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Most human parents are all to familiar with adolescent angst. Surly, uncommunicative, moody, argumentative and flippant, all the touchstone behaviours we fondly remember (or look forward to) from adolescence. But do dogs experience similar behavioural stages? A new study published by the Royal Society looked into just this.
The researchers started with three proven aspects of human adolescence:
To study the behavioural changes during the adolescent period, the team followed a group of guide dog puppies (German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, and Golden Retrievers plus mixes of these breeds) over the first year of their life. They wanted to see whether the dog-owner relationship would parallel the parent-child relationship in humans.
The study was carried out partially by questionnaire by both the carer and the trainer on 285 subjects and by behavioural tests on 69 of the same group of guide dog trainees. Data was collected when the dogs were 5 months of age (which should be preadolescent), 8 months of age (which should be right in the middle of the "teenage" puberty phase) and 12 months of age (which should be pretty much at the end of the adolescent phase for most of the dogs). ( see last week's Science Sunday on ageing in dogs)
The first question concerning onset of puberty and secure attachments to their carer was answered using 70 bitches from the study since puberty onset is obvious in females at first estrus.
The attachment to carer was scored on compressive questions about attachment behaviours and separation anxiety and even adjusted for confounding behaviours such as general anxiety. Attachment and attention seeking was positively correlated with the age at which bitches had their first estrus compared with their breed mean. Bitches that displayed more attachment and attention seeking behaviour at 5 months of age entered puberty earlier, exactly as in humans.
The second question concerning increased conflict behaviour toward the carer was evaluated with 96 of the subject dogs (41 M: 52 F) in a simple behavioural test. All dogs had mastered the sit command by 5 months of age, and were tested at 5 months (pre-puberty), 8 months (adolescence), and 12 months (post adolescence). The results were clear, the adolescents resisted commands from the carer, but not from a stranger (the trainer in this case). Again this was analogous to behaviour in adolescent humans.
The third question "heightened conflict behaviour when carer attachments are less secure",
was addressed through the questionnaires. Mirroring the transitory adolescent-phase of conflict was a phase of higher scores for Separation-Related Behaviour towards the carer. Scores for Separation-Related Behaviour were 36% higher at adolescence (8 months) than pre-adolescence (5 months) and post-adolescence (12 months). The higher Separation-Related scores at 8 months co-related with lower Trainability Scores with respect to their carers. Scores of Attachment and Attention Seeking did not change with age, but they were correlated with Trainability Scores at 8 months of age only.
Another consideration when attempting to train through adolescence is the canine fear periods. The second fear period occurs between six to fourteen months, co-relating with adolescence. Care must be taken not to cause deep seated fears which are very difficult to overcome during this period.
So it seems that adolescence in dogs is not unlike human teenagers but thankfully doesn't last as long.