Researchers discover typical teenage behavior isn't exclusive to humans – here's why that's important to know.
Ah, the teenage years; that precious time when many a lovely child turns into a stubborn eye-rolling, loud-sighing, door-slamming stranger. And now as it turns out, according to research from Newcastle University and the University of Nottingham, a similar thing happens to dogs. Fortunately for both species, it doesn't last long.
"Adolescence is a vulnerable time for parent–child relationships, but little is known about owner–dog relations during adolescence," write the authors of the study, led by Dr. Lucy Asher from Newcastle University. They explain that "During puberty in humans, and alongside changes to hormones and brain reorganization, there are transitory changes in risk taking, mood, irritability and conflict with parents." This is known collectively as "adolescent-phase behavior."Recognizing the similarities between parent-and-child and owner-and-dog relationships, the researchers decided to explore if humans and dogs share characteristics of adolescence.
Dogs go through puberty at around eight months, and sure enough, the researchers found dogs were more likely to ignore commands given by their caregiver and were harder to train at this age.
"This is a very important time in a dog's life," says Asher. "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."
The study started with monitoring obedience at ages five months and eight months in a group of 69 dogs. Among other things, the dogs took longer to obey commands at eight months compared to five months. When the team looked at a larger group of 285 dogs, all of them received lower scores of "trainability" around eight months, compared to when they were aged five months or 12 months.
Dr Naomi Harvey, co-author of the research, says that the results of the study may not come as a surprise to many dog owners who have been through it, but 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," she says in a statement from the university. "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."
The study notes that the welfare consequences of a dog's "teenage" behavior could be lasting because it is the most common age at which dogs are given to shelters. Also, enduring problems may arise if dog owners employ punishment-based training methods, or if the behavior causes owners to disengage. The authors hope that these kinds of issues might be avoided if carers understood that just like in humans, problem behavior during adolescence often passes.
"It's very important that owners don't punish their dogs for disobedience or start to pull away from them emotionally at this time" adds Asher. "This would be likely to make any problem behaviour worse, as it does in human teens."
The study, "Teenage dogs? Evidence for adolescent-phase conflict behaviour and an association between attachment to humans and pubertal timing in the domestic dog," was published in Biology Letters.