor or horses. A city dog might have to learn to avoid traffic. Service Dogs are often taught to avoid specific things based on their person's needs. 

Along with learning what needs to be avoided, adolescents learn what is simply so normal that they can ignore it and what is going to bring them pleasure or enjoyment like going to visit Grandma and Grandpa who always have yummy snacks.

With all the things that dogs learn by processing the environment, this is the most common mistake dog owners make by not letting their dog have enough time to process things in the environment. A good trainer can teach you how to do this safely to help your dog learn these lessons without repeating or practicing undesired behaviors.

Preventing Undesired Behaviors 
We all know adolescents, both human and canine, lack the ability to make good choices all the time and are prone to choosing things with instant gratification instead of options with delayed reinforcement. Human parents set limits for their adolescents, perhaps adult supervised parties only. In the dog world that might be playdates with friends instead of free-for-alls at the dog park. A huge adolescent challenge I deal with regularly is pulling on the leash which can be totally prevented when we change the way we go on walks. 

The more practice our dogs have doing undesired behaviors, the harder it becomes to change their minds by encouraging acceptable behaviors. If you got away with stealing and eating your favorite food (chocolate in my case) and your parents tried to keep you from stealing by offering you vegetables, no matter how much you loved vegetables that simply wouldn't work. With a human picky eater, adults would simply stop having the junk food available hoping to encourage the teen to make better choices. This is similar to the dog who steals food off the counter. The more self reinforcement they receive from this thievery, the harder it will be to teach them to avoid that counter. As dog owners, we can keep those counters clean until we can teach the dog that more rewarding things happen on other surfaces, teach the dog impulse control, and manage their access to the kitchen counters until they are better able to make good choices.

Whatever challenge your having with your adolescent dog, a good trainer can teach you how to set up for success, avoiding chances to practice undesired behaviors while you teach the dog to do the behaviors you desire.

Moral of this post:
If you're struggling with behaviors your adolescent dog is doing, seek help from a skilled trainer as soon as possible. Don't walk! Run to you closest force free trainer for help before the problem becomes out of control, you become frustrated with your dog, and your dog fails to learn how to navigate their world the way nature intended!

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