NEWCASTLE, England — Adults tend to look back fondly on their teenage years, but usually don’t recall just how moody, frustrated, and angry they were during that special time between 12 and 20 years old. Teenage angst is considered a rite of passage, at least among humans, but a new study finds that our canine companions tend to get pretty stand offish during their “teenage” years as well.
Here’s hoping Spot doesn’t go through a goth phase.
Researchers from Newcastle University and the University of Nottingham have found that a group of dogs were much harder to train and less responsive to their owners at around the age of eight months old, which was right around when they were going through puberty. Dogs with an insecure attachment relationship with their owner were even harder to deal with during this period.
Just like humans, this age for dogs can be a tumultuous period. It’s right around this time that a canine stops being a cute “puppy” and transitions to full on dog-hood. Consequently, many are taken to shelters or moved to a new home around eight months old.
“This is a very important time in a dog’s life,” explains Dr. Lucy Asher from Newcastle University’s School of Natural and Environmental Sciences in a release. “This is when dogs are often re-homed because they are no longer a cute little puppy and suddenly, their owners find they are more challenging and they can no longer control them or train them. But as with human teenage children, owners need to be aware that their dog is going through a phase and it will pass.”
In all, 69 dogs were studied during the first research phase. All of the dogs were Labradors, Golden Retrievers, or a mix of those two breeds. Each pup’s obedience was measured once at five months old, and then again at eight months old.
At eight months old, the dogs took longer to respond to a “sit” request from their caregiver. However, when the dogs were asked to “sit” by a stranger, they responded quickly. Sounds a lot like the dynamic between millions of teenagers and their parents. The dogs were also much more likely to repeatedly ignore commands from their caregiver at eight months old.
Responses to the “sit” command from strangers actually improved between five and eight months old, though, clearly indicating that the dogs just didn’t want to listen to their primary caregiver.
Next, researchers examined a group 285 Labradors, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, and mixtures of those breeds. The owner of each dog, as well as a secondary, less-familiar trainer, filled out surveys asking about their dog’s “trainability.” Each owner and trainer were asked to rate the accuracy of statements such as, “Refuses to obey commands, which in the past it was proven it has learned,” and “Responds immediately to the recall command when off lead.”
While the caregivers overwhelmingly responded that their dog was extra hard to deal with at around eight months old, the trainers again said the opposite; the dogs were easier to train for them during that same period.
Another significant finding was the observation that female dogs with insecure attachments to their owners (always seeking affection, high anxiety upon separation) tended to enter puberty earlier than other dogs. This is especially noteworthy because the same relationship has been seen in female human adolescents.
“Many dog owners and professionals have long known or suspected that dog behavior can become more difficult when they go through puberty” says Dr Naomi Harvey, a study co-author from the University of Nottingham’s School of Veterinary Medicine. “But until now there has been no empirical record of this. Our results show that the behavior changes seen in dogs closely parallel that of parent-child relationships, as dog-owner conflict is specific to the dog’s primary caregiver and just as with human teenagers, this is a passing phase.”
“It’s very important that owners don’t punish their dogs for disobedience or start to pull away from them emotionally at this time” Dr. Asher concludes. “This would be likely to make any problem behavior worse, as it does in human teens”.
The study is published in Biology Letters.