The Third Third

Me and Maggie

I have lived through four sets of the Terrible Two’s, one particularly difficult case of the F\---ing Fours, and several adolescences that have gone on for decades. But I have never been embarrassed by my children’s behavior. Nor has anything they have ever done been destructive. Further, nothing they have done -- except go to school at our behest – has been extravagantly expensive. So what am I doing with a Dog, Age 2, who has already started re-chewing one of the eight chairs I had refinished last week? What kind of shrug can I give to neighbors how many times when the dog powers through my legs at the front door to race up and down their yards, heedless of my plaintive “Come, Maggie, Come” (which I squeal, really I do, to make me sound as exciting as her freedom)? What am I doing with “Dog” expenses on my Quicken program that outpace our grocery bill and include three new hoses, a rose bush, a new power line for the air conditioner (plus service call), three pairs of eye glasses (only one an affordable Reading Glasses To Go), a new BMW (she chewed up the back seat of the old one), and about five pounds of butter which she has gobbled in half-sticks, surfing the kitchen counter. Oh, and one whole pork tenderloin, marinated but not yet cooked. I’m still trying to figure out if the Oriental rug she has taken a liking to can be repaired. I was a competent mother. Imperfect, but competent. I am an absolutely incompetent Dog Owner. Or, as the trainer I called recently suggested, a failed Pack Leader. Actually, I’m just the accomplice. My husband is the failed Pack Leader. But I’m about to change all this. It took me a while as a parent to understand – and admit – I might need help with some of the finer points of child-rearing. When you think your only model is, truly, your own mother, you have this list of things you hope you do as well and another list of things you would never do to your own children. Two lists, then, and the instruction manual that comes with each child. Yeah, right. For example, I was years into parenting when I finally grasped the concept of consequences as a tool for discipline. The only consequence my parents had invoked for me was shame. If I did exactly what they wanted and/or expected exactly as they wanted and/or expected, I was a Good Girl. If I did not, I was not, and shame on me. How liberating to be able to make one’s own decisions with only a week’s allowance, or a weekend with friends on the line! How wonderful not to have one’s entire character at risk! How important to be able to learn to think for one’s self! I was a quick and grateful study and I think – I truly hope, anyway – that my kids benefited. But back to the dog. For some reason, it has taken me three months of hell with this dog – three months after my arbitrary deadline (“Well, by the time she is two.” Or, “After she’s ‘fixed.’”) to realize we need help. Now help could take many forms. The dog could move to a better home (often my first choice). My husband could take more seriously his duties as dog-walker and routine-builder and canine disciplinarian. But he’s napping. We could add another dog to the household, an alpha dog that would whip this little doll into shape, or at least better entertain her and keep her out of trouble. (I’m not crazy.) I could read yet another book. I could send her to Doggie Boarding School, make that Boot Camp. Or, I could seek professional help for all of us to retrain our pretty pup. Frankly, I’d rather not be bothered. But I hate having a dog that can’t be trusted in the house and can’t be taken out in public. And she’s sweet. She deserves a full and satisfying dog life, one removed from my daily shouting of “You Little Bitch!!!” “Bad Dog” “Bad Dog” “Bad Dog”!!! (I hear echoes of my folks. * “No, honey, we’re not mad at you; we’re just -- sigh -- Disappointed.”)* You just shouldn’t do that to a dog. A nice dog, really. It’s not like she’s chasing bicycles or biting mailmen. She’s just exceedingly rambunctious and not appropriately trained and disciplined. So I’m on it now. I’ve called three trainers and I’ve learned –it’s in their best interest to say so, but, hey, I believe them – that it’s never too late to train a dog. . . and her owners. A two year-old dog who stopped learning new tricks after she was housebroken and could sit on command is not a lost cause. We can make Maggie presentable and fit for public consumption. We can teach her to act as good as she looks. We can. Yes, we can. Now, one thing I’ve noticed about these trainers is that beyond their genuinely reassuring responses, they make no promises and they don’t even tell you how long it will take or how much it might cost to effect this transformation until after they see you and your dog. You, the Pack Leader, that is, and the Dog. I remember my first visit to a counselor’s office, my first public (it seemed to me, though, of course, you oh-so-discreetly go in one door and out another and never see any other patients or personnel, if everything works just right, or at least until you don’t really care anymore who knows you’re in therapy) admission of my failure as a grown-up, a spouse, and a parent, my first real cry for help. And I remember finally coming to terms with my need. As I explained to our daughter, “I don’t know everything I need to know about being a grown-up and a parent and so I am going back to school to learn. I need more tools in my tool box.” I’m in the same situation now. I know virtually nothing about being a dog’s Pack Leader or Whatever. So I’m going – we’re going – back to school. I will keep you posted. And, in case you’ve missed the Larger Lesson here for those of us in the Third Third, let me, as a priest friend of mine used to say, put the cookies on the bottom shelf: It’s never too late to learn new tricks. A corollary: We should never be too old, too good, or too smart to ask for help!
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