This article first appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal on July2, 2017
Raising children is remarkably similar to raising dogs. I’m reminded of this anew, having taken in two puppies in the past year.
For more than 30 years, I have had a series of German shepherd and Shetland sheepdog pairs. But when Greta, our last German shepherd, died seven years ago, instead of replacing her in kind, I took in a second Sheltie, Lily.
Last summer Hoover, the older Sheltie died, at age 15. Everyone who met him remarked that Hoover really liked him or her. Never pesky, he would lie down next to guests, keeping polite company. “Yes, he sure does,” I would respond, without mentioning he liked everyone.
Hoover’s temperament was no fluke. Jules and I drove to Montreal last July for another Sheltie: Angus, a tricolor like Hoover, bred by the same woman. Days after we returned home, Max, whose birthday is in September, began calling Angus his “early birthday present” while I call him my “favorite son.”
Then in May, I brought home Dorothy, a black German shepherd puppy. Perhaps it’s my age. Many middle-aged women often become cat ladies or dog ladies, adopting far more animals than their children can understand. I like cats and have always had them, but I am a dog lady.
With Lily, Angus and Dorothy, we have, for the first time, three dogs. Our pack.
Here’s how I raise puppies and children:
Babies cannot be naughty, nor can puppies 8 weeks and younger.
Dog mothers know this and tend to all their puppies’ needs for the first months of life.
In utero, babies know no hunger, only warmth and the voice of their mother. When they cry, it’s for a reason. There are many ways to successfully raise children, but on crying babies, I am directive: pick them up. Crying is the only way babies have to communicate. (I’m not talking about colicky babies who cry for hours on end, requiring a parent to put them down and walk away for sanity’s sake.)
Begin training early; do not make excuses for age. And remember, consistency pays off.
The day I bring a puppy home, we begin work on the following commands: “sit,” “come,” and most importantly, “go potty.” They must always sit before receiving a treat and must take all treats gently from the hand.
As soon as they begin to talk, I teach my children manners. “Yes, please” or “No, thank you” is what they say when answering a question. This not only makes life more pleasant, it opens doors for them later on.
Be emotionally available.
Only good can come from doting on a well-behaved dog. My pups sleep in crates until they are fully housebroken. After that, I am happy to have them sleep near us.
Children whose emotional needs are met when young are generally confident and independent when older. If you let your child crawl into your bed after a bad dream, they are less likely to grow into a disaffected teenager.
Praise whenever you can.
Tell dogs they are good all the time, not just when they follow commands. Praise allowed dogs to remain perfectly still in an MRI machine for 13 minutes during a research experiment.
With children, however, praise behavior, not the child. For example, “You worked hard on your homework” rather than “You are so smart.” (See “The Inverse Power of Praise” by Po Bronson.)
Show children you love them often, not just when they are successful. Once or twice a year, I take each of my kids to lunch at a restaurant on a school day. The older boys now wax nostalgic over those dates.
You got to move it, move it.
Puppy brains and child brains work best when the bodies housing them are regularly active. I take my dogs on 2- to 3-mile walks most days. On the days I cannot, the puppies chew what they shouldn’t, have accidents, and won’t leave the other animals alone.
Likewise, I cringe when I hear of classrooms in elementary schools losing recess because the kids have been too loud, didn’t listen, or didn’t stay in their seats. Unlike John Rosemond, the syndicated parenting columnist, I do believe ADD and ADHD are real, but that it is mostly situational. Kids who spend too much time in front of screens and not enough time outdoors will struggle with attention and self-control.
If you can, have more than one dog and more than one child.
Both species will be happier. The sibling relationship is the longest relationship of a person’s life. While not all siblings remain close, when they do it is invaluable.
Not all dogs are the same. Not all kids are the same.
Shelties are ridiculously easy to train because they innately aim to please. German shepherds, on the other hand, are many wonderful things but, like a clever child, repeatedly check to see if you are truly in charge.
Likewise, if I had stopped after my first son, Claude, I would have thought myself God’s gift to parenting. Then I had Hugo, who weighed in at 10 pounds with eyes swollen shut after a difficult birth and was then colicky for four months. From Day 1 he has challenged my ability to be the parent he needs.
Respect those in your care.
I do not insult my dogs by teaching them tricks like “shake” or “roll over.” And they do not insult themselves by begging. As with my children, I raise dogs whose company is enjoyable. Why, I wonder, would anyone want it otherwise?
I suppose it’s hard for some people to be in charge of their children and pets, whether from a misguided sense of fairness or a retiring personality. But everyone has boundaries and if the parent does not clearly set them, the child will push to find them. That’s when parents lose control and begin yelling, or worse.
Small children and puppies do best with parents who are benevolent dictators. For the young, it’s stressful when life is not predictable. Later, when the children are mature, parents can become presidents of democracies whose citizens effectively self-advocate. And when they are adults, if you have earned their trust and respect, your children will regard you as an adviser and confidant.
And that is the brass ring of parenting.