Those of you who know me well and know the lifestyle and schedule I keep may be amazed to hear that we recently brought home a 12 week old cockapoo puppy! What’s even more astonishing is that I broke my 30-year vow to never get a dog, despite constant begging from my husband and three sons! I did not grow up with a dog, so I had no sense memories to reinforce how wonderful it was, nor did I relate to the idea that not having a dog meant something was “missing” from my life. But I kept hearing about the incredible health benefits of having a dog, including the fact it lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, and provides unconditional positive regard that can significantly reduce stress. So for my husband’s birthday I relented. And now Lucy Ferentz is in our lives, and after one week, I cannot imagine my life without her.
I could write paragraphs about how unbelievably adorable, friendly, loving, and smart she is, but I really wanted to focus on how she reminds me, on a daily basis, about the healing power of sense memories and the bonds of attachment. If you’ve ever picked up a puppy from a breeder, you know it is bittersweet because you are separating the dog from their litter mates. For several days after that, no matter how loving you are, you know that puppy is missing her birth family and the only environment she ever knew. Every book we read normalized this phenomenon and emphasized the importance of taking an object from the breeder that the puppy has had since birth ( a blanket, chew toy, etc.) and letting the puppy smell it, play with it and even sleep with it as a “transitional object” and a way to create safety and security through familiarity. In our first week with Lucy I marveled at how quickly she calmed down or went to sleep when she had her transitional objects nearby.
As we worked to create a new sense of comfort and security for Lucy in our home and through her connections to us, I saw, again, the power of sense memory and how it quickly conditions and reinforces our ability to feel safe or unsafe in the world. Her attachment to us is strengthened through the cadence in our voices, smells that represent nourishment or a sense of calm, touch that is playful or soothing. It’s amazing how quickly she has become a part of our family. And the more we respond in ways that are consistent and loving, while setting clear limits, the more secure she appears to be.
It strikes me that the most effective “training approaches” with puppies, particularly ones that don’t evoke shame but do provide lots of positive reinforcement, patience , consistency, appropriate boundaries, and comfort are the same strategies that we all benefit from when building safe relationships. Lucy’s responses remind me that sense memory has the potential to be healing when it either summons up safe experiences from the past or participates in the creation of new memories that we can use in the future to re-ground and comfort ourselves.
Please share any “puppy” stories you have with our readers and how you or your clients may have been impacted by these or other loving pets!