Monday, November 16, 2009

Juveniles and Young Adults

Coincidentally, I heard from several friends and acquaintances recently that are struggling a bit with their juveniles. Most of them are males – go figure – and three of the same breed: German shepherd. Now, I am very fond of German shepherds, but truth is that they can be a handful once they are past the baby stage and before they reach maturity.

When a dog reaches social maturity varies with breed and gender. Aussie Davie was seriously on-the-job at 16 weeks, while our Newfy Baywolf finally got a brain around 4 years of age. Generally, females mature faster – go figure again – and smaller dogs do too, and dogs bred to do serious work also do.

Every dog can go through different developmental stages until they are adults. That includes the well-known newfound juvenile confidence and independence, but also fear periods, and that many people are not aware of. They go to puppy classes, socialize, train and practice and the pooch is progressing nicely and then, all of a sudden, the beloved and so far perfect young canine exhibits a behavior that stuns them. And if their classmates and friends’ dogs are still little perfect canines, they think that something is wrong with their dog – or them, when in fact it is quite common for dogs to regress in obedience and react to something they’ve never reacted before.
The way to deal with that is to backtrack to the last successful level and incrementally build up on that. Pushing through just leads to more fear, or more friction and frustration. The fearful dog should not be exposed to anything new when in a fear period, and the selectively hard of hearing dog should be reminded that, indeed, it is the human who has the bank account – or like my friend Laura, owner of an adolescent German Shepherd, said recently: “Keeper just needs to be reassured that the talk-to-the-paw attitude doesn’t work”.
If need be, don’t be afraid to desensitize the adolescent as if he were a pup, and to clip the leash back on to a dog who already graduated to off-leash cause he had perfect recalls. It’ll be temporary – and the more sensitive, yet casual, you are about your dog’s changes, the faster it’ll be over and he will make leaps in the right direction.

Adolescent times are not necessarily the most difficult. If there are deeper-rooted issues, they often come fully to the surface once a dog has matured.
It’s not that the problem behaviors did not exist before, but are not as seriously followed through and sometimes not that overtly expressed. A younger dog, like a teenage kid, still lacks the confidence; is on some level insecure, despite displays that can be showy and offensive. Adults are a bit more serious.

Especially for dogs bred to have a job, during adolescents their need to play decreases and the need to work increases. Popular belief has it that we live with the perpetual juvenile wolf, and one reason why humans and dogs seek one another is the common lifelong love of play. I dare to differ. Dogs do grow up, and with that their needs change. Misbehavior is often being a working dog without a purpose.
My herding instructor lets his border collies play around till they are seven months, then serious work begins. And please, work does not mean force and corrections, but purpose.
Meanwhile the average dog owner still takes the eighteen months old working breed every day to the dog park to play, and that is often the only activity they do together.
Play, with humans and dogs, can always be part of the interaction, but many dogs have to get out of the sandbox to become the best dog they can be – and it’s up to the owners to facilitate that.