Updated: Dec 10, 2018
Loved going to the seminar by Chris Pachel a couple of weekends ago. He talked quite a bit about adolescence and dogs and the parallels to human teenagers. Those of us who have trained dogs a long time and trained a variety of dogs no doubt believe that there is an adolescent period in dogs that is comparable to humans. Apparently not much research has been done on it in dogs. When you train a dog on a daily basis from the time they are very young, 8 to 10 weeks old, you see the changes they experience as they grow up. It can be very frustrating at times to see them seem to know one thing one day and forget it the next day. They seem to have a hard time controlling themselves in distracting environments and sometimes in not so distracting places. The length of their attention span varies from moment to moment.
The seminar discussed the development in adolescence of the prefrontal cortex which controls reasoning, decision making and cognitive function and the limbic system which controls fear, emotions and the fight or flight response. The limbic system develops early which makes sense as a survival mechanism. Without the fight or flight system in place animals would die quickly. The pre-frontal cortex develops more slowly and lags behind the limbic system. So the ability for a teenager to rationalize their way out of an exciting risky situation is not fully developed yet. This explains why teenagers engage in more risky behaviors. The dog equivalent of risky behaviors we see at this time would be the classic not coming when called when for months they responded great. Now the puppy is willing to take chances to see what happens when they stay out on their own. They have increased independence even if they do not have a fully developed cognitive function to accurately assess the risks of that behavior. This is an age where puppies will be more willing to leap off of tall things and potentially scare themselves or hurt themselves. This is also the age when they will challenge an older dog's authority and test them to see what they will do when challenged by a youngster.
This time when the limbic system is more developed than the cognitive processing system also explains why impulse control seems lacking or at best seems to come and go. It is not a linear development. Nothing in the real world ever is. It is always a roller coaster as some things get better while others do not or in one setting it is great and in another setting it is not. Depending on the dog and the experience level of the trainer/owner, it can be a frustrating time to have a dog. Many dogs are surrendered to shelters at this age. This time period can last as long as two years depending on the breed, gender, neuter status and temperament of the dog. They are also going through physical and sexual maturity at this age so their bodies are changing a lot. Hormones can play a part in their behavior choices.
This information about the mental development of puppy really reinforced my thinking that we allow dogs to enter agility trials at much too young an age for their own good. Not only are a lot of dogs not physically mature by 15 to 18 months of age, very few are mentally mature by that age. Agility organizations allow dogs to enter trials at 15 or 18 months of age. My foundations program goes slowly and develops many skills away from equipment. The earliest I like puppies to start foundations is about 4 to 5 months, after going to a good puppy class. By the time dogs are learning the bigger equipment they have had 9 to 12 months of foundations which means they are usually in the 15 to 18 month age. Then it is about 9 to 12 months of working on lower contacts for a long time, weaves and sequencing before they are doing novice/open courses. I train dogs on low dog walk and teeter and make sure dogs are confident, are able to do different angled approaches and angled exits before going to full height. I also teach dogs how to jump off safely from a low dog walk so the dog learns how to get off a dog walk safely and not fall off of one. I encourage adding distractions (proofing) of contacts, weaves, start lines and sequences before entering a trial. This builds confidence in the teams. Dogs who start as puppies are generally at least two years old before they are ready for trialing in our program.
What I see is the skill level in those dogs and handlers is amazing. The dogs have very solid contact behavior, solid weave entries and performance and can do a wide variety of handling moves and sequences. Most of the dogs move out of novice very quickly when ready to start trialing. I encourage students to enter trials where training in the ring is allowed to help transition between training and trialing and to maintain criteria. I encourage attending open ring time and run throughs whenever possible. So many organizations are trying to get people to trial their dogs at young ages rather than at older ages. Many of us abhor racing horses at 1 and 2 years of age because we know for a fact they are not physically let alone mentally mature enough for that grueling sport. Yet agility organizations are allowing us to do the same thing with our dogs.
Looking at a two year old beginning to trial compared to a 15 to 18 month old is a huge difference in terms of greater mental and physical maturity and time for more positive experiences. The well trained two year old has many more skills and a much higher cognitive function than a dog six months younger. Some dogs need even more time to mature. Dogs who are very easily distracted by their environments take longer to acclimate to places and will take longer to be able to generalize to new environments quickly enough to be able to trial well. I will do very short, 1 to 3 things in a new place with these dogs. I have been known to walk in, let my dog look around the ring and walk out as my turn at a trial to attempt to acclimate my dog. We often overlook the need to satisfy the dog's emotions/limbic system in order for the cognitive system to function. Remember the limbic system developed first and the cognitive one is not fully developed for quite awhile in a young dog.
So don't be in a rush to enter a trial with your young dog. If you are just learning the sport, give yourself time to master the new skills of training and handling before entering a trial. The trials will be there when you are ready. The trials will be much more fun if you approach them like training and approach them with appropriate goals and skills. Your dog will perform better and for many more years if the first experiences are good ones for both of you instead of stressful. Take your time and enjoy every minute with your dog. You both are learning about each other and about the sport.