Where Did Your Puppy Grow Up?

Sherman was born in a barn. Literally. For the first eight weeks of his life he first knew a kennel with radiant heat cement floors followed by a large elevated kennel that provided water and the body warmth of his littermates. His pee and poop would drop through wire grates to a pan below. He was held and played with daily, and from the time he was five weeks old he had many adventures on the grassy front lawn of the barn. Occasionally, as the favorite of nine-year-old Gracie (who lives in the farmhouse), he was taken indoors and dressed in doll clothes. He had no toys, no clean soft blankets… but according to behaviorists he did have the two most important things: He regularly interacted with humans on a positive basis, and he was introduced to a variety of sights, sounds, and smells.

Nearly four weeks ago (oh, how time flies!) we brought home Selah, eight weeks old and 20 pounds of fluff and feist. I spent more time with Selah and her littermates than I have with any puppies since my days of being a bonafide backyard breeder of Dalmatians back in the 1990s. Seems we’re on a regular schedule for puppies, bringing one home every two years for almost a decade now. It never fails to amaze me how two years go by and we completely forget how much work the little buggers are.

Typical to puppies everywhere, Selah pees when she feels the urge. And yet she looks for a special place to pee. You see, she was raised in a pen in her breeder’s (my friend, Elizabeth Fletcher) living room. The playpen was huge; Elizabeth surrendered most of her personal space for eight weeks so these eight little souls could thrive. Clean blankets, two sets washed daily and rotated, lined the scrap of linoleum flooring Elizabeth laid down to protect her hardwood floors. Toys lay scattered about, and a large puppy “mobile” towered over half of the area, providing toys and intriguing substances to chew, bat about, and play tug with a littermate. In the corner of this large gated playpen was a plastic pan layered with puppy pee pads and covered with faux grass. The puppies hit their mark in this pan over 80% of the time; Selah brought this knowledge home with her. I have several small rugs (same shape as Selah’s pee pan) near my back door. When I see Selah heading for these pads, I know her intent. It’s easy to scoop her up and set her down in the nearby grassy backyard. Voila!

Selah and her littermates nap in their playpen. Typically, one or two pups would fall asleep in the pee pan as well. Ahhh, puppies!

Lately, in Facebook groups (which I find tremendous sources for community building and sharing information), I have seen a growing number of posts about aggressive, shy, and anxious young Berners. A lot of good training and behavioral advice is given in these groups for sure, but there is one fact that is not only overlooked on the regular… but sometimes even belittled. Here’s that fact: The first eight weeks of that dog’s life made all the difference in the world.

I’m reading a book right now that I’ve seen recommended a number of times by people steeped in dog training, behavior, and breeding. How to Raise a Puppy You Can Live With (Clarice Rutherford and David H. Neil) is a delightfully outdated manuscript (1981) that nonetheless stands the test of time. Some of the most critical information offered to puppy owners is that concerning the neurological development of puppies both in utero and during the first eight weeks of their lives – the eight weeks they live BEFORE they become a member of a family. Rutherford and Neil assert, “… the amount of individual attention that a puppy has received by the 49th day can never be made up without a proportionally larger expenditure of time and energy.”

Keep this in mind. The typical age for a puppy to come home is at 56 days, or eight weeks of age. This first period of environmental nurture is 100% on the breeder. It matters how your puppy spent her first 49 to 56 days! Physical touch from humans is crucial from the moment of birth. It’s important the puppy learns to experience mild stress from days three to sixteen while the brain is skyrocketing in a period of neurological development. This happens when the puppy is moved to new positions in human hands (even turned briefly upside down), forced to feel new surfaces on her tiny paw pads, held down for a few seconds on her back, repositioned on a new nipple, etc. By five weeks, the puppies will be turning their attention from mom and littermates to their surroundings, and those surroundings need to include a variety of human visitors.

The under-socialized dog often becomes fearful of anything new – people, dogs, places, or anything. This is shown by excessive barking, anxiety, dog aggression, fear, and hyperactivity… The under-socialized dog has a brain that lacks the huge array of neural connections of the well-socialized dog that lives in an enriched environment with toys and home activities. ~ How to Raise a Puppy You Can Live With

The pups had daily visitors, young and old, male and female, from a very young age. “Take off your shoes and hop in the box,” visitors were told.

Given that both shyness and hyperactivity most often result from a lack of stimuli from weeks three to seven, there are a couple of important things to note. The first is “caveat emptor”, or “buyer beware”. The Oxford Dictionary explanation of this familiar Latin phrase is “…the buyer alone is responsible for checking the quality and suitability of goods before a purchase is made.”

There is a plethora of materials available within Facebook groups that instruct puppy buyers on how and where to obtain a responsibly bred puppy. Some irresponsible breeders simply do not know what they do not know. Others only care to follow a money trail. Either way, the onus is on the buyer to research and verify that the breeder they will purchase a puppy from has worked to set the puppy up for success well before it was conceived, and that the breeder will stay with her puppies and their families until the final day (and beyond).

The second thing to note is that there is no condemnation in learning this a little late in the game, though it may feel like those who are a little “rough around the edges” in their Facebook comments are unduly harsh. Most of us have had a “learner dog”, and for many of us these were dogs for whom we will eternally have the utmost respect and love. So, when you find yourself with a puppy that is nearly impossible to potty train, one that fears everything that moves, a puppy that has boundless energy and is making you pull your hair out, one that growls when you near its food bowl, or who does not seem to have interest in human interaction… do not be offended by the truth. Your puppy is behind the eight ball developmentally, and this is not your doing. He likely did not get what he needed in his early developmental stages, but this can almost always be made up for with patience and training. There is a good dog underneath that puppy just waiting to come out.

Selah’s litter had regular visitors in their outdoor pen, which also had a number of interesting toys and surfaces to encourage exploration and play.

Additional questions to ask a breeder: Do you follow any established puppy-raising methods such as Puppy Culture or Avidog? Have they met and been handled by a variety of people or only your family? How often and how early did the puppies have visitors? Have you done temperament tests on the litter? Could I please see where the puppies spend most of their time and where they sleep at night? Has each puppy had regular one-on-one time with you and others? Has my puppy been bathed yet? (Mild stressors such as bath time help to build confidence in a puppy.)


Selah’s brother, Silas (Blue Boy), connects with Elizabeth after a play session in the wet morning grass. Short moments of eye contact are crucial for building trust with humans.


Selah asserts her position as Queen of the Slide. Selah was a dominant leader within the litter. As such, we have to be careful how we play with her at home. She wants to see us as littermates she can rule over; play fighting (while it was a fine game with Sherman, Zuzu, and Madi) is off the table with this one. We look for opportunities to care for Selah tenderly, to let her know we are her provision and protection, not her rough and tumble playmate (though we absolutely do play games with her!) Puppies are individual personalities and require individualized care as a result. Investing in an evaluative session with a good trainer is a helpful tool for moving forward during puppy’s first few weeks with her new pack.

Published by: When Life Goes to the Dogs

It was my youngest daughter who introduced me to the Bernese Mountain Dog. That first boy, Hero, set in motion all kinds of crazy love. And now, at the end of the day, I often find myself asking... what do these dogs have that is so special? I'm raising three Berners now, navigating the world of social media for dogs, holistic health and raw feeding. Sherman has become a therapy dog; Zuzu may soon follow in his footsteps. Madi, as I like to say, is still cooking. I guess we all need something to put our hands to that makes us feel like we've made a difference in this world. Believe it or not, these dogs help me do just that.

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One thought on “Where Did Your Puppy Grow Up?”

  1. Hello, I found you in Instagram because my feed became full of Bernese Mountain Dogs when my daughter adopted one this past summer. We love our girl so much. This breed is just amazing. I’m curious if Selah’s breeder breeds regularly. Selah is one of the most beautiful Berners I’ve seen. If our Berner’s breeder ends up not having pups when I’m ready to adopt another in a year or so, I’d love to have your breeder’s info. Our Berner is Jubilee @jubilee_and_me


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