By John Jeanneney ©2007

Most hunting dog people have been dismayed to see a very promising pup fall apart in its second year. I suspect that many of these young “wonder dogs” get culled and are never heard from again. Some of these culls would probably have developed into very good dogs if their owners had the kennel space, the patience and the wisdom to wait and see.

The best dog I ever owned was a wirehaired dachshund I bred named Clary von Moosbach. She was a do-everything dog; she just knew intuitively what you wanted her to do. It could be hunting pheasants one day or rabbits the next. She would tree coons at night and leave rabbits and deer alone. She never tracked a wounded deer until I started her on this when she was four years old. Then she put together all the skills she had learned hunting other types of game; she became an expert on cold tracks and staying on the right line.

What did Clary look like in adolescence? In her case this unsettled period came between a year and 18 months. For six months after her first birthday she was close to zero. She would quit a rabbit trail after 50 yards and begin hunting mice. She was incapable of remembering that certain types of game ran up a tree. She couldn’t do anything right.

I was talking about finding a pet home for Clary when suddenly she snapped out of it. She became the wirehaired dachshund that made hundreds of Americans aware that the right kind of dachshund is a practical hunter.

Much more recently Dick Chapman, a guide and bowhunter from Oxford, New York, had an experience that brought to mind Clary’s early development. Dick purchased Heidi, his wirehaired dachshund in another state. He brought her along carefully and as a puppy she looked very good in training. Dick knows dogs; at one point he owned the top competition coonhound in New York. Despite all Dick’s work, Heidi let him down during her first working year. She tracked 12 deer and found only one of them. Her second season, 2006, was quite a turn-around. She tracked 18 deer and found 10 of them. That is a recovery rate that is hard to beat since many bowshot deer are not seriously wounded and survive.

It seems that adolescence is a phase of development experienced by dogs and people alike. If you have raised teenagers you probably know all about this. I’d rather not report on my own adolescence, but it’s interesting to consider my son’s driving record at age 16. In his first five months behind the wheel he had two driving tickets and three vehicle accidents, none serious, but all avoidable.

Ed Bailey, formerly a psychology professor at the University of Guelf in Ontario, is a famous hunting dog trainer, who has written excellent books and papers on the subject. He made the comparison of human and canine adolescence in a 1985 article that first appeared in Gun Dog Magazine. “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 his parents have suddenly become. Characteristics remarkably similar to those of young people appear in young dogs during the transition periods all dogs go through as juveniles.”

Important research is going on right now to back up Bailey’s insights about adolescence. In the next few years we will know much more about how the workings of the human teenage mind. But unless one of our billionaire Full Cry readers comes up with the cash, there won’t be parallel research done on dogs. Of course dogs are not humans, yet psychologists and neuro-scientists do use animal experiments and dissections to better understand human brain function. On-going research on the human brain is bound to give dog folks like us a better means of understanding what happens when wonder puppies go sour.

One of the research tools now being used is the fMRI machine. This is a specialized version of the MRI machine used to take pictures of soft tissue abnormalities such as cancerous tumors deep within the body. By monitoring minute differences of blood flow in various parts of the brain, the fMRI can determine which parts are involved in various human activities.

Researchers like Marion Diamond and Abigail Baird have tried to figure out why adults and teenagers solve problems in different ways. “Of course” they found that adults came up with better solutions. By using the fMRI to check brain activity in adults and adolescents as they were solving problems, they came up with some startling results. In contrast to adults, the “wiring” at the surface of the frontal lobes of teenage brains didn’t work very well. Partly in consequence of this the teenagers did their problem solving with other parts of the brain that weren’t very efficient either.

By adulthood the earlier circuitry glitches of the brain’s frontal lobes correct themselves. Focused thinking and good decisions are much more likely.

Doesn’t this sound a bit like the transition in dogs from crazy one year-olds to smart adults?

We now know that we can’t explain away canine adolescence by saying it’s just hormones and preoccupation with sex. Deeper things are going on, but the undesirable mental performance is not likely to be permanent. We have to have some patience.

Years ago, when I was in the market for a Black Mouth Cur, a man called me up and tried to sell me one of his pups. To establish his credentials, he told me that he had shot, in all, a pick-up load of his young Black Mouths that weren’t showing him much. I wonder how many pups in that pick-up load would have turned out to be good dogs.