Sarah Stremming and I talk about training to get through the teenage years — what it takes to get through them and how to create the foundation for a well-balanced adult dog.
Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.
Today we have Sarah Stremming. She barely needs an introduction — the person behind Cog-Dog Radio and the Cognitive Canine, she's back on the podcast to talk about those tough teenage years.
Welcome back to the podcast, Sarah!
Sarah Stremming: Thank you, Melissa. Happy to be here, as always.
Melissa Breau: Do you want to just run through the dogs in your household and what you're working on with them?
Sarah Stremming: I have two dogs of my own. I have Idgie, who's a 10-year-old Border Collie who is retired from agility, starting to think about maybe putting a CDX on her, and she's enrolled in a nosework class starting in June, locally, so that's going to be a new thing for me and for her.
Felix is also a Border Collie. He's 3, about to turn 4, and really focused on agility training with him, and looking at maybe actually showing my dog next year, I don't know.
And then I've got a bunch of stepchildren, too, so we work a lot on, as a whole, peace in the household. When you have a bunch of crazy herding dogs, that can be hard.
Melissa Breau: Right, right. With your Teenage Tyrants class on the schedule, I wanted to talk about adolescents. At what age is it normal to start to see some "teenage" tendencies crop up in a pup? What kind of behaviors are we talking about?
Sarah Stremming: Really interesting, because people universally complain about "teenage years" in dogs. I would call it probably around the 6-month to 2-year range, although that's not an exact science at all. Basically what I think of it is any dog that's still exhibiting puppy behaviors in an adult body, so mouthing, humping, excessive hyper-social behaviors, that kind of thing, all qualify them as teenagers to me.
Just like people, they're not quite adults, but they're not quite puppies anymore. The behaviors are anything you thought was fine in a baby puppy but isn't fine anymore, and also the behaviors that naturally crop up when the dog realizes how much cooler the entire world is than you, which seems like that's the same with children, like, Mom is your world, and then suddenly Mom is not your world, and then you're a teenager.
Melissa Breau: Fair enough. I love that way of framing, it, though — the puppy behaviors in an adult body, because I think that gives everybody a really good picture of what you're talking about.
Sarah Stremming: Yeah.
Melissa Breau: I think we often hear that part of those behaviors, or that the dog is being rebellious when they become a teenager — has that held true in your experience? What's that about?
Sarah Stremming: I don't really think of them as being rebellious. I know that people do think like that, and it's easy to read them that way. And I think we read them that way because when they hit this age, they prove what we have and have not adequately trained, or what we have and have not adequately reinforced. So if we haven't adequately reinforced that nice, natural recall that puppies have, it's gone now, and if we haven't built in a reinforcement history for loose-leash walking or calmly greeting humans and dogs, all of that stuff we took for granted goes out the window.
We look at them sometimes as rebellious because in our mind their behavior has changed drastically from when they were babies, but in reality their behavior changes naturally, as all of our behaviors change as we mature, and we just find out what foundation we actually laid and what we didn't. I think we just take for granted that the puppy is going to follow us on the trail, and that the puppy is going to say hi nicely to humans and dogs, hopefully, usually, when they're tiny babies. We just take that stuff for granted.
They also don't pull super-hard on the leash until they're around 5 or 6 months of age, depending on breed, and then we suddenly think they're rebelling because they're dragging us down the street, and they are kangarooing up and down when they see another dog, or they are no longer listening when we call them out on the trail. I don't think any of that is rebellion, but I think it's easy to read it that way for sure.
Melissa Breau: For folks with puppies who are heading for that stage — they're not quite at the 6-month period yet, but they're heading that way — are there things that it makes sense to do with that little puppy that smooth the way for a better adolescence?
Sarah Stremming: Absolutely. Basically everything in the course could and should be done before the puppy is a teenager, but generally speaking, it's all about deciding what kind of dog we want to have, and then setting about laying a strong foundation of positive reinforcement for the behaviors that we are after. So thinking about how our tiny baby puppy is behaving and if those behaviors would be acceptable a year from now, or 30 to 40 pounds from now, is very important.
I think with little puppies we just think about providing them with a lot of good social exposure to dogs and people and places and things like that, and I think that's really important to do. But then we start to shift into a time when they are right about done with teething, so 5-ish months of age, 5-and-a-half months, we then want to stop thinking so hard about "I was going to do all this positive exposure." That's still important, but then we start to want to pay close attention to what behaviors are also happening in those contexts, and that's a lot of what the course is about.
Melissa Breau: Can you just give me an example?
Sarah Stremming: Yes. For instance, I might let my little baby puppy jump all over every person that he meets, because I'm really excited that he likes people, and I want him to like people, and I don't want anybody "correcting" or anything like that for jumping. I encourage people to sit on the floor and be at the puppy's level and have the puppy crawl all over them and be ridiculous. This is just how I do it.
Some people certainly don't allow that from the beginning. I do. I want the puppy to think people are wonderful. It's people that I trust, because I've certainly had experiences where the person might push the puppy off of them kind of rudely because they think they're helping you —you know, everybody thinks they're helping you.
When they get to be about 4-and-a-half months, 5 months, I start to go, "Now let's talk about how you can still get attention from people by not clamoring all over them." I also, around that age, start to talk to them about how we're not going to say hi to everyone. "Sometimes I'm going to tell you, 'No, you don't get to say hi to that person,' and other times I will tell you yes, and when I tell you yes, this is how I'd like you to do it."
When they're puppies, I don't worry super-hard about that stuff. I just worry about them liking everyone they meet. Then, once I've established that they like everyone they meet, I can start to talk to them about how not everybody's here for you, and the people who are here for you, you can say hi to in this acceptable way with your four feet on the floor.
Melissa Breau: I want to talk about some of the options for managing some of those bad behaviors — relatively, you know what I mean — once a young dog has crossed that line into adolescence. Starting big picture, when you look at the things that a young dog needs to have a good life as a young dog where we can live with them, what factors are you looking at? What do you consider?
Sarah Stremming: Freedom is huge for adolescents of, I think, any species. Like in all my classes, I'm going to have a strong emphasis on behavioral wellness, but you hit the nail on the head when you talked about meeting their needs in order for them to be good dogs.
An adolescent dog's needs are different from both puppies and adults, and again, this is what makes them difficult and this is why people struggle, because they need a lot more exercise than a puppy, and oftentimes they need a lot more exercise than an adult, depending on your breed. They need more mental stimulation than both puppies and adults, and just generally speaking, they need more of everything during this time. We think of puppies as really high needs, and they are in a very different way because they're infants, basically, so they need close care every few hours and then they sleep until the next care point comes out.
The adolescent is no longer needing as much sleep, and is needing a lot more stimulation and a lot more exercise. When they look at them, they see an adult dog, and they expect them to act like the other adult dogs when they're not actually grown up yet. What's hard about that is they can look like an adult, they can weigh what they're going to weigh, as an 11-month-old they might be done physically growing, but they need so much more than they will when they're 3 or 4 years of age, and they need a lot more than they did up until about 5 months of age. So it's basically more, more, more: more exercise, more mental stimulation.
We think that's about when we get to not pay as much attention to them, because maybe they're house-trained now, so we're not breathing down their neck constantly to make sure they don't use the house as a toilet, but actually they need more of our attention. They just need a different kind. So I want people to not think of them as less work than the puppy, but a different kind of work that they really require.
Melissa Breau: I'll talk about boys and then we'll talk about girls. Do you have any tips for listeners whose little boy dog suddenly discovered their hormones and they're starting to hump things or mark things? How do you manage those behaviors?
Sarah Stremming: Oh yeah, super-fun. The class is full of these things. I even have a specific assignment pertaining to marking or inappropriate urination of any kind. I like to obviously start this conversation with my boy dogs preferably before the hormones hit, but of course you can always start training anytime.
I like to have this conversation with my boy dogs about where and when they are actually allowed to mark, because 100 percent of the time when I was doing in-home behavior work and I got called in for "marking behaviors," if we went outside for a walk, the dog peed on every single vertical surface that we walked past, with no thought about it. And so of course he also pees on your curtains and your couch and your table because they're vertical surfaces too.
So I just like to have the conversation, I call it "Here, Not There," and that's a full assignment in the class. It's teaching humans to see the precursors, to see the dog starting to walk up to the vertical surface and sniff it, and ask the dog to go urinate on something else. Even if it's an acceptable surface, we should be able to say to them, "Not there, do it here," and then reinforce them for that.
We are going to talk about humping, too, but my quick tip for everybody is the only time I would ever intervene on that is if they are hurting or really irritating one of my older dogs or someone else's older dog. It generally fizzles out, if you let it. People just don't let it fizzle out because it bothers us; it's embarrassing when your dog is humping a toy in the corner or one of the other dogs.
But speaking from experience, Felix was a big, big humper as a puppy. I had been telling people to ignore it my whole career up to that point, and I went, "Well, put your money where your mouth is, Stremming," and I ignored it. I even gave him stuff he could hump in his x-pen, like, I would give him a giant stuffed animal in there, and just generally speaking, ignored it, and it absolutely fizzled out because it is just a juvenile behavior that is not meant to last forever. But we put a lot of attention on it and then it becomes a problem. But we are going to talk about that in the class more as well.
Melissa Breau: What about girls? I think generally we get the sense that they get a little more bitchy as they go through those years?
Sarah Stremming: I can relate. There's nothing wrong with a little bitchiness. But usually when people start to describe their girls as being bitchy or snarky, it's because the bitch has reached a maturity point — especially if you leave them intact — they reach a maturity point where they just don't take anybody's crap anymore.
I'm talking mostly about the behaviors that are directed at other dogs that bitches tend to be famous for. Especially in my breed, Border Collies, they're known as being very snappy. I seem to recall also being described as bitchy when I stopped taking people's b.s., so if the behavior's appropriate, which it often is, I ignore it.
An example of when it's appropriate: If Idgie, my matriarch in my house, if she air-snaps at another dog that is being overly friendly, that's fine with me. An air snap is clear dog communication. It is not a bite, it is not a fight, and it's perfectly acceptable.
So one of the things we need to talk about in this class, in Teenage Tyrants, is reading what behaviors are a normal part of maturity and which behaviors are not — which things we need to really dive in on. Something that might not be appropriate but is normal through maturity is dog-directed resource guarding or even human-directed resource guarding. These are things that we don't always see when they're babies that do tend to crop up in people's homes around this "teenage age."
So I'm going to talk about prevention on both of those fronts — on the dog-directed and the human-directed — and again, it's all about reinforcing what you actually want and setting the dog up to be right, and that prevention should be done in every dog, even if you can't envision your perfect angel ever resource-guarding. Know that that's a natural, normal set of dog behaviors, so probably there's a case in which they would, and you should do the prevention anyway.
Melissa Breau: I wanted to talk to you about this idea that sometimes dogs reach their teenage years and they start to act a little reactive about stuff. They're just barky at stuff or they startle or whatever. If that crops up, what should be done about that — other than clearly panic because, oh my god, you have a dog that's reactive.
Sarah Stremming: I panicked when Idgie bark-lunged at her first dog when she was 5 months old, pretty much on the dot. It's extremely common, no panic necessary. These are growing brains, they're learning about appropriate and inappropriate social behaviors. There's also some evidence that they come in and out of fearful types of development periods during this time.
We're going to talk about two things to help curb those natural barky-lungey behaviors. One of them, again, is working through those hyper-social behaviors regarding both people and dogs, so "You can say hi to this person/dog and you can't say hi to this one," and just constantly having that constant conversation with your teenager, who you probably socialized to think that everybody is their friend, which is … that's not a bad route to go. The second round of conversations you have to have is "Not everybody is your friend, and I'm going to help you understand who is and who isn't." Another thing we will talk about is something I call "Look and Learn," which is essentially allowing the dog to observe its trigger peacefully in order to soothe those reactive behaviors.
I want to be clear that the class alone is not going to heal any existing reactivity problem, that's really not what it's for, but it will give you tactics for prevention and first steps of action, if you see these really, really common behaviors come up. This is when it happens. They get barky-lungey in this timespan, usually, if they're going to be, and so it is good for us to know what those first steps of action are, because panic — you can panic if you want, but then you've got to come back to action, and everybody operates better with a plan, so that's what we'll talk about is what is your plan if that starts to happen.
Melissa Breau: I certainly saw a little bit of that with Levi when he hit those teenage years, and now it's mostly gone. Now he only barks if somebody barks at him first.
Sarah Stremming: Which is fair, I would say, yes.
Melissa Breau: Yes, but it's definitely scary for a little bit there. It's like, oh boy, am I going to have …
Sarah Stremming: Especially if you've dealt with stuff like that before and you don't want to deal with it again. It's so terrifying when your puppy does that for the first time, because you go down this memory lane of being in reactivity hell with your other dog or whatever. That's definitely why I panicked when Idgie did it for the first time. But I hear you.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned recalls earlier and that that disappears. I think a lot of the time teenage years are associated with idea of selective hearing and bouts of memory loss of things we've trained. What do we do about that?
Sarah Stremming: It goes along with the rebellious question, which is, this is the time that they prove what you have and have not trained, and usually we haven't adequately trained our recall, because we relied on the fact that the puppy stays close, or at least stays close to the other dogs.
If they stop recalling and you thought your recall was good, it's time to boost your reinforcement for that behavior, but everybody's instinct is to put the dog on lockdown. Everyone's instinct here is to restrict freedom. And what they need and crave more than anything, especially during this time, is freedom, so the more of it you take away, the worse all these things are actually going to be. So you have to teach them these behaviors, like the recall behavior, in order to allow them the freedom that they're craving so desperately.
The number one way that I see people breaking their recall is by having their dog off leash in a space that maybe they don't feel totally safe about, and so they call the dog a lot so that the dog stays close to them, because they're a little worried about the dog running off or whatever. You have to understand that every single time you call them, whether you're giving them the best food in the world for the recall, which you should be, you're asking them to give up their freedom for a second, and you have to understand how big of a deal that is to them, and so you want to not be doing it super-often.
It's the same with any of our other behaviors that are controlled types of behaviors that they start to get, that people start to see or think that the dog has selective hearing about or bouts of memory loss about. All of those things are probably about the fight between your reinforcement history and the dog's desire for freedom.
If you can just make sure that your reinforcement history is very strong, and that you never fight the dog on that freedom front, and you let them continue to have a lot of access to just freely moving their body, then you're going to be OK. But what people's panic button is, "Well, I'll just keep him on a leash," or "I will just keep him always in the fenced yard," or that's what people start doing, and that's kind of the opposite of what I'm going to encourage.
Melissa Breau: To go back to the bigger picture for a moment, other than simply surviving this phase, are there things that owners of teenaged pups should do to ensure that they are building those skills and have a well-balanced adult?
Sarah Stremming: Constantly, constantly reinforcing the behaviors that you want to see continue. Don't take anything for granted. Like I said, don't put them on lockdown right now. The more you restrict them, the longer this time is going to feel for both of you. Just saying even though this dog is 2 — and in my sport of dog agility, people really consider dogs grown up at that age, which I think is a big mistake — but they'll say, "He's 2 years old, he should 'know better,'" or something like that, and what's so important to do is just to continue to reinforce the behaviors that you want to see, and continue to make sure that their needs are held as your Priority 1, because if their needs are not met, they cannot listen to you and they can't do these things that you are asking them to do.
And also this is the time to really prove to your dog that you are a worthwhile thing that they should care about and want to hang out with. We're going to have specific assignments pertaining to that, pertaining to … I call them "Mom Is Cool" things, so the dog is like, "Even though the world is big and interesting, and holds so many things for my dog self, Mom is still really, really cool and knows a lot of things about the world that I don't know, and provides a lot of reinforcement that's easy for me to get." That's so important that we don't put up a wall between us and our teenage puppy during this time, because they're kind of obnoxious during this time, and you have to just love them through it, keep reinforcing, don't take anything for granted, and you'll survive it and you'll love the dog that much more on the other side.
Melissa Breau: You've been talking about your class throughout, but can you tell us a little more about that? What else do you cover? Who should take it? Is there anything else that people need to know if they're thinking about it?
Sarah Stremming: Just as a recap: We go over hormone-driven behaviors, inappropriate social behaviors, how to avoid these really common pitfalls that you've talked about, like, they stop listening to you or they get resource-guardy or they get barky-lungey, that kind of thing.
Each week I'm going to offer a different training project that I'm calling "Save Your Skin Behaviors." The Save Your Skin behaviors are these management behaviors that I want well trained so that I can effectively manage my teenage pup, rather than restrict and punish.
It's kind of like if you teach your kid that seatbelts are not an option for any person in any car at any given time, then you can trust your teenager more to drive the car. But if you don't trust her to wear a seatbelt at a minimum, then you probably don't hand her the keys. And she needs the keys on a fundamental level. We all need freedom during this time.
Your dog is the same. He craves freedom, he craves exploration, and so you have to teach him these Save Your Skin behaviors, like a collar give, so rather than … I don't call it a collar grab because I don't want you reaching at the dog; I call it a collar give, so asking your dog to come and put its collar in your hand and to yield to any pressure that you put on the collar is one example of the Save Your Skin behaviors. Yielding to leash pressure is another one. Putting a muzzle on is another one. So we're going to talk about all of these Save Your Skin behaviors that might allow you to comfortably give your dog the freedom that he needs through this time so that you can both survive this time.
Melissa Breau: Alright, one last question here — the one I ask everybody at the end. What's something that you've learned recently or been reminded of when it comes to dog training?
Sarah Stremming: Oh, so many things. I had to pick one. I've been reminded to get all of the information up front about the dog that you're working with.
I had a dog recently when I was teaching — when I was teaching at an in-person workshop — who I knew was hypothyroid, so I knew that about him, but I did not know that he had elbow dysplasia as well. We were training him to … we were really training his human, but the dog was getting up onto a platform, and a low platform. None of the other dogs had any issues with the platform, and about half of the dogs had never done any kind of platform work, so I chalked up his slow return to the platform after reinforcement to the fact that he's a lethargic individual, he's hypothyroid, he's not appropriately treated yet for the thyroid, he looks hypothyroid. I just said, "That's OK. He's a lethargic guy, but he's continuing to come back and get on the platform." So I said, "Let's just keep the pace slow."
But actually the platform was too high for him to lift his body with his elbow dysplasia up onto it, and I didn't know that because I didn't know about his orthopedic illness. But it would have only taken one question. I already got the thyroid information because he looks hypothyroid, so I asked. But I should have said, "Does he have anything else that I need to know about, any orthopedic concerns?" Because the owners are not always going to give you all that information up front, so it's really important that you watch the learner and that you don't assume that the dog is just a slow mover. Because he is a slow mover. He reminded me of the miniature donkeys at the ranch.
But the reason the platform was hard for him wasn't as much, I don't think, about the fact that he was a slow mover. It was probably about the fact that it hurt to lift himself onto it. So I was reminded by him to make sure that you get all of the information up front.
Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Sarah! This has been fun.
Sarah Stremming: Thank you so much for having me.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week with Nancy Tucker to talk about getting better greetings.
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