A new puppy in the house is generally predicted to be a joyous event; full of endless fun, games, and cuddles - and for the most part this is true.
However, there can be a darker side to the arrival of a new canine life in your home, which not everyone is adequately prepared for. As a result they may feel terminally exhausted, panicky, resentful, or just completely overwhelmed by the enormity of the responsibility they have just taken on.
I call what they go through new puppy stress syndrome (or NPSS). It is actually far more common in owners than you would think.
"I'm at my wits' end"
A client - I'll call her Susan - recently rang me in a highly emotional state. She'd had her new puppy for only six days and clearly was already at the end of her tether. The puppy kept weeing and pooing in the house, she said, even after she had just taken her outside. She whined and cried whenever she was left in her crate. She wouldn't settle when she wanted her to. She kept nipping Susan's hands black and blue, and sinking her teeth into her ankles like a demented piranha.
"I've had this puppy less than a week," she cried. "And already I'm at my wits' end. Please help me. I hate it and I'll never have another puppy again!"
I rather admired Susan because at least she had the courage to be honest about the more negative feelings she had towards her puppy, and seek help. On visiting her, it was also clear that her overall circumstances made her that much more vulnerable to NPSS. She had not had a puppy before - only older rescue dogs - and had recently lost a beloved old bitch, which the new puppy was bought
The ongoing grief she felt - both for the dog she had lost, and the growing realisation that the new puppy would never be anything like her - was the chief source of all her emotional turmoil.
Aggravating this further was Susan's belief that her puppy was not living up to all the early behavioural goals and expectations laid out in a book she was reading. I told her to immediately put the book away and just look, instead, at what was in front of her eyes; not the canine monster she had previously described, but just a tiny, insecure little scrap of a puppy who, to my mind, had been taken away from her mother far too early (at six weeks of age).
What she needed above all was warmth, comfort, security, and an atmosphere of calmness in which she could thrive - not an owner perpetually stressing and pulling her hair out each time she weed in the wrong place or chewed the carpet.
Having shown Susan how she could stop her puppy nipping and vastly improve her toilet training, I also outlined how vital it was for owners to lay down set daily activity and rest time routines for puppies, from day one, which they soon get used to. Not only do young puppies need lots
of sleep to grow properly, but owners also need sufficient daily breaks from their puppies, in order to stay sane.
I find that too many owners let puppies decide, instead, when they are ready for bed - not realising that puppies are usually at their most manic when they are most tired, and will keep on going as long as they are being stimulated. The failure
of owners to have sufficient breaks from the demands of their puppies is also what so often leads to heightened stress on their part, due to sheer exhaustion and
a general sense of feeling out of control of their own lives.
Puppies are far more adaptable than most owners give them credit for, especially if you always stick to the same rules and routines from day one. If, however, you start them off with one routine or expectation, then suddenly try to change it or take it away, it can cause them considerable upset or distress. Owners instinctively know this, which is why they so often get stuck with what they've started, routine-wise, even if it means more stress for themselves.
I had a desperately stressed client, for instance, whose problems stemmed back to her establishing a routine of getting up at 1.30am each morning to take her puppy out to the toilet (apparently as a result of something she had read in a book!). I asked her when she intended to stop doing this. She didn't know. She also let her puppy sleep in a crate in her bedroom at night with a view, she said, to moving him downstairs later. Like, when? Again, she didn't know.
She just knew she was totally exhausted, not least because a fidgety little puppy in your bedroom is hardly a recipe for a good night's sleep. I encouraged her to bite the bullet and make changes sooner rather than later. The puppy was moved downstairs (with actually less trauma than was feared) and the 1.30am toilet shift was cancelled. The puppy can now hold on overnight and his owner is a completely different person as a result of getting sufficient sleep.
Susan, today, is also a very different woman. Having confronted all her earliest fears and anxieties about her puppy, better understood her basic needs, as well as the impact of her own misdirected grief, she is so much happier. She has also learned to love her gorgeous little dog exactly for who she is.
Every new puppy we own brings new challenges. We always think we will never love him as much as other dogs we have owned, but we always do. Time passes, the bond slowly grows and strengthens, and then one day we suddenly realise that getting this dog, whom we once stressed and agonised so much about, all those years ago, was one of the best things we ever did.
Be honest - and get help!
Rather than accepting that they frequently can't cope, or hate all the demands and responsibilities of a new puppy, too many owners try to suppress or deny these feelings instead, because they feel guilty about them.
So not only will they not get the help they need but there is also a higher chance that their suppressed negative feelings will be targeted on to their puppy in some damaging way.
It's incredibly important to understand that anxiety, resentment, and panic, in the face of all the changes and demands new puppies bring with them, are pretty common initial human reactions. It is OK to accept these early feelings, which nearly always change with time, but also critical to get professional help if you continue to feel you can't cope.
How to avoid puppy stress
■ Make sure you feel able to cope with the demands of a new puppy.
■ Establish separate quarters for your puppy where he can do least damage should he wee or poo in the wrong place or chew things.
■ Establish routines that give you ample rest from your puppy during the day and at night, to prevent over-exhaustion.
■ Overall, set the rules for how you want your puppy to behave, from day one, and consistently enforce them. Don't just wait until he does things and then react to them on a far vaguer, less consistent, or more ad hoc basis, as this only tends to perpetuate more annoying, manipulative, or challenging forms of behaviour.
■ Understand that occasional doubts or bad feelings about new puppies are perfectly normal and will pass in time.
■ Never be afraid to seek professional help, advice, or support about your puppy's rearing if you feel you need it.
Test your score on the puppy stress-o-meter!
Be aware that the stress you feel about a new puppy can heighten according to how many of the following factors apply to you:
■ This is your first ever puppy (fear of the unknown).
■ You have got a puppy to replace another beloved previous dog who has recently died (not only are you still grieving but may also constantly resent your new puppy for being so completely different).
■ You are something of a perfectionist or great worrier (your puppy never meets your high expectations, or you constantly fret that any failure on your part during your puppy's early upbringing will screw him up for life).
■ Similarly, you have read too many books or manuals on raising perfect puppies (relax- these don't exist!).
■ You feel your puppy is harassing/upsetting any other dogs you may have (relax again - it nearly always works out between them in the end).
■ You are intensely house and/or garden proud. As puppies can have supernatural powers of destruction and mess-making it's best to get less proud, quickly, if you want to stay sane.
■ Your puppy is a particularly challenging breed or breed combination. Be aware that how manic, energetic, challenging, destructive, bitey, or chewy, a puppy is can all be down to genetic factors. So do your research on breeds well before you get him.