Trained by a Dog

Last summer we got a new puppy. She is a Schnauzer and we named her Emmy, (actually her kennel name is Precious Emerald but that is a little too pretentious and much too long to use when calling her for dinner). We set about trying to make her into the perfect dog so that we would be seen as the perfect dog parents. However, it wasn’t long before she had other ideas, and that’s when our learning started.

For one thing, dogs have their own personalities and their own ideas of what they want to do and what they want to be. They have their own little doggy souls and nature, and each one is unique. No two dogs are the same. We also learned that, just like children, dogs have a developmental schedule which is their schedule, not yours. When they are little puppies they mostly poop and pee and gnaw on things. As they develop, they learn to handle these instincts and channel their behavior into more socially acceptable directions. It was a glorious time when we realized Emmy was no longer biting us with her little doggy teeth and she started to get that outside is the doggy bathroom. Now, she still has her accidents, but they are just that.

We also learned that you need lots of patience and love to train a dog. Even though Emmy is the smartest dog in the world (in fact I am sure there is a bumper sticker out there somewhere that says “My Dog is an Honor Student at Obedience School”), we learned that she didn’t always get something the first time. And to really seal the lesson we had to give her lots of reinforcement. Now some people use negative reinforcement, they swat the dog or make them stay in their kennel, while others use only positive reinforcement. We were lucky enough to find a trainer that uses both-she uses what she calls an integrated approach to dog training. She gives out lots of positives in the way of food and praise, but if Emmy is being especially difficult she will use a metal collar on her for emphasis. Her reasoning is that Emmy needs to learn what pays off in good stuff so she will avoid the bad stuff. I am glad to say that she mostly only needs positive reinforcement so we haven’t had to resort to the negative.

However one day she decided to test the boundaries. She refused to do the most basic of things. She wouldn’t sit, heel, or do anything else she had done effortlessly for months. She just sat there and stubbornly looked at us. The trainer took over and made her do the things she was supposed to do then lavished her with lots of food and praise when she finally did it. After that very tough day, Karyn, the trainer, reminded me that I think and write about leadership all the time and that any good leader has to want their followers to test their leadership from time to time. They have to honor the follower’s process. Rather than get mad about the challenge, the leader should embrace it.

As Emmy moved along we also found that you have to have some consistency in your words and actions. That gives the dog a sense of sureness and then they can learn the proper response. When you mix up the command words or gestures, it is confusing for the puppy and they can’t respond properly. It is not their fault-it is yours. My Mother used to quote the Bible verse from Proverbs that says, Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it. That training must be clear and consistent.

Another thing we found is that as Emmy has gotten older, she needs to be around other dogs from time to time. As Karyn puts it, she has to rediscover her “dogness.” Dogs are inherently social creatures and while they love their humans they also need contact with others of their kind. Likewise, there are times when children need to just be children. I worry about our “helicopter parents” who hover and then book up their children with organized activities to the extent that the child cannot get in touch with her “childness.”

student laughing

We continue to learn from Emmy every day in our quest to be good parents to her. But the biggest lesson she has given me is to remind me of how we all need to see our children. They are unique creatures who are a gift to us. They all learn and grow at their own rate and in their own time. They need to be trained with lots of positive reinforcement and structure. They need to know there are boundaries but their success within those should be celebrated. We need to give them the gift of consistency and we need to honor their social needs. In other words, we need to attend to their social and emotional learning. And the greatest lesson of all is that we need to love them, even when they chew up our slippers!!