Your dog has big emotions and you feel alone. You aren't alone!
Lots of people bring a puppy into their family and everything is wonderful, you conquer each puppy's expected behaviour and you're doing great, they are happy, go lucky, walks are effortless and everything is going smoothly.
One day they suddenly begin retreating, freeze or lunge, growl and snarl at another dog. They suddenly don't want to play with the dog that they have previously played with.
Your world is shrinking, people are looking at you or saying unkind things, you want to run home. Your dog is perfect at home, why are they behaving like this?
Why can't people see how wonderful and loving they are at home? You now go for walks in the dark and as early and late as you possibly can.
They are reacting to passer bys through the window, they follow you everywhere and seem to be developing separation anxiety.
What is going on?
Dogs can develop fearful behaviours during adolescence due to a combination of factors, including hormonal changes, socialisation experiences, and environmental influences. Of course they can also display aggressive behaviours too, we are looking at the behaviours as emotions and what drives the emotions to develop the behaviours, moving away from the term "reactive" as reactive is simply too broad and doesn't look to a dog as an individual.
During adolescence, which usually occurs between 5 months to 2 years of age, dogs experience an increase in hormones like testosterone and oestrogen which can cause them to become more anxious and fearful.
In addition, if a dog was not adequately socialised during their early developmental stages, they may become fearful or aggressive towards people and other dogs. This can lead to behaviours like barking, lunging, or growling. Conversely they can also become frustrated and hyperactive if they were over socialised.
Environmental factors such as encountering stressors like loud noises, strangers, or unfamiliar environments can also contribute to fearful behaviour during adolescence.
It's very easy for hormones to be blamed and when people typically think of hormones they think teenagers as in humans.
But what does this broad term "hormones" actually mean because it doesn't just cover testosterone and oestrogen, it actually covers the brain, the development and growth of the brain.
The brain doesn't just grow in size, neural pathways are constantly being developed which passes on information to different areas of the brain for good and bad experiences, training and emotions. Neural networks and nodes are developing, the brain is alive and ever expanding with electricity, the brain doesn't even take a break during sleep, in deep sleep the brain is compartmentalising and storing memories! Brain chemicals are increasing and decreasing. The brain is effectively a 24/7 call centre.
Dogs are still not fully understood as to the age that the brain is fully mature and grown, for small breeds this could be a year and for large dogs around 3 years. Researchers have now found however that this is far beyond breed or size and depends upon skull structure and morphology and have also found that even with breed selection placement of the brain areas such as the amygdala and other brain regions could be significantly different in placement and size. Hecht, E.E. et al. 2019 (1)
They used a tool called a skull index to understand the MRI images and the cross sections of the brain, the neural pathways, size and development according to breed group and then broke this down further to categorise behaviour and whether there were significant changes within the brain to correlate behaviour and if not why not?
They also broke the brain down and categorised the brain into six networks to understand bonding, secure attachments, learning, executive functioning, aggression, fear etc.
While they concluded that studying the dogs brain is going to be a huge ongoing task, they did identify that behavioural variation is highly heritable. MacLean.E.L. et al, 2019 (2)
So even if you do everything right and work hard at meeting all biological needs and ensuring a secure attachment and avoiding any risk of experiencing trauma, there can be heritability of behaviours from their breeding and selection by humans.
Dry your tears, it isn't always the guardian to blame and we really need to move away from this mindset. This mindset has been set out on TV and by social media and misinformed professionals. If researchers can also say "we simply conclude that we don't yet know enough about the dog brain" and study MRI's for a living, how can we all know everything?
Placing more emphasis on secure attachment, fear periods and development of the puppy and canine brain can be much more helpful in supporting you as a guardian. Helping you to become aware in layman terms to fully understand your dog and the why, because as humans we default and need to know the why of the behaviour.
Addressing the why of the behaviour takes us on a new journey, we open a conversation with our dog, we look at the dog as an individual and not a breed or a series of genetics. We say "Hello, nice to meet you, you are as individual as me and it's time we started talking about how we can help you and addressing your emotions."
Join me on this new series of blogs of understanding your dog's big emotions. We are going to steer away from reactivity as a word, it's too big, it's too broad and it's not helpful. We are going to look at emotions and help you to understand your dog and have a formal introduction to the beautiful individual that they are.
Your dog has the brain of a 2-5 year old child. Coren. S. 2009 (3) 2-5 year old children have big emotions, become shy, become selective of who they speak to, they begin to form their personalities, they begin to express their likes and dislikes and they have a big range of emotions when they cannot verbalise how they feel. This is your dog, a 2-5 year old misunderstood child equivalent who cannot articulate their emotions for us to understand.
Let's begin understanding and learning about our individual dog and what their emotion is trying to tell us.
Hecht, E.E. et al. (2019) Significant neuroanatomical variation among domestic dog breeds, Journal of Neuroscience. Society for Neuroscience. Available at: https://www.jneurosci.org/content/39/39/7748 (Accessed: April 26, 2023).
MacLean EL, Snyder-Mackler N, vonHoldt BM, Serpell JA (2019) Highly heritable and functionally relevant breed differences in dog behaviour. Available from: https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/509315v1.
Chicago American Psychological Association. "Dogs' Intelligence On Par With Two-year-old Humans, Canine Researcher Says." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 August 2009www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/509315v1.. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/08/090810025241.htm>.
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