4 Lessons My Incorrigible Dog Taught Me About Parenting

What I learned from Diego, a willful Rhodesian ridgeback mix, laid the foundation for my next 12 years of parenting.

The summer before I got married, I adopted a dog.

I say “I’’ and not “we” because my soon-to-be-husband, Adam, was not keen on the idea. He didn’t really understand why we would want to saddle ourselves with the responsibility of a pet when we were just beginning our lives together and loved to travel to far-flung places.

I was insistent about it. I had fallen in love with my roommate’s dog when I was in graduate school. While my roommate was at work, I would be the one to walk the dog and keep her company while her owner was away all day.

My knowledge of dogs was nil and frankly, I was a bit afraid of them after a bad experience as a six-year-old. Our neighbor’s Alsatian jumped on me one Halloween, his nails scratching angry red lines down my thighs.

I didn’t trust any dogs after that. I thought I was a cat person. But this lovely mutt, a Doberman mix named Sasha, won my heart, day after day, month after month with her sensitivity, playfulness, and intelligence. Before I knew it, I had been converted into a dog person.

Growing up, I had always wanted a pet. As the youngest of four children I didn’t have a baby sister or brother to take care of and I desperately wanted something, anything, to care for and to be in charge of. We did have a cat for a couple of years (she met an early demise), then, for a briefer period, a pet skunk (yes a real skunk, but that’s another story), and never had a pet after that.

As I walked through the humane society on a chilly day in May 14 years ago, I had no idea what I was in for, or that this dog would precede many moves to different cities and would be the constant as we brought one, then two, then three, and finally four children back from the hospital into our home to join our family.

What I learned from Diego, a Rhodesian ridgeback mix, in those three years before we had our first child, laid the foundation for my next 12 years of parenting.

How?

First of all, being the diligent and conscientious learner that I am, I got as many books about dogs and dog training as I could from my local library. Then I got to work training my dog.

I was sure that if I knew as much as I could know about the subject of dogs, I would most certainly rein in his wild destructive behavior. It was a matter of education and will.

Wrong.

1 | You can’t mold your child into something you want

Your child comes out of the womb with a personality and you have to learn how to understand who they are and then do your best to guide them into the world. Apparently, I was a slow learner.

I would take Diego out for walks – three times a day since I worked from home and I needed to get out, too – we ventured into wooded trails for long walks. I tried out my newfound training techniques. Nothing made me angrier than when that dog ran away and ignored my commands.

I raged at him, screaming myself hoarse. Why wouldn’t this being let himself be sculpted like wet clay? To be molded to my needs and ideas of the kind of dog I wanted him to be?

This was extremely handy when our first baby came along. She would not be easily calmed, she would not stay asleep no matter what we did, she would not adapt to the schedule I wanted her on. No, she was her own being with her own way of doing things.

All I had to do was look at Diego and be reminded that this was not a battle I would win. I had to surrender to her needs and accept her for the strong-willed, stubborn, high maintenance, incredibly smart being she was (and still is at almost 12).

2 | Different ways of discipline

Discipline is necessary, but just what kind works is different for each dog, as it is for each child.

After further reading , I discovered that some dogs respond to “harsh corrections” while others are indifferent to your yelling and still others react in fear and run away.

My dog was the latter.   I didn’t realize this until months had gone by and I had worked myself up into a frothy lather of anger and frustration. Adam would look at me with alarm, wondering just who he was about to marry, this thunderously angry person locked in a battle of wills with her young dog.

This lesson of dogs needing different correction techniques was helpful when we had our second child and my assumptions that I just had to do the same with the second as I did with the first child proved completely inaccurate (and useless).

While our first daughter would stick close by me and never leave my side in a grocery store, for example, our second child would get distracted by almost anything. I would turn around and she’d be gone. My second daughter wasn’t afraid of losing sight of me the way my first child was, she wasn’t interested in approval the same way the first child was.

When I remembered through my sleep-deprived and addled brain that different dogs needed different kinds of discipline and basically were driven by different desires, it was much easier to be calm and rational about this. Try something different. With Diego I had to stop yelling and scaring him and instead gently but firmly correct him.

If I let my daughter pick out a treat while shopping, promising it at the end if she stayed by my side down each aisle perhaps it will work.  It did.

I later caught on quicker with potty training and incentivized her with M&M’s rather than say, telling her I was disappointed in her (which actually did work for the first child). I knew what motivated her and I ran with it. Now that they are older, bad behavior for my first daughter results in losing out on activities with friends, where taking away my second daughter’s iPod works best.

3 | The Mess

Everyone has his or her weak spot and for Diego it was his stomach. When I first set eyes on him in his cage at the humane society in Montreal, he was sitting in his own diarrhea. Adam said, “You want that dog? But he’s covered in shit!”

I replied, “So what? He’s so adorable!” Those amber eyes and huge floppy ears were irresistible.  We were given permission to take him out for a walk and he promptly jumped up on Adam, smearing his blue sweater with excrement.

From that day forward, I spent many, many hours cleaning up poop. In his crate, on our floors, our rugs, all over our home and of course on walks in the park and later, when we bought a house in New Jersey, our yard. I also spent many hours cleaning up vomit on the floor of our Brooklyn apartment and other strange substances that leaked out of the dog.

What better way to prepare you for the onslaught of mess that happens when you have a baby?  The spit-ups and the explosive poops up the back and all over, the projectile vomiting and the sick days of diarrhea-filled diapers or soaked-through toddler pants. Let’s face it, babies and toddlers are a mess. Young dogs are too.

It really does help to have experienced it somewhat beforehand. You get the gross factor out of the way pretty quickly and realize that bodily fluids are normal and get over it.

5 | Acceptance

Having a dog allowed me to try being a parent without the high stakes of a real kid. I remember leaving the house tentatively in those first few days of getting him, going to a yoga class and thinking, “There is a life I am responsible for now.” I felt both exhilarated and terrified that another being depended on me completely for its life.

I spent the first couple years of his life comparing him to the previous dog I had lived with and kept finding fault with him. Why couldn’t he be more like Sasha? Why wasn’t he as smart as her? Why is he so anxious? Why did he have to pick a fight with that other dog at the park? I could train him not to jump up on people and to sit or lie down, but that was about it. As much as I tried, I couldn’t control him fully.

Then when my first child came along I realized, wow, it’s not about trying to control your dog or your kid, or about comparing them to anyone else’s kid. It’s about appreciating them for who they are.

And the next realization was, man, Diego is so much easier to care for than this baby.