The 5 Parenting Lessons I Learned Training a Dog (I Know, Shut Up)
A few years ago, as we prepared to become newly minted parents, my wife and I spoke at length about child-rearing. We covered the usual topics: How do we feel about co-sleeping? Are we anti-television? How do we refer to his penis? Much to our relief, we were largely in sync. (Hate it; yes, until two-years-old; “your junk”).
That’s as far as the conversations went. We didn’t buy any parenting books; we didn’t scour the internet for advice or validation. Right or wrong, we would fly on instinct. We hoped to take the best of our own upbringings (good manners, respect for elders, the driver picks the music) and leave the worst of behind (religion, getting smacked around).
More easily said than done, of course. As my wife’s belly swelled, so did my first-time-dad anxiety. It’s one thing to teach good manners by example, for example, but children are unreasonable savages with their own logic and agendas. What if our kid was just an asshole?
One morning, walking my dog, Sammy, in our then-home of Venice Beach, I had an epiphany. Among our friends, Sammy has fans. She’s a quiet, sweet, and friendly mutt. She doesn’t bark, whine, or jump on strangers. She doesn’t chew on your shoes when left alone. She’s welcome in bars and hotels.
What more could I ask for in a son?
But well-behaved dogs don’t spring fully formed from the womb. They must be actively raised — which is not easy. The same goes for kids. Three-plus years into parenthood, I can’t claim to have done a great job (my kid can, indeed, be a real asshole), but so far I stand behind these five puppy-and-child-raising strategies.
1. No Sleeping in the Bed
Whether it’s puppies or babies, taking over the master bed is a power move that pushes you aside literally and figuratively. You’re welcome to consider the merits of co-sleeping, but I’ve heard enough horror stories of bed-invading toddlers from sleep- and sex-deprived parents who were bamboozled into believing that baby-in-bed builds better children.
For puppies, that means never jumping onto the bed — not even once. For kids, that means migrating them from bassinet to crib, in their own room, as early as possible.
2. Sit, Stay
Like your dog, your child is not your equal. Both should regard you with awe, devotion, and (sure, why not?) a little bit of fear. That’s why we teach our dogs tricks — not just to entertain us, but to instill these values. To be rewarded, they must sit and stay.
With my son, this means no whining. Granted, with a 3-year-old, it’s an oft-unenforceable policy, but we nonetheless aim high. On those daily occasions he whips himself into an irrational frenzy (over, say, not getting the right color ice pop), we keep our cool. We let the tears flow, we calmly wipe away the snot. Only rarely do we send him to his room (our version of a time-out).
Once he’s calmed down (sit, stay), we resume the conversation. Which doesn’t mean he’ll get what he wants; sometimes yes, sometimes no. The important part is not capitulating.
3. Listen to the Vet
By New York State law, my dog must be vaccinated for rabies. This not only prevents her untimely death-by-raccoon, it keeps other dogs and humans safe, too. The consensual prevention of disease is a hallmark of a civilized society. And, it works.
The same goes for my kid. For his sake and for the welfare of society, we follow the standard vaccination schedule. If you’ve chosen to ignore years of scientific research by withholding your kid’s vaccines, they should be quarantined — and you should be ashamed.
4. Create Calm
When someone tells me they plan to adopt a dog, I give them one piece of advice: Do not choose the puppy that’s jumping inside the cage, wagging its tail furiously and licking your fingers. Yes, it’s very cute, but that puppy will grow into a high-energy dog that won’t shut the fuck up and sit down. Instead, look for the quiet dog with sweet, hopeful eyes.
This isn’t how we choose our children, but there are lessons to be learned in the puppy pound. For us, this means not letting our home’s ambient energy get out of control. The television stays off unless we’re actually watching it, for example. (There’s nothing worse than the white noise of an unwatched television.) We don’t really play kiddie music, either.
Maybe I’m an uptight asshole, but I don’t think it’s harmed my son’s development or social standing. Thanks to daycare, he can sing along to “Itsy Bitsy Spider” just fine. It’s just that, after a long day at the office, the last thing I want to hear is 100 choruses of “Old MacDonald.” My boy’s kiddie-music catalog may be lacking, but he gets a calmer, more engaged dad.
5. Show Them the Ball
My first dog was a monster. Raised on the streets until he was 9-months-old, he was a biting, untrainable shitshow with teeth. After months of patient training, he eventually settled down and enjoyed a nice, long life. When it came time to adopt another dog, I insisted on the blank-slate state of puppyhood: We took Sammy home when she was just 8-weeks-old.
Puppies, of course, suck. They require an astonishing amount of patience, and they know absolutely nothing. If you expect your dog to shit outside, walk calmly on a leash and fetch, you must show it the ball — over and over again.
The same goes for children. Good and bad, they learn by example. Whether it’s potty training or politely waiting in line, you must be aware that they’re insatiable copycats. Leading by example works, even if it means inviting them into the bathroom when you’d rather take a shit in peace.