A guide to navigating the challenge and adventure of life with your dogs.

How to Survive Your Dog’s Teen Months

Life with an adolescent dog can be an, um, adventure. Here’s how to make it through with your sanity intact.

What to expect

The adolescent period starts at around six months for small dogs and eight months for big dogs. It lasts until 18 months to two years.

Adolescence is when puppies become more independent, and more interested in the outside world. They can lose their understanding of the training they’ve had – Sparky may have been the star of puppy class, but by ten months old, he can’t tell Down from Heel. Teenage dogs have a harder time paying attention to you because everything else is SO EXCITING AND STIMULATING AHHH.

For people who have never before experienced the transformation of a baby puppy to a teen puppy, it can be a serious blow to the ego the first time they do. They suddenly find themselves no longer at the center of their puppy’s universe but as an afterthought somewhere along the outer edges.

Don’t worry. They’ll appreciate everything you’ve done for them when they’re older.

Remember: they’re still puppies

Your one-year-old lab mix may look like an adult, but they’re very much not. They’re still learning about the world, still growing into who they’re going to be. Big on enthusiasm, low on understanding. Teenage dogs can seem like real dickheads, but they’re not doing it on purpose. They can’t really help it. It’s allll part of this particular phase of puppyhood. They still need you to guide them and train them like the brand-new critters they really are.

Watch out for the second fear impact period

The first fear impact period occurs when a puppy is about nine weeks old. The second occurs sometime between six months and 18 months. My Belgian malinois, River, had hers when she was eight months old. The onset was marked by an explosive, fearful-barking reaction to a child she had already met and played with just a couple months before.

As a young puppy, River was unusually shy. I did a lot of work to get her over her fears, and it paid off. Until, that is, the second fear impact period, when it seemed like all my hard work was undone! But she bounced back after this.

The fear impact period lasts about 2-3 weeks. If you notice your happy-go-lucky adolescent dog is suddenly scared of things that never bothered her before, she’s probably starting a fear period. Any scary experience will leave a much bigger impression than it would before or after this stage. Continue socializing and training, but take care to make sure nothing can traumatize her during this time.

How to handle your teenage dog

Keep managing. No free-rein of the house just yet

Management is not just for the infant-puppy potty training phase. You probably don’t have to manage your older puppy quite as strictly, but you don’t want to stop entirely. Adolescence is a prime time for bad habits to develop. So use crates, baby gates, and other management tools to physically keep your unruly teenage dog out of trouble.

Keep the socialization train a’runnin’

In recent years, there’s been a big push to teach dog owners how important it is to socialize their 2-4 month old puppies. Puppy classes and socialization training is all the rage. And that’s great! But it’s easy to slack off when the puppy gets older and looks like an adult.

Teenage puppies are kept at home more and don’t get taken on adventures as much. So it’s common for dogs who were well-socialized as baby puppies to regress in their socialization as teenage puppies. They can develop fear or aggression, or become rusty in their ability to communicate with other dogs.

At least a couple times a week, have a socialization adventure: take Sparky to visit a friend, have a friend bring their dog over to visit, take a car ride to an interesting place, etc.

Don’t be afraid to go back a few steps in training

When River was a baby, I frequently took her to a nearby park to practice her basic obedience skills. She was eager to train, and learned to focus intently on me.

And then she became a teenager.

We’d go to the same park, and it was a small miracle if I could get her to even look at me.

This can be discouraging, but it’s normal. Teenage puppies start to really NOTICE the world, and have a hard time focusing.

How do you maintain your relevance to your suddenly fiercely independent pup? By teaching her that:

You’re in charge of the most interesting things in the world

A piece of dog training advice you might hear on occasion: In order to control your dog, you have to be the most interesting thing in the world to your dog.

Easier said than done.

It takes an enormous amount of energy to be the coolest thing in the world to a dog, especially when you’re are at the park and there are other dogs running around and kids on skateboards and smelly bushes and squirrels daring Sparky to just TRY and catch them. And with an adolescent dog? Good luck.

So what’s a mere mortal to do?

Remind Sparky that even though everything else is extremely fascinating, he still has to listen to you. Why? Because you control his access to all that fascinating stuff.

Instead of fighting with the distractions in your dog’s environment, you’re going to put them to work for you and turn the distractions into rewards.

Let’s say you’re on a walk. You want Sparky to stop pulling on the leash. You have some delicious treats with you. You plan to give him one every time he stops pulling to focus on you. One problem: he doesn’t care about the treats. What he cares about is investigating all the trees on your path. So forget the treats. Now, get him to acknowledge you and when he does, even for a second, let him go sniff a few trees. Keep repeating this process, gradually increasing the time Sparky has to focus on you before he can get to the trees.

River and I started doing a lot of focus and attention training. I recorded our training sessions and turned it into the Focus & Come When Called course. If you’d like to see exactly how River “got her brain back” and returned to her attentive, eager-to-train self, you might wanna check that out.