Adolescence Is Ruff On Dogs Too, New Study Says

Researchers have found that pooches become less responsive to instructions from their carer during adolescence, just like humans.

Dr Lucy Asher, co-author of the research and a Senior Lecturer in Precision Animal Science in the School of Natural and Environmental Sciences at Newcastle University, suggests that, as in humans, dogs who are less secure about their bond with their carer may “play up” to test its strength. In dogs, she said, that could help the animal weigh up whether it is better to stay with its carer – or follow its reproductive urges to find a mate.

Asher said she hoped the findings would help owners be more understanding of their dogs and cut them some slack, noting there is a spike in owners taking their dogs to shelters when the animals hit puberty.

“This is a very important time in a dog’s life,” she explains. “This is when dogs are often rehomed 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. Perhaps they are not misbehaving just because they are naughty, but it is just like in humans – the hormones are raging and there are things going on in the brain,” she said.

Writing in the journal Biology Letters, Asher and colleagues report how they explored canine adolescence by looking at the behaviour of would-be guide dogs: German shepherds, golden retrievers, labrador retrievers or crosses of these breeds. Such breeds, said Asher, start puberty – the transition from immature to mature – at about six to nine months old.

“We know that there are hormonal changes and we know there is a big reorganisation of the brain that occurs around that time across mammals, so we are fairly confident that is something that is going on in dogs,” said Asher. But, she added, until now it was not clear how this period related to canine behaviour.

dr-lucy-asher-and-her-dog-martha
Dr Lucy Asher and her dog Martha

Among the experiments the team looked at how obedient dogs of both sexes were to commands such as “sit” at different ages.

The results from 82 dogs aged five months, and 80 dogs aged eight months revealed that adolescents were less obedient than young pups to commands from their carers.

“They are nearly twice as likely to ignore the ‘sit’ command when they are eight months as compared to when they are five months,” said Asher.

However the animals’ obedience to a given stranger increased over the same period.

The findings were backed up by questionnaire responses regarding a wider group of 285 dogs, with a drop in trainability reported by carers, but not dog trainers – who were less familiar to the animals – between five and eight months old.

Further work revealed signs of separation behaviour – such as shaking when left alone – increased around eight months of age, and was associated with lower obedience at that age. What’s more, the experts also found that in common with humans, female dogs with insecure attachments to their caregivers (characterised by higher levels of attention seeking and anxiety when separated from them) were more likely to reach puberty early. This data provides the first evidence of cross-species impact of relationship quality on reproductive timing, highlighting another parallel with parent-child relationships, although cause and effect remains unclear.

Dr Naomi Harvey, co-author of the research from the University of Nottingham’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, says that whilst the results of this study may not come as a surprise to many dog owners, it has important consequences.

“Many dog owners and professionals have long known or suspected that dog behaviour can become more difficult when they go through puberty” says Dr Harvey. “But until now there has been no empirical record of this. Our results show that the behaviour 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.”

Dr Claudia Fugazza of the Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, who was not involved in the research, said the study is important as there is little work into canine adolescence, but she added the research has limitations, including that much of the work is based on questionnaires, while it is not clear how deep the similarities go between parent and child, and dog and carer when it comes to different styles of attachment, and the mechanisms behind them.

However Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, professor of psychology and cognitive neuroscience at the University of Cambridge described the study as fascinating.

“In humans, adolescence is often associated with increased risk taking, peer influence and conflict with parents. This is probably due to multiple factors including hormonal changes, brain and cognitive development and changes in the social environment,” she said. This research “suggests certain behaviours that we associate with teenagers are not unique to humans.”

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