Everything I needed to know about parenting I learned from my dogs

July 19, 2006

Well, maybe not everything.  Willie is only three, after all.  Still, I feel like I went into this mothering business with my eyes open because of my experience with my ornery little Boston terrier, Bean.
I learned, for example, that the best laid plans are just that, and reality often intervenes.  And that’s OK.  I did all this prep work before we brought Bean home, researching breeds and breeders, reading every book on puppy training imaginable.  I was going to have the perfect dog, trained like a little soldier, a delight and a welcome guest in any setting.  Then we got Bean.  Despite all out best efforts, he was a destructive holy terror.  He knew literally twenty toys by their names and could fetch them on command day or night, but acted like he never heard the word “NO” and had no idea what we were talking about.  So, we had to throw the books out the window and start from scratch:  clearly this wasn’t the dog they had in mind when they came up with all those puppy-training tips.

Also, an inauspicious beginning may not be a portent of bad days to come.  People (and dogs) can change.  Bean took three years to become semi-normal.  Now he’s almost eight and he’s really a great dog.  Willie screamed all day every day for the first five months of his life.  Now he’s an easy-going, friendly, nice kid.  

Then there are tantrums.  According to my mother, my older sister was a perfect child who never threw tantrums.  She looked at disdain at mothers with screaming children and thought, “My child will never do that.” She felt she had superior parenting skills and superior genes.  Then she had me.  She was mortified when I had tantrums in stores and felt people were judging her the way she had judged everyone else.

Fortunately, Bean prepared me for tantrums. Out on walks, he would at random start to growl like a Tasmanian devil and bite the leash, bare his teeth and sort of do this frothing thing around his mouth.  He never bit, he just looked like a classic Mad Dog.  At first I too felt a bit embarrassed, like people were looking down on my crazy rabid dog (he’s 18 pounds; everyone looks down on Bean.  He has a classic Napoleonic syndrome).  But I learned to simply pick him up under my arm (the luxury of a small dog) until he calmed down.  Now when Willie tantrums, it barely registers.  We can just ignore and move on.  And if people care enough to judge me or my dog, I don’t worry about it.  

And of course, people will judge you.  Bean’s flyball class, the doggie equivalent of Little League, prepared me for that.  Prepared me for Willie’s Little League days to come, too, I’d imagine.  The pettiness, the pointless competitiveness, the back-stabbing . . . the flyball world is not all fun and games.  Eventually Bean and I dropped out.  He was ridiculed for his inability to Heel (like that has anything to do with flyball) and I couldn’t take those mean doggy-mommas.  Bean and I moved past it and found ways to get exercise and have fun without the drama of professional competition.

Bean also prepared me for mother-in-law and other supposedly all-knowing authority figures butting in and acting like they know more than you about your dog/child.  MIL watched Bean for us sometimes and attempted to train him. She had previously trained a show dog, so she thought the fault of Bean’s Beanishness was mine and something she could correct.  It’s wrong to feel happy when someone fails, I know, but . . . her hours parading in the driveway trying to teach him the aforementioned Heel command were fruitless.  I’d never been so proud of my little dog.  Her negative comments about my baby dog bothered me and it worried me what she would be like when we had kids.  Well, it turns out Bean taught her a lesson, too.  Now she’s a huge fan of my dog and my son, and has told various relatives of mine that she thinks my husband and I are great parents and have, and I quote, “a wonderful partnership.”

So when the smug Now Care doctor tried to take Willie from me and calm him using his Super Secret Special Baby Calming Techniques, rolling his eyes in the “oh you new parents” fashion, I just sat back and smiled. Of course he couldn’t calm Willie.  Mommy knows best, if not always, then a good portion of the time.  Willie kept right on screaming.  That’s my boy.

In the interest of fairness, I should also mention I have a golden/pit mix named Cal.  He’s the “middle child” in our family.  I’m sure I’ve learned some things about managing sibling relationships from him, but I won’t know until Willie gets a sibling.  A human one.

My husband doesn’t like when I compare the dogs to kids–in his mind, it’s quite different.  For me, though, I’ve learned so many important emotional lessons from my dogs.  Do you think having a puppy or other pet prepares you for some parenting challenges?  What have you learned from your animals?