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As I was out walking our puppy Molly, a few months ago, a neighbor who was, I’m sure, only trying to be helpful, saw me being dragged down the path, saw my furrowed brow, saw me struggling, and made an unsolicited comment.  She asked if I watched “The Dog Whisperer.” I managed a grimace of acknowledgement and continued our walk-drag.  Perhaps I found this especially unnerving because I had back at the house the business card of a dog trainer I was totally intending to call.  I so was.  I dislike the implication that my dog is so severe she needs the miraculous musings of an Oprah minion.  For the record, I immediately disregard any/all advice given by Oprah’s minions, including Dr. Phil with his condescension and his “How’s that workin’ out for ya?”s, Dr. Oz, with his scrubs and his wine-cork jaw exercises, and Cesar Milan, with his…well, I don’t know.  I’ve never watched him.  We don’t get that channel.  But I do know that I don’t appreciate someone else’s assumption that if I can’t handle my 28lb dog and/or she isn’t obedient enough to walk on a leash, it’s time to bring in Oprah’s minion. 

Molly is essentially developmentally delayed.  She had, to our knowledge, no structure, no obedience, and no expectations in her first 8 months of life.  No house-breaking, either, from the look of it.  It’s not just a delayed puppy hood – it’s dealing with the repercussions of an extended period of laissez-faire puppy hood.  She has her issues, but is basically a sweet puppy.  Much as I imagine people get pretty huffy when others judge their parenting skills in public, I was not happy with our neighbor’s assessment.

As I sat at lunch today with my coworkers, the topic turned to corporal punishment of children, or, as the proponents would call it, “spanking”.  Just a little tap.  Just enough to scare him.  And then they used the “I turned out okay” argument and I bristled.  Then they used the “Well, you can’t reason with a small child” argument.  Then they stated the futility of negotiations when a kid is running into traffic.  As one who has learned her basic child discipline beliefs from a Quaker school, I sat there mute, stunned into silence.  I couldn’t even begin to launch into the logical fallacies they were using.  False dichotomy between spanking and treatises, the idea that “fear” of the parents equals respect, the idea that the child even understands what the spank means, the complete absence of logical consequences. 

For my coworker who blessedly does not yet have children, this meant a parallel into doggie discipline.  She described in horror how at the vet she saw a dog owner “spank” his dog.  Okay, I thought, at least she’s properly horrified.  But then she launched into a detailed description of how she disciplines her dog when it barks at other dogs by “tapping” it on the nose.  As for when the dog “defies” her by pooping on the rug “right in front of me,”  she shoves its nose in the shit to “shame” it, and the poor beast responds by running away and avoiding her for the rest of the day.  I wonder why.  Could it be she is not repentant but upset that her human shoved her nose in her own shit, and dogs instinctively shit away from places they sleep?  Or put their noses, for that matter. 

She gave the dog a toy, a dolly to carry around.  When the dog ripped its head off, she said, “no,” and took the doll away.  Unspoken in my mind was, “Well, she’s a 2 year old dog.  What does she have to chew on?  What do you expect her to do with a doll?  Play house?”

I had no polite responses for this woman, who was in the “I was spanked and I turned out okay” camp.  All I could do was talk about my own positive experience with our puppy, who now walks on a leash without yanking my arm out of its socket thanks not to Cesar Milan, but to a real dog trainer, not some Oprah-proclaimed miracle worker.  She didn’t get nose-to-nose with our puppy and figure out her puppyhood trauma.  She spent 2 hours training her with 3 basic commands so Molly will now walk gently (“Gentle”), stop when we ask her to (“Wait”), and turn around (“Come About” – she’s apparently a boat).  Molly usually listens to us, and sometimes even watches to see where we are leading.  Not because we choked her (my coworker also has a choke collar for her ill-fated pooch), yelled at her, spanked her, or tapped her nose, but because we sought real and professional help, and used methods that didn’t give Molly any credit. 

Molly was too stupid to know that pulling on the leash isn’t getting her “there” any faster (wherever “there”) is.  We didn’t waste time trying to teach her that, or expend energy trying to scare her into a fearful compliance.  When she has accidents, we blame ourselves, because we usually have forgotten to take her out in time.  We have to meet her where she is.  She is currently on a 3-hour timer for walks, when we’re home.  We can’t one day expect her to make it 5 hours, without giving her the tools for success, nor can we punish her for having an accident when we failed her.  We especially can’t punish her by rubbing her nose in it or by smacking her on her nose, anymore than we can punish her by taking away her food and water.  My coworker gives her dog too much credit, ascribes too many intentions on the dog’s part, and as a result, she sees her dog as willful, naughty, and disobedient.  In fact, she’s given her nothing to obey.  Here’s a toy, but wait! you can’t chew it.  I’ll punish you for shitting in the hallway, but not go out of my way to help you have success in house-breaking.  And I’m going to send you confusing messages by going against your very instincts (chewing toys, keeping herself away from her poop, defending her people by growling). 

I don’t want to be like my neighbor and make assumptions about how someone else “parents” her dog.  What is clear to me, however, as my coworker describes her own childhood and her dog-rearing ideas, is that her “I turned out okay” assertion was far from a simple truth.

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