I received a funny email from a client who took puppy class with me, and is now the less than proud owner of a rambunctious, adolescent dog (those were her exact words!). "What happened to my sweet puppy?! This dog is crazy!," she lamented. I reminded her that adolescence is fraught with (sometimes) painful growth, boundary testing, rule-breaking, and patience straining...and that's true for adolescent humans, as well as dogs, right? Everyone always focuses on doing "everything right" with their puppies, forgetting many of these much-needed rules and guidelines when those same puppies hit adolescence and adulthood. Just because a dog isn't a puppy anymore doesn't mean that rules and structure don't apply or aren't appropriate. Let me give you a few examples of where folks seem to get messed up.
1. Not using treats: I know we've talked about treats before, but having them readily available to reward your dog of any age is truly a game-changer. Whether you are marking and rewarding that near perfect off leash recall, or amazed with how well your dog restrains themselves at the front door, you need to be ready to dish out rewards that your dog will appreciate and remember. Treat-based rewards are not just for puppies and puppy training! Research clearly shows that dogs who receive praise alone or praise and a pat and the head, are not as motivated to perform new tasks, and don't learn as quickly, as those who are given treats for their work. And while giving kibble is fine for filling a Kong or burying in a snuffle mat, you will want to use higher value treats (as defined by your dog's preferences) when working on new behaviors, speeding up recall, or working on redirection. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. We all like to get paid. And those treats need to be readily available. If you have to go to the kitchen, open a container, and cut up a treat, you've lost the chance of your dog associating the reward with their behavior. So, yes, you should always have treats in your pocket!
2. Repeating yourself like a broken record: When you ask for a behavior, give your dog at least a few seconds to process what you said. Human language is not their primary form of communication, so you need to give them a chance to hear what you said and turn that into a behavior change on their part. Repeatedly saying "Sit," for example, won't result in your dog sitting any faster. In fact, repeating the command over and over in quick succession pretty much guarantees that they will sit more slowly as they've learned you don't have to sit when first asked, you can wait until the request is given multiple times to do the behavior being asked. And remember: don't reach for that treat in your pocket until the dog has completed the behavior you've asked. If you reach too soon, you are rewarding the dog for thinking about doing what you asked, or worse still, you are allowing yourself to be blackmailed. If you wait a few seconds and your dog doesn't come when called, no need to repeat the word. Instead, pat your leg, bend down, whistle, make goofy sounds, run the other way, etc. This way, you're not repeating yourself, nor are you diluting the value of the request. You are simply adding more value to what you asked them to do.
3. Delivering harsh corrections: Just as you were patient while training your puppy, you need to be patient with your adolescent and adult dogs as well. "Popping the leash," yanking them by the collar, etc. doesn't teach the dog anything other than to hate being leashed or having their collar grabbed. The purpose of the collar and leash is to keep your dog safe when out in public spaces. Remember that! It isn't about control, per se. It's a mutually beneficial situation; we keep our dogs on leash and near us so that they can be out in public and so that we can keep them safe. You walk WITH your dog. Make it enjoyable for you both by choosing the right tool for the job. The right tool can change over time depending on the age of the dog. While a flat collar and 6 foot leash might be fine for a puppy, you may need an 8 foot leash and a head halter or body harness for your active, adolescent dog. And your senior dog may need more (or less!) leash depending on their vision and their abilities as they age.
4. Practice does make perfect: You worked with your puppy every day on new behaviors. You doled out lots of treats and praise for every step in the learning process. You knew that while they seemed to figure out what "Sit" meant the first time you guided them into the behavior, you would need to continue to mark and reward that behavior until they really understood it. Well, the same goes for adolescent and adult dogs. You can't expect them to have perfect, off-leash recall if you've never practiced that. If you have a pandemic dog, your dog may have only ever worked in your home and yard with any regularity. Now, they are out in public spaces where there are a lot of distractions! You need to work on the behaviors you want them to execute reliably out in those spaces and with distractions if you have any hope of them being successful. Take your time and be patient. It took you more than one day to learn to drive a car, learn to ski, or write in cursive. It will take your dog several sessions on a long line practicing recall before they are ready to practice without a leash at all.
5. Recognizing when your dog is apprehensive or afraid: Remember in puppy class when you scooped up your puppy and reassured him when he got rolled by another puppy during play? You recognized that he was overwhelmed and afraid and you stepped in to let him know that you had his back. So, why aren't you doing the same thing for your adolescent or adult dogs? While puppies do go through fear stages, fear isn't something that only happens in puppyhood. The world is full of scary things and a chance encounter with a runaway shopping cart at Home Depot may be all it takes for your dog to be afraid of wheeled objects. Acknowledge that they are afraid and work with them to move past it at their own pace. This will likely require repeated exposures and desensitization, along with the delivery of rewards as they move through their fear. And if they don't move past it? Try not to get frustrated and ask for help.
As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.