Updated: Aug 14
I spent a rainy Sunday afternoon reading about anthropologist Jean Liedloff and musing how her observations of the child rearing practices of the indigenous people of the rainforests of Venezuela were relevant to puppies. During her time with the Yequana, she noticed how happy and confident their children were and the striking lack of conflict in their relationships with each other, with parents and other members of the community when compared to Western children.
What she found was that while infants in these communities were in constant close proximity with their mothers, the mothers were neither anxious nor sentimental about them. Needs of children were met lovingly and without judgement, displeasure or dismissal but also at the same time without showing undue concern or making them the centre of attention. They are exposed to all elements, noises and sudden changes in weather or darkness and light without being fussed or over protected. Mothers were happy to set infants down in what we would perceive as being dangerous areas, on river banks or by the side of pits and trust them not to fall in. When travelling, mothers trust their children to follow, they may slow their pace but trust their children to ask for help when they want it, it isn’t offered. Mothers seem to trust implicitly in the innate instincts for survival and self preservation in their infants.
She observed that the confidence that mums’ showed in their children’s ability to succeed and survive was reflected in the confidence and resilience that children had in themselves and their ability to separate naturally from their mothers. This contrasts with Western societies where we continue to supervise and interfere in their activities after they after left our arms. However, in not allowing them to trust in themselves- “watch out, you will hurt yourself” or “don’t go out of my sight” they become more dependant and more self doubting. As she says, the unconscious mind doesn’t reason and so a child is more likely to do what their senses tell them is expected of them rather than what has actually been asked. The self-fulfilling prophecy that sets them up to fail.
The observation she makes is that self reliance grows from a beginning where children are always present and welcome but rarely the centre of attention. And this point brings us back to puppies. In the past, when we had less modern conveniences and more traditional roles, puppies would be present but rarely the centre of attention. Their needs were met, they were kept safe from harm but they had much more freedom and choice in their life and so they learnt more readily to just ‘be a dog’.
Progress has brought with it a great many benefits for dogs; our awareness of how they learn, an appreciation of them as sentient beings and in improved animal welfare standards. At the same time though, some established wisdoms have been lost and along with it, a bit of confidence and resilience.
So what can we do to help puppies develop confidence and resilience in the modern world we all live in? Sometimes less is more and perhaps applying a bit of tribal wisdom could go a long way in building confidence in both you and your puppies. Here a few suggestions:
Be a reassuring presence, but get on with your own day-to-day life. If puppy’s needs have been met, have confidence in them to survive and thrive.
Let them explore without interference or constant observation and interaction. Don’t take things off them. If there are things they really can’t have, put them away.
Gated community- baby gates and pens create safe zones for puppy to explore without interference, they help build resilience to separation gently- they can see you and hear you but can’t follow you, they help them build up tolerance for frustration and needing to wait, they prevent rehearsal of unwanted behaviour such as chasing feet and hanging off trouser legs
Speak less. Give them time to think and work things out for themselves. Be proactive in setting up their environments and routines so you can put more energy into reinforcing the resulting successes and less time issuing instructions and micro managing.
Our homes and gardens are much more clinical then they used to be. Set up areas with different heights, textures, surfaces, noises. In the home you can use your recycling, steps, mats and cushions. Outside, use logs, leaves, children’s play equipment, gravel, whatever you can find. Then let them explore. Resist the temptation to direct and control
On walks, let them lead the way, let them explore and sniff. Instead of a running commentary on what they are doing or picking up, do your own exploring, try a silent walk
Our doubts and worries can be self-fulfilling. They sense our anxiety but don’t know what to do with this information. The more you trust puppy will cope, the more puppy will cope. In Western civilisations, particularly the UK, our culture leans towards suppressing emotion (the stiff upper lip!). Crying is often seen as something that must be stopped and we find it uncomfortable to listen to. I’m not suggesting you leave them alone to cry it out but if they can see you are there and their food, water and elimination needs have been met try not to feel that you must stop crying, it is just part of a process. Acceptance and getting on with your own thing will help you cope and this in turn will help puppy.
Finally, to borrow the words of Charlie Macksey, asking for help isn't giving up, it's refusing to give up. Puppies are exhausting and as a dog trainer, being cried on is an occupational hazard! In as little as a single session, I can help you feel better with approaches designed with your puppy's character and your circumstances in mind.