After aggression issues, the most usual thing I get calls about is…. teenagers!
In fact, the two things often go hand in hand. But teenagers can pose problems in all sorts of ways, many of which owners feel unable to deal with. In many ways, that combination of puppyish play behaviours in a big dog body as your dog works its way through the full repertoire of canine behaviours can be a very testing time indeed.
It’s not a surprise so many teenagers end up in the shelter.
Would it be a surprise if I said to you that 80% of the dogs in our shelter are under three years of age?
Of those, 95% of our longer-stay dogs are male.
Of those, 95% are big.
That’s the sad reality.
If you are a big, young male, you are far more likely to find yourself staying for more than a couple of weeks, should you arrive in a shelter. You won’t behave any differently than a smaller dog, but it’s easier to accept some behaviours in smaller dogs.
And if you add lack of appropriate socialisation with humans, cats and other dogs to that equation, along with a lack of obedience training, you have yourself the profile of our young dogs. If you look a bit ordinary, a bit average, expect to find yourself lost in the system for a while.
You’d have thought they were from the same litter, wouldn’t you?
But our big, young guys are not just the stuff of shelters… I remember the days when my own dog Heston was a teenager. I remember the escapes, the chewing, the barking, the over-enthusiasm. I remember my frantic tears and the desperate attempts to just live with him. Everything he is now at five was born from my attempts to calm him, to occupy him and to actually manage him. He is a dab hand at freestyle heelwork, obedience and also at gundog stuff – but there were days when I’d spend hours working with him, wondering if it’d not be better for him to be rehomed.
That’s why I have a lot of sympathy for my clients who have dogs who are not exactly a teenage dream.
One of my clients phoned me, absolutely convinced that there was something dreadfully wrong with her flat-coated retriever, Murgatroyd. He’s a pedigree from great lines and many of his relatives work. What she was looking for really was a vet referral.
“He just bites out of the blue,” the conversation started.
Funnily, I’d had a conversation earlier that day with the owner of a Bernese Mountain Dog, Bernie.
“He just launches himself at my husband and grabs his leg! There’s something seriously wrong with him!”
I think there are many of us who think there is something wrong with our dogs when they are teenagers. It’s not unusual to have conversations about ADHD, about whether dogs have undiagnosed brain tumours, about rage… conversations with owners whose dogs have already seen the vet and ruled out any major health issues that may cause this.
In fact, when I mention over-arousal or over-excitement, often the owners are dismissive.
“No, he’s not like this all the time!”
But over-arousal isn’t an ‘all the time’ thing. Neither is over-excitement. Because the dogs have the semblance of some manners, the owners think that the dogs must be wired wrong. Often, it takes a full examination by a vet and some pretty heavy insistence from both of us to convince owners that their dog isn’t suffering from some kind of undiagnosed rage syndrome.
It’s only then, when we discuss common symptoms of over-arousal that owners often realise that yes, their dog is doing a lot of the other things too.
And then the penny starts to drop.
For Murgatroyd, he was a humper, a very friendly humper, but a humper nonetheless. And a digger. The lawn was filled with huge tank traps. He was also a barker. Barking, humping, digging and mouthing… bug-eyed lack of focus and panting all added up. On the diagram above, he was doing 8 of those 10 things.
For Bernie, he was jumping up all the time, circling and nipping when excited. He was regularly doing 5 of those 10 things.
Both boys pulled like a demon as well, despite choke chains (which were probably contributing to their arousal on walks, which I’ll explain later).
Once you start to see that the biting is part of a puzzle, and that the picture that the pieces make up is just an over-aroused dog, then it makes it a lot easier to devise a strategy to help your dog get through its teen years without ending up in a shelter or being put to sleep because that mouthing gets more and more insistent.
That is not to say that you shouldn’t rule out every single possible biological or physiological cause with your vet. You absolutely should. It’s always the place to start when you have any behavioural abnormality. Even something simple like impacted anal glands can mean your dog is reluctant to sit down or is more restless than usual. But some disorders can become evident as dogs mature, such as problems with the thyroid or neurological issues such as focal epilepsy or intracranial pressure. There are many reasons to visit a vet, and teenage behavioural problems such as over-arousal and aggression are always good reasons.
So why might your teenage dog turn into a furry nightmare on legs?
Some of those medical issues above may well be behind it.
But there can also be other physiological reasons.
You’d think there may be “boy” issues, but every single dog I work with has been castrated prior to working with me and it hasn’t made a difference. Castration removes a lot of a dog’s ability to create testosterone, and whilst it may work on some problems such as roaming, it may not work on others, especially if that behaviour is driven by other hormones, chemicals or neurotransmitters. That’s like wondering why your fridge is still working when you’ve taken the fuse for the cooker out. If it’s not related to testosterone, castration won’t make a difference.
There is often a different cocktail of chemicals at work. Adrenaline is a big part of that. So is dopamine. Dopamine does lots of things, but it is heavily implicated in reward behaviours, learning and addictions, as well as in other pleasurable behaviours. It also has a central role in impulse control. Adrenaline is crucially implicated in arousal. Whilst we get bursts of adrenaline when we are under threat or stress, we also get adrenaline surges in response to excitement.
Just because it can be physiological doesn’t mean you can’t change it through behaviour modification. It’s something that doesn’t necessarily require a prescription to sort out.
And over-arousal may not be just the body at work.
There are, as I have mentioned, age-related issues. It’s unusual for an older dog who has previously been calm all their life to become massively over-aroused unless their life changes a lot. Usually, medical changes would be predictable there. We all know that puppies are balls of energy, but young dogs also need a lot of sleep. They also need to learn impulse control and they need to learn the rules of being an adult aren’t the same as being a puppy. For larger breeds, we all know it’s vital not to exercise them too much, with the risk of growth problems, but what do you do if you have a large breed who is over-aroused?
Again, lots of the strategies I’ll explore later will help with that.
Food can be an issue, just as it is in humans. Dogs don’t process sugar as we do, but if I say to you that my boss used to give me some full-sugar Coca-Cola and a bag of Haribo Sours before a meeting just to see me go, you’ll know why he found it so amusing. If you run marathons or do triathlons, you’ll know all about the importance of carb-loading for energy. Additives, sugars and unnecessary ingredients can all have a negative effect on canine behaviour, just as they do on human behaviours. As a rule, if you’re buying food from the supermarket, you may find that it isn’t an optimal diet for your teenage dog. Discuss this with a canine nutritionist or your vet, but know that there are very good diets out there, be they raw, cooked, home-made, dry or wet food, and it needn’t be inconvenient. Some will no doubt suggest low protein diets or seratonin-enhancing diets, but the very best thing to do if you think diet is the major contributing factor in your dog’s behaviour is to seek out a professional. It’s not something to tinker with yourself if you think that food is the primary cause behind your dog’s excited behaviour.
Lack of sufficient rest and sleep can be a problem and can also create young dogs who are permanently wired. Like you, your dog needs a low-noise, unstimulating environment in which to sleep. They also need a lot more sleep than you’d think. It should be comfortable and at the right temperature. Expecting your dog to cope with household arousal when they are surrounded 14 hours a day by family members and excitement is a recipe for a dog who’s living on the edge of its nerves. 8 hours of sleep may be enough for us, but it is not enough for our dogs.
Many are going to say that teenage behaviour is ‘dominance’ or a change in the rank of a family pack. So is your dog trying to dominate you if they’re showing any of the behaviours above? Whilst some dogs on occasion may be – perhaps – influenced by position in the canine group and their relationship with another dog in the family (and there are no good studies to support this for pet dogs), there is zero evidence that dogs consider us as part of their pack and are trying to dominate us. I’ve taken to replacing ‘dominant’ with ‘arsehole’ when people describe their dominant dog. I think it’s become a shorthand way to say the dog is unruly and doesn’t heed the owner as much as the owner requires without accepting responsibility for not having taught household manners. It blames some aspect of a canine ‘personality’ (and dominant behaviour definitely isn’t a personality trait!) rather than saying “hey, I’ve not taught my dog how to behave properly”. Somehow, if we say they are dominant, it sounds more scientific. Nobody wants to call their dog an unruly arsehole. Some cats behave like mannerless arseholes all the time but nobody describes them as trying to dominate their human. Dominance has become the great excuse for unruly behaviour, blaming the dog not the lack of family rules.
This is no place for a lecture on the whys and wherefores of dominant behaviour in dogs. That said, I think some of the better aspects of ‘treating’ so-called dominance may also be of help. Those are going to include clear boundaries in the home, regular and consistent handling from all the family members and clear rules. You don’t need to be a Sergeant Major to deal with unruly behaviour, but firmness and consistency in household rules and manners is vital.
Don’t forget: manners are taught, not caught. Your dog is not bound by the same social and cultural conventions as a human involving theft of food, for instance. A dog who takes food when he is hungry is excelling at being a dog. Even human beings have to be taught social conventions such as not raiding strangers’ cupboards if they are hungry. If you want your dog to do something, remember it needs to be taught.
Some people are also going to say your dog is challenging you. I don’t believe, however, that dogs push boundaries in the same way teenagers might do. I know how it is to face the challenges of teenagers who don’t understand the reasons behind social or cultural rules – believe me, when you’ve worked in schools as long as I have, you see a lot of that. I’ve certainly met teenagers who enjoyed getting a rise out of particular adults. But we do a lot of quashing teenagers’ “rebellion” with ‘Because I said so’, which doesn’t always wash. ‘Challenge’, even with human beings, is not always about pushing boundaries or rebelling against authority. I didn’t dye my hair to be rebellious but because I was finding out who I was and what I enjoyed. I liked noisy, dirty, loud music and I liked the way Lita Ford looked… It felt good to listen to Motley Crue, I got a lot of reinforcement from my friends, and I got a lot of peer reinforcement in ways that dogs just don’t. When we talk of challenge or rebellion, we need to keep those words for describing ourselves as humans, not our domesticated pets. He’s not going through a phase where he’s deliberately pressing your buttons.
Heston wasn’t showing off for his friends or rebelling against my rules.
But he was learning what felt good, what was rewarding and what wasn’t.
And sometimes that means getting attention in ways that your dog has realised is very effective, like barking at you or humping you, biting you and mouthing you.
They’re learning how to work the environment around them, finding out their preferences.
I liked, as a thirteen-year-old, to go off on the train to Manchester and explore. I liked long-haired boys and Hanoi Rocks, tight jeans and cider. I liked black eyeliner and red clothes. I very much defined my own taste and I picked and chose what worked for me. It wasn’t consciously about defiance or rule-breaking, but about finding myself. I still like to bugger off on my own and explore. I can pass happy hours wandering around cities and forests by myself. I still like noisy music, and my tastes are as broad and eclectic as they were when I was thirteen. I still have a thing about men with long hair, although I’m not a fan of the hipster man bun thing. And I still like cider, black eyeliner and red clothes. I wasn’t doing those things to be controversial or to be deliberately defiant, but because they appealed to something in me.
Dogs are the same.
Not that they like noisy rock metal or eyeliner.
But as they mature, they are developing preferences for things they enjoy, things that reward them. It’s not about defiance or dominance, but about preference. Dogs, actually, are a lot better at accepting ‘because I said so’ than teenagers. I thought, tonight, that Heston has never counter-surfed. He has never begged. He has never stolen food. He has never run off with my shoes. He has never made his own fun out of stealing things. We nipped his fun little off-site wanderings in the bud with some chicken wire fencing patches and what emerged out of the other side is a biddable, calmer dog. Sure, he has some bad habits. He loves a bark and a forage, he likes to explore, he’s a bit of a Tarzan with new friends and he is as noisy as I am. But those teen years are about trying out the full canine repertoire of dog behaviours and working out if it’s fun or not. Digging, barking, peeing on things, humping, counter surfing, stealing, chewing, biting, destroying stuff, dissecting toys, wandering, chasing things… all in the canine repertoire and all possible to be things teenage dogs will trial.
This is why, though, habits picked up in the teen years tend to be things dogs grow into rather than grow out of.
Tried it. Liked it. Worked for me. Will do it again.
This is especially true of behaviours that involve feel-good buzzes from adrenaline and dopamine.
If your dog has a particular bad habit though, and it is deeply ingrained, best to get some specific help for that problem. The longer they’ve been doing it, the harder it can be to stop.
So how do you deal with your furry teenager?
If you just have a common-or-garden over-aroused teenage dog, there are three things you really, really need to do to make a difference. That involves the right balance of mental and physical stimulation, teach focus and impulse control to help your dog manage their emotions and introduce a basic calming protocol to lower arousal.
The first is to bring over-arousal levels down through a balance of mental and physical stimulation. That means lots and lots of enrichment activities. It means making your dog’s brain work. This needn’t be time-consuming for you, but I promise you the best ones are the ones you do in partnership with your dog. They will take a bit of a time commitment, but the trade is that they’ll improve your relationship no end.
Some mental activities don’t take any time commitment from you at all. It’s fine to scatter food from time to time, to dig out your Kongs, to buy a load of lick mats and snuffle mats, to get out bones and chews, tendons and pieces of hide, but make sure you’ve got something you can actually enjoy with your teenager too.
I did heelwork to music first. Heston knows about 100 hand and voice commands and has a good routine to ‘Stand and Deliver’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, but it wasn’t his thing. It really was going through the motions for him. Scentwork fared better, but it was only when I began to do traditional gundog activities like blind retrieves, casting and quartering that he really came into his own. Know your dog, know what they like and do something every day in partnership with them. It can be really hard to stop yourself tearing your hair out with a teenage dog, and having an activity that reminds you of just how great they are can stop you coming to resent them. Plus it builds on the owner-dog bond, which is always a good thing. Fifteen minutes a day can make a real difference. Plenty of programmes do this, from Absolute Dogs to Susan Garrett’s Recallers’ Programme
You can also check out this fabulous Canine Enrichment group on Facebook. Be warned: there are people with a lot of kit and it can sometimes seem like it’s all about the food. It isn’t, and you don’t need all the cash in the world to keep your dog busy. But if you search for scent work or non-food, you’ll find at least a handful of ideas you won’t have tried yet and there’s plenty of stuff if you’re on a budget. Some of the ideas have become absolute go-to staples for me, like snuffle mats, scatter feeding and stuffed chews. But it should never be all about the food, nor all about things for your dog to do on their own.
The fact of the matter is that the more things your dog finds rewarding, the more you can use them. That includes handling, specific touches, massage, scent work, using smell, including food and edibles, and plenty of appropriate exercise from swimming to low-impact agility as well as toys and food. Bear in mind that your teenager may also be still growing so keep an eye on the physical exertion, and this is also a time when favoured objects can become accidental obsessions. Use the teenage years to build up a massive, huge bank of things your dog finds wonderful. You want that bank of things that your dog finds fun to be absolutely flipping massive. Twenty toys your dog loves, twenty scents (including the icky ones), twenty touches, twenty activities, twenty different taught words for praise and twenty food items – you’ve got over a hundred amazing ways to reinforce your dog’s behaviour.
At the same time you are building up preferences, activities and mental stimulation you also need to watch the physical exertion. Adrenaline is addictive. I speak as an ex-runner who used to clock up 100km every week. There is a reason I am an ex-runner. Exertion is costly, physically. We all like to recall the 70-year-old doing the marathon, but in reality, addiction to adrenaline is no fun and it takes its toll physically. When it’s 2am, you can’t sleep and you’re itching for your trainers despite plantar fasciitis, it is a real moment or realisation, let me tell you. That’s as true for our dogs as it is for us. When Heston pulled a muscle earlier this year, the vet was convinced it was hip dysplasia. It wasn’t, but it cost me some sleepless nights wondering if I had caused this. Adrenaline begets adrenaline, and it can be hard to break that cycle with a dog who is almost bug-eyed with a crazy, amphetamine-like high. Now is not the time to take your dogs on 10-mile hikes or take up canicross or joring just to tire them out. To be honest, now, I’d avoid amping dogs up in their teenage years. Calmness is your friend. I made that mistake with Heston and it took me years to put right.
You may find other ways as well to find some calm for your dog. Gentle massage, Ttouch, music, even long, gentle grooming sessions can be just as calming for a dog as they are for you. If your dog is aroused by these, go slower and for shorter periods of time. Both Murgatroyd and Bernie had (male) owners who rough-housed with them. This has to stop I’m afraid. Whilst rough-housing might be fine with an adult dog who has good impulse control, it is massively over-arousing and I work with a couple of dogs whose mouthing is a direct response to rough play. I wrestle with Heston now from time to time, but he is six. I didn’t do it when he was 18 months and I’m glad for that. Dogs do play like-for-like with us if we play back – they play bow to us, they hip-check us and body slam us. It doesn’t take much for this to pass over into mouthing if you have a boisterous breed.
If you act like a dog and play like a dog, don’t be surprised if your dog plays back like a dog as well. I know dogs don’t see us as bald dogs on two legs, but if you play as dogs play, don’t be surprised if your dog doesn’t switch back to treating you like a human because they don’t know the rules have changed. How are they to know that a shoulder bump is par for the course but mouthing your limbs is not?
For dogs who do this as teens, there seem to be two agents: families who play physically with their dog, and dogs in single-dog homes who don’t get to play with other dogs, or those in homes with dogs who don’t play at all.
My sideline in foster caring for kittens involves a lot of work with small kittens on appropriate play. Having raised hundreds of non-clawy kittens, all that comes down to is appropriate play. My hands are never, ever honorary prey. We play with toys, but my kitts don’t ever chase my hands. The only thing my hands do is calm stroking and gentle grooming. People who play with their kittens using only their hands often end up with bitey, scratchy cats who don’t respect the ‘no-blood’ rule. Play finishes when this happens in my house and there’s no blood. We could all do with imagining dogs to be tigers with retractable claws and then we’d probably give off fewer mixed signals about play. This is especially true if your dog is going to grow up big.
It is really, really important as your dog leaves puppyhood around 12 – 20 weeks that you teach other things than jumping up or mouthing. Good manners are taught not caught, and there is no use crying over spilt milk when your ten-month old ridgeback or weimaraner is still nipping and playing far too hard. A puppy has no idea that the rules have changed unless you teach them.
Alongside teaching about these rules, it’s also important to teach focus and impulse control. These are things that you can be teaching your puppy from the moment you get them, because good impulse control in their teenage years will help them – and you – emerge unscathed. Dogs need to be taught that they don’t charge up to every single person or dog. They need to learn how to pass other dogs on lead without reacting or expecting to interact. They need to learn how to pass barking dogs and dogs behind fences, dogs in cars and dogs behind windows without feeling the need – or the right – to interact. This is as true for other dogs as it is for humans, cats, kids, cars, bikes and joggers. There are many great ways to teach impulse control, from Susan Garrett’s “It’s Yer Choice” to Absolute Dogs’ games, from flirt pole games to games with food or other toys. A dog that knows to look to the owner before making a decision and knows that they don’t have to interact with the whole world is a dog who will emerge as a wonder-dog from its teenage years. The most simple way to do this is through toys. Once you have taught your puppy to retrieve, it’s not hard to use this to teach them to only chase, fetch and retrieve when you give the okay.
I think this is one of the most fundamental things that overly-aroused dogs lack: the ability to look to the owner or handler before interacting. The lack of understanding that there are some things we just don’t need to interact with is a big part of the problem.
The final thing I ask owners of over-aroused dogs to do is to implement a relaxation protocol, such as the one devised by veterinary behaviourist Dr Karen Overall. For this, alongside the enrichment activities, you may find you’re ditching the bowl completely and using all of your dog’s calories for learning. The Relaxation Protocol at its simplest is a “sit/stay” programme with a variety of challenges and complexities. It can be practised in a variety of environments and can build up to non-engagement in a range of more challenging situations. It’s something I adapt with owners, because some dogs find it too difficult, and every dog is different. For some, it’s a “down/stay” rather than a sit.
Other aspects of a dog’s life that can promote relaxation include Ttouch or canine massage, certain oils or flower remedies, zoopharmacognosy, white noise and music. Thinking more holistically will certainly help.
A final word is about collars. Many teenage dogs pull. The stronger they are, the more they can pose a problem for you. Whilst I have no problem with leads and flat collars for dogs who don’t pull, a dog who is pulling is in need of a programme to help them walk nicely. I heard someone say this week that harnesses encourage pulling. Hmm, I thought. Not sure about the ‘education’ harnesses that plant a dog nose-first on the floor if they pull, or those that restrict movement. They definitely don’t encourage pulling. More likely that normal collars or chokes discourage pulling, and a well-fitting comfortable harness is more likely to show how your dog walks normally. That might be pretty bad indeed if your choke collar has been the only reason your dog walks to heel.
However, once a dog starts pulling on a choke, a martingale or a normal collar (never mind a prong!) things happen that will increase your dog’s arousal, not lower it. If your dog is pulling towards something, limiting blood supply and oxygen will only increase arousal.
Nobody, not anybody, will tell you that being short of breath is good for lowering arousal.
If you have a reactive dog, the unpleasant sensation can add to those feelings. Lead tension can be a powerful clue that something arousing will shortly appear in view. Aroused dogs, in my experience, will still pull – whether you are popping, yanking, tugging or jerking, or even if you have a constant pressure. I’ve seen aroused teenagers being ‘popped’ every two or three paces by their owner. We use slip leads at the shelter at the beginning because dogs need to get used to a harness, and there are few harnesses easy to fit to a bouncing scaredy setter who has spent 23 hours confined and surrounded by 200 other dogs. But do you think those slips discourage pulling? For our pullers, we switch as soon as we can to a harness. They still don’t walk on a loose lead unless we do a programme with them, but at least they aren’t hurting themselves.
Switching to a harness at least means that YOU aren’t contributing to their arousal by interrupting their blood and oxygen supply to the thinking bits of the brain. Sure, you may then realise you need a loose-lead programme as well but this is not because harnesses encourage pulling, more that collars are unpleasant and they discourage pulling. The end-result is the same, but it’s not because harnesses make dogs pull more.
If you have a short-nosed dog, a dog with a predisposition to thyroid problems, a predisposition to eye problems, heart problems, collapsing tracheas, paralysed larynxes, heritable disc or spinal issues, syncope, retinal problems or glaucoma, the very last thing you want to do is allow them to pull even slightly against a flat collar, choke, slip-lead or half-choke. If you have a dog who has ANY congenital or heritable likelihood for anything to do with thyroids, breathing, heart problems, spinal problems, eye problems or inner ear problems, a harness may not discourage pulling in the same way, but it will certainly reduce the likelihood that you’ll accidentally spark some congenital disorder. From ataxia, bloat, cardiomyopathy and cervical disc disease right through to ventricular tachycardia and vasculitis, if your dog pulls and you want to avoid stressing your dog’s blood circulation or breathing, then a good harness and a loose-lead programme is a must.
So there you have it.
Alongside a wide variety of mental enrichment activities and a reduction in adrenaline-boosting physical activities, teaching impulse control games and using a relaxation protocol, you should see an over-all reduction in arousal and over-excitement. This programme should be specifically tailored to your dog’s own preferences and tendencies but it does no harm at all to build up other skills that are lacking. Whilst Heston, for instance, was a very independent teenager, if I only did independent activities with him, I’d end up making him even more ‘unbalanced’. By building on his tracking skills, his heelwork skills and finally his gundog skills, I was able to move him from independent to inter-dependent at the same time as building on his natural talents.
Every dog is different. For Murgatroyd, a harness, an hour or so of specific mental enrichment activities, a calming protocol and some impulse control games helped him get past his bitey stage. And for Bernie, a regular rule-structure, some scent-work, reduced physical rough-housing and a relaxation protocol helped him learn how to play with his owners without grabbing.
Please get in touch with a force-free dog trainer or behaviourist if you are having problems and you want a way forward.