According to Jewish mystical lore, God never completed the finishing touches of the universe’s creation because sacred vessels bearing sparks of primordial light shattered. When human beings gather shards of this holy light through acts of goodness, they repair the world.
In Native American folk tradition, the creator of the earth is a grandmother named “Kohkumthena.” Her attempts at completing the creating of the world are also undermined. Each night, as she weaves a magical basket, her mischievous dog unravels it. For the Shawnee, the world remains incomplete due to the playful and chaotic nature of a dog.
Last May, our family adopted a three-month-old puppy, and chaos has infiltrated our home. After living with our furry companion for a few months, I have not been able to sleep through the night, fold laundry in her presence, prepare meals without interruption, pay bills, or even tutor students in my home in my regular fashion.
An adorable 10-pound, cream-colored canine is now unraveling every metaphorical and literal basket she encounters. She jumps on our couches, tries to ingest the leaves and gnaw on the bark of a decades-old plant that my husband’s late grandmother gave to him, and sneaks into the bathrooms and unfurls the toilet paper.
She harasses the clarinet teacher by repetitively squeezing her squeaky toys during the children’s lessons, steals my son’s favorite stuffed animals, and does not always communicate with us when she needs to relieve herself. When we take her outside for walks, she chews, goat-like, on every item, including cigarette butts, bottle caps, and the corpses of squashed squirrels and deceased birds.
Grapes, raisins, and chocolate are deadly poisonous to her system, and these are three foods that are frequently in the mouths of our children. I’m glad I haven’t had my blood pressure tested lately, as my anxiety level has escalated from its baseline of cautionary yellow to a deeply worried red zone.
In an attempt to follow the rabbinic teaching of the Talmud (Bava Kama 15b) that owning a dog is permissible as long as the dog is not “evil,” I hired an expert to give her and us a strong start. With two decades of experience training canines for New York’s finest, this highly sought out trainer would surely give me all of the answers.
One-and-a-half hours after meeting with this gentleman, I learned that I was making several crucial mistakes. “Don’t talk to her so much,” he instructed me. “Only speak to her if it’s meaningful.” That hurt my feelings a bit. Wasn’t everything I said meaningful? “Why are you telling her she’s ‘a good girl’ over and over? She hasn’t done anything to deserve it,” he chided me.
“I guess I’m building her self-esteem,” I responded softly.
He told me that my husband and I need to be the leaders of the pack, and the dog will feel more comfortable knowing her status in the world. No napping for her unless it’s in the crate, I was advised, and leave her leash on in the house for now, as that is the method for re-directing her to a more desirable activity.
“Isn’t it a choking hazard for her to drag a leash around?” I asked timidly. “Why can’t she sleep placidly in a spot that’s mutually acceptable that doesn’t resemble a jail cell?”
As our puppy barked boldly, the trainer’s docile 130-pound German shepherd eyed me skeptically. Clearly, I will never have a second career as a dog trainer for bomb sniffing police dogs.
One weekend, my mother-in-law visited and brought me a different kind of book about dog training. In Warren Eckstein’s 1994, “How to Get Your Dog to Do What You Want: A Loving Approach to Unleashing Your Dog’s Astonishing Potential,” this expert focused on creating a confident dog by spending “more time focusing on the things the dog does right than correcting those he does wrong… Dogs that feel good about themselves will behave better for you… If they think they’re a failure at life, then what’s the sense of trying?”
His advice made sense for children, but what about puppies? I searched for diamonds among the puppy chow. Go ahead and chat with your puppy at will, he cheerfully recommends. But never badmouth a dog in its presence in case the dog understands the negative words.
Other trainers on the internet recommended walking your dog around Bloomingdale’s for socialization or keeping the puppy in the crate for up to six hours a day. I started having flashbacks to those early days of parenthood when I spent so much energy worrying about my children’s sleep habits. Should I Ferberize them, let them cry it out, or co-sleep? What enduring ramifications would I set in motion if I did something wrong? As parents of humans, we had to figure out what worked for our family.
Ultimately, no single dog trainer could whisper every correct answer in my ear for our specific puppy. If happiness were to return to our home, I would have to find confidence as a puppy parent.
As I sat glassy-eyed at my son’s little league baseball game on a Sunday morning, another mom and I began to chat. “This is the most relaxed I’ve been in weeks,” I confided. Then I told her about our puppy – the whimpering in the crate at night, the visits to the vet, the worry over her ingestion of toxic foods.
She nodded knowingly. “After we got a puppy, I cried every day for a month. My life as I knew it was over. I couldn’t leave the house for more than a short time, and the dog was always chewing up the furniture. The kids weren’t even that interested in him. But, it gets better,” she reassured me. “Really.”
Although we’re all very attached to our sweet puppy, I don’t think I’ll be decorating the bumper of our minivan with a magnetized bone declaring my love for Golden Doodles. We’re still working on taming our playful creature. She reminds us that nature is unpredictable, and that love is powerful.
Oh, and I think I know who broke those original vessels in Rabbi Isaac Luria’s story of creation. And my bet is that it wasn’t a cat.