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New study shows teen dogs are a lot like teen humans

You may delight in training your puppy to sit, lie and come, then feel disappointed when, at puberty, around eight months, she suddenly won’t obey and wants to do her own thing.

Well, don’t worry, says Ashland science writer Virginia Morell, who spelled it out in a new article in Science magazine, entitled, “Dogs Get Difficult When They Reach Adolescence, Just Like Human Teenagers.”

Morell writes, “When our Scottish collie puppy reached doggie adolescence, she suddenly stopped obeying my commands. Previously, if I called ‘come,’ Annie would fly across our yard to my arms. Now, the 8-month-old gave me a defiant ‘make me’ look and ran the other way.

“It got to the point that (off leash) she would glance back over her shoulder when we called, and look at us like we were aliens, so puzzled, and seemed to be thinking, ‘Do I know you?’ But there’s a conflict going on inside them. It’s the same as human teens: Do I want to roam with other dogs and go have puppies or do I want food, warmth, home and security with these people?”

The problem is magnified if owners, who have bonded with their dog, feel like they’ve failed or their dog doesn’t like them or is “untrainable,” so they make the “sad error” of taking them to the shelter, notes her article, published in the May 12 issue of Science.

In fact, adolescence is the biggest demographic of dogs dropped at shelters, she says.

Another mistake owners make during dog adolescence is thinking punishment will make them obey, Morell said, in an interview. “Just like with humans, that won’t work. You’ll end up with more resistance. What works is to be patient and give them rewards when they do obey — and increase the reward.”

From folk wisdom, dog people have long known about “changes” in adolescence, says Morell, but it was a relief to see it quantified in a new study by Lucy Asher of Newcastle University, who examined 70 female German shepherds, golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers being raised as guide dogs.

The study showed pups with high attention-seeking or attachment behavior are anxious and fearful and reach puberty earlier, at around five months. Another finding, also matching human development, was that dogs stressed by separation from their caregiver became increasingly disobedient to that person.

Like human teens, dogs in puberty were willing to obey commands of strangers and even run off with them — and like humans, dogs get back on track after adolescence and are good learners, she says.

“Because of the similarity between adolescent pups and humans, dogs could serve as a model species for studying puberty in humans,” the scientists say.

“And on a more practical note,” writes Morell, “the temporary nature of dog disobedience might make us worry less when our pups suddenly get minds of their own. Just ask my dog Annie — she’s now happy to come, sit and stay a while.”

Morell is the author of the New York Times 2013 bestseller, “Animal Wise: How We Know Animals Think and Feel.” The book substantiates that animals have thoughts, intelligence and emotions, just like us, she says, and are not robots, acting out rote behaviors.

The most recent article is online at https://bit.ly/2z3T9RN

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Virginia Morell plays with her dog Annie at her home in Ashland. Morell recently wrote an article in Science magazine about the similarity between adolescent pups and humans. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune