by Lisa Ferentz, LCSW-C, DAPA

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!

12 thoughts on "Puppies and Sense Memory"

  1. Marci D says:

    This makes me want to run out and get a puppy.

  2. Hazel Laing says:

    Congratulations on your new family member! I agree that acquiring a companion animal provides an excellent opportunity to grow as a clinician.
    As an owner (past and present) of formerly stray pets with special needs, I would like to advocate for readers to consider adoption of a shelter animal whenever possible. Not only are you saving a life, but also you are humbled by the realization of how gradual and difficult behavior change can be following adverse early life experiences.

    1. lisaferentz says:

      HI Hazel. You are right- there is nothing more noble than adopting a stray or shelter animal. I am sure you brought so much love into their lives, and they did the same for you!

  3. Monica Greene says:

    I too recently brought home a cockapoo from a breeder in South Carolina. His name is Hunter Marley Banks and is delightful to say the lease. He comes to my office daily and has made a significant difference in the treatment of my clients and in my life too. He has calmed me and made me feel like we are family. He will be 4 months old tomorrow and has grown tremendously from 4.3 lbs when he came home to 9.6 lbs as of this past Tuesdays visit to the Vet. He is gentle, kind and an all around happy puppy who has made a significant positive change in my life and the people around me as well. Great joy is now my experience with Hunter who has almost mastered potty training, knows different commands and is overall very playful and generous with his love and attention. Hunter has truly made a positive difference in my life and I’m grateful for his unconditional love. He is a joy to have around and in my world. He’s a good boy!

    1. lisaferentz says:

      Hi Monica! Congratulations on your cockapoo! They really are such loving and lovable creatures. I wish you much joy with Hunter- he sounds like a special dog!

  4. Lucy Block says:

    Lisa, I so appreciate this post (and the name of your new pup!) I have always felt with my own sweet doggy girl that building that attatchment is the most important “training” technique. Dogs pay back 1,000 times any love shared with them by their human families.
    Relationships with dogs are incredible resources for soothing, grounding, regaining a sense of safety, positive regard, and joy. I have found it very useful to discuss pet relationships with clients for these reasons and include them in building skills for self care.
    Congratulations on the new family addition!

    1. lisaferentz says:

      Hi Lucy! I thought you might appreciate her name! It’s a name I have always loved and she is so adorable and really does it justice:-) I agree that the impact dogs can have is really profound. I can feel my heart rate and breathing slow down every time she sits in my lap!

  5. Barbara Perry says:

    First, congratulations! I have had a dog all my adult life until the last year or so. My last dog Hope was adopted from a wonderful breeder when she was 12 weeks old. The breeder told me I was bringing a baby home, which I certainly was. The first thing she did when we got home and I let her outside was to walk confidently into the pond. I spent the next hour holding her wrapped in a towel and a baby blanket until she stopped shivering and being scared. All her life she was a great friend and a comfort.

    1. lisaferentz says:

      Barbara, you really know the joy that comes from bonding with a dog! I think wrapping her in that blanket and keeping her warm after her first foray into the pond was the beginning of a lifetime of secure attachment for Hope!

  6. Margaret says:

    I knew it!

  7. Jean Tucker Mann says:

    Lisa, I understand this new love in your life. When my oldest son went away to school, I bought a boxer puppy – Quincy – and assured everyone he was for my youngest son who was 13 at the time and missing his brother. When my son had to be reminded to walk Quincy, I commented that the puppy was to keep him from being lonely. He looked me straight in the eye as only a 13 year old male child can and said, “Mom – Quincy is here to fill YOUR empty nest, not mine.” I had to admit he was “right on.” All of us loved that cute, frisky, friendly puppy and not too long after – strong, stately, beautiful dog. Enjoy Lucy – Jean

    1. lisaferentz says:

      Thanks for sharing, Jean! It is amazing the impact Lucy has had on our lives already! We thought we would be empty-nesters, but my oldest two sons came back home for another year- at least they get the benefits of Lucy, too!

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