No matter where you work, there are some common phrases you hear from people all the time. In an office it might be, “The printer is broken again.” or “Where is the stapler?” In real estate it might be “Location, location, location.” The dog training profession is no different. One phrase I hear frequently is “Suddenly, out of the blue, my dog…”
This phrase is generally associated with some unwanted or inappropriate behavior the dog has started to display. For instance, “Suddenly, out of the blue, my dog started barking at strangers.” Or “Suddenly, out of the blue, my dog bit my niece.”
In an attempt to understand the sudden behavior change in their dog, most owners attach significance to some routine event that immediately preceded the behavior. Usually, it involves a person (the child must have hit the dog), or location (he wasn’t like this until he came back from the vet’s office), or activity (he never did this until we started doing training).
And while some of those associations might be valid, normally the sudden, out of the blue behavior is more likely to be related to the age of the dog and the dog’s overall temperament. More importantly, most of the time these behaviors are completely predictable and in many cases, avoidable with proper intervention.
There are two distinctive times that I receive training calls for what I have come to dub the “suddenly my dog starting doing X, Y, Z” behaviors: The dog is either six-seven months of age or approximately 18 months old.
Between six and seven months of age dogs hit adolescence and it’s not unusual for a dog to start testing his confidence level. Also during this time many dogs go through a fear impact period where they can become suddenly nervous with new experiences. This is a time when many owners first start noticing their dog barking at the doorbell, strangers or other dogs. Incidentally, you’ll note this is also the age many dogs get neutered/spayed and often the veterinarian’s office gets an unfair bad rap for causing the perceived new problems in the dog.
Then, around 18 months of age, dogs are reaching maturity and any type of unwanted behavior usually becomes even stronger. This is true of that jumping behavior which was so cute in your 3-month-old Labrador but is now knocking people to the ground. It’s also true of growling, snarling or barking. Dogs grow “into” not “out of” aggression. So if you are seeing any unwanted behavior in your dog, particularly growling, barking, showing teeth, hiding, or snarling, you can bet these behaviors will become stronger when the dog reaches maturity. Don’t wait! Start working on these behaviors now.
Here are some things you should do with your 6-7 month old puppy and continue doing until he is an adult:
- Increase your dog’s social activities and outings. Don’t stop taking your puppy to new places. At 6-7 months of age you should continue to go places that provide a positive experience for your dog. Take lots of treats and toys and let the dog have fun!
- Give your dog time to get adjusted to new locations. If something seems scary, take treats and try feeding your dog in that environment. Give him enough space from other people and dogs so that he can relax. Don’t force your dog to tolerate a new environment. Instead, help him to have fun by playing games or feeding him there. If that’s not possible, then take your dog home and contact a local trainer who can provide more one-on-one assistance to help your dog overcome his fears.
- Enroll your dog in obedience classes to help build his confidence and teach him alternative behaviors you can use when he is wants to bark, chase, run, or lunge.
- Continue to let your dog meet friendly strangers…and every stranger can become friendly if you give them really tasty treats to feed your dog.
- Realize that if your dog is showing unwanted behaviors, they will continue to get worse as he matures.
By understanding your dog’s developmental stages, you can anticipate his behavior and intervene to keep the “sudden out of the blue” occurrences to a minimum.