What is canine adolescence?

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What is canine adolescence? How does it change dogs and why? Trainer and behaviourist Carol Price explains...

Surprisingly, it is only within recent decades that we have come to realise that dogs can find adolescence a pretty challenging phase of life. There are not just physical strains and stresses to deal with, as their bodies grow and expand, but also psychological ones, as they leave puppyhood behind, and seek to shape and assert their adult identities.

Huge surges in both growth and sex hormones lie at the heart of this transformation, which can begin from about five to six months of age in some dogs; in others, more full-blown adolescence may start a bit later. Additionally, in some dogs — usually bigger breeds — it will end later, too, often around two years of age, but sometimes even beyond that.

Adolescent phases

On top of more obvious expansions in physical size, the onset of adolescence in dogs will be signalled by things like cocking their legs to urinate and scent mark in males, and the start of their first heats in bitches. What it is also important to realise is that, over and above the differing ‘start’ and ‘end’ times, no adolescent phase will be the same in individual dogs.

Some dogs, for instance, sail through this period with seemingly little disruption to their typical behaviour, whereas others turn into the archetypal teenager from hell. Poorer earlier training from owners is commonly blamed for this, and while, in some cases, this may definitely be true, it is often far more complex than that.

Mental changes

In the human world, it is recognised that over 75 per cent of all behavioural/psychological disorders appear in people around, or immediately after, the onset of adolescence. And there are reasonable grounds for imagining that a similar kind of psychological/emotional upheaval can occur in adolescent dogs, due to other changes occurring in the brain.

Adolescence triggers not just surges of sex hormones, like testosterone in males, which is linked to more reckless or aggressive behaviours, but also fluctuations in a range of other neurochemicals too, like serotonin, dopamine, and GABA (gammaaminobutyric acid). All of these can have a sizeable impact on an individual’s prevailing mood or mental outlook, and also govern how prone he may be to more anxious, excitable, impulsive or addictive behaviours.

Therefore, it is no coincidence that any dog’s behaviour can seem to worsen, or become increasingly more challenging, as he hits this period of immense physical and mental change. Sadly, it can also be why this phase of life is when dogs are most commonly given up for rehoming.

Dog and owner conflict

Much of the conflict sparked between adolescent dogs and their owners is down to the owners not always appreciating the kind of hormonal/neurochemical changes that are occurring in the dog’s brain, and the effect these will inevitably have on his mental state or behaviour.

Owners may also feel that a teenage dog is consciously choosing to behave in less manageable, or more defiant, ways towards them, instead of being driven by newer instincts and compulsions he finds harder to control.

Sometimes it can be worth remembering our own behaviour as a teenager — the moodiness, the rages, the tantrums, and the slammed bedroom doors; the constant feeling that your parents did not understand you; the heightened self-consciousness or social anxiety; and the strong desire to pursue a more grown-up and individual identity. Did you really feel in control of such behaviours at the time, or were they being fuelled by something deeper occurring in your developing mind?

Growing conditions in dogs

Owners need to be aware of some conditions in dogs related to adolescent growth, the pain of which may affect them mentally as well as physically. They include:

Panosteitis

This affects the growing bones of young dogs. It is marked by a sudden onset of lameness, then recurrent limping, and is most common in larger breeds like German Shepherds and Great Danes. Dogs between 5 and 18 months of age are most often affected, although it can strike even earlier. Once panosteitis has affected a bone, it doesn’t often reappear in that same bone again. As a result, a dog may limp on one leg for a short while, stop limping, and then limp on another leg.

It is believed that this condition has a hereditary link. Severe symptoms can appear quickly and may also include fever, lack of appetite, and obvious pain when an affected bone is touched. A diagnosis can quickly be made via X-rays. Panosteitis usually lasts between two to five months. Most dogs have recovered by around two years of age.

Hip dysplasia (HD)

A problem widespread among many breeds, HD results from a malformation of the normal ball and socket fit of the hip joints in dogs as they grow, causing mild to intense pain, depending on the level of severity. It is thought to be primarily genetic in origin, but also exacerbated by environmental factors. Usually diagnosed in dogs between 6 and 12 months of age, symptoms include stiffness, hind lameness, greater exercise intolerance, or problems getting up or lying down.

In some dogs it can be managed with lifestyle changes and pain relief; others may require surgery. Only getting your puppy from parents, or breeding lines, with good hip scores can greatly minimise the chance of him getting this condition.

Every pedigree breed has its own average hip score, so you want to look for scores in your puppy’s parents that are below the average for their breed; the lower the score the better. To find out more about the Kennel Club/British Veterinary Association hip-scoring scheme for different pedigree breeds, visit www.thekennelclub.org.uk

Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD)

Again, thought to have a genetic link, OCD results from cartilage cracking or splitting away from bone — commonly in the shoulder joint — as dogs grow, causing pain, lameness, and eventually arthritis. Labradors and giant breeds seem most prone to this, but Border Collies can also be affected and many dogs require surgery to remedy the problem.

Craniomandibular osteopathy

Terriers, especially Scottish Terriers and West Highland White Terriers, around three to eight months old, can be affected by this growth condition, which causes painful swelling in the jaw; the dog may drool and have obvious pain on opening his mouth.

It has also been seen in Cairn and Boston Terriers, Labrador Retrievers, Boxers, and Great Danes. The problem can improve as dogs get older, but some may be left with a more permanent eating problem or require surgery.

Planning for the future

At adolescence, people often mourn the loss of what was once their seemingly more loving, biddable, and dependent little puppy. But there is nothing an owner can do to stop this transition into adulthood, so instead of dwelling on the past, look to the future, and the excellent, longer-term relationship you can still build with your growing dog, with better insight and training.

Common behavioural changes in adolescent dogs

Lower levels of concentration or a more noticeable ‘brain fog’, which may make your dog seem less responsive than usual to your training or commands. This is a common side effect of your dog’s brain being overloaded — and overworked — by the demands of growth, and the process of continually building new nerve/sensory connections to supply his ever-expanding body.

  • The same phenomenon can often make teenage dogs appear more uncoordinated or clumsy.
  • Greater interest in other dogs and their scents.
  • More competitive behaviours between dogs of the same sex, which can include aggression.
  • Increase in more territorial behaviours.
  • Development of newer sensory or social phobias.
  • Lowering tolerance of new people, dogs or experiences.
  • Higher energy levels — unless the dog is suffering from any painful growing conditions.

Did you know?

  • The age at which a bitch may have her first heat can range from six months to over two years.
  • Testosterone levels reach their highest in male dogs aged between six to 12 months and thereafter (unless neutered) begin a more gradual decline.