Canine emotional well-being: Hormones and how they affect our dogs' behaviour

With Brutie now 19 months old - an adolescent male with all of his dangly bits intact - our cheeky little monkey appears to be testing the boundaries and we've potentially got some rocky months ahead in terms of keeping a harmonious pack. 

Brutus at 12 months old - no longer a puppy, moving into the adolescent phase and starting to test boundaries, albeit in a cute way. 7 months on and he's now testing boundaries in much more challenging ways, especially with other male dogs - it's all part of growing up but it's something I need to factor into my training and management plan for him and the rest of our gang to live a harmonious and happy life!

The first instalment of our week-long series to mark Love Your Pet day - a series of insightful posts on different aspects of the emotional well-being of dogs by canine behaviour expert, Penel Malby. Over to Penel ... 

A few years ago when I was out walking the dogs, I saw two Roebucks rutting - in broad daylight at 8am. They were having a big chasey scrap, in the middle of a very open field on the heath where I used to live with plenty of dogs and people around. Their hormones had overridden their usual caution which stops them from running across an open field at that time of day.

Roebucks rutting

Luckily my two grown up dogs were trained not to chase deer and Hobson, who was 18 months old at the time, was busy playing with his boxer friend Cooper so no deer bothering occurred!

My point in telling you about this, is to highlight how hormones make animals do things they would not normally do. These deer put themselves in great danger by a) rutting; and b) doing so in daylight in the presence of potential predators – people and dogs. A total disregard for their own safety. It's fascinating that animals would do this purely because of their hormones.

If we translate this to dogs, what do you think your dog might do when their hormones are raging? At this point I should probably say that I feel that neutering is always an ‘it depends’ on the individual dog and their situation – it’s never a simple yes or no.

As dog owners, we pretty much expect our ‘teenage’ dogs to have hormone surges. But are we prepared for our adolescent boys to want to fight with other boy dogs? Or get picked on by other boy dogs because they smell so strong?

Figgis and Toby approaching each other with tails raised
Penel’s Figgis cocker, and Toby labrador, two adolescent boys posturing as they meet in passing on a regular walk.  No aggression at all, this is totally normal behaviour for adolescent males. NB: if they had been on lead, or it had been a very narrow pathway, or humans had interfered, this may not have gone so well. Space is needed.  After giving each other a good sniff, they both went on their way.  Interestingly both these boys stayed entire their whole lives without any issues. Figgis & Toby greeting with tails raised signalling dominance

How about our teenage boys running across a road to find a bitch in season – I met someone in Norfolk a few months ago, whose dog had been hit by a car, crossing the road to find the bitch in season on the other side. Remember the deer – they take risks with their safety because their hormones are going crazy – they're not doing these things to be naughty – they can’t help it!

Are we ready for our girl dogs to be grumpy and difficult when they are feeling hormonal? if you have more than one girl dog, they might not get on well at all, and how about them howling all night long mid-season because they want to get out to find a ‘boyfriend’?

Lots of girl dogs have phantom pregnancies too, which is hugely emotional for them, thinking that they have puppies, they will take their toys everywhere, they may protect things, they may be very sad and depressed. Some may get through this naturally, others may need medication from the vet. You must be absolutely sure your girl dog is not having a phantom at the time you are going to spay her, please do seek veterinary advice if you aren’t sure on this – as it can have a big effect on their behaviour for a long time. 

Gacie with her toys after losing her puppies Penel's little Gracie whippet x, shortly after she had lost her puppies and after being rescued by Hope Rescue

Little Gracie was our Whippet, rescued by Hope Rescue. Sadly she had had a litter of puppies that had all passed away. She would collect all the toys and gather them around her and she was also quite stroppy with our other dogs. Gracie's puppies passing away was was massively stressful for her, made even worse by being in kennels for a short while, and then moving into our home with 4 other dogs.  Time and space sorted everything out for her (lots of separate space, in particular sleeping space) but it was certainly an eye opener for us.

Adolescence isn’t a time to withdraw your dog from social contact, but it is wise to be cautious and careful who they are mixing with. They’re still at a vulnerable age, still developing their personality. As much as is possible, we want their social experiences to be positive, so they need guidance – remember the behaviours they practise are the ones they will repeat.

Don’t go for the ‘let them sort it out’ if your adolescent boy dog starts getting into difficulties at the local park. Walk somewhere else, meet up with friends who have calm older dogs, increase enrichment at home so that dog interaction isn’t the be all and end all, go to a freedom field, visit a cafe instead of going for a walk. They don’t need tons of doggy friends, a few really nice friends is perfect.

We have to help guide them through this difficult time – they do get through it one way or another. Protect them from situations they can’t cope with, and be prepared for some tricky moments.

© Penel Malby 2023

Look out tomorrow for another insightful blog from Penel in this series on canine emotional well-being to mark Love Your Pet Day

About Penel

Penel Malby is canine behaviour expert, writer, phoographer, and all round dog enthusiast who lives in Norfolk with her husband and English Setters Hobson and Elmo, and Birdie the Labrador. Penel trained dogs and cats on movie sets for the first 10 years of her career as a dog trainer and behaviourist, before co-founding a renowned dog training and behaviour company in Surrey as a member of PACT and the ABTC. Many dog lovers have seen some of Penel's other dog-related work as she was the cover photographer for Dogs Today and Dogs Monthly magazines for many years. Penel writes on many subjects to do with dogs with the intention of making both the lives of dogs and their owners better.

Penel Malby and HobsonUsually found walking with her dogs along the beaches and through the woods of Norfolk near her home, Penel runs an English Setter training group on Facebook and you can follow Penel and her gang at The Daily Hobson.

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