Puppy. The first night.
Prior to our arrival the pups were happy and healthy in their surroundings. They had been gradually weaned off their mother both in terms of food and attention and by 7 weeks were having little contact with her, instead living as a group with their siblings. Everything else remained the same whilst the puppys experienced these changes which whilst fundamental in terms of development, were gradual enough that the pups could cope with the changes and remain emotionally stable.Understanding what happened to them when we arrived explains why such care needs to be taken with pups when they arrive home. We are strangers arriving in their environment. Anything novel is a potential threat. When you’re that young everything is novel and there are many emotional processes that must be worked through whilst the pup learns what is safe and what is not.They are confident pups and all saw our arrival as a novelty worth investigating but such novelty is a stress on the pups no matter how well they cope.
We then started to interact with the pups and separated the dogs from the rest of the group. The stress levels are now potentially growing as there is less comfort from the group and more novelty from interaction from strangers. Again, at this stage the pups looked confident and were happily engaging and exploring.
Having made our selection the pups were carried by relative strangers (us) to the van which was another novel environment. They were then left in the crate in this vehicle, for only a few seconds before we joined them and despite there being two pups, the stresses were beginning to stack sufficiently that the dogs were starting to feel emotionally uncomfortable and unable to cope. This was evident in their body language, pacing and vocalisations.
As we began our journey the novelty of the situation added to the vibration from the engine, the unusual movement experienced for the first time and the isolation from the group and everything else the pups knew and were comfortable with became evident. The pups had reached their limits.
The vocalisations we could hear were obviously born from distress. We all recognised that. The dogs were experiencing emotional trauma. It is now understood that all mammals share a similar set up in terms of emotional responses in the brain and the panic response being evoked in these pups is no different to that of a baby crying for its mother or to get its needs met in some other way.
What social animals need to feel safe is a safe attachment figure and a safe haven. These pups were lacking this at the moment and things were about to get worse for them. We made some stops along the way and held them for a while but as we were strangers all these things were likely to be adding to the stress even though the bonding process was beginning. At this stage the pups had each other and as they huddled together we could see the comfort they were drawing from each other.
Arrival back at base saw this comfort end. The pups were separated and introduced to yet another novel environment, another vehicle and now, isolation. We reintroduced the pups after only a minute or so before making the final journey to their new homes.
The vocalisation was louder and more desperate. I talked to the pup, stopped frequently to offer comfort but being a stranger at this time he appeared to draw only a little comfort from my attention. The bond between us would now start to develop in earnest as I become the new safe attachment figure. This however will take time.
Arrival home presents yet another novel environment. The kids know to be quiet and respectful. Everything has been picked up off the floor but the pup at this stage is in no mood for biting. He refuses food and water and whilst confident enough to explore, returns frequently to me.
We explore the garden and the house and I take every opportunity to encourage him into the crate as this is going to be his first safe haven. We return to it at every opportunity and the kids take turns to go into the crate and calmly smooth the dog whilst he is in there.
The pup is starting to seek comfort in both me and the kids and is returning either to me or to the crate which is exactly what I want to see.
By bedtime we had a few wees in the garden and he had a few small drinks. Again all good signs. As I settled on the sofa to sleep, the crate, with the door closed at this stage was right next to me with the pup fast asleep.
He woke at around 0200hrs and became vocal. I let him out and we went into the garden for a wee. When we returned he was unable to settle in the crate and was restless and vocalising. He spent the rest of the night asleep on the sofa by my feet (his choice).
I know it is often stated that you shouldn’t let them out of the crate or pay them attention when they are whining and this is a good point later in the process. At this stage though I am acutely aware of the trauma this pup has gone through and his emotional state which is one of panic from being unfamiliar and unable to cope effectively with his separation from his known universe. It is this emotional state that is driving this behaviour and by alleviating the emotional need I remove the unwanted behaviour. You cannot reinforce emotions only behaviour. Whilst I may have reinforced the behaviour by answering his call, I also tackled the issue at root cause by addressing his emotional needs and the fact that he was able to seek comfort in my presence tells me that the bonding process is under way. That led to a restful sleep for both of us. I will be mindful not to reinforce the behaviour of vocalising as I progress but will be attempting to prevent it feeling the need anyway.
Day 2 started at 0615 hrs with some vocalising and exploration. We went outside and he had a wee in the dog garden. We then played some chase with a screwed up ball of paper and a drink and a small amount of food. All good signs. He then whined at the back door and so we went outside for a pooh. All functions returning. A good sign that he is returning to a state of allostasis.
For the next few hours he explored, played with me or the kids who have now arrived downstairs or returned to the crate for a lie down.
My aim upon picking the pup up was to limit the stress and trauma and to provide the safe haven and attachment figure as quickly as possible as I know this is the only way to reduce his suffering and prevent opening up neural pathways that may lead to stress or anxiety disorders later in life or even worse, cause the dog to shut down through emotional overload or learned helplessness in specific situations.
Having returned the dog to a state of allostasis where all is well and providing him with everything he needs to satisfy his biological needs and a safe haven and attachment for his emotional needs I then need to teach the puppy how to cope without me.
I had very little choice in creating the trauma of his removal from his previous life due to practical issue like distance from the breeder and perhaps the breeder not being willing to gradually expose the dog to isolation, allowing me to visit daily and bond with the pup before his collection. If you could do those things that would be advantageous.
I can however control everything about this pups life from this point forward. That places a tremendous responsibility on me to not only understand what the pups needs are but to then take ownership and responsibility for delivering them and preparing the pup for his future.
The hierarchy of dog needs by Linda Michaels is a great visual of the concepts I am talking about.
Whilst the future will hopefully be working as a Police dog, even if that doesn’t work out (it will) he still needs to learn some basic life skills. The first of those is how to cope with isolation because whilst he will spend a lot of time with me he cannot spend all his time with me.
It may sound bizarre having just spent the time bonding with him but now that appears to have happened I now need to remove his reliance on that bond if only in the short term. That means leaving his side but not his sight for perhaps only seconds. Building up slowly to minutes and then leaving his sight as well again for perhaps only seconds and building up to minutes and even hours at a time. My aim is to develop the pup into a dog who is so secure in his own skin and with the attachment he has with his handler that he can not only endure but thrive whilst experiencing long periods of isolation. Whining, howling, destructive behaviour, pacing and self mutilation are all really obvious signs that a dog is in distress and not happy being isolated but equally dogs that shut down, hardly move and don’t eat or drink or engage in normal behaviours are equally likely to be suffering.
That level of confidence can only come through a systematic approach to exposure which places the welfare of the dog at the heart of the training. How long will this take? Only the dog has the answer to that question. It takes longer for some than for others. Some will never attain that level. How much effort the handler puts in and their ability to read the dogs body language and have empathy with the dog are also influencing factors.
By taking this approach though you are almost guaranteed success. There will be no casualties who don’t cope with your training style because this training style has the individual dogs needs at the fore front at all times. Only by not recognizing or ignoring the dogs needs can you go wrong.
There are of course other ways to go about things. The phrase “start as you mean to go on” is often used to describe the process of leaving the dog to cope with isolation and not answering his pleas for help. This can often work in so far as some dogs do eventually learn to cope. Many others though do not. Also being blind or ignorant to the dogs poor state of emotional health does not alter the underlying truth of what is happening.
There are many people who will have adopted this very approach to their own babies and will see me as sentimental or soft. To them I would merely ask them to take a little time to look into the literature surrounding mental health in human and you will discover that attachment trauma is at the heart of nearly every mental ailment and disorder we suffer.
As for adding punitive or aversive methods to address the pups cries for help…..Lets not even go there. Thanks for reading and I hope it helped you. If it didn’t then just park it for a week or two before you dismiss it out of hand. Sometimes new concepts take time to unravel in our brains.