Raising Puppy Right: The Importance of Enrichment with Victoria Stilwell
One of life’s great joys is loving a puppy. They’re so curious about the world – and adorable exploring it. Whether they’re romping after a butterfly, taking their first tentative steps in snow or snuggling in close for a lap nap, they fill our lives with laughter and love.
But, of course, puppies also take a lot of patience. They have a lot of energy and a lot to learn. How can we give them the best possible start in life?
It’s National Puppy Day on March 23, the perfect time to learn puppy raising tips from one of the world’s most renowned dog trainers, Victoria Stilwell. The engaging English trainer is famous as the star of Animal Planet’s “It’s Me or the Dog,” CEO of Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training, author of numerous bestselling books, including Train Your Dog Positively, and founder of the nonprofit Victoria Stilwell Foundation, which provides financial assistance and dog training expertise to small rescue shelters and assistance dog organizations.
“If there was a number one thing to do with your puppy, I would say: play. More than even training to begin with, because play is what really bonds you,” she said. “A puppy that learns how to play and is a good player and a respectful player is going to be a joy into adulthood.”
Victoria said environmental enrichment is important because it provides mental stimulation and helps make home more interesting for your pup.
“I, of course, love puzzles and bowls to stimulate the pup and stimulate dogs during feeding time or during the day,” she said. “When you present food to a dog, and the dog anticipates food, it actually encourages the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, which is kind of your happy chemical. So when you present something the dog likes, like food or a toy or a game, it encourages that good feeling and encourages the dog to move toward the object or activity and it makes the dog feel good. And then you’re connected to that – the dog’s going to feel good about you, too.”
Socializing puppies to new people, animals and places is key to their development because it helps them cope with a changing environment or new situations, Victoria said. But she stressed that it needs to be done in a way that won’t overwhelm the puppy, like meeting too many new dogs at once. So observe his or her body language to make sure it’s a positive experience.
That word – positive – is so essential to raising a puppy or dog. Victoria is a staunch advocate for positive training methods, such as rewarding good behavior with praise, food or play. She is deeply upset when she sees puppies being trained with shock or prong collars.
“You’re really providing that dog’s learning foundation for the rest of its life. So you can make your dog using positive methods or you can break your dog using negative methods. That’s why I would choose humane training for any dog, but it’s especially important for puppies,” she said. “I want my puppy to listen to me but I also want my puppy to really love listening to me. I don’t want him to listen because I’m making him scared. I want my puppy to listen to me because I’m the best thing ever! That’s the difference.”
So if you have a puppy, celebrate National Puppy Day by playing games and spending quality time together. If you don’t have a puppy, consider adopting one from a rescue organization or shelter. (Victoria encourages readers to never purchase a dog from a pet store, since they are typically from puppy mills, where large numbers of dogs are bred for profit and kept in substandard care.) Or if it’s not the right time to welcome a pup into your home, you can mark the day by helping out a local shelter.
“You can donate anything to your local shelter: money, toys … check into what they need,” Victoria said. “I like kids especially to do that. I think it gives them a certain responsibility if it’s up to them to gather the toys or newspapers or plastic bags or whatever it is the shelter needs.”
However you choose to mark National Puppy Day, it’s an excuse to celebrate our wonderful puppies and do all we can to give them the happy, fulfilling lives they deserve.
“I love the fact that puppies are courageous and they’re like sponges. They just want to be happy,” Victoria said. “That’s why puppies melt people’s hearts: they just want to be happy.”