Sunday, July 5, 2020

Me: Gracie, you wanna go on a walk?
My dog: Roger that, lady.

"Your dog is so obedient."

I glanced down at Gracie as my newfound friend pulled his yapping terrier along by the leash, the dog's tiny feet scrambling across the pavement in a desperate and futile effort to breach the six-foot distance between us and say hello. 

She sat calmly at my side, heeled over to the edge of the walking path, all her attention focused on what was probably a bunny in the bushes but maybe an old Taco Bell wrapper. 

He was right. Gracie is a very obedient lady dog.

But how exactly did this happen? I'll be honest - when she first came to us, my dog was a bit of a hooligan. Although I've definitely made some efforts to establish myself as Gracie's alpha and got her settled with some basic commands, I don't think of myself as a particularly obedience-oriented human, and I certainly don't devote much time and attention to formal training activities.

As we watched man and yappy dog fade down the path, and then continued on our way, I had second thoughts. 

I do expect my dog to be obedient, I mused, but I don't have to spend a lot of time in overt training mode. Because we are together every minute of every day (no exaggeration in this quarantine lyfe) and because we are so closely connected, wired for constant verbal and nonverbal communication, my dog and I get each other. At this point in our life together, we each understand perfectly well what the other expects from us, and we have learned how to work within each other's expectations with a minimum of fuss and bother. 

In other words, during every minute of every day, I am positively reinforcing the behaviors I want my dog to choose, and after three years of life together, she pretty much gets it. We enjoy each and every day together in sweet harmony and just a little chaos, which is exactly how I like it.
Gracie has figured out that dogs belong on sidewalks and that even one tiny step into this thing called a street causes her mother to make loud, unpleasant noises of disapproval. So she almost never steps into the street. I mean, unless there's a really good reason, like a dead squirrel.  

She's also taught herself to stop at crosswalks and wait for me to catch up before attempting to cross. I see people in cars smiling in amazement at her on the daily as she practices this maneuver. 

Which got me to thinking about an interesting situation I'd recently observed. A young family - mom, dad, and three-ish-year-old boy were eating dinner within my earshot. And boy, oh boy, were the parents ever putting Junior through his paces. Though he was already behaving quite agreeably, mom  was in full-on training mode. 

"Say, please. 
Say, may I. 
Say, thank you, daddy. 
Say, I love you, daddy. 
Sit down in your chair.
Eat your salmon burger. 
Wipe your fingers."

During this litany of commands, father made several attempts to strike up a dinner conversation about something other than obedience, but could not get a word in edgewise around her cheerful stream of never-ending orders. 

And in my heart, I understood exactly what was happening. 

Both of these parents work full time, and their son, along with his infant sister, spends his days with a nanny. And I get that no matter how rewarding the work or necessary the income, many working-outside-the-home mothers in our culture struggle 

with guilt, 
with shame, 
with the sense that they are not good-enough mothers 

because they are away from their children for many hours every day. 

From that sense of not-good-enough-ness, I see why those moms might lean extra hard into the obedience training, thinking, I suppose, that this is what 'good' moms do, and they need to work on the training that much harder during the short time that they have with their kids. 

What I wanted to do was put dad and son on pause, and pull that mom away from the table. I wanted to hug her, and then pull back to look in her eyes, and tell her that everything is going to be okay. The odds are really good that her son will not grow up to be an unwashed heathen. She doesn't have to work so hard at this. 

Model good manners without making a fuss.
Reinforce what your child is doing right.
Accept a little anarchy with grace.
And savor every beautiful moment of now.
Actual commands I've given to Gracie today:

"Thank you for not licking the lotion off my feet."
"You're going to take a nap under this azalea bush while I pull weeds? Good dog."
"Yes, I promise you'll get your apple after dinner. Just wait."
"Get your lips off that fresh-baked lemon pie."

Obedience - for dogs or for toddlers - doesn't need to look like boot camp or training for the Ironman. It's simply a way of life. 


  1. I think it is your energy rather than your words Diane? Nice job in any case...

    1. Lol of course you're right. Though the lady bear has a decent vocabulary of actual words to which she attaches some meaning - with "treat" at the top of the list - as I often must remind my husband, she does not actually speak English.


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