Several weeks into sheltering at home with my husband and two small children, after we had finished all the jigsaw puzzles, baked the sourdough and stopped hoarding toilet paper, we needed another project. So we got a puppy.
This wasn’t a rash decision brought on by cabin fever. We had thought about getting a pet for years. But with the house empty all day, it didn’t seem fair. Now, with the four of us at home indefinitely, we decided it was the right time. What we didn’t anticipate is that training our puppy would also turn into a lesson on how to parent our kids.
When we first brought our puggle home—named Vader, yes, as in Darth—we didn’t expect much from him. Just like a newborn, he slept a lot, put everything in his mouth and pooped and peed in all of the wrong places. Neither my husband or I have ever raised a puppy before. We knew we wanted a well-mannered dog and decided that puppy obedience training would be important.
One of the first rules the dog trainer established was, “You wouldn’t give your kids something without them saying please first and that is no different than a dog; a sit means please.”
I immediately thought of all of the times that my kids had asked for water, toast—or something else that they are completely capable of getting for themselves—without saying please, and I let it slide. After years of reminding them to say please and thank you, it sometimes felt futile.
This was my first insight into the similarities between parenting a child and raising a puppy; good behaviours only become strong through repetition and reinforcement. I realized that if we didn’t get serious about applying these same strategies to our kids, then it would be Vader sitting politely at the dinner table with us while our kids had food fights on the floor.
Each week of training began with an on-line session with the trainer and our puppy. In those meetings we would learn new commands, practice them and then spend the following week doing homework with our puppy.
I started to mix up commands between the kids and the dog, using my stern dog trainer verbal cue of “Eh Eh” when the kids were jumping on the couch, yet again, and calling our puppy “Nate” at the dog park. I thought about putting the kids in a crate so that I could enjoy some much-needed time alone, but that seemed like taking it too far.
It seemed wrong to me that we were spending more time and energy on developing impulse control, manners and obedience in our puppy than we ever had on our kids. Why don’t we as a society place value on these kinds of kid-training classes for new parents? I wondered why parents who have no training or education on how to raise a child think that they can do it without coaching. To undertake what is possibly life’s most important job by relying only on instinct, common sense and our parents’ experiences, now seems like a massive gamble.
As the weeks of training went on, I found myself thinking that if I just crossed out ‘puppy’ and inserted ‘child’ on every worksheet, my experience of parenting in the time of Covid-19 could really improve. Some of the concepts were just too similar. Children/dogs need boundaries and structure. Time Outs work to set limits, calm down and reflect on how to co-exist peacefully. Exercise releases nervous energy and increases learning.
Some of the bigger concepts of dog training ring true as well. The basic principle of rewards—you do the work, you get the reward—can be applied to chores, homework and exercise. I doubt many of us would show up at work every day if we weren’t receiving a pay cheque. The money at the end of the month is the reward and it’s no different with kids and dogs; they both value life rewards, such as praise, play, toys, treats. And just like with kids, behaviour that is reinforced gets repeated—if whining leads to a reward (your attention, the item they were whining about) you can bet your kids is going to keep it up.
As the parent, it’s our job to calmly, clearly and consistently define the rules and expectations and it’s no different with a dog. A family is like a Wolf Pack and there can only be one leader or Alpha dog (or two in the case of a traditional family unit). Positive reinforcement works but it’s a slippery slope between a bribe and reward. Ideally we want both the dog and the child to learn impulse control and make good choices.
One evening after a long day of puppy training and home-schooling, I decided that I would treat myself to a bath and let hubby do the bedtime routine. As I began to fill the tub, I realized that I hadn’t yet replaced the bubble bath that ran out before the pandemic hit.
But there on the side of the tub was Vader’s dog shampoo and it smelled pretty nice. (It was more luxurious than any bubble bath I had ever purchased for myself but that’s another article.) So I spent the next hour soaking in dog shampoo wondering how my dog—or child for that matter —would be able to respect me as the Alpha when I smelled like our puppy.
Of course, there are other elements that go into successfully raising children, but everyone’s measuring stick for success is going to be different. I’m not sure we can ever know if we have “succeeded.”
For me, success is peacefully coexisting with my babies and my new fur baby. I am learning that if I can raise a puppy then, maybe, I can also raise my children.