Bonding during puppyhood
Does this sound familiar? Pressure to always give your all and be the best, high standards for yourself – both on the job and in everyday life. This pressure, so typical of our performance-driven society, has long since also become a part of dog training and our coexistence with dogs. Dogs’ accomplishments are compared against each other at group training activities, seminars, and workshops, but that’s not all. Even within puppy groups, proud owners discuss what tricks their little darlings can already do reliably.
The human-dog bond as the basis for everything
What we owners sometimes seem to forget amid all this pressure is that a puppy is still a baby! Your puppy will generally come to you at the age of eight to ten weeks. The crucial thing to it at this time is discovering the world, gaining experience, making contact with its social group, and finding its place in that group and within its new home. This is an exciting and challenging time for a puppy, during which we should treat it with a lot of love, attention, and understanding and give it a special feeling of security.
Puppies need to have a social partner by their side who accompanies them on their voyage of discovery through the world, acting as their rock and giving them the sense of security they need. After all, only if a puppy feels secure, protected, and comfortable is learning – the actual training part of having a dog – possible in the first place. If a puppy feels insecure or fearful, it will feel stressed, which blocks its ability to learn.
To ensure that you can train successfully and on a lasting basis with your puppy, it is crucial to consider the three pillars of a secure, stable bond between human and dog beforehand. These pillars are conveying the sense of security and trust discussed above, establishing a basic framework through structure and routine, and sharing affection and physical closeness.
Giving your puppy a sense of trust and security
At the start, everything is new and exciting to a puppy getting to know a new family. Puppies want to explore the area and get to know smells. They need to learn for themselves what things mean something good and what they should stay away from instead. When your puppy is in the process of gaining experience, you should definitely be there to provide support. If the pup has an unpleasant experience or suddenly seems afraid, you can show it that it isn’t alone, and that you are there with it. And when it slowly approaches a new stimulus, step by step, you can encourage it and give it a sense of backing.
During puppy group at obedience school, too, you can learn to offer protection to your dog. This is especially important, since your puppy is in the socially sensitive phase at this time, when everything it learns is stored with special intensity and on an especially lasting basis and therefore also affects its later life as an adult dog. Encounters with other dogs will be one of the biggest challenges you will face in your day-to-day life as a team with your dog later on. If your puppy learns now that you offer safe haven and protection while other dogs are present, it will be more willing in adulthood to come to you in stressful situations instead of resolving an encounter with another dog on its own, possibly through confrontation.
When your puppy actively turns to you for protection as a bonding partner, you should crouch down and cross your arms in front of the puppy to keep other dogs away. This shows your pup that you understand it and that it can always come to you for safety and refuge, and that you will take care of the situation for it.
A basic framework of structure and routines offers guidance
Another important pillar that should be taken into account starting in puppyhood is structure and routines. Firm habits during everyday life offer a sense of security and save energy so that your puppy can focus on what truly matters in life, like setting off to explore, playing with you as a bonding partner, roughhousing around, growing, and getting to know new people and dogs.
One routine that is very helpful now and in your later lives together is the routine of calming down in response to a signal. This teaches your dog to relax under certain conditions. A stimulus like a scarf, an essential oil, or a verbal signal is associated with a feeling of relaxation if we make sure to always have that stimulus present when we relax with our dog during a massage or when cuddling. The stimulus becomes the trigger for a feeling of relaxation. It can be used to help your puppy wind down after going for a walk or if it is excited. It can also help achieve deeper relaxation!
Teaching your puppy at an early age to wind down and reach a state of calm regularly will help it not get too wound up too quickly in the future when it feels excited and to be able to relax faster afterward as well. Puppies and young dogs become overstimulated and overexcited more readily in everyday life than adult dogs. Our job is to step in at a certain point and make sure the puppy can calm back down.
Another highly important and helpful routine is the goodbye routine. Sooner or later, everyone will have to teach their dog to relax and stay home alone for a few hours at least while we do things like grocery shopping for the week. Calmly staying home alone is something that should be practiced in very small steps. The goodbye routine helps our dogs understand that they will now be alone for a time. If you don’t signal when you are leaving the home for a longer period and simply leave without a word, your dog will start to look for you at some point. It may get worked up or even start to whine or howl. That means it is a good idea to introduce a certain phrase, such as “Take good care of the house” or “I’ll be right back.” If you say the same thing every time just before you leave the house, your dog will know exactly what the situation is and what it should expect. Once calmly staying by itself has been reliably established, your dog will have learned that you come back to it after a time. It is best to say your phrase when your dog is lying down calmly and relaxing in its spot.
Affection and physical closeness
Last but not least, affection and physical closeness also contribute to a secure, stable bond between human and dog during puppyhood. Affection includes everything you deliberately share with your puppy as pleasant contact. It can be the way your puppy looks to you when out for a walk, showing attention, physical contact when your dog is lying down, caring for its coat, cuddling, or scratching it between the ears. Puppies in particular seek out regular physical contact with their bonding partners, which you can use to strengthen your bond.
You should have a lot of contact with your puppy, spending a lot of time together, playing a lot, including without toys or objects – just naturally. Of course, you can start practicing small tricks here and there at this point as well, because successes experienced during training are another good way to reinforce the bond between you and your puppy.
But you should still keep in mind that training – especially during puppyhood – should never be your top priority. It is much more important to spend time together and make sure the puppy feels comfortable, safe, secure, and protected, and that it has a social partner it can trust by its side. And once all that is in place, there’s no obstacle to successful training!
A secure, stable bond with your dog is a long-term, lasting solution
In many cases, training goes great during puppyhood. But as soon as they start to go through adolescence and explore other stimuli, many dogs suddenly stop listening as well, and we have a hard time competing with these stimuli. In these cases especially, it is important for our dogs to have learned what it means to experience safety and security from us, that they can count on us in any situation, that they are a team with their humans, and that they do not have to go through tough situations on their own. This will also keep your dog focused on you and make future situations (including training) easier. Once your dog has learned and understood this, the right groundwork and perfect foundations for a harmonious and relaxed future life together are in place.