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Puppy to adult - The effect of development stages on training

Updated: May 18, 2023

When your puppy arrives, you can't help but be smitten by everything they do. You start to dream of the life you're going to have with them. However, there is a fair bit of development to go through between your dog arriving and that dream becoming a reality.

They arrive knowing little about the world around them and their early experiences influence how they will be later in life. As they grow there are different development stages, and each stage brings with it opportunities and challenges.

I’m going to break this down as follows:

  • The first 8 weeks – The time with the breeder (aka the "I can't wait to get them" stage)

  • Puppyhood – The stage from when you get your puppy around 8 weeks until circa 6 months (aka the "You're so cute but bitey" stage)

  • Adolescence – circa 6 months to 18/24 months (aka the "Oh my god, why did I get a dog" stage)

  • Adulthood – Circa 18/24 months onwards. (aka the "I love owning a dog, shall we get a second?" stage)

The first 8 weeks - aka the "I can't wait to get them" stage

A dog with her puppies

This is really important and when choosing a breeder to select a dog, a great indication of what your dog is going to be like is how the parents are. If the parents are high energy and friendly, there is a good chance this is what you will get, conversely if the parents are shy and slightly anxious these traits may affect your puppy. However, bear in mind that each dog is a unique individual, and seeing them on one day might differ to seeing them at other times - they may be more tired, more active, in a good mood or bad - so seeing them a few times and talking to the breeder about their personality will really help.

The other side to consider is what your breeder is going to do to help the puppy learn about the world. What training are they going to do. There are lots of amazing techniques that can be introduced early on to help your puppy develop. This can include toilet training, separation training, interaction development, exposure to household noises and items, plus a whole load more.

A good breeder will want to make sure the puppy they hand over is all set for a great life in your home.

Puppyhood (8 weeks until circa 6 months) aka the "You're so cute but bitey" stage

This is where you start your adventure. This is the period where they learn about your world and things in general. They are going to be like goldfish with an attention span of seconds, they'll be into everything and using that mouth to explore the world.

Between when you get your puppy and when they can go outside there is a lot you can do to start the process of helping them adapt to their new surroundings. Developing a puppy to be responsive and well behaved starts as soon as you get them.

​Good puppy training is about knowing how to encourage the right behaviours and also reduce the potential for your puppy to learn unwanted behaviours.

Guiding and training puppies to have good manners and be responsive takes time, consistency, and effort. Dogs continually learn so having support throughout their development will help develop a fantastic and adored companion.

​We love seeing puppies that develop and settle well into their new homes. Allowing them to explore the world in their own time and in a positive way will considerably help.

Once they can go out into the world, it’s good to expose them to new things, but it’s also good to not overwhelm them. Going at their pace will help develop confidence and the bond between you. Done well it will also encourage calmness around new people, dogs and anything else. This is known as socialisation, but raising a good puppy isn’t just about letting them meet every dog, in fact you need to teach them to stay calm and not meet all dogs too. Plus, socialisation is about exposure in a positive way so the dog learns the world isn't a scary place - so the dog's body language is going to be pivotal in learning how they are feeling and reacting - which dictates how you should respond to develop a great puppy.

​Adolescence - the "Oh my god why did I get a dog" stage

This stage generally starts between 5 and 7 months and, depending on breed, lasts for a good few months until 18-24 months old.

This is where the fun really starts. Some dogs might sail through this stage with no real change to how they behave, however for a lot it will be like their whole personality has changed.

What is important to remember is that dogs and bitches are going through important physical and neurological (and thus psychological) development driven by hormones, this transformation will lead to them wanting to approach things they haven't wanted to before, avoid things they aren't sure about or just behave in an extreme way. This behaviour is normal and will settle but you must ride the waves and cut them some slack while this occurs (while also using methods to control and manage their behaviour in a positive way). They are struggling with it themselves.

As they enter this stage, you’ll notice the dog start to be easily distracted and interested in things they may not have been interested in before. They also might become more shy, anxious, or sensitive to sounds and sights. You may find that all that great puppy training seemingly goes out of the window and they don't want to spend as much time with you. Their obedience drops, jumping up becomes more pronounced, recall fades, lead walking becomes a lot of pulling and feels more like tug of war - you end up on speed dial with your physio.

This is quite common, a good trainer can guide you on what to expect and how to deal with it. This isn't them being naughty or trying to wind you up, their brains are developing at a fast rate and they start to struggle to concentrate and focus in the same way as they did. Their instincts to start to kick in and they begin to explore the world in a new way, one about survival and reproduction which will help them learn how to navigate the world as an adult.

It's worth noting that neutering doesn't necessarily change behaviour in the way you hope, it can actually make some situations worse, but ideally speak to a qualified 'vet behaviourist' to find out more.

Your dog may grow out of it after a few months, but at the same time some of those ‘interesting’ behaviours could turn into habits if not tackled early on and then become more difficult to resolve later.

Avoiding rehearsal and directing their behaviours onto something more positive will help not only reduce unwanted behaviours but also build the bond you have with your dog. We'd also suggest shortening the length of any training session and reducing any expectations you have so your dog is more successful and enjoys being with you and training.

I recently read the following which summarises it really well "Adolescence in social mammals is a time when hormone development rewires the brain and the puppy goes from a self-centred youngster through the inevitable extremes of fluctuating hormones, then stabilises into a cooperative adult."

​Adulthood (circa 18/24 months onwards) - the "I love owning a dog, shall we get a second?" stage

As your dog transitions from adolescence to adulthood, you'll notice they will start to gradually calm down. As with all stages, continue to train and work with your dog. As an adult they'll likely be less distracted by the environment. More focus means more engagement and you'll be able to work on behaviours and develop them.

However, some of those adolescent behaviours may have become habits and this can present some challenges. Training and behaviour modification can resolve this and develop the good behaviours you are hoping for.

We firmly believe you can teach old dogs new tricks, it just takes a little longer and requires the right approach. Don’t despair if you are struggling, there is usually a way to help them.

How does this play out in terms of behaviour

If we consider a core behaviour like Recall, what happens during these stages:

  • The first 8 weeks – The breeder will be teaching them to enjoy being around humans. Learning to come to their handler for rewards and interaction, ideally without jumping up for it.

  • Puppyhood – During this stage your dog will want to hang out with you which will make teaching your puppy to come back easy (plus perhaps give you a false sense of security about recall too). You'll want the dog to learn it's rewarding to come back to you in the house and garden to begin creating a habit. Once you go out use a long line and harness when in a park. When the dog is reliably coming back, the long line can be left to drag so you can easily grab the line (and thus the dog) if they stop responding or you see a distraction enter the area you are in. Then when you are getting a good response, you can remove the long line and let them be free - but only when you are super confident your dog will respond every time. Being ready to call the dog and put the line on if you enter somewhere you know the dog is distracted by or a distraction appears (although be mindful of the association between the lead and stopping the fun)

  • Adolescence – This is where recall gets tough. You may find your dog is more easily distracted, less engaged with you and goes back a number of steps. You might see a lot more sniffing, wandering off, running off or wanting to run up to things or even run away from things. So, if this happens, we recommend putting a long line back on the dog and work on recall until it is more reliable. Especially around other dogs or in certain environments - e.g. parks, woods and grassland.

  • Adulthood – By this time your relationship with the dog should be in a good place and recall is reliable. You can continue developing recall as you should have been across all the stages. If fact, we recommend always practicing recall irrespective of their age and reward well.

I hope this helps. Please comment below if you have any questions. If you'd like to talk to us about how we can help your dog, either in person or remotely please arrange a free of charge 15min chat.

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