When I walk through the kitchen door at night, Murphy wiggles and sometimes turns in circles four or five times. When Devon walks through the kitchen door weekend mornings, she heads straight to the bottom of the stairs and yells up to me, “Ada, get off the computer.”
Murphy is my son, sort of; he’s our third golden retriever. Devon is my granddaughter.
I’m starting to think that finally, in my 60th year, I’ve learned a few things that are letting me do a better job with dogs and kids alike.
Take Murphy. He’s never met another dog he doesn’t like. That wasn’t true of our first two goldens, who loved people but sometimes, with me nervously tugging their leashes, mixed it up with other dogs. The difference is that Murphy meets his friends on his own terms, off leash.
It’s a lesson Kathy and I learned under duress. Murphy had a few problems as a puppy. He surfed counter tops for food, barked incessantly when he wasn’t in the same room, ate anything that fit in his mouth. But he was at his worst when it came time to walk on a leash. He growled. He grabbed it in his mouth. Sometimes he bit at our clothes.
Kathy rubbed Bitter Apple to on the leash. Didn’t work. We tried a chain leash. Too heavy. Finally, we hired a personal trainer. She told us to buy a pronged collar and jerk it when the dog didn’t follow commands. That’s when Murphy really went nuts. In desperation, we fired the trainer, stuffed our pockets with cheese and began taking Murphy off leash in conservation land, figuring if he ran away, it would just prove his insanity. And we introduced tennis balls to his life.
Today, at 18 months, Murphy is a prince. Among his friends, he can count Monet, the rescued golden; Nikki, the speedy mixed breed; and Benny, the little whippersnapper who humps everything in sight. He chews for hours on tennis balls instead of sticks, plastic, furniture or the kitchen wall, in which he dug a 2-foot-in-diameter hole when he was three months old. His energy spent, his friendships firmly established, he relaxes and walks better on a leash, too. And he’s stopped barking.
For her part, Devon, who is 2, has never needed much more discipline than a hug, a nap routine and occasional deflection when stuck in “no” mode. Here I’ve learned, too. As a grandparent, all I do is revel in her company. I don’t test her so she doesn’t need to test me. I don’t push her, so she doesn’t need to push back. Often it seems that simple.
At times Meg, who is an amazing single mom, reaches the end of her rope. I’ve seen her get bossy.
“Devon, if you don’t eat any dinner, I’m taking away your Elmo DVD.”
Now that is a threat. Devon digs in. Meghan digs in. No one wins.
And then my past flashes back, the father of that rebellious teen-age girl who wanted a friend in her confused adolescence and got an angry Dad, fighting a losing battle to impose rules that sometimes had little reason.
Sometimes it takes a few times around to get things right. This much I’ve figured out. Dogs need freedom; kids need unconditional love. And neither alpha dogs nor alpha dads really lead the pack.