photo from: http://www.dogcentral.com
I’ve been thinking a lot about my dogs recently. Specifically, how my two German Shepherd Dogs will adapt to a screaming baby when they haven’t been able to find peace with the stroller or my workout ball in the past few months. No doubt our new addition will rock. their. worlds. Nevertheless, a little world rocking isn’t such a bad thing for dogs or for kids while they’re still young and impressionable. I learned some important lessons through my first experience with a dog: the value of connection, rule abidance, respect, and how to handle loss. More than anything, I am thankful that my daughter will have the opportunity to learn some of the same things.
My family brought Beethoven home when I as 7 years old. Now, 20 years later, I still remember that entire day from start to finish. I remember my intense, second grade excitement, the car ride out to Henderson, the peeling paint on the farm’s front gate as we turned down the driveway, the minute and a half it took to pick out our pup from the litter, the confusion on his face when we loaded him into our van, how sharp his tiny teeth were as he chewed on my fingers, and how much I desperately wanted his attention from that moment on. Holding that new puppy up against my chest I knew love at first sight.
The responsibility of caring for our GSD came naturally. I was used to doing chores around the house, and mixing in dog duties didn’t increase my work by much. What I was unprepared for, however, were the “harsh” house rules relating to the new dos and don’ts and dog routines. To make matters worse, it quickly became apparent that everyone in our family would be expected to shoulder responsibility in puppy obedience and hierarchy training.
This was a tough requirement for 7-year-old me, as I had no idea how to demand obedience from anything. Like most kids, I didn’t believe in making anyone do something they didn’t want to do. I had no schema for the pitfalls of inconsistent training.
Some of our family’s puppy rules:
- Boundaries: the dog is allowed only in the kitchen and den areas. No carpets, furniture, bedrooms, hallways or formal living areas.
- Feeding: the dog will eat last and will not eat from the table, lick the dishwasher, pull food from counters or from the hands of people. The dog will eat his food and treats only.
- Commands: the dog will learn to take basic, behavioral commands (sit, stay, heel, down, place, shake… and on and on) from every member of the family.
I’m sure there were many more- but there are several I distinctly remember failing at enforcing with my first puppy subordinate. I was, for the first time in my life, being required to “act like as a parent,” and I cheated a lot in Beethoven’s discipline. I fed Beethoven from the table. I didn’t always follow through with commands when he was stubborn. Every now and then I would let him sneak to the backyard through the living room instead of walking him all the way to the den. Because I wasn’t strict, our pup started to ignore the few directives I did give him. It didn’t bother me much, though, because 7-year-old me only thought of Beethoven as my partner in crime, my confidant, and my friend.
Recently, I’ve realized that young children are usually one of two ways around dogs. They’re either frightfully courageous, or painfully uncomfortable. I was always frightfully courageous- likely the reason I was attacked by a Cocker Spaniel the year before we got Beethoven. I’m sure it sounds stupid, but it took me a long while to realize that my dog, too, had the ability to inflict harm.
One evening, as my 5-year-old brother went to feed the dog, Beethoven sunk his head low over the dish, barred his teeth, and gave a targeted, low warning growl in Chris’ direction. As Beethoven was 6 months old and well over 60 pounds, we were both startled, but didn’t question what was obviously a demand to eat undisturbed. We obeyed for almost a week before our fearful behavior was addressed by my mother.
She must have known exactly what happened after watching our strange behavior. But, to her credit, she still called us over to explain ourselves. This was the first time my brother verbally admitted to fearing our dog, and he was so embarrassed that he burst into tears. My mother’s reaction was not what I expected.
She didn’t punish Beethoven or explain to Chris the importance of staying clear of an eating dog. I would have expected either one of those things. Instead, I’ll forever remember the way she grasped my brother’s hand in hers, and led him silently over to where Beethoven was still eating. Then she got down on her knees in front of Chris and instructed him: “pick the bowl up.”
In that moment, I hadn’t the slightest doubt that Beethoven would bite Chris’ arm off as soon as he bent forward to do as he was told. But as my brother bent forward hesitantly, my mother mirrored Chris’ motion to remove the bowl while strategically placing her forearm as a barrier. With my her accompaniment, Chris picked the bowl up from the floor, unscathed, as Beethoven sat and waited expectantly.
Chris and I were then instructed to repeat the motion, over and over again, while she appeared to pay less attention to the dog’s behavior. When Beethoven finished his meal, she gave him a little bit more so we could keep practicing. And when he did growl again, she showed us both how to discipline immediately and remove the food trigger. When we were finished, I asked my mother why Beethoven never growled at her. She said simply, “He respects me. And we’re going to get him to respect you too. But for him to respect you, you and your brother have to expect him to. No dog will obey before they recognize consistent consequences.”
…Okay, maybe she only said, “He respects me,” but I’m sure the rest was implied.
It took time and consistency, but the confidence Chris and I built through the trials and errors of caring for our first GSD was unmatched. Moreover, the importance of setting boundaries and expectations as a pet owner has stayed with me through many new puppy training periods, well after Beethoven’s death in 2000.
Coping with loss.
When parents bring a new dog home, the family grows by one member. No question. But in almost all cases, this new family member will be outlived by all others. This is a harsh truth for kids to understand. It was hard for me to accept that Beethoven died so young, but it helped to know from the beginning that I would only have an average of 8-10 years to love him. Looking back, I wouldn’t have traded those few wonderful years with our first dog even if I had known then how young he would be when he died.
Distinguishing kids from furry kids.
Always appreciate your dog for the loving and loyal companion he’s designed to be with the gift of living in the present. Teach your kids to do the same. Never allow there to be any question of where your pet stands in the family hierarchy, and please, for the love everything good, stop spending unethical amounts of money providing your pet with things like elective, cosmetic surgeries, chef prepared meals, life insurance, spa days, or complete run of the house. I’m almost positive that this does not make you a better pet owner, and your dog does not care.
Instead, go buy your kids a tennis ball and take them to a park with your dog. Help your kids to enforce boundaries and behaviors. Through some guided interactions with the family pet, I guarantee they will learn confidence, responsibility, appropriate interactions, and ways to administer discipline. Everybody wins.