Way before I had kids, I had dogs—Lady and Kodi—my rehearsal for parenthood. Better to find out that I stink at it before the real deal, right? Well, this week, I’m reliving of those early days as a dog owner and as a new mom because…there’s a puppy in the house! Buster, the six-month old Australian Shepherd!
Having a puppy around makes me think about my shepherds, and the lessons they taught me, with new awareness. It’s not that I haven’t had dogs around. I inherited two geriatric gems, Peggy and Luna, when my fiancé and I moved in together. Luna was put down last week after a sudden downturn in her health, so I’m feeling introspective about dogs and kids—particularly of those early weeks and months of learning to be a good owner and a good mother. But by the time they arrived, Peggy and Luna were more like moving bric-a-brac than anything else. They needed sporadic attention and no training—not at all like a puppy.
Raising a Puppy is a Spiritual Journey, Like Parenthood
My first dog, Lady was a gift from my ex-husband when we lived in a not-so-ritzy part of LA. I’d always wanted a dog. My father would never let us have one. I already had a vision of the kind of dog I wanted to raise; one that is pleasant to be around, aware, obedient, personable, yet capable of doing the job that a good dog should do—protecting their pack. What I didn’t realize was that, to raise a dog to have all those qualities, the dog was really going to be raising me.
I read every book I could find on how to train a dog and ran across “The Art of Raising A Puppy” written by the Monks of New Skete—a Franciscan order in New York. The monks’ ministry is breeding and raising German Shepherd dogs. Theirs are among the most sought-after companion dogs in the world. As I read, I sensed that raising these dogs was going to be a journey that could change the course of my life and would teach me—on a cellular level—to be the kind of dog owner, no…person, I wanted to be.
For the Monks, puppy-raising is spiritual discipline. It opens us to a oneness with the divine that only surrendering to the smallest can give. It’s no coincidence that in advertising there are two things that always sell—dogs and babies. Because their mere presence in the world reminds us of our uniqueness among creatures. That we are given these beautiful beings to lead into maturity melts even the most hardened of souls. Their fragility demands our gentility. Their complexity demands our intelligence. Their sensitivity demands our gracefulness. Both puppies and babies bring us, unswervingly and unerringly into confrontation with ourselves. And we love them for it. Or hate them for it, as the overwhelming evidence of both child and animal abuse shows.
A Small, Painful, Joyful Reminder
Buster, as someone else’s puppy, was not bonded to me when he got here three days ago. He was nervous and scared, so that when I tried to put his leash on him to go for a run the morning he arrived, he dodged and hid from me barking in fear. Eventually, I got my arms around him but not before he sunk a lone tooth into my chin. I took him out for a run, talking sweetly and kindly, stopping to pet him and love him up.
Timothy’s sons were bewildered that I would continue to shower love on a dog that had just bitten me and I tried to explain that it wasn’t Buster’s fault that he was scared. He just was. But I couldn’t explain that underneath my calm exterior, I was struggling to like the dog. He’d just bitten me and it was looking like the week was not going to go well.
But, I remembered my old lessons…it’s my job to lead the pack…whether Buster likes me or not. I’m the Alpha. It’s my job to reassure this puppy that he is going to be just fine and to teach him not to bite out of fear. It was even harder to explain to the boys that this was not a one-time lesson but one that would begin at that moment and continue until Buster leaves our home next week.
When Buster and I came home from that run, he was a new puppy. He’d had the chance to trust me, to take his cues from me as we ran over the dam near our lake. He will not bite me again. As a good shepherding dog, he now follows me everywhere. But I’m on notice that he gets scared and I must stay aware of that so I can help him manage his fear whenever I sense it.
This same thing is true of parenthood. Raising a child, I know it sounds trite, is not unlike raising a puppy. Of course, there are huge differences, a main one being that we raise a puppy to be obedient and bonded to us for life while we raise a child to become independent and to be able to bond to others throughout life. But the early weeks and months of both new beings’ lives require our total attention and commitment. And I’d forgotten how true that is, now that my children are older and I don’t have a puppy.
Raising a Puppy and Raising a Child Require Deep Internal Work
Ask any mom and she’ll tell you how much self-discipline she must deploy every day just to get through. Ask anyone who has a new puppy and they’ll tell you how much self-discipline it takes to teach a dog to be the kind of animal people want around. The two joyous lessons my dogs taught me that prepared me to be a mother—Self-regulation and Discipline.
Self-Regulation. It didn’t take me long to figure out that my dogs took unspoken cues from me. They’d watch my face to see what expression I wore whenever they needed guidance. They could sense the tension in my body or the ease as well. If I were tense, they were tense. On the other hand, I also could calm them just by calming myself. When they barked at a stranger, I would give them my calm attention, put my forehead against theirs and just think calm thoughts. Often that did the trick. It worked with Buster the other day, and I’d forgotten how powerful an influence that can be. My experience with self-regulation as a mother began the day my first son was born. Ryan slept best when I meditated or centered myself first. Then one night that I’ll never forget, three-month Ryan was inconsolable. I stopped everything I was doing to attend to him. I’d already checked every possible cause of his crying and when I’d eliminated all those sources and he was still crying, I just sat down with him and held him. I quieted myself inside, assuring myself that I’d done all I could to calm him. Within a few moments his cries slowed, then became a whimper, then sleep. From then on, I realized quite clearly that my children were most upset when I was upset, most organized and calm when I was organized and calm. So it began. The proper feedback cycle—I began to deeply honor both my and my children’s feelings. By regulating myself, my children were able to regulate themselves.
Discipline. To teach a dog to be a good companion takes trust, love and time to practice each day. I try to tell my youngest son, who desperately wants a golden retriever of his own, that he not only has to feed, play with, and clean up after a dog, he must love it enough to train it. That means getting off his butt when the TV is on and taking his dog outside on a training lead with a training collar and teaching him to heel, sit, stay, come, fetch, catch. For children, the same is true. I have an acquaintance who used to yell at her kids from afar to do this or that. She was confounded, and often angry, that they never obeyed. But to me, this was not so much a failure on her kids’ part so much as laziness (or worse, lack of love) on her part. When you love your child, you will love them enough to get up off your butt and help them understand the meaning of your words. When you love your dog, you will teach him to not jump up on you because you want to keep loving him and a jumping dog is not lovable for long. With kids, the window for physical redirection is rather short. At some point, kids grow big enough that we can’t just turn their little bodies to where we want them to go. At that point, they must have a deep inner sense of trust in us and in what feels right to them, so that our words have import and heft. When our words don’t work, we need to get up off our butt and help them follow our guidance with more complex parenting skills. In the end, it’s up to us to continually acquire the skills we need to help our children become the kind of people who will leave the world a better place than they found it.
A dog is maybe a purer reflection of ourselves than our children are because they are far more “tabula rasa” than a baby. They’re more easily moldable, pliable, trainable than a child. So to that extent, the comparison does eventually fail. But in puppyhood and childhood, self-regulation and discipline are the gifts our little beings give us. Maybe these gifts are why we jump into dog ownership and parenthood so joyously. We know that in being good owner and a good parent, that we become more of who we really are. In that space that our children and our animal companions need from us, we can clear away the cobwebs of what doesn’t really matter or what no longer serves us. We become stripped of our monkey mind if only for a few moments every day because we have to stay clear-headed so we can help our little loved ones. This is the selflessness the Monks wrote of, the oneness in doing for another that brings us closer to the divine.
UPDATE: The other day, we took the boys to look at a puppy–thinking we may acquire one in the next few weeks. Note to self: Never take four boys to “look at” a puppy. We brought two home. Peggy seems to like them well enough and the boys have fallen in love! Here they are!