Two weeks ago, the greatest thing in the world happened: we got a puppy. His name is Ralph, he’s a cream-coloured cockapoo and is, without a doubt, the best puppy ever. Now, I say we got him, but what I mean is we chose him, put down a deposit with the breeder, and we get to go pick him up when he’s big enough and healthy enough to be moved. Far less exciting than choosing him and taking him home that day, definitely, but it has given us five weeks to prepare for his arrival.
The funny thing I’ve learnt about puppies is: so much of their lives are determined by the first few weeks. You have to throw as many new experiences, as many new sights, sounds and people at your puppy as you can, before the window closes and their behaviour becomes set in stone. Whimpering at the sound of the vacuum cleaner, barking at strangers, running away from other dogs, are all basically decided by whether or not the puppy has come across these things in the first few months of its life. We’ve all heard the phrase, “an old dog can’t learn new tricks” – this isn’t because older dogs can’t learn anything new, it’s that they’re afraid to.
When puppies are born in the wild, they’re still under the protection of their mother and so they explore their surroundings and experience new things fairly fearlessly. But when they start going out on their own, they don’t have that maternal protection and so it makes sense that their fear of the unknown would start to outweigh their natural, youthful curiosity. This instinct occurs in domestic puppies too, and at just 16 weeks, a puppy’s ability to learn and be comfortable with new things is dramatically lowered. Anything new you introduce to a puppy after this point is approached with more fear and less excitement, because they haven’t come across it before when they were young and open-minded. New things might be dangerous, and the older a dog gets, the more fearful they are of the unknown.
I totally get it.
Have you ever noticed how fearless kids are? They’re small, they can’t defend themselves, they know hardly anything, and yet they throw themselves into new activities and experiences because they haven’t yet learnt about consequences. They haven’t yet reached out to a friend and been let down. They haven’t started a new job and realised it was a toxic place to work. They haven’t had their hearts broken, their dreams dashed. They haven’t been put into a box by the people around them, and been told that they’re not capable of anything more. Getting older teaches us to be afraid of new things, because we don’t know what the consequences might be.
But we overcorrect. As we get older, the great new experiences we have had become a little bit fuzzy in our memory, and we remember the bad new experiences in stunning HD. And then a bad experience of say, trying Mexican food for the first time, doesn’t just put us off Mexican food ever again – it puts us off trying all spicy food, or any new food, or even any new experiences at all. You haven’t just had a disappointing burrito and decided against burritos for life; you’ve told your brain that new experiences are disappointing or damaging, and it’s better the devil you know.
And soon we get stuck in an identity that makes it increasingly harder to escape, no matter how much we want to. We stick in the same routine, the same thought patterns, the same behaviours, the same habits, the same life, because we don’t know what awaits us on the other side, because we’ve never done that before, because that’s not what we do. I recently told my friend Piero about the new vegan Ben and Jerry’s and, as a graphic designer, his reaction was, “But their branding is centred around a cow”. Veganism didn’t fit their brand, vegan ice-cream didn’t fit the way they’d done things up to this point or the identity they’d created, but they tried something new anyway because the world had changed, their customers needed something new from them (and as a dairy-intolerant person, I’m very glad they did).
The unknown could be brilliant, but we’re never going to eat the vegan chocolate fudge brownie goodness if we’re too afraid to try something new.
So may I suggest, no matter how much I love my new puppy, that we try to escape that canine mindset? May I argue that, even if you’re older and more experienced and afraid of getting hurt, you ain’t dead yet? Change is hard, putting yourself out there and making yourself vulnerable to a universe of new experiences isn’t always a walk in the park (dog pun intended) but it’s certainly preferable to a life unlived. And once you try something new once, that thing suddenly becomes much less scary the second time you do it, and then the third time it’s even easier, and soon you forget you were ever scared in the first place. Whether it’s a new job or moving to a new place or trying your hand at public speaking or tap dancing or whatever else, just jump. Taking the leap is hard, but after that you’re pretty much just free-falling – and that takes very little effort whatsoever.
Written by Chloe Satchell-Cobbett, Deputy Editor, Liberti