“What if this was a mistake?”
This secret thought – unutterable even to family members – keeps more than a few new-puppy owners up at night. They tell me, sometimes in a whisper, that they must be missing something. Getting a puppy was supposed to be fun, but all they feel is stress. Frustration. Even anger.
They seek me out for the Magic Answers, the training tips that will bring peace. They are at their wit’s end with the biting, the peeing, and the destruction. They get out their notebooks, ready to record expert information, personalized for their situation.
I absolutely have those tips and tricks, strategies and game plans. Here’s the problem: they’re not going to work without the right mindset. There is actually just one thing I want new owners to write down in that notebook, so they can make it a part of every interaction they have with their puppy:
“This is a baby that I kidnapped from another planet.”
The way to enjoy puppyhood – and emerge from it with a beautifully trained dog – is to get in the right headspace. A real, live puppy is not going to fit neatly into your regular life, and trying to make it so is a recipe for constant angst. The happiest puppy people are the ones who dive into this phase, and back-burner their other things. Need a convincing reason to do that, because it feels wrong to prioritise a little ball of fluff? Try this:
Just a baby!
From another planet!
Far away from its own people, its own customs.
Lead with the empathy that idea demands, and you’ll find your groove. When you adjust your expectations for this little puppy to where they should be, suddenly training is simple. Not easy, but simple.
Frustration Mindset Blocks Problem-Solving
The “poor baby” bit may sound ridiculous to you if you have a new puppy now napping, rather indulgently, in your lap. After all, this pup is lucky to have landed with you. Not only is there plenty of food, but there is an expensive dog bed and an overflowing toy basket. More importantly, you have turned your whole dang life upside-down for this dog. It seems like all you do is deal with the puppy!
All true. But the more relevant truth is this: before you took him home, that 8-week-old puppy spent every single moment of his little life in a cozy, warm, scrum with his own kind. He was cheerily hanging out with his family doing everything that comes naturally: wrestling, biting, sniffing, chewing, and jumping. He was never alone. He had no idea you were going to swoop in, kidnap him, take him to a new planet and – here’s the kicker – suddenly be mad at him for everything that is prized in his culture.
Let that sink in.
Take your time.
Aw, shucks. Now you feel sad. And you want to know what good it does to ponder this depressing thought. After all, this is how it has to go – it’s not like the puppies can live on Planet Dog together forever.
But forcing yourself to rest in this concept increases your empathy for the puppy in front of you. If your mind is focused on your own disappointments (pee on the carpet again! more chewed shoes!), it leads to negative interactions with your puppy that can only hinder progress. If, instead, your mind is filled to the brim with what your poor puppy must be feeling (confused, lonely) . . . your own anger evaporates.
You know what that makes room for? Effective problem-solving.
Oddly enough, the Magic Answer to all of puppyhood is . . . empathy. Not some fancy dog-trainer technique. Plain old empathy. I promise it’ll make you happier, and make you a dramatically better dog trainer.
Biting On Planet Dog
On Planet Dog, everyone in polite society explores new things by mouth. Given the absence of hands, it’s the most effective, most satisfying way to engage. Puppies, in particular, use their mouths to play with their friends and to learn about the world around them.
People who don’t give any weight to their puppy’s background culture are alarmed by this mouthiness. They feel they may have picked “the wrong one.” They stuff the pup in the crate for yet another hour, thinking “That’ll teach her.” The kids cry, saying, “I don’t like her! She’s biting me!” Sigh. It doesn’t need to be this way.
Owners who are operating out of Planet Dog empathy will wake up in the morning to a bitey pup and their first thought will be, “Oh! You are missing playing with your friends the way you used to! You’re trying to play with us that way!” The thinking cap goes on, and the mind is open. As your pup’s only guide to Planet Human, how can you help this dear toddler who’s trying her best in a challenging transition? Suddenly the answers are obvious:
Bite-wrestle playdates with other puppies or gentle adult dogs. This is not a luxury, but instead an everyday need for all from Planet Dog. Once puppies have a happy outlet for that mouthy socialization, they are beautifully able to begin to learn our human ways.
Long, flat, fluffy toys that allow pup to safely play a familiar-feeling bitey game (tug of war) with her human friends.
The gentle teaching of new games that do not involve mouthiness: fetch, sit-spin-touch for treats, “find it,” etc.
So often, particularly regarding mouthiness, people tell me their puppy “just doesn’t understand the word no.” My answer is that when you set your puppy’s day up to match her needs, you’ll barely need to say no. Saying “no” a lot means you may have forgotten that you – say it with me – “Kidnapped! A baby! From another planet!” Having taken that dramatic action, it’s only right to do everything you can to help her adjust.
Alone-ness On Planet Dog
On Planet Dog, puppies are virtually never alone. From the moment they are born, they are surrounded by littermates and within a leap or two of their mom. That makes for constant companionship, fun, exercise, and warmth.
Once brought to Planet Human, a puppy might spend the vast majority of his time alone in a cold crate in an empty kitchen. When this toddler naturally cries out for companionship, he is yelled at by the human who is his sole connection in this new life. “He needs to learn. He already had a walk around the block, plus I just played with him for a while. Now I’m busy.” Sigh.
Leading with empathy makes it obvious that, while of course eventually this baby needs to learn to hang out alone, shock treatment is not the most effective learning experience. Furthermore, it can easily have the unintended consequence of making it even scarier to be alone. Once inside your puppy's head, you’ll gravitate toward a stair-step approach to help your pup learn to be confidently alone. You’ll think about combining:
a wonderfully tiring morning doggy playdate
a little brain-stimulating training
moving your laptop into the kitchen for a while; then to the spot right outside the kitchen gate but in puppy’s sight
providing delicious stuffed Kongs whenever pup’s alone
As our little alien gets used to life with humans over the first weeks – aided by Planet-Dog-oriented approaches like these – pretty soon puppy is happily enjoying his own company for reasonable stretches of the day that can get longer every week.
The Leash On Planet Dog
On Planet Dog, there are no leashes. Imagine a recently kidnapped puppy’s terror when a tight thing is slapped on and suddenly she is pulled around by the neck! Even worse: she is yanked outside into a world she’s never seen before, with loud noises and other creatures that are utterly foreign.
So many new owners are mystified when this pup is reluctant. They just pull her along thinking, “She’s so weird! All dogs like walks. I’m sure she’ll get used to it.” And generally, she does – but only after experiencing a lot of fear, and losing trust in her human.
In contrast, the owners who remember the key information – “just a baby!” – will consider how terrifying this could be, which opens up the mind to all sorts of ideas. “Hmm… how could this be made less frightening?”
Maybe spending the first afternoon with just a light little collar, and progressing to an attached light kitty leash the pup can drag around.
Perhaps by the end of the day you’re picking up the end of the leash from time to time, throwing treats ahead of the pup so her focus is forward, on that.
Later, you’re happily doing all of that out in the backyard, with the pup getting used to tension on the neck every now and then while you’re feeding a tiny bite of hot dog.
Maybe you’re also sitting together out front and watching the world go by, eating a bit of cheese when loud trucks or new folks pass just to form some happy associations.
Within days, this pup raised in empathy is happily walking on leash up and down the street with her trusted owner, who feels all the closer to her pup for the mini-journey they’ve just taken. (The other owner who was in a rush to get these walks going is still wrestling with a skittish walker weeks later…)
Tinkling on Planet Dog
The #1 issue creating the tossing and turning of the new-pup owners I counsel is the challenge of housebreaking. Even the most committed seem to buckle at the three-week mark, and confess to yelling.
Alas, our little kidnapped baby just learned, from that angry shout, that her person is scary. Unpredictable. Not to be trusted. Training will now go more slowly. Maybe she will always hold back just a bit because of the shocking yelling from “her person” at this sensitive age. Who knows what lesson she learned from that punishment? Options include:
I’d better hide from a human if I need to pee! Maybe here behind the couch.
I don’t ever want to pee in front of a human, so I won’t pee on leash anymore.
Right before my person yelled I was looking at the small child, so that must be a bad thing on this planet. I will run from small children now!
Our human housebreaking rules make very little sense to the folks from Planet Dog. While it is obvious to you that the dining room carpet is no place to relieve yourself, to your puppy it seems ideal: it’s away from the prime living space, and it’s got nice absorption, plus traction! Start with empathy, understand that your pup has drastically different instincts than yours, and set him up for success.
Do not give him the freedom that will lead to “accidents.” (They’re hardly accidents when the individual doing them has no idea they’re doing something wrong!)
Keep eyes on that puppy 100% of the time he’s not in his crate. “Eyes on” does not mean “in room with laptop open.” Learn his signals (abruptly walking to a corner? sniffing the ground?) and respond immediately.
A human should get that pup outside, and walking around, once every half hour to start! Only with success can that stretch to 45 minutes, then an hour . . .
No shortcuts. I’d sugar-coat it for you but that doesn’t do you any good in the long run, so here it is: After a week or two, every “accident” is your fault. I’m so sorry.
“Hey! Where’s the empathy for the human?!?” I know. It’s just that you’ll get that elsewhere, when you talk to other humans who can’t believe you actually got a puppy. I’m here to speak for the puppy, who did not choose to be kidnapped by aliens who thought they could carry on their regular day-to-day afterward.
The Dream IS in Reach
Frustrated new puppy owners think they’re not asking much. “Sheesh, I just want to hang out with him and cuddle.” But . . . that’s not actually true. We also ask them not to bark, jump, bite, pee, sniff, or chew. Sometimes, it’s as if we’re asking them not to be dogs.
It is frankly amazing to me how well puppies do during this shocking period of transition, from one planet to another. They are beautifully adaptable – so adaptable that even when shoe-horned immediately into a human’s world of doggy “no’s” they often do okay.
But in the homes where Planet Dog empathy rules from Day #1? Those are the homes where the whole puppyhood thing looks just like it does in the storybooks. Sure, some real-life things had to be put on the back burner for six months. But there was no tossing and turning, and there were no secret thoughts of regret. These are the folks who wonder what they did before they got this new friend. They are also, by the way, the people whose dog is walking at a relaxed heel with a loose lead, gazing up at them, wondering what happy thing might be next.