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03 February 2010

The Puppy License and its loss

About Paws for Thought - written by a friend at work, posted with permission.

Please note that these posts are written by a dog lover learning more every day and happy to share. They are intended to give you options and ideas to think about. They do not replace the help of a professional (such as a vet, behaviourist, trainer or lawyer).

Posts can be shared with others as long as you make sure that any references contained within the post remain with the post and please do not take chunks out of context. Preference is definitely for the whole post to be shared rather than pieces.
I particularly wanted to share this article, as I'm fostering puppies at the moment and am watching my dogs teach the little ones doggy language, etiquette and self control. They get away with a lot at this age but are told off in no uncertain terms when they go too far!
Also we recently had a young adult rescue Lab go on trial with a 4 month old puppy. Initial introductions were great, then the dogs continued playing happily at home, by evening the Lab decided that enough was enough and told the puppy off. The owner asked us to take back our aggressive rescue without willing to listen to a possible explanation. Such a pity the 4 month old puppy missed out on valuable life long lessons from the older dog.
Many pet owners are quite shocked to find that suddenly at about 4 ½ to 5 months of age adult dogs will appear to ‘turn’ on their cute and adorable puppy….it also comes as quite a surprise to the pup! So what’s probably going on here?

Puppies go through a particular period of socialisation between 3 to anywhere between 13 and 18 weeks of age (depending on who you listen to) during which they need to learn as much as they can about the world they are going to be living in and the people and other creatures that inhabit it. It’s also a critical period for learning about being a dog and what is and is not socially acceptable in dog communications and interactions. Future posts will delve into this critical period – there is just so much to share about the world of dogs : )

This period is critical for developing positive relationships with other dogs and development into a behaviourally healthy dog. Research shows that puppies who are isolated until 16 weeks of age are more likely to display fear in all sorts of situations and be the recipient of aggression from other pups and dogs. They generally seem unable to develop normal relationships with other dogs – it’s like they don’t learn the language through lack of experimentation and practice (otherwise often known as play). The scary thing is that when talking about isolation we’re not just talking about being locked in a solitary cage but also any other means of restricting the pups experience of the world so puppies that don’t get to socialise and play with other dogs of all ages (and sizes, shapes and colours), puppies that are raised in sub-standard breeding arrangements and highly sterilised and sterile kennels and pups that spend time in a pet shop window or just locked into a back yard or laundry. All of these can lead to a wide range of potential issues with a pup and its development but the focus of this post is specifically dog-to-dog social development and the end of this special development period.

Puppies up to 4 ½ to 5 months of age appear to have something called a ‘puppy license’ – something that allows them to be an absolute pest to older dogs without repercussion. You see puppies being down right rude in dog terms doing things like jumping on older dogs, stealing food and toys from adults, barking right in the face of an adult or worse still humping them – and the adults just seem to put up with it, and even expect it – at least well socialised dogs do (dogs with good dog communication and social skills).

However at about this age the license expires as the puppies hormone levels change and they develop psychologically. Adult dogs now start to insist on the puppy controlling their behaviour and being more respectful in their interactions – and this comes as a shock to many puppies who ignore the more subtle signs until an adult dog (maybe their best pal at home, a friend at the park or a total stranger) snaps back – figuratively and sometimes literally. The adult dogs might:

· Bark (roar) at an adolescent displaying inappropriate behaviour.

· Plant the adolescent’s face into the dirt with a well placed paw (something my boy was doing to other younger and over the top puppies at only 12 weeks of age – and which caused some distress until I figured out what was going on).

· Knock the adolescent with their muzzle or mouth.

· Snap at them.

The messages might be relatively peaceful and quick or they might appear and sound like a major scuffle if not full out fight – and the adolescent will generally be doing the majority of the screaming. But if there are no wounds then do not panic – now or the next time you see or meet this adult dog or any adult dog, or your adolescent will pick up this fear from you and act on it. This does not mean that you should put up with inappropriately socialised/skilled adult dogs or other adolescents bullying and picking on or terrifying your pup – so if you are concerned, if blood is drawn or punctures made then seek professional help.

Adults will also tend to self-handicap themselves less and instead play with more of their cunning, strength and brute power – now they might knock the adolescent over, pin them or stand over them. Any of these can cause the adolescent to scream or run from the scene giving high pitched yelps that cause us humans concern and often end in sanctions for the adult so that the conversation between adolescent and adult dog is not completed but rather interrupted by us with the adolescent getting off lightly – and sadly not learning the lesson as quickly as they would have if these interactions were monitored but only intervened in when either dog is in likely physical danger. The adult dog is also more likely to then try to get in and teach this cocky adolescent a lesson more quickly next time, therefore escalating the situation needlessly. If the adult dog gets the blame and is therefore removed from the dog park, class or home needlessly, removing a well socialised dog with clear communication skills from the social group and therefore reducing the number of well socialised dogs that other puppies, adolescents and dogs are likely to come across and learn from.

It is critical that the adolescent dog gains experience with adult dogs and learns to control himself, communicate clearly and interact in a socially acceptable way. Without this experience the pup grows to become an under-socialised dog – one that is likely to attract or cause altercations in the playground (park, footpath or any where else they meet or come within sight of another dog). If as an owner of a pup you get to the point of considering stopping dog contact please call for professional assistance immediately rather than socially isolating your pup – and if you’re not happy with the answers and approach you get keep looking. It appears virtually impossible or at least very hard work and a long term project to make up for the lack of this experience when the brain, body and psychology of the pup are programmed (ready) for it after the event (in later life).

It seems that male pups are particularly prone to being put in their place. It’s almost like they are suddenly wearing a sign on their back that says ‘kick me’ – and they are but the sign is six foot high and flashing red – it’s a surge in testosterone that every dog in the area can recognise much more easily than any sign and it seems to say ‘put me in my place before I get out of hand – I’m super male!’ Male testosterone levels start to rise by 4 to 5 months of age and reach their maximum at about 10 months of age before falling back to their normal adult levels at about 18 months of age. An adolescent male pup can have levels that are 5 to 7 times greater than adult levels, so you can understand your male pup is under extreme hormone attack (far more than any teenage male human) and that this can be a difficult time for them and therefore you – but one that you can both live through, particularly if you have some understanding of what is going on.

As puppies, both male and female, approach adolescence, they may be continually harassed by adult dogs – sometimes so subtly that you might miss the signals from the adult dog but should see a change of attitude in your growing furball. Adult male dogs will often target in on the adolescent male and make his life quite stressful. Luckily this particular phase is usually short as the pup quickly learns what is acceptable – showing active and exaggerated appeasement signals to adults.

While I might have made this change over period sound particularly scary you need to remember that this is about puppies learning how to control themselves and behave more politely and this takes time and experience. The adult dog’s role is to help the adolescent learn the social rules of interaction and while they will be forgiven mistakes at the beginning they are expected to get with the program pretty quickly as they gain more experience – and letting them have that experience with safe and well socialised/adept dogs is our role in this piece of their development. It’s VERY important that pups learn to talk “dog” and interact with dogs of all kinds and ages so that he or she can become a great communicator, peacekeeper and teacher of future generations as well as the life of the party.

What are your experiences with the puppy license and what your puppy managed to get away with?

What are your experiences with the change that occurs at the expiration of that license?


· Barbara Handelman – Canine Behaviour. A Photo Illustrated Handbook.

· Ian Dunbar – Dog Communication at

· Ian Dunbar – Social Hierarchies at

· Turid Rugaas – The Puppy and the Young Dog. About Growing Up at

Also check out:



· The Diary of Raising a Hearing Ear Dog -


  1. My puppy is losing his "puppy license" around here. He is 4months old and has been a pushy, rude little bugger. My older dogs has been tolerant up till now and has been teaching him with dog signals growls and so on but the puppy does not seem to get it. He constantly challenges my older dog and he's suddenly fed up and it is clearly visible. He has been more aggressive about letting puppy know what is appropriate but the puppy does not back down until it gets crazy. Why does the puppy not show respect for my older dog? My older dog is a male JRT and the pup is a mixed breed and is already larger in size than my jack. Will the size thing cause dominance issues--should I be worried about future fights as the puppy gets even bigger? Or will he just accept he is not top dog eventually? I am getting frustrated with the fights and would love them to get along better. They do play well at times but those seem to be getting less and less with the "loss of the puppy license".

  2. Just wanted to say thanks for this wonderful article! I have been referring owners of every breed to it for years!

  3. Thank you for bringing more information to this topic for me. I’m truly grateful and really impressed.
    Pest control Labrador


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