Our dogs go through various stages of physical and social development through their lives. From the adorable days of puppyhood, to the gangly and uncoordinated time as a juvenile, to the unruly adolescent phase that has you questioning your decision to own a dog in the first place.
We could talk about the trials and tribulations of young dogs for days, but that’s not what I want to focus on today. Instead, let's talk about what comes after this chaos, which is that glorious shift into adulthood.
Sometimes it happens so fast that it takes your breath away. Other times the transition is so gradual that you barely notice when you are able to relax in the evenings without your dog heckling you.
Adulthood is a beautiful time in your dog’s lives. All the work and time you have invested has resulted in the beautiful dog that stands in front of you.
What we don’t talk about it often enough, are the social changes that occur around this time. Social maturity is a developmental milestone that occurs in dogs anytime between 1-3 years of age.
I like to equate this landmark to that of humans turning 30. You know, that time in your life when you wake up and realize “man, I need to figure my life out.” When going out with friends every Friday night becomes more pain than gain, and you’re not sure how people survive without getting a solid 7 hours of sleep at night.
Social maturity in dogs is often characterized by:
Decrease in tolerance – what once was OK with your dog, might be offensive now. The puppy jumping on his back, who might have been ignored previously, now gets a clear ‘buzz off’ response.
Selective about playmates - your once social butterfly, may decide that he doesn't want to play with every dog at the dog park anymore.
Decrease in overall sociability - your dog may have a decreased desire to play, may play for shorter periods of time, or may decide that he'd prefer to explore than play with other dogs at all.
Social maturity will happen in every dog, however it won't look the same for each one. Some dogs may experience an obvious shift in their friendliness, and where in others the changes might be subtle.
The main thing to understand about social maturity, is that these changes are normal. Some dogs enjoy playing with bouncy puppies their entire lives, and other dogs might determine that they'd be quite happy to never interact with another annoying puppy again.
We often get tripped up on the fact that it’s ordinary for your dog to experience these changes. It’s equally appropriate for dogs to not to be friends with every single dog they come across. I assume that you are not “BFFs” with every person you meet in life, right? So why should you expect your dog to be? Talk about a double standard.
Just as you likely have experienced a fit of road rage, or raised your voice during an argument, your dog is likely to get into an occasional squabbles with another dog at some point in their lifetime.
That non-injurious scuffle (albeit looks and sounds like the 'real deal') is the equivalent of a dog shouting match; an argument. It’s not attempted manslaughter.
And the thing is, our dogs are allowed to lose their cool too.
The first thing you can do to make social maturity easier for both you and your dog is to embrace the normalcy of these changes. The fact that Buddy no longer wants to wrestle with his pals at the dog park does not make him damaged. It does not reflect on you or how you raised him, and certainly does not make him a "bad dog."
Make sure you are listening to the conversation your dog is having with you about other dogs.
Has your dog started to snarl and snap whenever puppies try to play with him? Better cross young dogs off the list and focus on play time with adult dogs, whose refined social skills are preferred.
Your dog doesn’t like meeting new dogs anymore? That’s fine too. Hook your dog up with established doggy pals instead of pushing him to make new friends.
Your dog really does not have the desire to play like they used to? Awesome. Swap those dog park days for a forest hike and allow your dog to take in the scenery (and smells) without the hassle of navigating other dogs.
It’s also important to note that these behavioral changes that come with social maturity are not what we would consider a training issue. Just as I cannot teach you to love Rock music, I cannot teach your dog to love puppies when in fact, he does not.
It may help to view these changes in your dog's behavior as a progression rather than a problem.
These changes are not a problem for your dog, unless you refuse to accept his boundaries and repeatedly place him in situations he is not interested in being in.
Remember, every dog is an individual. They have individual likes, dislikes, and preferences. Our job, as that dog’s owner, is to hear what they’re telling us, and adjust our expectations to support who they are.
It is unrealistic to expect our dogs to go through life, with all the experiences they are encountering and not change because of this learning.
Just as we humans grow our minds and change who we are, for better or for worse, so do our canine counter-parts. And that's 100% OK.
Vanessa Charbonneau, is the author of Dog Care for Puppies: A guide to Feeding, Playing, Grooming and Behavior. She owns Sit Pretty Pet Services, employing force-free training techniques to work with companion dogs and their owners. Charbonneau lives in Prince George, BC with her husband, two daughters, and one dog.