What do you do when your puppy becomes a teenager? Eric Brad talks about his adventures with Rizzo, a young Belgian Shepherd.
There really is nothing quite like the blank stare of an adolescent Belgian Shepherd puppy. It was time for me to leave and I had to put Rizzo in his crate for a couple hours while I ran errands. And so, cookie in hand as always, I beckoned to him from across the room. Rizzo, in that adorable way that “teenage” Belgians have, just blinked his big brown eyes at me as if he had never heard a human speak before.
It’s hard not to laugh. Actually, I was in a hurry. Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for Rizzo, this isn’t my first time to this particular rodeo. This was classic adolescent “let’s see what dad does” behaviour. I did what any good Belgian puppy owner would do – the unexpected. I broke off a piece of cookie, wandered over to him and gave it to him for free. That baked his little noodle! Then I showed him the rest of the cookie and said “In your home” and he trotted right into his crate where he happily ate the rest of the cookie while I grabbed my keys to go.
Things often change, sometimes radically, in the behaviour of a young dog as they reach adolescence — between 9 and 18 months of age. Our Rizzo is no exception. At 11 months old, he’s just starting to try on his “big boy pants” to see what he can get away with. This abrupt change in his behaviour in his interactions with us and even with other dogs might have been something to worry about if we were not prepared by some education and lots of experience. Instead, we just buckled in for the ride through this next phase of Rizzo’s development.
Puppies of a certain age like to test things. Adolescent puppies like to test EVERY thing — things you have spent months training and getting great results with suddenly stop working, well known cues that used to be your “go to” tricks when showing off are failing, and even the simplest requests like “sit” are met with a blank stare.
Fortunately for me, Rizzo is my wife’s dog to train this time around. Although we do share training duties in the house, it’s her job to teach new behaviours. I get to work with what has already been trained. Similarly, I teach our other dog, Tira, new stuff and my wife works with her. Usually we ask for a “sit” and then a wait for release from the sit before going outside or coming back inside. Lately, it’s been fun to watch. I say “Sit!” and Tira’s butt hits the floor while Rizzo looks at me if I had just spoken Mandarin Chinese. So we wait. I wait for Rizzo to sit and Rizzo waits to see what I might do next if he doesn’t sit.
It’s a test. What I do in response is important. After months of training Rizzo, it’s now his chance to take what he’s learned and try to train ME. Believe me, it’s hard not to take it personally.
Why would your dog need to test you? What possible reason could they have for not doing what we have trained them to do, especially if we’ve rewarded them richly for it in the past? Well, this is where our own “human-ness” can get us into trouble. It’s not necessarily about us.
There’s a lot going on for an adolescent dog. Leaving hormones aside for the moment, although they are an important component of this, the world has become a much bigger place for a young dog approaching adulthood. Not only have their senses fully developed to take in the larger world but their experience and training have likely given them some confidence to get out and explore. New sights, new sounds, new smells and new encounters can be very distracting to a dog and it may seem that they are often preoccupied with things you can’t understand. And they probably are.
Then there’s the sheer joy of using that newly developed dog body. With the awkwardness of that puppy frame becoming a thing of the past, most young dogs are eager to get out and see what they can do. Is it any wonder that the 11-month-old dog is straining at the leash with new confidence in fully developed limbs and balance? He wants to run like the wind simply because he can.
There’s a mental component here too. Just like human teenagers, young dogs can get curious about how they can effect their environment. For months you have been showing them the ropes and training them in all kinds of behaviour. But now what happens if Fluffy does this instead of that? Your dog’s responses to you can become very puzzling during this period. It’s their turn to change the variables and see what happens.
The important thing to keep in mind is that it’s not personal. It can seem sometimes like our dog is just trying to get your goat, trying to make you mad. It can be very tempting to ascribe human emotions like defiance or stubbornness or sulking to dogs, but that can be a trap that leads to no good end.
Instead, take the advice of Karen Pryor who said, “It’s not personal, it’s just behaviour.”
One complicating factor in all of this adolescent haze is that most dogs go through a “fear period” around this time. It’s tied to all of those hormones and their maturing sexually. The difficulty with these fear periods is that the sudden change in behaviour can cause us to react with concern. If we don’t know what to expect, it can cause some unfortunate after effects that we might not want.
An example of this is often called “coddling” by some trainers and refers to our human attempts to soothe our young dog when they suddenly seem terrified for no apparent reason. By this stage in their development, especially if you have done a lot of mark and reward or other operant training with your dog, they are aware of cause and effect. How you react to their actions will have an impact on whether or not certain behaviours will or will not be repeated.
An uncertain dog will take comfort from your attention and guidance. If that dog discovers that cowering or jumping as if startled draws your full and focused attention as you bend down to say, “Fluffy! What is it honey? Is something scary?”, well, what a wonderful reward for that dog! Put that behaviour on the list of things to try again and again when you want attention.
When dealing with a dog that is demonstrating fearful behaviours, it’s important for the handler to assess the situation to see if there is any real and legitimate reason for the dog to be showing fear. If there is, it’s best to simply handle the situation calmly by removing what is upsetting the dog. If there doesn’t appear to be anything that should be upsetting the dog, chances are they are either just being “jumpy” or are feeling insecure and want to get your attention. In this case, it’s best to give the dog confident reassurance without making a big production out of things. “You’re ok, buddy,” and a pat on the head or two should be sufficient. What you are trying to do is let the dog know that there’s nothing to worry about and you know it.
A Calm Hand on the Wheel
Navigating successfully through Rizzo’s adolescence will be a lot like flying an airplane. We will have to stay vigilant, watch what’s going on, and most importantly, don’t make any big sudden moves. While Rizzo may seem to inexplicably stare off into the distance when I ask him to sit, I have to resist the temptation to repeat my request. If I do, I run the risk of letting him know that he only has to sit after the 4th time I say it!
Similarly, if he runs barking to the door, it doesn’t do me much good to start yelling at him. Chances are Rizzo will think I’m yelling with him, doing the human equivalent of barking. The same is true if we are on a walk and he suddenly wants to jump up into my arms at the approach of an oncoming chihuahua. There’s really no reason for him to show a fearful reaction so my best response is to act like nothing is wrong and continue with only quiet reassurance.
More than we like to admit, our dogs take many of their emotional cues from us. We are the ones they spend most of their time with so it only makes sense that they look to us to see what worth being upset over and what isn’t. And we do well to keep that in mind particularly in times when their behaviour confuses us. First reactions are not necessarily the best. Think the situation through.
More than anything, what has worked for us in raising our dogs has been staying the course. We know what we have trained and we know our dogs well enough to recognize any legitimate health issues if they should arise. By the same token, we are careful to manage their lives until they are adult and capable of dealing with things on their own. So we don’t leave our young dogs out in the backyard unattended for hours on end, nor do we let them off leash at strange parks where they could get into trouble without us nearby.
As Rizzo tries on his “big boy pants” to see what mom and dad might do, we will be ready to do our best to keep things on an even keel. We have tricks of our own to interrupt his little experiments in behaviour. We don’t take his little tests personally so our reactions are often more amused than angry. The thing we always keep in mind is that the laws of behaviour — operant and classical conditioning — are working each and every day whether we acknowledge them or not. Better to stay aware of them and use them to our advantage. Getting angry and demanding what we expect will likely only produce unintended behavioural fallout and bad associations. We just shake things up a bit and try again.
Rizzo is a great little guy and I’m looking forward to all kinds of shenanigans over the coming months. But I won’t lie to you, I’m looking forward even more to him getting past this “brat” phase of his development. And he will. We will just do our best to manage him and ride out these little bumps to make him a confident and happy adult. Soon, I hope.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!