Alexandria, VA – “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. But here’s the problem: they will not 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 will not 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 other things. Need a convincing reason to do that? Because it feels wrong to prioritize a little ball of fluff? Try this: Just a baby! Kidnapped! 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.
A frustration mindset blocks problem-solving
The “poor baby” bit may sound ridiculous to you if right now a new puppy is napping, rather indulgently, in your lap. This pup is lucky to have landed with you. Not only is there plenty of food, but also an expensive dog bed and an overflowing toy basket. More important, 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 came naturally: wrestling, biting, digging, 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 puppies can live together on Planet Dog forever.
But I bring this up for a good reason: forcing yourself to rest in this concept increases your empathy for the puppy in front of you. Focusing on your disappointments (pee on the carpet again! more chewed shoes!) 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 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 a dramatically better teacher for your puppy.
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 want them not to bark, jump, bite, pee, dig, or chew. Sometimes, it’s as if we’re asking them not to be dogs.
It frankly amazes me how well puppies do during this shocking transition period 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 human priorities were moved to the back burner for six months. But there was no tossing and turning and no secret thoughts of regret. These folks wonder what they did before they got this new friend. They are also the people whose dog is walking at a relaxed pace just at their side, with a loose lead, gazing up at them, wondering what happy thing might be next.
(For a more detailed version of this article with tips on how exactly an empathetic owner might approach mouthiness, potty-training, walking on leash, and beginning crate-training, read the original version of Callahan’s article first published in the October 2020 Whole Dog Journal.)
Local trainer Kathy Callahan (CPDT-KA, FDM) loves to help people and their dogs live happily together. Her business, PupStart, offers puppyhood coaching (including a socialization playgroup) and private dog training. Callahan writes monthly for Whole Dog Journal on dog behavior, and she’s the author of 101 Rescue Puppies. Her family has fostered more than 200 dogs. Learn more at www.puppypicks.com.