Thursday, July 30, 2009

Confessions of a beta mom

I’m just going to flat-out admit it. On Monday I was secretly plotting about whether we might somehow give our newly adopted puppy Harvey away. It was one of the darkest thoughts I've ever had, but there it was.

Harvey had suddenly started some relentless biting (mouthing is probably the more accurate term, but it felt like biting to me, especially as I imagined the crazed pup baring his teeth into my 2-year-old). On the second day of this behavior, I was getting frantic wondering what this suddenly "aggressive" puppy who had already doubled in size in two weeks would do to Will and Owen as he and his teeth continued their exponential growth. I was trying to follow the advice of books and vets, and assert myself as alpha dog when Harvey tried to bite me. I’d hold his muzzle and shake him, shake his scruff, even fold his lip under his tooth so he was biting himself – and I’d bark “No bite” in my lowest, toughest voice. But I’m no alpha dog, and Harvey knew it, and he’d come right back at me. After a dozen or so rounds of bites that made me wince and harsh reprimands that sometimes left him yowling (but still had him coming back for more), finally I’d leave the scene and go collapse on the living room couch in tears.

I found myself teary-eyed throughout the day, regretting our decision to get him, wondering if possibly Rob’s dad might want to raise him if we waved our hands in surrender (knowing full well that Rob never would consent to give our new puppy away). But I was feeling suddenly defeated, in a way that I’m not sure I’ve ever felt. Mostly I was worried that our birthday present to Owen was going to turn against him sometime before I could intervene. It was my mother hen instincts tearing me up.

Then Monday night I had a heart-to-heart with my cousin, who’s recently survived his first year of new puppy ownership with a toddler in the house. We commiserated a lot on our respective possibly foolhardy decisions, and then he helped me find my way back to a strategy Daniel Pinkwater had advocated in his book “Super Puppy: " Rather than trying to fight bites with aggression I could yelp “Yipes” like an injured dog when Harvey bit (I’d tried this before with relatively little success) and then follow up by turning away from Harvey, folding my arms and ignoring him. On Tuesday this combined yipes-ignore strategy worked magic, and I suddenly realized that Harvey was a sweet misunderstood pup who’d of course only been trying to play with me. So now I’m back to loving him deeply (although still occasionally wondering what the heck we were thinking getting him before Owen was out of diapers).

Whether it’s with dogs or kids, I can’t pull off punishment well. It just doesn’t feel authentic to me. I’m a love-and-logic person. When I thought I had to punish Harvey for biting by getting into physical contests with him, I started to fall apart emotionally. And then I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to hold together my parental patience for the boys either. The moment I figured out that I could let Harvey know in dog language that he’d hurt me and ignore him long enough that he’d understand I was in no mood to play rough, I was fine being a puppy parent again. I'm even kind of enjoying my new ability to yelp "YIPES!" like a dog.

I’m also learning how to talk comfortingly with Will and Owen about Harvey’s mouthing. They are learning to keep their distance when he’s in a playful mood, but they know he’s just a baby learning not to chew on everything he encounters. Will, who has generally been terrified of dogs, is quite comfortable petting Harvey or holding his leash when he's in a mellow mood -- and he seems to already be learning how to read his puppy. And even if Owen asks to be put up high in a chair when he enters the kitchen with Harvey, he still loves to be around him.

“Harvey likes me,” Owen says with confidence. And he does.

1 comment:

shannon said...

oh, Annie! You poor thing. It's gotta be hard having one more (species) needing you. Needing more nourishment and love and kindness and courage, guidance and example. You rock for taking Harvey on.
I remember when Nora was about 1 or 2 and we had used a positive reinforcement kind of parenting with her- never saying the word "no" (well, because the one time I screamed out No! as a reaction to her biting me hard, that became a habit and a way she knew she could get my attention). Anyway, she then started pulling my hair when she was mad at me. I thought about pulling her hair back, etc. and finally, one day, I broke down. I just naturally turned away after she'd physically hurt me and started crying and went into my bedroom and closed the door.
It was the best technique for stopping her attention-getting behavior because she didn't get any attention!