Puppy Confidence

A house of cards? Or a bricks and mortar foundation?
By Emma Judson

While it should be pretty obvious that when we get a new puppy (or a rescue dog that is new to us), their confidence levels will be low. They will be insecure and worried, unsure of how everything works, and they will need comfort from and closeness to us.

Initially, that is going to mean not leaving your puppy (or new rescue dog), giving them constant access to you, and avoiding them experiencing distress. But how do we move on? What is realistic and reasonable to expect?

When we teach our puppies new behaviours, we don’t automatically assume that once they sit for the first time when we say ‘sit’, that the job is done. No, we know that it’s going to take more repetitions, more variation, working our way up through a series of variables, such as location, distraction, our body position and probably more.

If it were that easy, dogs would be trained in a matter of minutes and some of us would be out of a job!

But when it comes to confidence, we are often getting things wrong. We assume that after two days in a new home, a puppy will be fine left alone while we work. Why would that be the case? We assume that one night without needing the toilet means puppy can now sleep by themselves rather than in our room or with someone downstairs on the sofa. Why?

A puppy’s confidence is initially like a house of cards. You can build a lot quite quickly, but it’s shaky. It doesn’t take much to knock it over, even if you built it pretty high. In fact, the higher you built it, the more potential there is to knock it down because you have assumed it’s more reliable and secure than it really is.

We need to build our puppy’s confidence out of bricks and mortar, with solid foundations. So, what does that mean in practical terms?

Look more closely at what you are expecting from your puppy.

If you want him to sleep in a room by himself at night, what skills does he need?

He needs to know what to do by himself. Get a toy, get a drink, settle himself back to sleep, not need the toilet overnight.

He also needs to be able to come and find you to ask to go out. You don’t want him screaming his head off to wake you up several rooms and another floor away, so he can’t be locked in a pen or crate.

That means you need to trust him to come all the way to find you without weeing or pooing in the hall, chewing the carpet on the stairs, or having a little munch on the bookshelf on the landing.

When you look at your 14-week-old puppy who sleeps by himself next to your bed and hasn’t woken up for three nights running, you may think ‘yes, he’s got this’. But when you look at the above requirements, he still isn’t ready, is he?

What happens if we have assumed he is ready, and we’ve popped him downstairs by himself in a pen with his bed?

Let’s say he’s eaten something dodgy earlier in the day and his tummy wakes him, or he’s heard a noise outdoors that he hasn’t heard before.

He wakes up, there’s no one there, he fidgets about or does a little woof. No one comes, so he does a bigger woof or a howl. It takes him a few minutes of howling to get you to come, and he may have already had a poo-splosion or done a lake of wee before you get there.

You arrive, bleary eyed, frustrated at being woken, annoyed that now you’ve a mess to clean up. From his point of view, he wanted comfort and relief from his predicament. What he has received is his primary caregiver who is exuding ‘NOT HAPPY’ vibes at him, no matter how much they try to slap on a cheerful voice and deal with him kindly. That’s not going to boost his confidence, is it?

It’s also going to frustrate and annoy you. He could do this last night; why can’t he cope tonight? He’s slept through for weeks now; when can you get your sleep back?

Let’s look at what would have happened had he still been in your room.

He hears a sound. He wakes. Everyone else is sleeping. He might just assume everyone else is not worried, therefore it’s all fine and goes back to sleep.

He has a tummy rumble. It feels worrying. He wakes and woofs. You wake and take him outdoors, bleary eyed and wishing you weren’t standing outdoors in the rain in your PJs, but glad to have avoided the poonami that is now coming out of your puppy.

He’s learned that if he needs help, it’s there. Hurrah!

But what other reasons are there for your puppy’s confidence to wax and wane?

Quite simply, they are a puppy. They are constantly learning and constantly growing. It takes a toll, both physically and mentally.

This happens to you, too. Even once you are an adult. Imagine you’ve just taken on a new job or are learning a new skill. For a while, you improve each day and feel great. After a while, you suddenly realise the vast chasm between where you are now and where you need to be, and it feels daunting. And you have a wobble.

While puppies don’t know how much it is they have yet to learn, they can still be overwhelmed at times. They have to cope with all the new information they are learning, the physical fatigue that comes from growing, and the experiences they have to process, both good and bad. Sometimes the system has a bit of a crash. Instead of our brave, confident, possibly bolshy puppy, we have a snuggly, needy puppy, who wants to cuddle into our bodies, and can’t sleep without being wedged into our arms or under our chins.

If your puppy is in your room, and if you are making yourself available to your puppy as they grow, then this isn’t a big deal.

If you have leapt ahead and assumed the confidence and progress achieved is permanent, however, then there can be a big problem. If your puppy needs you and you are not available, hello major drama and distress.

Furthermore, there is a deep sense somewhere within the human species that coping with distress is somehow good for us. I don’t really think it is. I think the saying ‘what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’ is rubbish. What doesn’t kill us often damages us and the way we process events in the future. It’s certainly turned me into a suspicious and cynical person at times!

There are no benefits to your puppy experiencing distress. It will not teach them to cope. It will not help them ‘get over it’. It will simply damage the way they learn and grow. Avoid it, at pretty much all costs.

I would bet that by now some people are saying, ‘but when do I know my puppy’s confidence is real and is reasonably unshakeable, and I can progress in teaching things like sleeping alone and being left alone when I go to the shops?’

It’s always going to be an educated guess. So, the answer is to do things gradually and test things out before you do them for real.

If you think your puppy can cope when you nip to the shops for ten minutes, test it out by going and sitting in your car for ten minutes while watching your puppy on a camera. That way, if you are wrong, you can return before your puppy has a horrible distressing crisis.

We can also help our puppies along by setting up games and training sessions that reward independence. Also, by accurately observing and keeping notes or diaries on our puppy’s progress.

When we see our puppy happily take themselves off out of the noisy living room to snooze in the quiet kitchen; hurrah! That’s a good sign our puppy can make decisions by himself.

When we see our puppy take his chew toy and trot off into the garden to enjoy it outdoors without us; brilliant!

When we are busy flitting about doing the ironing or tidying up and our puppy sighs and heaves himself up and out to chew his toy in his bed in the living room because we are being annoying and disturbing his sleep; fantastic!

Also note the things our puppy does when we return from upstairs or out in the garden. Are we greeted with dramatic displays of joy that we have safely returned from Mordor, where we were almost certain to die? Or are we greeted with a casual, ‘oh, you’re back, nice, I’m busy’ and our puppy looks up and then returns to sleep or returns to whatever they were doing.

Make it a habit to keep notes or diaries on what your puppy does. What he experiences and how he reacts will help you make these educated guesses as to what he is really ready for.

It is safer to test things out a few times before doing something ‘for real’, where you may be delayed or unable to drop everything and return. This means you are much less likely to make a mistake and push your puppy too far, too soon.

Finally, keep in mind that we are under constant social pressure to form expectations that are NOT realistic for our puppies. We have to work hard to be reasonable and squash that.

We may want to get a puppy and then go back to work in a week. That’s not realistic. That’s going to cause the puppy distress unless we can make a compromise. Take time off, get a dog sitter or daycare, whatever.

We may prefer not to have a dog in our bedroom full-time, and that’s fine. However, it is likely to take you nearer a year to get there than a couple of weeks.

We can put in all the preparation work and foundation building we like, but we can only ever go at the pace our puppy is capable of going at. Remember, this is a marathon and not a sprint. You have 12 to 15, or even more, years with your puppy. The reality is that you do not need to get all of this stuff done in the first month or two of your puppy’s life with you. If you really, really do, then perhaps a puppy is not for you at the moment!

Taking things slow and steady might seem tough. In fact, progress is often
easier if you go slowly. You can manage frustration, stress, and sleep better
if you don’t rush.