Do Adolescent Dogs Act Like Rebellious Human Teenagers?
Unruly behavior isn't only common in teenage humans but also in adolescent dogs.
Posted Jun 16, 2020
"Isabel has turned into a disobedient, edgy brat. She is no longer my perfect puppy who always does what I ask her to. She will sometimes just sit there and ignore my commands and sometimes even turn her back on me and walk away. I am getting really frustrated with her." Isabel is a smallish black Labrador Retriever with an appealing face, and her frustrated person, Mary Jane, is the wife of one of my colleagues at the University.
Isabel was the first dog that Mary Jane had ever owned, so I had recommended that she enroll her in a puppy class. It was there that Isabel proved to be somewhat of a star in terms of her quick and reliable obedience. The family's plan was to enroll her in a regular dog obedience class at the end of the summer and perhaps have her compete in dog trials.
I said to Mary Jane, in what I hoped was a reassuring tone, "Don't panic. Isabel is just going through her teenage stage." I recollected that she had two children who had just entered University so I attempted to incorporate them into the conversation. "Try to remember what happened when your kids were just entering their teens. They were pretty rebellious, as I recall, and you frequently had to ground them for disobedient and risky behavior. Well, that's pretty much what is going on with Isabel right now and she should grow out of it."
During the conversation, I was basing my comments on the collected wisdom of many dog trainers and behaviorists who felt that dogs, like humans, go through a "teenage" period of rebellion. However, if that same conversation occurred again today, I would now be able to refer to some recent scientific data collected by a team of researchers headed by Lucy Asher, a behavioral scientist in the School of Natural and Environmental Sciences at Newcastle University in the UK. It confirms the behavioral similarities between adolescent humans and adolescent dogs.
Adolescence is an extended period of time when a child develops into an adult both behaviorally and reproductively. For humans, this can start at around the age of nine and extend into the early twenties. The most significant event which occurs during the middle of adolescence is puberty, when the individual becomes sexually mature and able to reproduce. It is around this period of time that we are most likely to see what we tend to call "teenage behaviors." Behavioral maturity comes much later, at the end of adolescence.
There is a lot going on in the human adolescent since his or her juvenile brain is being remodeled into an adult brain, and while all of this neural growth and rearrangement is occurring, the teenager's body and nervous system are being doused with surges of new and powerful hormones which can impact their behavior. The most common behavioral changes that are seen in human teenagers include disobedience toward their parents which may be the result of a reduced ability to control their impulses and their emotions, plus an increase in sensitivity and irritability.
Dogs also go through adolescent changes in their physiology over a period of around 6 to 12 months of age. It is during this period of time that 95% of female dogs have their first season and tests show that the vast majority of male dogs become fertile during this same age interval.
To study the behavioral changes during the canine "teenage" period, the team followed a group of guide dog puppies (German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, and Golden Retrievers plus mixes of these breeds) over the first year of their life. They wanted to see whether the dog-owner relationship would parallel the parent-child relationship in humans.
The methods that they used involved collecting data through a combination of behavioral questionnaires completed both by the caregivers (who are standing in for parents at this stage) and dog trainers. This gave them data on 285 dogs which was combined with behavioral tests of 69 dogs from the same sample. Data was collected when the dogs were 5 months of age (which should be preadolescent), 8 months of age (which should be right in the middle of the "teenage" puberty phase) and 12 months of age (which should be pretty much at the end of the adolescent phase for most of the dogs).
In the questionnaires, the dogs' obedience was measured by a series of questions such as "Needs obedience commands repeated to get a response" or "Refuses to obey commands, which in the past it was proven it has learned." In behavioral testing, obedience was determined by the number of commands required to elicit the desired response — here it was "Sit!" since all of the dogs had mastered that command by 5 months of age.
The results were quite clear, in that there was a significant reduction in dog obedience in the middle of the adolescent period (8 months of age) compared to the dog's behavior preadolescence (5 months) or at the end of adolescence (12 months). In behavioral tests during the puberty period, it was more than twice as likely that the dog would require multiple commands before it responded. This rebellion, however, was specific to the dog's caregiver, while relative strangers, such as the dog's trainer, did not experience such behavioral opposition.
Studies on parent-child relationships in humans have shown that adolescent rebellion is much more severe if there is not a secure emotional attachment between the caregiver and the teenager. In this study, the emotional attachment between the caregiver and the dog was determined by questions such as, "Becomes agitated (whines, jumps up, tries to intervene) when you show affection for another dog or animal." The results paralleled that normally obtained for humans in that the dogs that were less securely emotionally attached to their caregivers were the ones who were most likely to behave in a disobedient manner.
However, it is essential to note that this teenage rebellious period does not mark an enduring behavioral shift. As lead researcher Lucy Asher points out, "Perhaps the most important thing to note for dog owners is that these behaviour changes were a passing phase. By the time dogs were 12 months old, their behaviour had returned to how they were before puberty, or in most cases, had improved."
This result has vital implications since it is during this adolescent period, when the dog is no longer a cute little puppy, and the owners now find that they are being challenged and can no longer reliably control their dog that a crisis can occur. Statistics show that it is during this "teenage" phase that dogs are most likely to be surrendered to shelters. Punishment will not stop the dog's disobedience only maturity will. We must simply remember that, just as in the case of teenage children, the dog is going through a phase and it will pass.
Anecdotal support for this is that Isabel went on to become a well-loved family member and even earned the obedience title of CD by the time she was two years of age.
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Asher L, England GCW, Sommerville R, Harvey ND. (2020). Teenage dogs? Evidence for adolescent-phase conflict behaviour and an association between attachment to humans and pubertal timing in the domestic dog. Biology Letters. 16: 20200097. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2020.0097