If you are struggling with behavioural changes in your adolescent dog, it is not your fault, and you are not alone. The adolescent stage, beginning at approximately six to eight months and ending around sixteen to twenty-four months, can prove frustrating for even the most experienced dog owners. The most common advice, that of “exercising patience because the stage will pass”, can be challenging when nothing is working, unwanted behaviours are increasing, and you feel defeated. By changing the way in which we view this view this stage from a regression in obedience to a progression in cognitive abilities, the adolescent stage becomes an opportunity to increase our bond and improve our relationship with our dog.
One does not need to be an expert to recognize when a dog is flipping-you-the-bird or suddenly acting like the guy-at-the-party-with-the-lampshade-on-his-head. Your dog, who excelled at puppy-class and was treat-motivated and eager-to-learn, suddenly poo-poos treats, decides sitting is stupid, and the squirrel in the tree deserves a full-blown lecture. Even though your dog knows it is wrong to chew, he or she suddenly shows a renewed interest in your socks and underwear. The high-value treat is simply not a good enough incentive to “come when called”, ignore the family cat. You are at your wits end, and you have no idea what to do!
Why do these changes in behaviour occur? Why do dogs who have had little, if any, trauma in their lives, and are well socialized and friendly, suddenly rebel? Studies performed by scientists suggest the adolescent stage is a product of brain development that can lead to change in behaviours often perceived as disobedient or ill-mannered, yet are they? Perhaps we perpetuate the annoying behaviours chalked up to “the adolescent stage” by continuing to implement methods which the adolescent dog has outgrown.
The following example was shared with me during one of my many conversations with child development and parenting experts to explain the need to adapt the way we work with children as they develop cognitive skills in the early stages. This is my version of the example:
Three-year-old Sarah learns the physical act of sharing consists of taking some of her crayons over to her brother, Tommy, so he can also colour. When she does this, Tommy is happy, and her parents praise her. Sarah learns, through positive reinforcements, the act of sharing is an accepted behaviour.
Sarah understands what sharing is and that sharing is something she should do, but now that Sarah is four years old, “sharing” has a larger meaning – it means more than simply the act of taking crayons to her brother. She begins to question why she should share, and what happens if she does not share? Does she have a choice? Sarah decides sharing her crayons is not in her favour and she refuses to share. Her parents have a few options – 1) encourage her to share by offering a high value reward, such as a new colouring book, 2) discourage her from refusing to share by taking away her crayons and colouring book, or 3) progress their parenting techniques to ones which acknowledge Sarah’s ability to think, reason, and process.
Options one and two adhere to the principles of operant conditioning, where as option three adheres to the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy, or C.B.T. As with operant conditioning, which positive reinforcement training and balanced training are grounded in, C.B.T. is a scientifically proven methodology; however, their platform and principles are different. Operant conditioning teaches and encourages expected behaviour through reinforcements, making it an effective method for puppy training and for dogs wanting to learn expected behavior. C.B.T. acknowledges recognition of expected behaviour (“right from wrong”) and the ability to make decisions based on perception and learned behavior. Techniques grounded in C.B.T. change perceptions to change behaviour, making it an effective method when working with adolescent and adult dogs who know “right from wrong”, but choose to not do it, or have learned an alternative behaviour which works in their favour and, therefore, see no reason to change that behaviour.
When Sarah’s parents attempted options one and two, Sarah’s behaviour worsened. They then took a completely different approach. They provided her with options, such as letting Tommy know she will share all her crayons in half an hour, or give him half the crayons for fifteen minutes at which time they can switch crayons. Providing options encourages decision-making and, later that day, Sarah expressed an interest in choosing her own outfit. Sarah now perceived her parents as recognizing what is important to her. Her parents acknowledged further opportunities to teach, guide and harness her cognitive abilities during activities that were important to Sarah, such as going swimming, eating her lunch in her fort, and visiting her grandma in the senior centre. These activities acted as opportunities to teach expected behaviors, such as “quiet voices” and provide options for “being polite”. These skills can be transferred to more challenging places and situations, such as the grocery store, where they do not take snacks or toys to keep her busy, or take her home if ill-mannered, but, instead, incorporate her newly learned skills and include her in the activity by providing options and direction.
When working with dogs, we cannot use such large concepts as “quiet voices” or “being polite”. Canine enrichment exercises and studies performed by scientists on dog cognition prove dogs can think, process, make decisions, calculate, and associate words with objects, among many other cognitive skills. These exercises and studies help us learn how dogs think and they prove, in conjunction with research on the physical make-up of the brain, that dogs can think cognitively. Great! Now what? How do we harness these skills and effectively apply them to prevent and address behaviors common with adolescent dogs?
We begin by establishing platform skills consisting of opportunity-driven exercises taught using opportunity-driven rewards, which are determined by the dog and change as we progress. Opportunity-driven exercises are established during positive activities, which are comparable to Sarah’s desired activities. These activities occur when your dog can have what he or she wants and provide multiple rewards, therefore eliminating the need for contrived rewards, such as treats. For example, if your dog indicates she wants up on the couch, in the bathroom with you, or to go for a walk, and you want your dog to do these activities, you can leverage these opportunities to teach and strengthen transferable skills.
Conditioning methodologies rely on the reward as the transferable element, where as C.B.T. relies on the skill set as the transferable element. By recognizing and harnessing rewards determined by the dog, we change the dog’s perception of us and increases our bond. We have unlimited number of rewards inherently imbedded in teaching opportunities to establish platform skills.
Next, we transfer the skills taught during opportunity-driven exercises to more challenging situations and activities, such as the dog park, or a playdate. These activities strengthen our platform exercises, allow us to read our dog, provide options and proactively prevent unwanted behaviour. As with Sarah, we do not need to provide contrived rewards and, if the dog is not making our preferred choice, we simply increase the skills in our platform and then creatively apply them.
UPWARD Dogology takes a holistic approach to working with dogs. We do not focus on individual behaviors, but rather on providing proactive direction and options, harnessing cognitive abilities, and recognizing preconceived thought patterns. As when parenting children, we need patience, creativity, and the skills to recognize indications of cognitive development.
By incorporating UPWARD Dogology, alongside other non-aversive, proven effective methodologies, into mainstream dog-training, we can meet the needs of dogs of all ages and personalities, making the adolescent stage a perfect time to increase our bond with our dog.