I’ve been down this road before. Twice, with insomniac babies. I tried to change their hardwiring, adjust their behaviour patterns, retrain them, become the driver in the relationship – I tried to control them in order to keep my sanity. This time I’m trying to control my dog.
Two years ago we brought into our family home a salt-and-pepper coloured squirming bundle of big-eyed puppy, a Cairn Terrier (like Toto from The Wizard of Oz), who made us laugh every time he fell over his outlandish paws as he ran across the room. The rosy glasses fell off in a couple of days. We fast learned he only ever bounded in that hilarious fashion so that he could sink his fangs into our toes, or our ankles, or my bathrobe where he would swing from the hem by his teeth, locking his jaws when I tried to pry him off. And it wasn’t just us he punctured and drooled on. Every sock, toy, ball or shoe that hit the ground went into his mouth (as much of it as he could stuff in anyway), and was dragged outside, ripped apart and buried.
Like any responsible citizen I turned to other people to fix our problem. I’d taken my second child to sleep school with some success so I figured scholastic rigour might help this time too. We went to puppy school. I’ll spare you the details. Obviously it didn’t work or I wouldn’t be writing this story. I will say that some puppies are big chickens, and I will never regard with respect the fluffy Bichon Frise who caused us to leave the group. Not that I’m defending my ward’s aberrant behaviour: chasing the other dogs, spinning on the spot barking at birds, and repeatedly biting the trainer on the hand is unacceptable in any classroom. Still, I’m not sure we warranted a written complaint. We were willing to work at correcting this behaviour. Anyway, who calls their dog Tinkles? When the trainer suggested a name rethink might be in order both coiffed owner and coddled pooch cocked their heads in bewilderment.
I digress. Puppy school is not a waste of time, and I would recommend it to anyone regardless of how dominant or meek their dog. As I assured my partner, whether or not the dogs learn the commands they do become socialised. Puppies that go to school do not growl at other dogs they encounter on the street. That’s true of our pup anyway. He never growls or barks at other dogs. He tries to have sex with them.
I grew up with dogs, but I knew I was out of my depth with this one. The dogs of my childhood were never trained. In succession, Labradors, collies and mutts slept on our beds, roamed the streets off-lead, ate scraps thrown at them from the dinner table and served as pillows when we lay on the living room floor to watch television. And they were all perfectly pleasant. Not this dog. He was small, portly and defiant. When he looked me in the eye he didn’t blink. When I told him to sit he didn’t blink.
My partner had never had a pet before so I told him with great confidence that our dog would grow out of his unpleasant behaviours, which now included barking through the night, jumping on visitors and pulling on the lead when we walked with such ferocity that I felt like I was waterskiing. He said he looked forward to that day. (It’s important you note at this point how calm he was so you don’t judge him harshly for calling me moronic later on.)
Our dog didn’t grow out of anything, he grew into it. He was happy as Larry, ignored all our commands and pleas, and did whatever he wanted at all times. I called one of the large dog training companies for help. They recommended we establish our authority by feeding him after we ate, spraying him with water when he barked, never letting him walk out the front door before us, and growling at him when he showed any aggression. My partner, two children and I sat in a row on the couch and practiced growling while the trainer listened. We bought a spray bottle and used it every time he barked.
This had some effect at home and I was pleased to be able to re-establish eye contact with our nearest neighbour. But our dog took to asserting his dominance outside the home. It didn’t occur to me in the beginning that I should take the water bottle with me when we walked. He had to wee on me to teach me that lesson. I stopped to talk to someone on the busy shopping strip near our house. Mid-conversation my friend looked down in horror and pointed, ‘your dog-‘. He had cocked his short leg and was urinating on my jeans looking me straight in the eye as he did so.
We tried other trainers, just to be sure we weren’t missing out on the golden piece of advice. Their collected wisdom was this: we didn’t address the problem quickly enough or with sufficient commitment; we shouldn’t have chosen a terrier; we shouldn’t have chosen a male terrier; we shouldn’t have chosen the last male terrier left in the basket when all the other pups had been sold – there was a reason he was still there. One suggested that all the advice we’d been given was perfectly good but that it wouldn’t work on this dog – he had clearly been a person of some power in his last life. A rather cross woman (the spitting image of Mia Farrow) said that until I learned to assert myself in my life at large our dog would continue to dominate us. Evidently my vague and indecisive manner was infecting our house, causing our youngest child and dog to run riot. She suggested they were, in fact, in cahoots, and that I needed to look within to fix our problem. I relayed this to my partner and asked if he thought I should see a therapist about our dog problems. Ever the voice of reason, he said this was moronic.
A friend suggested I read The Secret so that I could visualise having a dog in my life that was a co-operative, affable, less hysterical member of our family. I didn’t read the book but I read the synopsis on Amazon. And though the book sounds both dubious and vindictive (people who suffer cancer, poverty and starvation are thinking incorrectly), I do believe in the power of positive thought. So I gave it a go. But every time I visualised our dog he turned into a toothless golden retriever, which really doesn’t bear much thinking on. In any case, nothing changed.
I turned elsewhere for advice. And it seems we aren’t the only ones who’ve struggled to live with a dominant dog. There is an enormous industry of books, websites and television programs that deal with dominance aggression, among other canine-related misbehaviours. Some of the advice was very good though it was nothing new. I would, however, point you to a terrific article on Slate.com about a woman who had success using the methods of the Dog Whisperer. I, too, tried the ‘ssst’ noise, and while it did, the first time, cause my dog to slam on the brakes mid-sprint and slide into the front door, the effect, over time, dwindled to mere ear-cocking. Better than the ‘baah’ noise that others had recommended though.
I was disturbed at the number of articles on the web that referred to the empathetic nature of dogs, and the selfless gestures dogs had made over the years. I think our dog missed out on the caring gene. I’m not sure if he lacks the ability to empathise or is stupid or both but I’ve never seen him exhibit any sign of emotional intelligence. I’ve heard stories of dogs helping their owners in times of crisis, summoning neighbours, nipping on earlobes to keep people conscious, dragging them from burning buildings and the like. I don’t think that would happen in our house.
About a month ago I fell up the stairs, and as well as making an almighty thump I yelled. I rebroke a toe I damaged in similar fashion a year ago and it hurt. I sat on the step with my hands wrapped around my foot, howling. I don’t believe it was a noise that could be mistaken for anything other than pain. But rather than sitting by my side sharing my suffering, or whimpering at my clear distress, or running off to fetch the cordless phone, my dog took the opportunity to pilfer a half-eaten muesli bar from my pocket. As he buried his snout in my waist making pig-like snorts I elbowed him away. But he was determined to get that muesli bar and after the second elbowing he growled at me. I had no desire to be bitten as well as broken so when he had the wrapper between his teeth I didn’t try to take it off him. He scampered down the steps away from me at breakneck speed, tail high in the air. And he didn’t come back. I could’ve broken both legs for all he cared – he was busy gnawing plastic.
But in the last few weeks something has changed. On Monday I took our two-year-old dog for a walk and it was almost pleasant. No, it was pleasant. He responded when I tugged the lead (not every fencepost deserves a sniff), didn’t wee on me when I stopped to talk to a friend, and for most of the journey he ambled beside me rather than in front. We had a good time. And back at home he sat when I asked him to and came when I called him to his water dish.
Now, the cynic in me thinks he sat because he was tired and drank because he was thirsty, but the optimist sees improvement. Last night our dog curled up on the rug next to my youngest child while he played. No nipping, no growling, no stealing of the socks and shoes abandoned nearby.
Here’s what I think changed things: time, unity, consistency, and firmness borne of exhaustion. It’s true that puppies are more deranged than older dogs. There is something lovable about that but I’m happy age has settled our dog somewhat. However, waiting for him to age out of certain behaviours isn’t an option. And we want him to be part of the gang while he’s still young and sprightly. So we unified in our approach. As a group we wrote a list of things the trainers had said that made unequivocal sense to us and that at least one of us believed had shown results. (Number one was regular exercise, two was eating after us, three was tone of voice.) We agreed to be consistent in our use of commands, grunts and gestures. And I made the solitary vow to stop being apologetic when disciplining our dog. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard myself sound so unwaveringly clear as when I commanded him, on the night of our round-table discussion, to Drop The Toy Bunny Right Now. That single moment may have changed the way my dog looks at me forever.
I’m not saying for a minute that his dominance has vanished. I think it will always be his nature to try to be top dog. But for now, at least, he’s acting like one of the family.