by Ed Bailey

Printed with permission
Published Gundog Magazine 1985

I can’t remember for sure when it started. I remember only that according to my father I had entered something called “the awkward age.” Now, some years later and from the vantage point of advancing middle age, I can recognize in young people the characteristics of the awkward age. They appear some time around the onset of puberty and persist until the lately-a-teenager realizes how smart parents have suddenly become. Characteristics remarkably similar to those of the awkward age in young people appear in young dogs during the transition period all dogs go through as juveniles.

Pointing breeds especially, but also flushers and retrievers, have that time of astounding performance which roughly coincides with replacement of lactile teeth with permanent ones.
Unless having gone through it a time or two, the owner is convinced his new dog at 4 or 5 months represents the pinnacle of selective breeding. The dog searches thoroughly, works close into heavy cover, points are staunch and care in handling a running bird verges on brilliance.

But then 3 or 4 months later when everything is set to show off the star to the all-knowing fraternity – the judges as a field test or, worse, hunting buddies – all that was sweetness and light becomes a series of blue expletives. Suddenly the dog’s elevator is no longer going all the way up to the penthouse suite. He runs right through every bird, maybe chases them, but is just as apt to go gaily leaping after a butterfly which except for a mouse was the only thing he managed to point all day.

Everything he does is wrong, from falling over the edge of a stream bank to hearing nothing quieter than a 200 decibel roar of anguish from the “proud handler.” From any point of view the dog appears incredibly stupid. This sudden change is unbelievable to the owner (the all knowing fraternity never believed how great the dog was anyway). What happened and how to fix it?

Among other things, sexual maturity happened, but mental maturity has lagged behind. The usual age at sexual maturity in dogs is about six months on average and this empty headed performance occurs sometime around nine months. The confusion seen in the dog actually starts with approaching sexual maturity but peaks a few months later. The dog’s apparent confusion arises in part from sexual maturation.

At this time of life the dog is being bombarded with stimuli from within. Hormonal changes are about maximum at this time. If this were a boy at comparable stage, thrust suddenly into the awkward age, he’d have problems with acne and think of girls in terms other than “yuk.” In the dog the levels of circulating sex hormones have increased, growth hormones have slowed or about stopped, thyroid hormones have increased and adrenal changes take place with altered hormone outputs.

All these hormones are acting in a fashion which resembles an almost random firing of nerves of the autonomic system. At this time males start showing serious aggressive tendencies; females have had the first heat and are in some stage of pseudopregnancy. All these stimuli from within plus stimuli from outside are acting on the dog. Responses to the stimuli are partly in a puppy fashion, partly in an adult way. Many responses are inappropriate in that puppy-like responses are given when adult responses are called for or conversely are awkwardly adult in a puppy situation. The dog, aware his response somehow does not give the desired effect, changes the response and often makes a worse choice or is distracted in the middle by some other stimulus. His public debut becomes a shambles but does not seem to worry the dog too much. He doesn’t feel the need for a therapist but we can imagine he is considering one for his handler.

What to do to fix it? The best advice I was ever given by a physician when I had an ache is also appropriate here. Leave it alone and it will probably go away in a month or two. The ache did and so will this phase of the dog’s awkward age. Much like the boy with acne, the dog will “grow out of it.”

Many dogs are ruined at this stage of development by well intended correction measures. The only correction measures that work are those which happen to coincide with the dog growing out of it. However, the coincidence of it going away by itself and some super training technique has led to myths about training. The myths are perpetuated by chance occurrences but generally correction does more harm than good.

But the dog has not yet come of age. There is still another woods to get out of and it is some time in coming. The first field season passes well. The dog at ten to twelve months old does a good job; hunts close and thoroughly, points, retrieves, comes in when called to search a promising patch of cover and is generally in control of his temperament. Then comes the next season, that terrible two, the second season syndrome. In many ways the second season is a rerun of the nine-month-old dog in that he becomes extraordinarily stupid, unbelievably deaf, apparently loses all natural abilities, and has frequent bouts of total loss of self-control. The dog does things like tear out several strands of barbed wire with his chest on every day out so his underside is a series of sutured V’s. He does equally careless, ridiculous things or worse through the whole hunting season. Pointing becomes occasional, chasing regular, retrieving partially done, rabbits great sport, obedience a smile and a wave. What happened to last season’s marvel?

He grew up – almost. He became a full-blown teenager. If the dog were now compared to boy by today’s standard he would be wearing earphones connected to a pocket stereo with volume cranked up to a level that could drown out a boiler factory. He would walk into trees or worse, drive into them at outlandish speed. Even if the boy could hear over the latest in pop noise there is no way he would listen. He knows all the answers. So it is with the dog. Physically the dog is superb, physiologically he is bursting with energy of every sort. Mentally he is a retarded adolescent. No measure is half way, moderation is unheard of, he is in fifth gear, an exponent of overkill. The body is miles ahead of the brain and all this is done with eyes shining, tongue lolling. The dog is the prototype of all village idiots. But he is just doing what any exuberant adolescent does. He is following his physical and physiological dictates and he is fearless, without caution and with little communication going on between brain and body.

At this stage in development the dog is “feeling his oats.” He is both sexually and physically mature and the time has come for him to attempt to takeover both jobs that normally belong and up to now have belonged to the handler. The two jobs the handler has are leadership (most important) and dominance (less important at this stage) and the dog wants both jobs.

These two positions are often confused by handlers but they are different. Considering it in more human terms (anthropomorphically), leadership is a position of respect, dominance is a position of power, of coercion. The second season is primarily a challenge of leadership. In the first season the dog was dependent on the handler, uncertain and unsure; in the second season dependence has been replaced by independence, dead certain and cocksure. In people-speak, the dog thinks he knows more than the handler. Like the teenager, he has all the answers. The assertion of independence is his bid to take over leadership of the hunting pack composed of his handler and him.

Because leadership, not dominance, is primarily in question, punishment does little. So stay the whip and save the dog. Punishment will almost certainly be at the wrong time anyway, usually way too late for the dog to associate the punishment with the crime. Therefore, clobbering the dog does little to alter his behaviour and so is mostly useless. But work hard to keep leadership.

The most painless-for-everyone-way to keep leadership is by doing what might seem backward at first thought. Handler, do not get angry (that is difficult), do not go after the dog, do not give the dog any reason for believing you even notice, let alone care, about his crazy behaviour. Any acknowledgement of his behaviour acts to reinforce it and encourages repetition as well as bigger and more infuriating lapses.

Everything the dog does is saying “Hey, look at me, I’m the greatest. You want hunting? I’ll show you hunting.” But given a “ho hum” from the handler cuts to the quick. God’s gift to the world of hunting dogs is being ignored! The dog quickly gets the idea he can’t get a rise out of this guy so stops beating his poor head against the fence post. Without knowing it the dog is letting the handler take the lead again. Obviously there are many things which should not be ignored – basic obedience, a modicum of control, but especially biting or other attempts at a dominance takeover. Ignore obvious stupidity and lapses in retention of things done perfectly only a year earlier. If not reinforced by making a big thing of the lapses, if ignored instead of noticed, these things too shall pass. By the third season you will again have a dog you can brag about.

Return to Main Page