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Karen B. London
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Favorite Dog Age
Personal preferences vary
A 7-week old puppy with a 14-month adolescent

I’m not proud to admit it, but once when we were fostering a puppy, frustration and lack of sleep led me to moan to my husband, “Whose bright idea was it to say yes to having a puppy in the house?” (The answer, obviously, was me.) The puppy who led me to complain was a four-month old field bred English Springer Spaniel who was active by any standards and who didn’t like to eliminate on leash, but was perfectly happy to do so in her crate. If she settled down to relax with something to chew on, it never lasted more than about two minutes. Sigh.

When she was just a few weeks older, we were not quite so mentally and physically exhausted and life improved for us.  She was a delight in play and on outings of all kinds, and we had great fun training her because she was so enthusiastic about the process. She was also so adorable that it was impossible to take a bad photo of her. The cuteness of puppies goes a long way with me, but I can’t help feeling that it does not completely compensate for the challenges of puppyhood. I know many people disagree and love the puppy stage more than any other.

Adolescent dogs pose challenges to most guardians. During this developmental period, most dogs become more independent and less likely to stick close to you at all times. Without the adorable puppyness to protect them and without the calming influence of age, adolescent dogs are at risk of being too much trouble to guardians who were not prepared for a dog, and somehow failed to realize that all puppies do grow up. Adolescence is the age at which more dogs are surrendered to shelters or rescues than any other age.

Some rules and routines, lots of exercise and play, plus a good solid base of training (especially recalls) during puppyhood usually buffer people and their dogs from the worst that adolescence can bring. That makes it easier to love having a dog of this age. There’s the joy of new possibilities and activities, a minimum of health issues or related limitations and fun to be had in so many ways. Yes, even a well-trained dog at this stage of life is likely to respond to a known cue occasionally by looking at you with an expression that says, “Yeah, I heard you. I’m just not interested in doing that right now.” And yes, adolescence brings some unpredictability in behavior in almost all dogs, but many people enjoy this lively, exploratory phase.

Dogs in middle age are often the easiest to live with. From the age of about three years to six or seven years, dogs are typically in a lovely intermediate stage. They are active and willing to do just about anything, but often more flexible than when they were younger. If the morning walk gets postponed a couple of hours, they are less likely to react badly with pacing, whining, chewing, or other issues. (I say “less likely” because it can still happen, and some dogs are never tolerant of a lapse in activity or a change in schedules, no matter what their age.)

Many dogs in this age range have a good base of training, and can handle many situations. Training is a lifelong pursuit, but dogs of this age whose guardians have worked hard on training have usually mastered what they need to know by now.

It is often wonderful in many ways to have a middle-aged dog, but not everyone realizes their good fortune at the time. The appreciation often occurs when they acquire a younger dog who is full of vim and vigor. There’s nothing like such a dog to make people yearn for the easy keeper stage that had been taken for granted with the previous dog.

Old dogs are a special wonder, having outlived many of their peers. I love to meet those dogs who have 13, 14, 15 or more years behind them and marvel at their graceful aging. Sometimes old dogs can make me feel a little bit emotional as I see their bodies failing them. When they struggle to see or to stand up to greet me, or I see one chase a ball with a speed that’s more walking than running there’s a certain sadness to it, but it’s matched by a sweetness, too. Geriatric dogs are the lucky ones who have had full lives, though nobody could convince me that even a single dog has ever lived long enough.

It can be hard to have an older dog because they may need a lot of physically demanding, exhausting extra care, and expensive medical bills may be a drain on finances. Remembering them in earlier, more carefree or pain free times, perhaps as a mischievous puppy or a young adult with endless stamina hurts the heart. Still, there’s a special kind of love involved in caring for a dog to ease the way through the later part of life and even to the very last second of it. Though a dog’s golden years may be wonderful, many dogs need a little extra patience and care. Knowing that the time to say good-bye draws near reminds me of how precious the special moments together are. That can make the great love for a dog a little bigger even when you didn’t think there was any more love to be had.

Each age has its advantages, and I sometimes think I like whatever age the dog is. If forced to choose, though, I suppose I’m especially fond of the oldest of dogs. Which age do you like best?

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

photo by Tony Harrison/Flicker

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