Stages of Life

Like people, dogs behaviors and health change through different stages of their lives. By knowing what to expect, you won’t be thrown off balance when your dog suddenly adopts a unexpected behavior or shows signs of “unlearning” behaviors you thought it had mastered.

Puppies
They are unbelievably cute. You can literally watch them grow. It is fascinating, and sometimes amusing, to watch your puppy test its environment, practice new abilities and build a loving rapport with you. They can also be relentless, needy and tiring, so you need to be patient with your pup – and yourself – while your dog goes through these early stages in its life.

Puppies begin learning at birth. Research shows they are most receptive to learning between eight and 16 weeks of age. This is also an important time to begin their socialization in order to avoid creating fears. In many communities, puppy socialization classes are available for pets as young as eight to nine weeks old. Plan on beginning your training with your pup from the first minute you take charge. Use lots of praise to teach your puppy the behaviors you want it to learn.

Young puppies need a lot of attention, especially during the first few weeks you bring them home. You may need to take them outside for elimination as frequently as once an hour plus immediately after feeding. Usually, they can learn to hold it and get down to about five to eight times a day after a few weeks. You’ll also need to start crate training right away so that your puppy will identify its crate as a safe, calm and secure space. Be sure you have lots of treats on hand from the start to reward and train new behaviors, but use other rewards as well, like positive comments, petting and cuddling.

Feed your puppy a diet of high-quality dry dog food that has the vitamins and minerals growing dogs need. Keep human food down to a bare minimum – it can cause imbalances that affect the formation of bones, muscles and healthy organs and lead to obesity later on. Puppies need to be fed four meals a day between eight and 12 weeks of age. This can be reduced to three meals a day once they reach three to six months of age. Sometime between six months and one year old, they will only need to be fed twice a day, which is normal for adult dogs.

One other characteristic of puppies is a tendency for destructive chewing. For dogs, chewing helps strengthen their teeth, provides a form of mental stimulation and is one way they learn about the world. Give you puppy chew toys and try to keep things you don’t want chewed out of their way. If chewing does become a problem, there are training techniques that can help you overcome this problem.

The other important activity to undertake with puppies is to make sure they get the vaccinations they need for a healthy life. (For more information, see more about Vaccinations).

Adolescence
Adolescence is as physically and mentally challenging and confusing for dogs as it is for people! Both male and female dogs go through hormonal changes that can be disturbing. Dogs reach adolescence between six and 18 months. During adolescence, your dog will go through rapid growth spurts, which may cause some mild pain. When permanent teeth come in, your dog will need chew toys to relieve the pressure on the jaw. Be careful about any extreme activity, because growth plates are fragile and susceptible to injury. During this period, a dog’s baby coat falls off and the adult hair comes in. That means you may encounter more shedding for a while.

Adolescence in dogs marks their sexual maturity, usually between eight and 12 months. Spaying and neutering between two and six months of age can alleviate most of the symptoms associated with sexual maturity. For female dogs, this leads up to their first heat. You may notice that your dog becomes more playful and flirtatious around male dogs. Some female dogs become more inclined to roam, so you’ll need to be extra careful not to let your dog get away from you. Female adolescent dogs often need to urinate more frequently. Sometimes they develop some aggressive behaviors, particularly toward other female dogs. Use training techniques to reinforce the behaviors you want and remember that this is just a phase.

Adolescent males will exhibit new behaviors, some of which may seem more aggressive. Their bodies are producing testosterone at levels higher than is found in adult male dogs, which explains their extreme behaviors. At the same time, male dogs begin holding other dogs responsible as adults during adolescence, which can lead to more aggressive behavior or fighting with other dogs. It takes time for a male dog to learn how to manage these new feelings and responsibilities. Other typical problem behaviors adolescent males exhibit include urine marking and roaming. All of these behaviors can be offset by standard training techniques.

If your adolescent dog exhibits destructive behavior, it is likely a sign of boredom or anxiousness. Plan on giving your adolescent dog more exercise to help counter all their physical changes, provide the mental stimulation they need and tire them for calmer times at home. Adolescence is also a good time to spend time on training for dogs because they are learning about their limits with people and other dogs. At this age, they distinguish between people they know and people they don’t know. Try to be patient and playful to overcome your frustration with misbehaviors and remember that adolescence in dogs is a phase – it does pass.

Old Age
A dog’s senior years truly are golden. Older dogs tend to be happy. They are settled into a familiar routine and become particularly affectionate during this time in their lives. Different breeds reach this phase in life at different times, but it is important for you to know when your dog reaches this advanced stage of life because of the changes needed to its diet, nutrition, exercise and health. Your vet can help you identify when your dog needs to make these adjustments.

Common problems dogs develop in older age are:

  • Hip dysplasia, which makes it difficult or uncomfortable for your dog to walk or run. Solutions range from medication to surgery, depending on the severity.
  • Orthopedic problems in joints and bones through the regular wear and tear of living. Arthritis occurs for many dogs at this stage.
  • Hypothyroidism, which can slow your dog down and lead to obesity and poor heart health. Your vet can check on this with a simple blood test and it is easy to manage with medication.
  • Eye problems, like cataracts and other issues, hamper vision and may lead to blindness.
  • Cancers of all kinds will show up in dogs at this phase of life.

As dogs reach old age, they may have memory lapses or exhibit signs of confusion. Many dogs need to eliminate more frequently because of declining kidney and bladder functions. If your dog was not spayed or neutered, there is an increased likelihood of infections or cancers of the reproductive organs. By keeping an eye on your dog, you’ll be able to recognize these changes early. Medications can help overcome some of them and there are other resources and techniques available as well, particularly devices to help dogs with orthopedic problems. You can teach your dog new ways to work around any health issue. Most importantly, treat your dog gently and don’t push it beyond its changing level of abilities. Some activities, such as jumping to catch a toy, should be avoided to prevent pain, injury and further deterioration.

Over time, your dog may need help with simple activities of daily living. Talk to your vet about the resources that can help at this phase as well. Minor adjustments can help your dog continue functioning relatively normally for as long as possible. Most importantly, spend time giving your dog lots of affection and touch. This is often a dog’s most loving time of life and provides you with an opportunity to build happy memories together.