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Smells Like Teen Spirit

What to expect when your pandemic puppy becomes an unruly adolescent.

by Karen B. London, PhD
January 18, 2022
German Shepherd puppy pulling at a branch
Samantha Gehrmann / Stocksy

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After months of feeling like you won the lottery with your seemingly perfect puppy, that same dog — the one who made your heart swell with love and pride — is now doing their best to drive you crazy. Newsflash: You’ve got an adolescent on your hands. Like so many people who got a pandemic puppy, the puppy stage is behind you, and you’re on to a new adventure entirely. You might be wondering, “What’s up with all the unwelcome behavior changes?”

The behavior of adolescent dogs can be frustrating for owners, much like the teenage years are for parents. One big difference, though, is that most parents expect trouble during this stage; the universal experience of dealing with teens is well understood. Conversely, many owners are completely surprised by the behavior of their adolescent dogs. That’s unfortunate because much of it is completely predictable, and knowing what to expect (and knowing that it’s normal!) will make it so much easier to accept your dog’s new behavior.

What to Expect and How to Deal

1. Independence

People are often surprised by the sudden independence of their adolescent dog. Gone is the shadow pup whose first choice of where to be was always right next to you. Dogs emerging from the puppy stage tend to explore more, wander further from you than they used to, and care less about keeping you in sight.

It’s hard to see your dog acting independently like this because it can feel like they don’t need you — or even as if they don’t love you as much. Don’t let it get you down; despite these behavioral changes, your dog loves and needs you just as much as ever...but also likes to do their own thing and follow their nose. (I don’t know who needs to read this again, but your dog still loves and needs you.)

2. Being Less Responsive to Cues

Often, adolescent dogs seem to have forgotten everything you worked so hard to teach them. They ignore cues, respond to them more slowly, or act as though they forget what some of them mean at all. I know it’s difficult, but don’t take it personally. What feels like a training setback is completely normal in adolescence, so try not to settle into gloom and doom or feel like all is lost. Your puppy is just growing up, and this, too, shall pass.

Even if you know to expect it (and especially if you don’t), it can be quite a shock the first time your adolescent dog acts like they didn’t even hear you at all. It’s demoralizing, after months of enjoying your gleeful puppy running to you when you cheerily call out, “Come!”, to see no such enthusiasm. You gave the cue just like you have so many times before, you’re all ready to reinforce your dog with great treats or a chase game, and what happens? There’s no reaction — none at all, not even an ear twitch. Sigh. That perfect recall that brought you such pride seems to have disappeared.

The same dog who sat in a heartbeat when asked now looks at you as though considering their options: “Yeah, I heard you, but I’m simply not interested in doing that right now.” Don’t be surprised if you give a cue your dog knows well and the response is a blank look as though they’re completely unfamiliar with this cue or the behavior associated with it. Remind yourself that all the work you’ve put into training your puppy will pay off later. Your well-trained, responsive puppy will mature into a well-trained, responsive adult, even if the adolescent in between bears little resemblance to either.

Training Program

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3. Increased Fearfulness

As dogs approach the one-year mark, many temporarily become more fearful. Dogs who begin to act skittish or nervous but were previously confident are probably entering this developmentally normal fear period. They may shy away from people with hats or sunglasses...or masks. A toddler shrieking and running in towards them may prompt your dog to run the other way.

The majority of dogs move past this fear period without any lasting effects, just as kids stop being afraid of monsters under the bed once they move past that developmental stage. We can help all our dogs cope better by staying calm, resisting the urge to panic, and talking to the dog in a cheerful way. Don’t force them to approach or interact with anything or anyone that unnerves them, and pair up their triggers with something that makes them happy such as great treats or toys.

4. Other Dogs Setting Clear Boundaries

Some sweet adult dogs indulge puppies by doing nothing when the little one nibbles on their ears or bats at their nose, takes their toy or uses their tail like one, or tries to play when the adult dog is clearly ready for a snooze. When the puppy approaches adolescence, the adult dog is likely to let their young friend know that this behavior is no longer acceptable.

Adult dogs often set boundaries with adolescent dogs, perhaps growling if the younger dog is being a pest, using their paw to swat at the them, or even nipping with a gentle bite over their muzzle. Most young dogs quickly learn what is allowed and what is not. An adult dog who gently offers young dogs a good social education is an asset. “Gentle” is a crucial word here. It’s essential that the adult strike the right balance — firm but not rough. The adult dog should be guiding the younger one, never scaring or hurting them, but simply letting them know that their “puppy license” has expired and there are new expectations about how to act now.

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

It’s common to be ready for the trials of puppies (potty training, sleepless nights, chewing your shoes) but completely unprepared to cope with the challenges of living with an adolescent dog. The fact is even the sweetest puppy in the world is likely to try your patience as they develop from a puppy into an adult. But if you know what to expect, you are far more likely to enjoy this stage and create many happy memories during it. It can be great — adolescent dogs are typically full of fun, full of life, and eager to play. Don’t let the tough bits keep you from enjoying adolescence as a time of intense joy and ample adventures.

Karen London holding up a small dog

Karen B. London, PhD

Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.