on life stages of dogs
a quick guide to each unique chapter in your pet's story
Kat and I have witnessed the science of pet health and longevity evolve quite a bit lately, and it’s an exciting time to see how much opportunity there is to improve pet health spans and make a difference (be sure to visit our upcoming section on being proactive about healthspan and longevity). But let’s start with some basics first:
Do you know what to expect as your dog gets older? What about what is considered normal for a new puppy? Contrary to popular belief, dogs do not age in a linear fashion, with each stage of life proceeding 100% predictably from the last. While every pet ages differently, there are still some key markers and milestones to be on the lookout for, and for some these physical and behavioral differences can be difficult to understand.
In this guide, let's take a closer look at the different stages of life in dogs and cover some important aspects of canine development and aging. We'll also detail some common challenges and solutions associated with each stage. By developing a higher depth of knowledge around what to expect and what you can do about it, hopefully your companion has the best chance at long-term health and happiness. Select a stage of life below to get into the details or go just ahead and read every category from puppy to pensioner.
Puppies have literally evolved to be some of the cutest creatures on Earth, and they’re incredibly curious and playful for a purpose. Constantly exploring their world and learning about their surroundings through their developing senses, puppies slowly but surely create an abstract model of their environment through play. Of course, this physical and behavioral development doesn't happen in isolation – positive interactions with other animals and the world at large is a big part of setting them up for success. Pet owners that know what to expect and what to look out for have a big advantage at helping their pets develop properly along the way, so let’s highlight some key moments:
Food is fuel for growth
The first few months are a particularly important period for your puppy's development. A balanced diet full of essential nutrients from your dog’s food will play a critical role in laying a foundation for how they will grow and thrive. Proper nutrition gives them the necessary building blocks to build muscle mass and develop into a healthy adult.
Starting them on a quality limited ingredient diet and paying close attention to dietary guidelines and feeding suggestions is key. Introducing puppies to different animal protein options and exploring their food sensitivities should start as early as possible, too.
It is really important that you take care not to overfeed your dog throughout their first year – especially during those months when he is rapidly gaining weight due to the huge demands being placed on their body systemically and physically. Around 12-14 weeks old, you can expect puppies to be able to move and play much more smoothly than before due to their joints and muscles fully developing.
By setting your dog’s diet up for success right from the start for adequate nutrition and proper physical development, you will be giving them the best chance at thriving through infancy and down the road.
Picky eaters not getting enough nutritional requirements? It might take some work, but finding the best combination of ingredients to help motivate normal intake can make all the difference. A health issue or stress from separation anxiety can also impact hunger and feeding behavior, so be sure to talk with your veterinarian if you have any concerns.
Start brain-training early
Puppies begin to recognize basic shapes and colors very early on, laying the groundwork for more advanced cognitive skills later on in life. Even at this point it’s not too early to consider helping your dog develop fundamental canine skills like foraging and sniffing, and offering puzzle toys and feeders is a great place to start.
Puppies begin to develop social instincts toward other dogs and humans at this point as well – so it is essential to start offering positive interactions with both people and other pups to lay a foundation for good training later on.
When puppies first come home with you, it is important that you expose them to new environments, sounds, smells, and people as often as possible in order to help them develop positive associations with these new experiences.
Teething and how to help
One of the most notable milestones in puppy development is teething. During this stage, puppies experience constant discomfort because their jaws are expanding while their teeth are growing and pushing up through their gums. As such, they may be irritable or even aggressive – so it is important to have plenty of chew toys on hand for your puppy to relieve any pressure from their teeth as they grow.
This can be a challenging time for both you and your puppy, but it is essential for ensuring good dental health during adulthood. Take preemptive measures to remove valuable items or furniture and remember they still need to learn right from wrong.
Potty training takes patience
A big focus for newborns is potty training. It might not always be easy and it requires plenty of patience and understanding. While some puppies may quickly settle into a routine that makes both of you happy, others may take a bit longer or even regress in certain stages of development – don't worry though! This is all part of the process.
Just stay consistent in your efforts and offer plenty of love and support along the way. Ultimately, with the right guidance over these first few years as a puppy parent, you can help set up your companion for success.
Veterinarian visits aplenty
In order to help puppies develop into happy and healthy animals, the veterinary team will spend more time with them as puppies than they will adults (I can remember Kat and I taking Harper to the vet more times than I can count!). They'll complete a personalized protocol to prepare them for spaying or neutering (if desired); monitor if there are congenital health problems, while also providing care advice on age-specific problems.
Work closely with your vet and set a foundation of appropriate behavior by teaching your puppy how not to be scared on visits, it will pay off down the road! Finally, complications around allergies and the immune system tend to present themselves now, so be on the lookout for any irritations or reactions to any new food options. Equally as important, be on the lookout for any bad reactions cropping up after sustained use of their old food, too.
As any dog owner who’s seen it knows, adolescent dogs go through an incredible period of rapid and dramatic change during their first two years of life. They undergo a series of physical and behavioral developmental milestones that get them prepared for integration into adulthood. One key aspect of this development is learning to respond appropriately to social cues from other dogs, humans, and their environment. With proper guidance and attention from their owners, young canines can begin to build strong relationships with others and develop an understanding of expectations in various situations. To help set up your young adult dog for success as an adult, here are some key tips to keep in mind:
Learning positive reinforcement
According to every research study ever, a constructive method of training is far more effective than punishing bad behavior and inadvertently reinforcing negative responses. Focus on positive reinforcement when it comes to training your dog, promoting a pattern of good behavior using treats or other rewards as incentives.
Dogs learn over time through repetition (some dogs can learn a new trick incredibly fast, while others need more time to establish the connections in their brain). Having patience when teaching new skills or correcting unwanted ones is key; being consistent with everything you do really makes a difference.
Spend plenty of time socializing your dog, exposing them to different people and situations so they start to form positive associations with both. This will not only help them learn how to be more comfortable around others, but it will also build resilience in the face of new challenges.
Ripen their minds with new tasks
Though every dog is unique and will progress at their own pace, in this stage most observe an increase in energy and playfulness along with an interest in exploring new things. You may also see changes in sleep patterns, communication via vocalizations, and an increased interest in table scraps and treats (sounds like a young teenager!). Stimulating your dog’s mind and making certain that they stay engaged has a long-term impact on cognitive function, so the more time you can commit to them here the better.
Some good starters are learning how to navigate certain obstacles (like gates or steps) and passive leash walking. These functional tasks also create a strong bond between pets and pet owners. New enrichment activities will also help them gain independence – keeping them physically and mentally engaged will also ensure they don't become bored or frustrated. At this point it’s also great to start introducing them to long walks in nature and more intensive physical exercises like fetch or swimming.
At this age, your dog may seem to disobey and challenge you on the daily, likely related to food or walks. Work hard to maintain your leadership role, using gentle and consistent training - they will eventually grow out of this phase and develop an understanding of who is in charge.
Get in a rhythm of checkups
Adolescents should get continued preventive care and checkups, not missing a beat on the basics like appropriate protection against fleas, ticks, heartworms, and intestinal parasites. Your veterinarian will address any behavior concerns and monitor their final stages of growth and development. They will make sure they are meeting their nutritional needs by setting an appropriate body condition score (BCS) to help you keep them at a healthy weight (tracking and maintaining weight and BCS as your dog ages is a key predictor of longevity).
Understand spaying & neutering
For the longest time there were mixed opinions on spaying and neutering dogs because there seemed to be conflicting evidence over the impact of the procedure on long-term health. Spaying and neutering was shown to reduce shelter populations while limiting the chance of reproductive cancers in females, but others linked the operation with a higher risk of developing certain cancers or a chronic disease of the bones or joints. With a big push from the research community, the complexities of the situation became more clear - the difference in the impact of spaying and neutering was related to the timing of the operation and the size of the dog, along with certain exceptional rules for specific breeds.
Over the last decade there’s been a lot of progress in developing a breed-dependent picture of health risks associated with spaying and neutering at different ages. There are steadfast rules for veterinarians based on your dog’s sex, size, and background. To simplify things it all boils down to “don’t rush, wait until the time is right.”
For instance, while females that are fixed early do see a significant reduction in mammary cancers in some breeds, larger breeds will be at a higher risk for joint problems if spayed or neutered before maturity. In larger breeds like Goldens or Labs, delaying fixing until after growth plates close significantly minimizes the potential for orthopedic issues like hip dysplasia.
Other studies have shown an increase in urinary tract issues in female dogs spayed before the age of five months: smaller breeds such as Chihuahuas or Dachshunds see an increase in the risk for urinary incontinence and joint disorders when fixed early. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels may also be predisposed to heart disease if spayed or neutered before one year of age.
As responsible pet owners, we want to make informed decisions about our beloved companions' healthcare - working with your pet’s veterinarian to understand the potential risks and benefits associated with spaying and neutering for your specific dog should be a priority. In general, there seems to be a sweet spot for dogs that wait for the operation until after the first 12 months of development, but the question can become more complex when considering females and estrous cycles, so be sure to discuss everything in detail.
Consider DNA testing
By this time in a dog’s life it’s a great idea to consider DNA testing for heritable conditions if you haven’t already. Normal ancestry testing can teach you neat things about your dog’s lineage and provide helpful information for choosing the right food, but a test for heritable conditions can make certain your dog hasn’t had any heritable risks for diseases passed down from their parents or grandparents. While you can’t draw conclusions from these tests alone, they’re a great tool when it comes to preventative care, helping you make informed decisions about your dog's health going forward.
Dogs reach full adulthood around age two, although small breeds may mature slightly earlier and large breeds may take a bit longer. At this point, they no longer require the intense care and supervision that they did as puppies, but they still need plenty of love and attention and a long-term plan for success. Many believe young adult dogs no longer need as much exercise as they did during their previous stages of life (mostly because of the impact on their hips and joints as they age), but this is far from the truth when it comes to maintaining peak condition and promoting optimal health. What’s the mixup then? As long as you are helping your dog maintain their joint mobility with proper supplementation and recovery, then proactive health and exercise during adulthood can be a lifesaver late in life. In short, do what you can to set your dog up for success, keeping in mind:
Don’t neglect those teeth
It’s incredibly important to not lose sight of proper teeth care for your growing dog, as problems here can lead to systemic health issues that really dampen their golden years. At around 2-3 years old, many dogs will start to experience some level of dental disease. This is unfortunately quite common, but there are things you can do to help prevent it or lessen the severity. In addition to at-home dental care, giving your dog abrasive chew toys and taking them for annual teeth cleanings are good places to start.
The biggest impact you can have though comes from maintaining your dog’s diet and avoiding human food and table scraps (especially those with added sugars).
Be on top health-watch
There are many health conditions that cannot be predicted using DNA testing technology. Some are complex genetic disorders that scientists do not fully understand, while others are more dependent upon real-time interactions with the environment. Interestingly, most remain absent through puppyhood and present themselves after your dog reaches adulthood.
One reason these diseases do not present early on is that many heritable diseases are caused by dysregulation in genes involved in development. Consequently, these conditions often do not present themselves until the affected individual reaches a certain age where an accumulation of changes can present itself.
In some cases, the disease may only become noticeable when your dog is under stress or experiencing other health problems first. Depending upon the age at which they first appear, heritable diseases tend to be progressive and can cause significant debilitation. As such, it is important for owners to be on the lookout for odd behavior or physical symptoms suggestive of a problem.
Because of this, making consistent checkups at least every 12 months and knowing what to be on the lookout for is critical. The most important first step your doctor can take is to identify what heritable diseases are possible according to your dog’s breed and lifestyle. They can then establish a set of criteria for you to be on the lookout for at home (for example, if a dog is prone to cataracts, you can do simple tests to monitor their vision over time).
Set up an exercise regimen
These are the best active years of your dog's life and taking proper advantage of them lays a foundation for health deep into their senior years. Start while you're ahead before it becomes too difficult!
Due to the historical purpose for domesticating each breed, every dog has different activity requirements to stay in top health (e.g., some dogs are herding dogs and they have an inherent drive to run and command!).
Take a little time to research about your dog's breed or mix to the best of your ability, learning about their daily energy requirements and natural drive. For everyone's collective benefit, establish an exercise routine with achievable goals.
Embrace proactive supplements
Considering supplements is an important transition for developing dogs once they reach adulthood. The everyday stressors of life accumulate over time, and starting a comprehensive wellness regimen that promotes balance and homeostasis is key to maintaining optimal health in older dogs. Research suggests maintaining vulnerable functions as your dog ages offers them the boat chance at long-term health, so getting ahead of any potential challenges is a much better approach than waiting and responding later.
While supplements cannot stop the aging process, they certainly can help to improve quality of life for elderly dogs. By replenishing building blocks and antioxidants that may be lost due to age-related changes in diet or metabolism, you’ll provide your dog with all the tools necessary to maintain health.
Austin recently crossed into this life stage and it was an amazing experience to see him settle down after the addition of some new younger family members - he’s taken on a whole different role with a new level of maturity (take a peek at his little grey hairs showing up in the photo above!). For most, the mature dog life stage is a time of change. They may start to experience some minor medical issues or show signs of challenges to come. Others will be fine physically with just a slight reduction in their energy level. While you can do your part by offering a proper diet and exercise to help maintain their youthful energy, their metabolism will begin to slow down, and they may put on weight more easily. This period of a dog’s life can really be a joyous time, especially if you’ve put in the hard work to help your companion develop healthily without much chaos (a little is to be expected). Dogs at this stage of life often develop a calm wisdom and appreciate the simple things in life. They also form deep bonds with their human companions and become an even more integral part of the family. As they approach seniorhood, it’s important to focus on the following:
Changing energy requirements
Mature dogs typically have lower energy requirements (i.e., the amount of food needed) compared to puppies or young adult dogs. This is due to a number of factors, including a decrease in activity level and a gradual slowing of metabolism (especially true for large breeds - their nutritional needs and weight control will take more effort and diligence). However, there may also be some early changes in energy requirements that are not yet fully understood.
For example, some studies have shown that older dogs tend to absorb less fat from their food, even when they are eating the same diet as younger dogs. This can lead to weight gain and other health issues if left unchecked. Slowly but surely as they approach seniorhood, the definition of a balanced diet will change (more on that in the next section). Therefore, it is important to monitor your dog's weight and energy level closely as they age, and consult with your veterinarian if you notice any changes.
Early physical changes from age
As dogs age, they may start to experience a variety of physical changes. These changes can vary depending on the breed, but some common ones include graying fur, occasional joint stiffness, and moderate weight gain. Many of these changes are a natural part of the aging process and are not cause for concern. However, early physical changes that occur very quickly in mature dogs can be indicative of more serious health problems and a cause for concern.
For example, rapid graying fur around the entire body may be a sign your dog is developing kidney disease, while a sudden drop in weight loss could be a sign of cancer. If you notice any major changes in your dog's appearance, it is important to have them examined in order to rule out any potential health issues.
Early behavioral changes from age
As dogs age, most will undergo at least some changes in behavior and cognitive function. Early changes in mature dogs include increased sleepiness and adjustments in social interaction (no longer prompting others to play, or perhaps adopting a different stance in the presence of younger dogs). Others may become a little stubborn in the face of long walks or stairs. Some will be completely normal at this stage and seem just as youthful as a young adult!
While changes are normal and to be expected, others can be a cause for concern and more investigation. For instance, some dogs may start to show minor signs of confusion or disorientation, a prediction of neurological distress that can manifest in different ways (like excessive air-licking, restlessness and anxiety at night, and pacing back-and-forth). These behaviors are not always indicative of something terrible though, oftentimes there is a minor issue that needs resolving. Anything unusual should be surfaced and discussed at their next exam appointment.
Kat’s experience with Brady really opened our eyes to making a difference in a dog’s quality of life, and every new puppy we take into the family is an opportunity to learn and grow as pet parents. Aging and decline is a natural process that happens to all of us. While it can be difficult to see our beloved dogs grow old, there are many steps you can take to make their senior years more enjoyable and less stressful. It all starts with love and affection and coming to terms with upcoming changes, and doing what you can to give them extra comfort. In addition to making them feel special and at ease, the following can be helpful advice, too:
Remind them they're important
Your senior pet is still the same lovable puppy they once were - they just need a little extra room to find their way at a slower pace. Understanding their limitations around mobility and communication are key, and it’s important to leave them a little extra time to adjust and acclimate to the tasks of daily life. Expect that they may need to nap more frequently or that they might have accidents inside the house, and remember patience and understanding will reduce their stress and of letting you down (they don’t want to, so don’t make them feel that way!).
Remember that our senior dogs still need just as love and attention as ever, even if they're not as active or expressive as they used to be. Take time each day to give your dog some love and attention - gentle pats and scratches let them know that they are still an important part of the family. With a little love and care, we can help our senior dogs enjoy their golden years.
Create a supportive environment
Regardless of your dog’s physical status now, making small adjustments to your home and environment can have a big impact on minimizing potential discomfort going forward.
For instance, putting down carpeting or rugs around the home is a great start - dogs have an easier time getting up and down and they’ll be less likely to slip on hardwood or tile floors. Dog beds in multiple rooms are a total plus, too.
Dog ramps for cars, stairs, and furniture are something else to consider as they provide relief from jumping and hard landings. If really necessary, rubberized non-slip dog socks can provide extra traction.
Older dogs tend to need more water, so make sure to make finding a water bowl very easy, and try increasing the number of water bowls around the home if there is a lot of square footage for them to roam around. If you haven’t already, consider an elevated dog bowl that reduces head and neck strain.
Finally, all pups will struggle with night vision over time, so it can help aging pets to put nightlights throughout the home. A nightlight by the food and water can help, too.
Protect their immune system
Dysregulation of immunity is a common hallmark of aging, and at this point the immune system of an older dog will start to slow down. They may struggle with common conditions more than they would before, so it’s crucial to maintain any preventative medications (e.g., protection from ticks or parasites).
Make sure to maintain a clean environment and clean their food bowl often. Do not allow water bowls to sit out too long before swapping them out.
Their temperature tolerance isn’t as strong as it once was either, and using fans and sweaters to help with sensitivity to hot and cold are important for maintaining homeostasis and a strong immune system.
Increase grooming and care
As your senior dog’s joints stiffen with age it becomes more difficult for them to reach their entire body and self-groom. Prevention of knotting and matting with scheduled haircuts and regular brushings helps them feel good and maintain healthy skin.
These relaxing pampering sessions are also a good time to look for lumps or signs related to cancer (but don’t panic, some lumps in old dogs are simply fat deposits). Increasing the frequency of brushing and mouth cleaning is a good idea as well, make them feel well cared for and loved!
Finally, since an older dog’s energy level is lower than normal, they won’t be nearly as active around the house. Because of this lack of back-and-forth, their nails will not naturally wear down as much as they would normally. Be sure to trim them or have them trimmed more regularly than normal.
Find the best senior dog food
Feeding senior dogs the right amount of food while maintaining proper nutrition is a key focus for keeping aging dogs healthy. Due to a large variety of factors (e.g., a change in physical activity, shifts in metabolism, effects of prescription medication, changes in the microbiome with age), senior pets need more calories than adult dogs to meet their nutritional requirements.
To be more detailed, they need fewer carbohydrates and fats and a higher concentration of essential nutrients. Why? They experience changes in their ability to absorb things like vitamins and minerals from the digestive tract. Their digestive systems are simply not as efficient as they were when they were younger.
Senior dog foods are specially formulated to accommodate for a difference in absorption and energy needs that most seniors experience early in the aging process. They’re often softer and easier to chew and digest as well.
Consider senior supplements
Senior dogs need all the support they can get and the science shows a comprehensive supplement plan is key to maintaining quality of life and keeping in peak condition. We specialize in the science of pet supplements and know that all sorts of superstar natural products offer your pet the best chance at living their best. We’ve crafted a total senior support plan that focuses on cognitive support, hip and joint mobility, the immune system, the cardiovascular system, and more.
tailored support for senior dogs
The original cbd products at Austin and Kat were inspired by Kat’s late companion, Brady - today we offer an entire line of supplements for helping seniors maintain quality of life in his honor. Reinvigorate your aging dog's true potential and promote long-term health with a comprehensive support plan specially formulated just for them (it’s a quality product for cats, too!).