How long will my puppy stay a puppy?

I wanted to write this after a couple of recent conversations with friends. I often mention the antics of Yume (my adopted rescue dog) and how cheeky and naughty she is and that if I have not given her enough structure or mental stimulation she will bring out her blankets and chew them. Puppy YumeOf course, she is not actually being naughty, she is just being a dog and acting her age, but in doing the job I do, my friends like to have a laught and poke fun from time to time! “Oh so you have a dog that is not perfect!… you should do x or do y…” While they jest, there is something important to learn from this about our dogs and actually Yume is an excellent example of why it’s important to take on the right dog for your personality, available time, lifestyle and energy levels.

I knew Yume would be work from the start. She is very intelligent, quick to learn and high energy. A lethal combination for anyone who has not got lots of time and energy themselves or does not live in an environment where they can keep their dog stimulated. Fortunately for both Yume, and me, I can offer her what she needs the majority of the time. I honestly believe that it’s likely, if she had found a different home, she could easily have driven someone a bit batty and would possibly have ended up going on to a second adoption or rehoming, maybe even more than once.

I adore her, I love her spark and her playfulness. Her energy makes me laugh and she is the perfect dog for helping me in my work with other dogs – helping them to gain confidence and learn how to play, but in the wrong home, she and her owner would have been miserable. We have long walks, go out with the bicycle and sulky and when she is old enough, the sulky will be another way of harnessing her energy. However, at almost a year old (next month) she is still very, very much a puppy and as a puppy she is also quickly bored and she still struggles with impulse control. This does not mean that she is not obedient – in fact she is very obedient and has a good “down” even when she is at high energy. She is also able to break off high energy play for a recall, but this does not mean that her behaviour is yet “perfect”. Behaviour and obedience, as I am often asked to discuss, are two very different things.Puppy Yume

When she has had lots of activity and mental stimulation, when she has had lots of play and is given focused work and good direction, she never thinks of bringing her blankets out to play or digging extra large holes in the play area (where it is of course permitted for dogs to dig and when I put in new sand piles it even encourages them exactly where to dig…) but if for example I have had a particularly busy week or have had to be out a number of times, things can be a little different. If I have less time and attention for her (despite still receiving long, active walks and other work as I never skip these) I will see the behaviours of puppy boredom emerge. I am fortunate that I have wonderful neighbours who love the dogs and if I have to be away for longer than three hours, they will pop over and give her 15-30 minutes of play. Less than three hours and her toys, kongs or other dog friends are satisfying enough, longer than this, and she struggles. I am also very lucky that my work and lifestyle mean that this rarely happens, in fact if I did a different sort of job, Yume would not be the dog for me, but for many people, they don’t have the options that I do. Therefore, for them, having the right dog for their lifestyle is important.

Many people think dogs are adults around a year to 18 months, but there are breeds that develop later entering adult hood from maybe 18 months to 3 years. If someone takes on one of these breeds, then it is very important to be sure that one has the time and energy needed to devote to such a dog in order to create a balanced and happy adult. Some breeds may even mentally and emotionally mature as late as 4 years so it is important to research the type of dog you are planning to adopt or bring into your home.

The Ridgebacks I always thought would be late developers, but in fact by a year they were over their main puppy stage, by 18 months they were lovely young dogs but still with a few things to learn and between 2 and 3 they had developed into lovely, confident, relaxed dogs. It still meant I had to put work in over that time, and too often owners think that they don’t have to bother much once the dog reaches a year to 18 months. In fact, we should work on our dogs for their entire lives – not just forget about training and behaviour once they hit the year old mark! With Yume, I fully expect to be giving her guidance and direction on a more intense basis until she is at least 2 years old. As we don’t know exactly what breed she is predominantly, this could take more or less time, but based on her behaviours and observing her with other dogs I estimate around 2 years before she is behaving more like an adult. When observing the other dogs with her, they also still treat her very much like a puppy and often let her get away with things that they wouldn’t allow in an older dog – it’s fascinating to watch and they are helping me take my cue.Puppy Yume

If given the right guidance and direction, one sign of a dog reaching maturity is the fact that it is able to stay alone for longer periods and the destructive behaviours diminish and ultimately disappear. Of course, this doesn’t mean we should just go off for hours and leave our dogs without anything to divert their attention, we should still give them toys and things they can chew or play with, but here I am specifically referring to the puppy type behaviour of self entertainment! How long a puppy remains a puppy is determined by the breed so if taking on a puppy or young dog, it’s important to check out how long the puppy stage is likely to last, based on the breed or predominant breed of the dog you are taking on. A number of things influence the puppy and how well it matures mentally and emotionally too – and these include socialisation, the sex, the amount of play and the environment he or she grows up in.

It is also important to note that sexual maturity often does not occur at the same time as mental, emotional and physcial maturity and that all these things too can occur at different times in the first years of a dog’s life. Most dogs will be sexually active and fertile around 6 months of age – but they are often far from being mentally, emotionally or physically mature. This ability to breed from 6 months is the direct result of human involvement and breeding and is unique to domestic dogs. Other canids, such as wolves for example, usually start breeding around 2 – 3 years of age although it is possible for a female wolf to breed at one year of age. Female wolves will also only have one season per year with the breeding season beings around February or March so that the puppies have time to grow and develop before the next winter. With our domestic dogs, females have seasons every 6 months and generally have their first season at around 6 months. This means that they can produce puppies at any time of the year, depending on when the female was born and where her 6 monthly cycle falls.

So what’s the conclusion? Be responsible and be aware! If you are going to bring a puppy into your life, make sure your life is suitable for that puppy! It is a sad fact that most dogs in rescue centres have been abandoned in the first two years of their life, often because they were the wrong breed and energy for the human involved. With the right homework and research, the dog/human relationship can be rich and rewarding with fewer dogs ending up in rescue centres.

Tamasine Smith – Leadchanges (Dog Behaviour Modification)