breaking all the rules
I didn’t grow up with dogs, but I got there as soon as I could.
Okay, that’s a lie. We asked for a dog, like all kids do, and we didn’t get one and eventually gave up and moved on. And then my dad stopped by the pet adoption fair on his way home and fell in love with this little brindled fluffball. Every life-changing event in my family, pretty much, has been precipitated by a literal or metaphorical impulse buy on my dad’s part. Nobody was thinking much about dogs, when we got Sydney, besides my dad, who was just impulsively in the right place at the right time. It was October 2000 and I was 14. My best friend Aynsley named her after the location of that year’s summer Olympics. And there we were.
It was pretty much the same thing ten years later when a little white fluffball showed up on the adoption site of my local shelter. In the throes of some kind of untreated seasonal depression, I had spent most of February trolling Petfinder in the fuzzy belief that a little creature with fur on would brighten up my life. I had no idea what I was doing. Lance had said he thought beagles were cute, so I started searching there, sent a few inquiries, heard from some seriously flaky animal people, and spent ridiculous amounts of time just staring at the pictures online, imagining Life With Dog.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know what to do with a dog – I was fairly confident I’d be a decent dog parent – I just couldn’t really define why I wanted one. I think I just needed a purpose beyond brooding about my own life. I couldn’t explain it, but when I saw the picture of a little white beagle mix, one of a litter of four three-month-old puppies at our local shelter, sitting in a crate with her eyes and mouth wide open and aimed straight at the camera, I knew she was who I’d been looking for. Lance agreed when he saw her. I brought her home later that week. She shit all over the car on the way and promptly fell asleep on the bathroom floor when we reached our destination.
The month after Sprocket came home, I cried every day with the sheer anxiety of being responsible for another creature’s life and well-being. I had overdone the online research on raising puppies and became convinced that everything I was and wasn’t doing was killing her. Now that I understand the world of Dog People On The Internet, I know I could have disregarded the mandates to walk twice a day, never leave her alone for more than 4 hours, use a variety of prescribed and often contradictory methods of discipline, train constantly while she was awake, not coddle her too much, not give her too little attention, keep everything consistent but provide plenty of stimulation… at the time, my head was swimming. I was sure I would make some awful mistake; leave her alone too soon; let her little bladder explode because I missed her signal; let her get too cold; warp her potential for attachment.
I’m not sure at what point it dawned on me that if I had not yet managed to inadvertently kill or ruin my dog, it was probably safe to assume I wasn’t going to in the foreseeable future. It was just so overwhelming at first, being in charge of something so fragile, and I didn’t remember Sydney being so breakable as a puppy. Really it was just that I was more aware with Sprocket. Sydney had been like my sister during my teenage years. I helped train her, but like an older sibling, not like a care provider. We played together and I taught her tricks to show off. I confided my secrets and worries to her, as late as summer breaks home from college. She was my retriever rock.
With my little hunting dog bundle of nerves, I was mommy. I had never been mommy before. I’d run my budget, my kitchen, my billpaying, my housecleaning. I had earned a degree. I maintained a job, a marriage, and, more or less, my own health. And I had no freaking idea what I was doing as mommy. But I figured all I could do was fake it til I made it. So I cried and held the dog for a month, quit trying, kept faking it, ignored most of the advice, and eventually learned that nobody could tell me how to handle my own dog nearly as well as I could infer how to do it.
Once I stopped listening to everyone else before I listened to myself, everything started to fall into place.
We broke all the rules. We let the dog on the furniture. When it stormed and she cried, we let her sleep in our bed. Eventually, we just let her sleep in our bed, full stop. When it was raining and she was shivering, we didn’t make her walk. The world didn’t stop turning. We used a spray water bottle instead of a clicker to deter her from dangerous situations. She completely failed to become fearful and cowering and all the other traits we were assured she would develop if subjected to our totally-not-canonical discipline.
I started reading adoption blogs, the kind about human kids, and learned about therapeutic parenting for kids with attachment issues. The techniques worked beautifully on my dog. We learned not to get in power struggles, but to do something unexpected to defuse the situation. We threw the whole “alpha dog” bit entirely out the window and started focusing on the emotions we thought were driving her wild behaviors. And she started to trust us, not just because we were In Charge, but because she was seeing that we could discern what was really going on with her and provide relief from her worries.
I understand my dog like I never would have if I had trained her the way I was “supposed to.” I have her number now. She knows I have it and she trusts that I’m going to deliver on what she needs. What’s not a big deal to her, but plenty valuable to me, is that she is a living reminder of what I can accomplish by listening to my instincts instead of The Rules. Our first year with Sprocket has been the first time I have thrown out everything I was told to do when it didn’t make intuitive sense to me, and gotten to watch how following my gut paid off.
I intend to be building on this lesson for a long time to come.
40 days of inspiration: every day of Lent, expect for weekends when I get too lazy, I profile someone who has helped make me what I am. Life comes at you with messy writing.