What is adolescence? It is a long period of development wherein a juvenile becomes an adult, behaviourally and reproductively (Asher et al., 2020). Adolescence varies among dogs but generally occurs between five months and two years of age (Harvey, 2021). Sadly, adolescent dogs have the highest relinquishment rate due to behavioural problems (Powell et al., 2021).
What happens during adolescence?
Adolescence brings about changes in the capacity of the individual’s role and its physical and social environment. Social maturation, or “social acceptance” (12 to 36 months), comes later than sexual maturation, or the ability to reproduce, which occurs at 6 to 12 months (Asher, 2020).
Social maturation, or “social acceptance” (12 to 36 months), comes later than sexual maturation, or the ability to reproduce, which occurs at 6 to 12 months
Hormonal changes occur during adolescence, with hormones starting to peak, leading to physical and behavioural changes.
Neurological changes also occur during this period – the brain remodels into an adult brain. Specific brain regions, such as the areas for emotional regulation and behavioural inhibition and the memory and learning receptors, are more affected by this remodelling. Connectivity is lost between the frontal cortex, responsible for memory processing, and the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions and attaches these to memories.
When does adolescence end?
The completion of adolescence varies between individuals, though it is defined as when they are socially and behaviourally mature. Generally, it is by the time they are two years old. However, studies have shown that changes are still occurring at 18 to 24 months (Pongracz et al., 2012; Riemer et al., 2016).
Behaviour changes during adolescence
What behaviour changes are typically seen in adolescent dogs?
- A lack of focus, short attention span or seeming to lose interest quickly and wanting to explore more
- Becoming easily over-aroused, over-stimulated or stressed – excitement levels may be higher, but anxiety may also increase during this time
- Increased fear and frustration (Spear, 2000)
- Testing boundaries – increased independence may mean recall problems and the dog goes further away from owners than it once did
- Changes in sociability – some dogs will become increasingly interested in other dogs or people, while others may become less tolerant in social situations
- Due to hormonal changes, dogs may show more interest in other dogs (excessive sniffing), become obsessed with following scents, or mark in the house or excessively on walks. Dogs of both sexes may also get pestered by other entire males on walks, and female dogs may have changes associated with seasons
- Sleep–wake cycles may change, and individuals will require less sleep than before and have more energy to burn
- Increased risk-taking behaviour
- Reduced control – less inhibition of behaviour and emotions may occur. This means they may have more extreme reactions to things that did not previously worry them (Chaby et al., 2013)
Should we neuter adolescent dogs?
Gonadal hormones play a role in normal brain development and maturation. Therefore, neutering may hinder this and prevent gonadal hormones from aiding brain development (Starling et al., 2019), and pre-pubertal neutering may impact neurological maturation (Mongillo et al., 2017).
Neutering may […] prevent gonadal hormones from aiding brain development (Starling et al., 2019), and pre-pubertal neutering may impact neurological maturation
Furthermore, the physical experience of neutering, handling, vet visits and other stresses, such as wearing a suit or collar post-procedure, may also have a lasting effect on an adolescent dog’s perception of the veterinary practice (Lind et al., 2017).
Early neutering of male or female dogs may increase unwanted behaviours, such as fear, anxiety, barking and aggression (McGreevy et al., 2018). In fact, the reduction in testosterone caused by castration can further reduce the confidence and increase the anxiety of already fearful adolescent male dogs.
How can I help clients with adolescent dogs during consultations?
Firstly, you should avoid or reduce stressors – consider the possibility of car consults if they are needed to prevent any extra stress.
It is also worth allowing owners to come to the practice away from appointment dates and times to build up a bank of positive experiences of being at the vet. Open days help encourage clients with puppies and adolescents to come along with treats, gaining positive experiences from being at the vet.
It is [..] worth allowing owners to come to the practice away from appointment dates and times to build up a bank of positive experiences of being at the vet
Let dogs sniff the room and any equipment, and you can scatter the room with treats before touching them to help lower stress levels. You can also use treats when examining the dog and only examine them physically when required, using a hands-off approach for those that are very worried.
It is also worth consulting a behaviourist for advice on extremely anxious and/or aggressive individuals.
Top tips for getting dogs through the teenage years
- Management strategies: implementing strict control and management strategies (such as keeping the dog on a long line attached to a harness if the dog stops reliably coming back when called) means owners can prevent the behaviours from being rehearsed
- Patience and reassurance: reassure owners that there will be fab days and there will be tough days, and that it’s important to keep going – it’s really a short space of time, and things will get easier
- Consult a professional, qualified trainer/behaviour expert: depending on the problems experienced, you can recommend a qualified trainer (for control issues such as lead walking or recall) or behaviourist (for unwanted emotional responses) to help the owner
- Back to basics: owners may need to go back to basics with their training and heavily reinforce all desired behaviours
- Human–animal bond: help the owner remain bonded with their dog and stay connected throughout the transitional period into adulthood (Nagasaw et al., 2015)
- Prevention: reduce owner expectations in terms of taking their adolescent dog to places they are unable to cope with. Advise that they avoid intense situations or implement more control measures in these situations