This is a tale of two dogs and one owner (me), who, in the depths of desperation, tried to bring my parenting skills to bear on my pets. Sad, I know. What drove me to this state of affairs? And what was the outcome?
I am a passionate advocate of respectful communication with children, where reward and punishment is out, and problem solving is in. I utilise the skills and approach of Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.), and just love the relationship I have with my children.
Now, research indicates that dogs can respond to some forms of human communication. Would P.E.T. work with pets?
Meet Honey and Jaz, two cavoodle sisters who entered our lives six years ago. Tiny bundles of animated fluff, with needle-sharp teeth and untrained bladders, they insinuated themselves into the family. Besotted children ran with besotted dogs. Once the adult teeth erupted, and the toilet training was complete, we settled comfortably down and became a two-dog household.
There was method behind the madness of two. My theory was that they would keep each other company while the humans were away at work or school. In my soft edged, sun-drenched, naïve dream bubble, I pictured the fluffy innocents playing games of tag, then curling up happily together to sleep until we got home.
However, the puppies' image of life together was somewhat darker, differing markedly from mine. We discovered that in practice, two dogs resulted in double trouble. Two puppies meant two little doggie minds, eight paws, and lots of mutual encouragement.
I was less distressed, more accepting of their wanderlust, and admiring of their ingenuity and determination.
I took the dogs on long regular walks through a local nature reserve. Here, safely on leads, noses to the ground, they could inhale the exciting smells of rabbits, kangaroos, foxes and even the occasional echidna. Once home the dogs would collapse, content, I thought, with their outdoor meanderings. Then the humans would go to work or school, leaving the canines to play. We expected that each day we would return home to rapturous puppy greetings and puppy love.
However, the days were long for our dogs. The empty school hours offered a challenge. Although our fence was ancient, it was adequate for previous pets. One day the puppies (I envisage in my anthropomorphic mind) patrolled the fence, curiously tapping each paling in a pique of boredom. To their delight, one paling moved aside. Heads down, tails ecstatic, they were off on their own run, unconstrained by leads or a plodding human. Hours later they returned, filthy, exhausted, and very satisfied.
This set the pattern. Escape. Patch the fence. Escape. Patch the fence. One dog climbed, the other dug, or both would squeeze through. Perfectly complementary in their break-out abilities.
What to do? If I could use my parenting communication skills, I could simply reason with them, or we could work out a way where they would be happy to stay in the yard. But dogs are dogs. In my parenting world, I don't use rewards or punishment. Punishment was out for these puppies -- I needed to encourage them to feel happy and safe to return home. Reward, however, was in. So many reminders that dogs aren't human!
Another parenting skill is to 'modify the environment'. We spent hours and hours and hours fixing that rickety fence to prevent their escape. I thought about their 'unmet need'. Perhaps they needed more exercise, more stimulation and excitement from the scent of fauna and flora in the bush? So I walked them and walked them. But they continued to escape. In fact, walking them seemed to galvanise them into absconding more often.
Each time I discovered our backyard was, once again, dog free, I became increasingly frustrated and angry. I recognised that I was taking their behaviour personally, which was mind-blowing! If I was taking my dogs behaviour personally, how often was I taking my children's behaviour personally?
My guess is that my dogs were simply curious and friendly, creatures of habit. Each time I exercised them, they were reminded of the wide world outside the fence. They met other dogs, there were 'pee-mails' to read, and kind and gentle people. Really, it was just FUN -- and who can blame them?
Finally, we installed the ultimate in environmental modification -- a new fence. 'Ha! That will keep you in', we thought. Into the yard bolted the puppies, and we went inside for a well-earned rest. 15 minutes later I looked out... on to an empty back yard. In minutes, the dogs had unearthed a weakness in our plan, and dug their way out.
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One day, after months of stay-at-home dogs, I dropped my guard and left them alone in the yard while I went out. A few hours later, I received a phone call. "Your dogs are with me, on a main road. There's a small crowd of us and we've managed to catch one". I was flabbergasted! a) they were out!; and b) they were miles away from home; then c) one was so petrified that I probably wouldn't see her alive again.
Well, long story short? We were fortunate to see both dogs again, alive. I learned later that cars on the four-lane road had stopped to allow them safe passage across. In my mortified mind's eye, I see the traffic parting, and the puppies' wagging, periscoped tails prancing across the bitumen, blithely unaware of the concern they were causing. Later, one was knocked by a car, but fortunately came away only bruised -- and very wary of traffic.
I was a tumult of emotion -- overwhelmed by the kindness of the rescuers, relieved the dogs were safe, helpless in my efforts to keep them in the yard, and utterly embarrassed.
I brought them home, both very footsore and forlorn. How could I dissuade them from future forays away? I had one trick left in my tool kit. One thing I had not tried with these four-legged members of the family.
I looked around carefully, to make sure no-one was watching, and sat on my haunches. Gazing into their innocent, dark-liquid eyes, and bathed in their panting dog breath. I took a deep breath and tried my best I-Message:
"When I discovered that you were on the main road, I was so scared. I began to cry at the thought of not seeing you again, and how sad the kids would be if you'd died. I couldn't bear to think of how frightened and helpless you were."
Small wet noses nuzzled my hand, then they flopped on their sides and began gently snoring.
There was no sudden, magical understanding between dog and human. No turn-around in puppy behaviour. But, I felt better.
By saying out loud that I was scared, I had recognised my own primary emotions of fear and concern, and did not turn them into anger against the dogs. I was less distressed, more accepting of their wanderlust, and admiring of their ingenuity and determination.
Perhaps the beauty of the P.E.T. communication skills is that they help the sender, as much as the receiver.
Even if they don't always work on pets!
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