For Dogs, Puberty Is Pretty Ruff, Too

Like human teenagers, a new study shows that canines exhibit heightened conflict behavior during adolescence

Dr Lucy Asher and her dog Martha 1.jpg
Dr. Lucy Asher and her dog, Martha Photo by Glen Asher-Gordon, courtesy of Newcastle University

Going through puberty can be bad enough for human teens, but new research indicates it’s not very fun for their canine companions either. According to a study published in Biology Letters, dogs may exhibit some adolescent-phase behavior during puberty, reports Nicola Davis for the Guardian.

Researchers from the Newcastle University and the Universities of Nottingham and Edinburgh studied a group of 285 Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, German shepherds and cross breeds of the three canines from ages five to eight months, per a Newcastle University statement. These breeds roughly go through puberty from about six to nine months old, so researchers caught them before and during this key transition period, per the Guardian.

Puberty—the process by which juvenile adults become behaviorally and reproductively mature—is often accompanied by hormonal changes that can lead to irritability, increased risk taking, and other abnormal behaviors. “We know that there are hormonal changes and we know there is a big reorganization of the brain that occurs around that time across mammals, so we are fairly confident that is something that is going on in dogs,” as lead author Lucy Asher, an animal behavior researcher at Newcastle University, tells the Guardian.

To conduct their study, the team sent behavioral questionnaires to each dog’s owner and a trainer less familiar with the dog. They asked each person to rate the dog’s “trainability,” such as its willingness to respond to commands while off leash. They also conducted behavioral tests with 69 out of the 285 dogs, per the university statement.

Researchers found that dogs were more likely to clash with their caregiver during adolescence. Those canines who had insecure relationships with their caregiver to begin with were even more likely to have conflict, reports Virginia Morell for Science.

As many pet-owners and enthusiasts are aware, dogs can have distinct personalities and complicated emotional lives. A study published in March surveyed nearly 14,000 dogs and found that nearly 75 percent of them demonstrated at least one anxiety-related behavior. “There is abundant folk knowledge … that the behavior of adolescents differs from younger or older dogs,” Barbara Smuts, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who was not involved in the study, says in an interview with Science. However, until now, little evidence to support that claim has been found, she says.

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a professor of psychology and cognitive neuroscience at the University of Cambridge not involved in the study, tells the Guardian that she finds the research 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 says. “The [canine] research suggests certain behaviors that we associate with teenagers are not unique to humans.”

As the BBC reports, this volatile adolescent phase is also a time when many dog owners try to give their dogs away. “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,” Asher explains in the University statement. “But as with human teenage children, owners need to be aware that their dog is going through a phase and it will pass.”

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