OUR CHINOOK puppy, Larry, and I have been attending puppy classes for the past eight weeks. Two weeks ago in class we were working on a behavior that Larry had been performing beautifully for several weeks.
I gave him the cue, he looked at me and did nothing. Well, he didn't actually do nothing. He very obviously blew me off. Leisl, our Instructor, looked at me and laughed. She knew that Larry's lack of response was just the first sign of things to come - adolescence!
Teenage behavior in dogs is not unlike teenage behavior in humans. Human adolescents test the parameters of "accepted" behavior. They have selective hearing, ignore what their parents want, and occasionally do something totally brainless. Dogs do all this plus a new dimension of regressions: occasionally reverting to puppy behaviors we thought were gone such as renewed chewing, mouthiness, and possibly even house training.
While I still see glimpses of the compliant, sweet puppy that was Larry just a few weeks ago, he is definitely becoming a teenager. As if his personality changes aren't enough, his gangly body - seemingly growing taller overnight - is definite proof that Larry is growing up.
Over the past 10 or 15 years, there's been a growing awareness of the importance of early training and socialization - introducing puppies to a variety of people and situations.
It used to be that owners wouldn't start formal training until the dog was six months or even older. One reason for this delay was that popular training methods at the time relied on harsh collar "corrections" that were unsuitable for training a young puppy. Another reason that owners didn't start training with young puppies is that puppies are compliant and easy-to-live-with. With the exception of house training and mouthing - two things that aren't addressed in a typical "adult" training class - most dog owners are able to deal with a young puppy's behavior without needing formal training. That is, until the dreaded teenager emerges.
Starting sometime between four and six months of age, a number of changes occur, one of which is called the "flight instinct period." This is a normal occurrence that involves a puppy suddenly failing to come when called. Prior to this time, the puppy readily came when called with no hesitation. The minute the flight instinct period rears its ugly head, the puppy doesn't respond, and may even run away, exploring beyond his previous, self-imposed boundaries. So two things change - a puppy that was sticking close to home, and didn't even need to be kept on leash in an unfenced area, is suddenly not trustworthy. He doesn't come, and he tests the boundaries of his world (literally), by taking off if he has the opportunity.
While the change in training methods and recognition of the importance of early training has resulted in a greater percentage of new puppy owners starting in training classes much earlier, there's an unintended consequence for this early training. Since puppies are easily trained and responsive, owners come to expect this same level of compliance and willingness even after they've completed a six- or eight-week class program. And that just ain't going to happen. We try to prepare owners for what's about to happen, which is what I'm just starting to go through with Larry - adolescence.
Puppy Class just is not enough training to last a lifetime. These few weeks of training just lay the foundation for what is needed next, which is training to get your adolescent over the hump - to become a trained dog. It is so very important for puppy owners to continue training through this sometimes difficult transition time.
This week Larry "moved up" to our Level 2 classes, an intermediate level where we practice and perfect the behaviors the dogs learned in Puppy and Level 1, and add some new behaviors to the dog's behavioral repertoire. I was absolutely exhausted after this first class session, something that didn't happen after puppy class. Larry's new "testing" behavior means I have to work harder to keep or regain his focus. While some adolescents are highly willing and tractable - they do very little to test the patience of their owners, others are diametrically opposite - it's hard to believe that they had ever learned anything at all.
And there are those in between - dogs that may need a reminder of what they're supposed to do, and even appear reasonably well-trained from time to time. Larry falls into the latter category. And I'm so glad I have the support and help of a terrific class to get him through this stage.
Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn® near Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. To suggest a topic for this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write c/o All Dogs Gym, 505 Sheffield Rd., Manchester, NH 03103.