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Help! My Dog is a Teenager! - Part 1, The Brain

Adolescence in dogs, often referred to as the "teenage" stage, typically occurs between six months to two years of age, depending on the breed and individual development. Bigger dogs tend to mature a bit later and can even experience adolescence beyond the age of 2. Just like human teenagers, adolescent dogs undergo significant physical and behavioural changes as they transition from puppyhood to adulthood. This can make it feel impossible to live with and is probably the main reason relinquishment rates to rescue are so high during this period.

There is decreased signalling between the amygdala (responsible for survival strategies and defence mechanisms) and the cortex (controls sensory processing). This can reduce your dog’s emotional regulation and increase risk taking. This is much like human teenagers. Think of teenage boys when they get behind a car. They are more likely to drive fast and recklessly because the part of the brain involved in assessing risk has yet to fully form. In dogs, we see less thinking and more acting regardless of the risks involved. We may also see an inability to concentrate and retain information. 

The HPA axis involved in the stress response system is also heightened. This means your adolescent dog will go through at least one if not more fear periods where things that ordinarily wouldn’t worry them may be more inclined to freak them out. These fear responses during this period are more likely to have a lasting impact on your dog. They are also more likely to accumulate, leading to greater stress responses and a longer recovery time post stressor. 

Your dog will also undergo a rewire of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is known as the bonding hormone and studies have suggested when you cuddle your dog, you both experience a surge in the hormone. This rewire can make your dog clingier and more dependent on you but on the other hand, the other hormone changes can make your dog more independent. This can lead to your dog feeling quite conflicted about what they want to do.

The physical growth your dog undergoes during adolescence is massive and this can have a knock on effect on the sugar and energy that the brain receives. This, combined with the fact your dog will undergo hormone changes that stop them from feeling they need to sleep create a pretty exhausted brain! A tired breed may lead to increased muscle tension, fatigue, increased heart rates, respiration rates and temperature. This internal state of stress makes your dog more vulnerable to health issues and also the trigger stacking that was mentioned earlier. This growth can also make your dog feel a little gangly and uneven as one leg grows faster than the other and the back end grows at a different rate to the front end! This may make your dog feel less confident in their own skin but also increases the risks of growing pains, both can reduce your dog’s resilience to cope with everyday things.

The last part of the brain to develop is the emotional centre and this is why we see an increase in frustration based behaviours and a complete of self control and self preservation. Your dog will also reach sexual maturity before they hit social maturity, meaning their impulses will take over their ability to be polite about it!

You may also see a change in your dog’s social groupings. As a puppy, they may want to play with everyone and everything. As they become adolescents they start to become pickier and this can lead to an intolerance of poor social skills from other dogs and potentially some dog dog aggression. By the time they are adults, they stick to their known group of friends and aren’t as bothered about trying to say hello to everyone and everything. This is something to consider when you allow your risk seeking, socially deficient, boisterous teenager over to every single dog that you see. They may get there, find the whole situation a bit much and realise they probably shouldn’t have gone over and use aggression to get themselves back out again!

It is so important to consider these biological changes when you are at the end of your tether with your adolescent nightmare! It isn’t their fault, they have no idea what is happening and it’s something that neither of you can control.

You can find part 2 here with some suggestions on how to get through this challenging phase!


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