Why Our Teen Dogs Struggle With Resilience

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

Why Our Teen Dogs Struggle With Resilience

September 20, 2023 Uncategorised 0

It’s not a surprise that many shelters, behaviour consultants and dog trainers see a lot of adolescent dogs. It’s almost inevitable that the perfect pup that seemed to have made such a great start with life then seems to struggle later on.

This is more obvious, of course, if our dogs did not have the best of starts in life.

Genetic factors become more obvious in the teenage period. While most dog behaviour is 100% the same as other dogs, problem behaviours often appear in strangely specific ways. For our breeds in the Western world, these often appear as breed-specific behaviours. It’s not uncommon for example for shepherds and collies to struggle around movement. Once they hit adolescence those struggles can intensify.

Sub-optimal prenatal stress can also make its presence clear during the teen period.

When the mother has been stressed post-natally, that can also affect behaviour in later life for our puppies. How the mother cares for the puppies makes a huge difference to how they behave as teenage dogs.

Then there is the famous puppy socialisation period. During this time, fears are established and our puppies learn that life can sometimes be scary. They also learn how to cope with stress too.

The only problem is that we don’t notice these are a problem until we hit adolescence.

As our dogs hit adolescence, we realise the cumulative effect of these vital pieces.

Adolescent behaviour

Canine adolescence is not clearly defined. Because breeds and individuals hit adolescence at different times, it makes it difficult for us to identify.

Worse, the canine reproductive patterns are very different from other animals in the canid family. For wolves, dingoes, jackals and coyotes, social maturity comes before sexual maturity.

In other words, your sex hormones only kick in when you have the social skills to handle them.

In fact, in wolves, female sex hormones trigger male sex hormones. Female sex hormones are also linked to seasonal patterns based partly around the length of the day. Other female wolves in the pack may not even come into season around the breeding female. Sexual maturity is the final piece in the puzzle, leading to dispersal from the family group to find a mate.

Not so with dogs. Female dogs can have more than one season per year. This is a normal part of domestication. They aren’t exclusive with their mating partners in mainly monogamous pairings either. Domesticated dogs are largely promiscuous, whereas wild canids are largely monogamous. Unlike wild canids, dogs can reproduce well before they reach social maturity. Not unlike humans, in fact! We too reach sexual maturity before social maturity.

What this means is that our bodies rage with sex hormones before our prefrontal cortex is able to modulate and regulate social behaviour.

The huge differences in reproductive behaviour of dogs compared to wild canids is perhaps one of the most significant factors in canine behaviour. This is especially true since artificial selection for breeds also plays a role in the onset of sexual maturity.

The effect of adolescence

Because we don’t have a clear understanding of exactly when sex hormones will begin to influence our dog’s behaviour and because there is such variation, this makes it hard for us to define exactly when adolescence starts. We also don’t have a very clear understanding of when social maturity starts either.

In fact, in-house fights or conflict can give us a bit of a clue.

There’s a peak around 7-9 months. Dr Ian Dunbar refers to this as ‘losing the puppy licence’. All the things our puppies used to get away with may no longer be tolerated by other dogs in the home. Older dogs seem to lose their patience with younger dogs.

There’s also a peak around three years. There’s scant literature about in-home conflict, but in my own case history, this is where a younger adult dog will get into a fight with an older dog. This seems to happen anywhere from 2 years 6 months through to 4 years.

I think this tells us a lot about when sexual maturity happens according to our dogs, and when social maturity happens.

This period is not clearly defined physiologically, but also behaviourally. There’s no clock that strikes on the eve of adolescence and we notice immediate and dramatic changes in behaviour. Likewise, no bell rings to mark the arrival at social maturity and adulthood.

That makes it hard to know exactly when adolescence is. It’s also led some trainers to dismiss canine adolescence as a modern invention. Just as they say the teenager was ‘invented’ in the 1950s, they believe it’s just a construct. It’s nothing more than a fiction to explain behaviour.

Personally, I think that needing a fiction to explain behaviour means we’re noticing changes that require some kind of explanation.

Physiological changes

Sex hormones interact with growth hormones. They impact on development. We’re now beginning to understand this, which is why we’re moving away from precocial sterilisation. Having attended a highly charged vet conference about early sterilisation, I can say that the thing that struck me the most were the explanations about the interplay of sex hormones with growth hormones.

Now we’re much more cautious about sterilising before the first season or before our dogs reach physical maturity.

At the same time, this also means we’re having to navigate teenage behaviour in ways we never used to.

Nevertheless, we know that dogs can smell sex hormones. It’s about the only way wild canids have to communicate that they’d like to mate rather than harm one another. Of course dogs are different from wolves. However, we don’t exactly know how those sex hormones affect them. I will say anecdotally that being in a shelter, unsterilised females almost always come into season the week they arrive around unsterilised males. There’s also a spike in bites during that time from both sterilised and unsterilised males.

If you’re studying frustration in the lab, the easiest way to cause it in animals is to have an in-season female separated from an intact male and then to introduce another male into the arrangement. Sex hormones alter behaviour.

The HPA axis or ‘stress’ axis is also more easily aroused during adolescence too.

Behavioural changes

There are plenty of other behavioural changes too. We have to be careful not to generalise from human experiences about adolescence, but most studies about adolescence in animals have taken place with rodents and primates, so we still have a lot to learn about how it impacts dogs.

Across mammals, adolescence is marked by several changes in behaviour. Adolescents seek our rewards more frequently. They also seek out novelty and sensation more frequently. Variety is also highly rewarding and they habituate to things more easily too.

Adolescents of different species also take risks. It’s almost as if the brain temporarily takes the risk-averse bits offline a bit so that you’ll go off and disperse and do all the things you’ll need to do. There’s reasons adolescent humans are all keen to go to university several hundred miles away and end up getting alcohol poisoning on Freshers’ week.

Social interactions in the family group become frustrating. There are more interactions beyond the family too. Social facilitation of behaviour by peers is more likely as well.

And just to make it really fun, adolescent mammals get really sensitive to rewards, but they’re also sensitive to punishment as well. That means incentives are more appealing but adolescents can also get bored of them more quickly. They can be very sensitive to perceived punishments or corrections as well.

Fine motor movements take a hit too. This means our dogs come across as socially awkward sometimes, as well as physically awkward.

Emotional changes

Our adolescent dogs can struggle to regulate their emotions because of the ways in which the teenage brain behaves. The parts responsible for inhibition and holding back in social situations can get a bit jammed in terms of how much they influence other parts of the brain.

Adolescent mammals are more likely to perceive neutral stimuli as threatening as well. This causes them to interpret neutral things as potentially threatening and respond in kind. Ironically, they’re also more likely to take their sweet time reading truly dangerous situations. Yes, they are going around seeing threat where none is intended, and they are ignoring actual danger.

Seeing a strange dog they’ve never met before is more likely to get their hackles rising. But a dog growling in their face is more likely to go ignored.

It’s not just about the negative emotions.

Positive experiences like joy and excitement just don’t float their boat in the same way that they did. The things they used to do that gave them pleasure just don’t give the same feelings any more.

They also have more exaggerated responses to threat as well. We can end up seeing a lot of disproportionate responses which we really did not expect.

Cognitive changes

Although we cannot separate out cognition from behaviour, emotion and physiology, we can say that many cognitive processes are subtly different in adolescence. For instance, responding to complex situations is tougher. Working memory is affected. Executive function is affected. When there are two goals or two things on offer, they can really struggle over which one they want to dedicate behavioural resources to.

So that time you ask them not to chase the cat is more challenging for their brain because they have competing goals: respond to you and have social rewards, or chase the cat and have physiological rewards.

This affects how easily frustrated they become and can also cause impulsive responses.

Adolescents also struggle to handle cognitive load. The more challenging the task, the less likely they are to be able to handle it. That means they sometimes ignore physiological signs like hunger, tiredness or even the need for the toilet because they are focused on other things, but also can mean that they can’t cope when asked for simple behaviours if they’re hungry, tired or in need of the toilet.

Life is tough for adolescents!

How we can help

First, think prevention rather than solutions. Expecting our dogs to become teenagers can mitigate some of the shock. Instead of marvelling at how wonderful our 4-month-old puppy is, we need to be building strong foundation behaviours and strong relationships. Those things will carry us through.

We also need to be mindful that if there are other vulnerabilities, our dogs will need support more than others.

We can’t afford to be complacent or for smug dismissal.

Second, we need to work a little differently with our adolescent dogs. That means varying rewards and reducing corrections. An errorless learning environment is vital. Giving our dogs ample space to succeed is important, and rewarding heavily.

We can’t wrap our dogs up in cotton wool, either. The given treatment plan for dogs afflicted with a case of the teens is to remove them from all experiences. Instead of teaching them to cope, we simply avoid life.

This just passes problems down the line.

It’s not that teenagers can’t learn. I know. I work with human teenagers as well as canine ones. It’s not that they don’t want to learn. It’s just that we need to change what we’re doing a little, and instead of backing off with rewards, we need to step them up again.

Also, because they’re not good at reading themselves, we need to read the world for them. Giving them more space to make decisions can help.

Yes, we do need to be a bit more considerate about the kind of activities we do with our dogs, especially where social factors are concerned, but this is not to say we can’t take them out places or do anything with them.

Secondary fear periods?

In the dog world, there is a lot of talk about secondary fear periods. The way some people talk, it’s as if the whole period of adolescence – from 7 months to 4 years – is a giant period of vulnerability where the smallest incident can derail your dog for life.

Ironically, in research across mammalian species, there is no discussion of such fear periods. The only place these ‘secondary fear periods’ are discussed is by dog trainers and canine behaviour consultants. They also tend to reference each other as ‘evidence’ of such a phenomenon.

So is there any truth in such a concept?

It’s certain that the brain undergoes a conceptual leap and that many adolescent mammals have periods of cognitive development from 9-12 months which can give rise to behaviour change. Most cognitive developmental stages happen between birth and 8 weeks, but there is a further developmental period in early adolescence in dogs which has not been well studied and is not well understood. Much of this actually relates to object permanence and separation rather than ‘fear’ as such.

One way we might understand this developmental process is moving from fears about the integrity of the self to fears about the integrity of the group. From the little evidence in comparative studies, it’s not a stage many species go through. It may relate only to social species, since cats don’t seem to have this final cognitive development. Sadly, it’s not a phenomenon that has been well-studied in dogs, and there may be breed differences too.

What it isn’t is a prolonged period of sensitivity.

When guardians have pointed to experiences in notional secondary fear periods ‘traumatising’ their dogs, there’s almost always other factors that have contributed to the situation.

Non-linear development of fear

Fear does not progress on a linear model: it creeps at times and leaps at others.

And not all fears are created equal. Social fears might leap at the same time as separation fears in early puppyhood, but then their progression may deviate.

Adolescence does seem to affect two processes: how we learn to be afraid, and how we learn not to. These processes do not always parallel each other.

One thing definitely happens in adolescence: the regulatory processes of the prefrontal cortex get lots of signals from the amygdala, but the amygdala doesn’t get as many back. This makes it harder for adolescents to learn safety. In other words, adolescents may well acquire fears at a normal rate, but they’re not quite as good at learning when they’re safe.

This has a cumulative effect for mammals (well, rodents…) who experienced separation from their mother at critical periods or who had poor maternal care. In other words, if your puppy had stressful separations from their mother between 3-8 weeks, then adolescence is the time that you’ll be most likely to see the consequences of that (Moriceau and Sullivan, 2006; Callaghan and Richardson, 2012).

Adolescence has an impact in the kind of training dogs will need to overcome fears. Early in life, there is some evidence that fears can be effectively ‘erased’ much more easily, but during adolescence, we have our work cut out. It takes longer. It needs more repetitions. It’s more likely to come back.

It’s not necessarily that adolescents are more prone to fears, perhaps that they’re just harder to push back against (Hartley and Lee, 2014). This may well account for the fact that most anxiety disorders (in humans anyway) have an onset in adolescence. Treating them in adolescence is harder too.

So what can we do?

First, we need to understand whether the animal we’re working with has other vulnerabilities. Knowing this can help us construct more sensitive experiences for them prior to adolescence. This will impact on many adolescent dogs, from those surrendered to a shelter or born in a puppy farm to those purpose-bred for working behaviours such as responsiveness and trainability. Wherever the emotional traits of the parents and grandparents have not been considered, it’s likely puppies will be more susceptible to stress.

When we know this, this means we can truly investigate those developmental stages efficiently. That will better inform our lives with dogs.

Second, we can be mindful of the fact that it is harder for adolescents to overcome fear. This is not to say it is impossible. However, we do need to understand that we’ll need more trials over weeks and months, that fear learning is likely to return and that we’ll need to practise in a range of contexts.

Knowing that fears are likely to return means that we are prepared for that eventuality, rather than thinking our adolescent dog can go on to become a robust and resilient individual having conquered all their fears.

They may never come back. That’d be ace. But if they do, we’re prepared. Rather than thinking that our methods have failed, we can be reassured that this is normal and we just need to do what we did last time to support our dogs.

We also need to be mindful that we need critical support skills and that this is our job.

Social support

Like humans, dogs are social mammals. None of us are designed to be Superman or Superwoman, or even SuperDog. Together, we are mighty. Working together to support each other is our critical evolutionary strength.

Instead of expecting our dogs to thrive as individuals if only we take things easy and give them time and space, we need to step up and accept responsibility for our dog’s support.

As teenagers, my social group supported each other. We stopped each other making terrible mistakes where we could and we walked each other home. American spiritual author Ram Dass used that phrase as a metaphor for our connected journey through life and into death. My teen friends walked me home and I walked them home very literally.

Sometimes we need a little reminder that our exploratory teen years need support and safety. Having a dog out on the end of a lead and expecting them to make sense of the world by themselves isn’t enough.

Instead of viewing our adolescent dogs as less resilient or struggling, it’s helpful to consider our role in supporting them as interspecies companions.

You can learn more about that support on this short webinar: The Resilience Roadmap and you can download the free Lighten Up Resilience Roadmap here

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