What do I do and what does that mean?
A lot of people will say “oh it’s a fear stage” or be more technical with it’s a “secondary fear stage”, dismissively saying, “that’s normal for their age.” But what does that actually mean for your dog and what can you do to help them?
Zella is just shy of 5 months, which means she’s being a bit “flighty” in response to things that have always been there but she seems to just be noticing. It started a few weeks ago when the owl hooting outside unnerved her, then a piece of foil on the floor was the biggest tarantula on the planet, and it took over an hour for her to gain the confidence to go and investigate having sat there and muttered at it for a while. Yesterday, it was the pigeons flapping as they came in to roost. The pain is real!
Puppy development has been well documented for years, especially those first few weeks as its easier to observe them. The theory hasn’t changed much, but our approach to helping them has changed dramatically. Some, who do not stay up to date with changes in approaches remain stuck in the old knowledge, but many others move with the research. Our understanding of animals is constantly evolving, just as our world does. What worked 50 years ago, won’t work now. The world is a different place. They don’t have the freedom they once had. We don’t either. Laws have changed. Societies priorities have changed, and somewhere we have forgotten our four legged friends are having to catch up. Try to remember how long it has taken dogs to evolve to live with humans! A little patience is needed. They are doing their best!
Add in all the contradictory advice online and it’s a very confusing time for people to own dogs. It’s interesting, in a recent paper written on this subject (Costa et al, 2023) they note a similar distrust for human professionals as seen in canine professionals. It’s not surprising really as there really is so much conflict in this industry. Its confusing for us as professionals, how on earth do you determine what is accurate? Ultimately you have to go with what your gut instincts tell you is right, not what is dictated to you! Try not to be led by strong marketing tactics or quick fix promises. Listen to that niggle that we have all started to forget exists. If it doesn't feel right, if the answer feels a bit like they read it out of a book...or off a script, they probably did!
Dogs experience various stages of development as they mature, just like humans. The first 2 years is often the hardest, especially the first year. 3 periods of development have been identified in the first year which explains the highs and lows we experience as owners. The first they experience right at the beginning – the primary period- up until about 16 days. Look how much learning they do in that first couple of weeks.
The next is the “socialisation” period which occurs between 3-12 weeks. (Right around when they come home. And finally, the one I want to talk about is the “juvenile” or “adolescence” period which lasts until they are about 12 months of age (Battaglia, 2009).
Between 12-18 months of age they may still be in that stage and there are peaks and troughs. Different research will vary slightly but generally these are the ages you’re likely to see things that you don’t know how to address come up. Personal observations see’s ups and downs between 6 months to 18 months specifically, and around 2 years old. Females often have changes of behaviours pre season and then in line with the phantom period 8-9 weeks after a season too. So nothing is set in stone. I tend to use the first 2 years as a guide for when they (and we) are most likely to struggle. It is not surprising that this is also the age where a lot of dogs are given up to rescue. It is a challenging time! But handled right, after this, it does get better!
A really interesting article compared the similarities between our “Kevin” humans and our dogs! Is it a thing? Having a 14 year old “Kevin” I really hope not! Now puppy ownership isn’t new to me, I know what to expect, but this time I am really really thinking about things and trying to share it with you. I wont bore you with the science, if you want to read it see Asher et al (2020) below. Skip to the conclusion if you don’t want to read it all. (For my academic friends, I know my referencing skills are lacking, but...meh!)
Anyhow, the area of adolescence of dogs anecdotally is a thing, but it is vastly understudied but we all know when they hit a certain age their behaviour changes.
You may notice that your previously well, and correctly socialised dog starts getting a bit worried around other dogs. Suddenly, they start to hesitate and avoid contact with other dogs when they are out, or back away from the neighbour they have known since they were a puppy. Often I see owners trying to reach forward to reassure them whilst your dog hides behind your legs or backs away.
They may bark at the sight of something random, like a traffic cone, a pnat farting or in Zella's case pigeons flapping in the tree. They may be less responsive when off lead and venture off following a scent or running up to a dog ignoring your calls. Oh and the one we love, suddenly chew your favourite boots or tv remote!
You are not alone! Your training was not a waste of time! It was a building block that needs some attention.
Sound familiar? Ok, so what do you do?
Go back to basics. (Yea, I hate saying that, but its true….but what do I actually mean?). I mean, teach them all over again, right from scratch. Don’t nag, TEACH. Don't over expose them, take it back a few steps, don't try to keep repeating the current experiences, make it easier for them to learn and understand. Try to remember socialisation is not about flooding them and forcing them into different things, it’s the ability to comfortably experience the world around them. They don’t need to interact with everything, they need to be comfortable with it and be able to walk on by without issue.
Often around this age people drift away from training, we generally see owners stop puppy classes at around 6 months, which is the worst time to stop. Its when they really need the help. We send our human children, despite protests, to school for nearly 20 years, but pups are lucky to get 6 months. A well run puppy class by an experienced trainer is worth its weight in gold. I often have people with young pups or pre-teens joining my barking courses, I love this as we work through the same processes except rather than having to work on undoing things, we are being proactive and building things from the ground up, whilst preparing them for those times that things get difficult. By arming ourselves, owners, with knowledge we can confidently surf the hormone wave.
So, what are the basics you ask?
Always start with confidence building. Re-teach them about the environment and build positive experiences in those environments. See my previous blog on body language. Remember it is their experience of what is good, not yours! We often misinterpret their worried signals for something else. As hard as it is, try not to humanise them. They learn through association, there is no spite, no revenge, they're just being dogs. They literally learn through their experiences. They don’t have logic! They learn to do something by what works and what is pleasant or unpleasant. For example: consider their height, like me they are vertically challenged! They are already worried, and then that person who is desperately trying to say “hi, its ok, I’m not going to hurt you” is crowding their space, leaning in over them, and they keep coming. They’re on a lead, and can’t get away. What’s their next option? I know what mine usually is!
Instead of this, ask the friendly person just to ignore them, and if they choose to come forward, let them, but continue to ignore them so they can gather information and learn that “hey, a hand doesn’t just scoop out of the sky and grab me!” It must be quite unnerving going from having four feet on the floor to suddenly being 4 foot in the air! I know how I feel when my son sneaks up behind me and picks me up! I don't like it! Even if he (and you) think its hilarious.
Start again with your “obedience” training. Why the inverted comma’s? I don’t really like the phrase, it brings to mind the old fashioned “left, right, left, right, about turn” approach to training, rather than teaching the dogs the skills they need to be comfortable in “real life.” But we all understand what I mean. Go back over and essentially reteach those foundation exercises from scratch in lots of different environments, especially your recalls, loose lead walking, settling on a mat and encouraging them to sniff and snuffle. Think about what you actually want them to do and teach them how, don’t assume they know….they don’t! Help them.
Keep a list – what niggles have suddenly come to light? Write a plan on what you’re going to do. Then approach things one at a time, slowly, at their pace. Do you understand their body language? (There's a blog on that!) Do you really understand what they're asking for? How they show when they aren't comfortable? Generally if given the choice they will avoid conflict.
Zella has clearly got a bit twitchy with birds roosting and abrupt noises in the garden over the last couple of weeks, the change in weather is probably contributing, and I'd imagine birds getting ready to fly off to sunnier climates (I wish I could). My task is to go outside and do little fun sessions with her. Yesterday I went outside in my pj’s and sat on the floor with a cup of tea, and her dinner and hand fed her through the birds roosting. By the end of my tea those amorous pigeons weren’t bothering her, and I repeated the same when I heard the own for a few nights on the trot…yes I donned my onsie – it was cold! But I went outside and sat and listened to it with her, calmly stroking her and praising her for listening and being chilled. It was actually a really lovely thing to do….starry nights......but cold!
I will repeat the same again, regardless of the weather. In fact, the other night, that horrible storm…I was outside in it, just on the step, dogs watching and listening, but most slept through it! (Wish I could, it was loud!)
You may find behaviour changes around other dogs. Their former confident selves are more cautious and avoid interactions. I would STRONGLY recommend avoiding static free for all sessions, you want to encourage calm interactions and avoid boisterous on-sided play.
Learning to walk alongside or past other dogs happily is so much more important that greeting all dogs. Aside from anything you don’t want to build in any frustration issues leading to some of the issues we see in the post covid generation of pups.
Work on your relationship with your dogs. Why are you walking them? Are you just walking them? Or are you walking together? Take a toy with you. Do some trick training as you walk. If you don’t have any dynamic on a walk why should they respond to you? Why should they remember you are there when they need help? This is probably the biggest take away on this blog. Remember they are with you. Its an opportunity to explore the world together, to share fun experiences. Don’t just walk just to tick the “walked the dog” box. Go out and enjoy it, forget the weather, make it fun. The wet weather means you get the park, or the beach to yourself.
If doing training on walks is too much, start at home. But pop the lead on so its much more like them being on a walk.
Proactive rather than reactive Training
If you identify the gradual changes that appear as their hormones change and work on them straight away, or even anticipate it at around 5 months old you won’t have a tsunami of behaviours to address. Keep repeating the “back to basics” mantra for a couple of years, but also introduce new skills and activities to keep things fun and engaging.
For me, I will be introducing Zella to Scentwork soon. Scentwork is a great way to build confidence, to learn to understand body language and to be in awe of how awesome they are. I will obviously share this journey with you.
When Zella is old enough I will probably introduce her to a bit of fun agility as she is so sure footed, but there's no reason I can’t start introducing the flat elements of it now. By introducing novel things to her environment, uneven platforms, new surfaces, flappy items, new sounds (alexa has her uses) and giving positive experiences it will expand her acceptance of new things and give her confidence for real life.
And as a final note and important TOP TIP: start those desensitisation sounds for scary noises now! Especially in light of fireworks season coming up. Start with the volume low, NOT high, that’s where we go wrong. You don’t want a reaction! Then gradually within their limitations increase the volume. Top tip: When the night arrives, play your desensitization tracks at the same time. It will help mask the abrupt bangs when they happen.
I hope this helps those of you with pre-teens or teens, or anyone facing this stage of ownership any time soon.
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Articles referred to for the geek squad:
Asher et al, 2020 DOI:10.1098/rsbl.2020.0097
Battaglia, 2009 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2009.03.003
Costa et al, 2023 - https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2022.12.007