Out of the frying pan…

Oh the joys of the smaller dog.

There are many benefits to the more diminutive breeds: they eat less, take up less floor space, cost less to treat at the vet (and are therefore cheaper to insure), and so on.

But there are hidden surprises. Like earlier maturation. No sooner are you out of the puppy-sensitive-period, while you are busy breathing a sigh of relief at the fact you have survived phase 1 without mishap… SMACK! Head first into the world of adolescent fear responses.

There’s little in the literature about this, but whether it’s been written about or not, if your dog starts freaking out at the smallest environmental alteration, you will believe it exists. Possibly driven by hormonal changes as the pup starts to mature at around 9-12 months in larger breeds, 6-7 months for the smaller ones (or in my pup’s case, before we’ve even made it to 5 months!), it is likely you will see some obvious changes in behaviour.

1. Fear. You carefully socialised your pup, introduced him / her to all life’s oddities, pairing the more scary ones with food or a game. You’ve done the work! And now, your furry friend is barking at EVERYTHING. Oh joy. Well, don’t freak out. It’s simply another “normal” behavioural response and you need to handle this one as calmly as all the previous challenges. Stay cool, tell your dog all is well, and offer something alternative to do which will help them feel better: a short training session, a game or a stuffed Kong will usually work. Once you know the triggers, you can start to preempt the response, producing the goodies BEFORE the barking starts.

2. Boundary testing. Hurray! Your word is no longer doggie-law apparently, and your pup starts to question whether they actually WANT to do what you asked, or whether there is something better on offer. This is where your prior training will stand you in good stead – if requests have reliably been reinforced with something the dog likes, you are more likely to maintain the trained response. Otherwise, well back to square one with you both please and up your training schedule at home. If you’ve got walk-related issues (not coming back for example), consider having your dog on a long line to prevent them practising unwanted (and quite frankly annoying) responses like standing just beyond arm’s reach and then running off as you try to grab them, leaving you face-down in the mud. (Yes, it happens to everyone!)

3. Selective hearing. I’m not actually sure that this is “selective” as such. More likely, you have reduced your dog’s reward-quotient over time and the good habits you set up were already on the wane. Re-engage,  get some new exciting toys and make sure you and your dog are having fun, TOGETHER. If you’re on your phone in the park, don’t be surprised if your dog doesn’t “hear” you when you call him / her to go home. Think of the Cocktail Party Effect: our brains respond to what is relevant to us. If the sound of your voice = good things for your dog, they will hear you! If it means boring, annoying, telling off-type things, well, good luck…

4. Neutering. This is a lovely thorny issue and I’m not about to attempt to untangle the whys, wherefores and whens of having your dog “done”. I would only say that I personally would not want to neuter my dog in the midst of a period of hormonal turmoil. Neutering alone seldom resolves behavioural issues, particularly fear-based ones, so consult a qualified professional and establish what is actually going on before you go running off to the vet to “get them chopped off”.  You can’t stick them back on.

5. Three-second rule. I read this on a mummy-blog the other day and it’s a great habit. Every time you’re about to lose it, stop and count to three. It gives your brain time to switch from primal response to more considered, rational thinking, and might just save your relationship with your furry friend. Yes, FRIEND. Remember why you got the dog and focus on that. So you might have to work a little harder for the next few months, recap on some things, re-affirm the rules, but you will be well rewarded if you stick with it.

Rescue centres are full, FULL, of adolescent dogs whose time has run out. (I know, I worked in a London-based rescue for 3 years.) The only problem with most of the inmates is lack of understanding from their owners. Don’t believe the hype: they are not “untrainable”, just untrained. Adolescence is tough! You’ve made it this far and you’re on the final stretch; have some empathy for your pal and just BREATHE. When you both come out the other side, you’ve another 10-15 years to look forward to with your now completely fabulous family companion. Don’t quit now and run the risk of losing that.


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