I have learned in the past few months it can go like this: Mom gets an aggressive form of cancer so she can’t take care of Dad who has Alzheimers. Dad gets cancer too. Everybody gets the flu. Twice. And during that time, our dog dies.
The past several months in our family circle have been full of stress and appointments, research and tears, conferences, difficult decisions, and paperwork. I am behind in everything, my work, my play, my friendships, family commitments.
So it seemed like a good time to raise a puppy. As I write this, he snoozes by my side, his head on my lap. There is little room for my laptop computer, and he’s letting me know this in not-very-subtle ways.
It went this way: We decided to take a break from the stress and sadness, have a Valentine’s night at a B&B in Saugatuck, just a few miles from where we live. When we woke, we strolled in the sunshine through the pretty streets, and stopped in at Wild Dog, a sweet little store with groovy gifts for your dog or cat. They were hosting animals from the local Humane Society shelter, and there was Charlie.
His time on the planet was running short, and his handlers were worried about him. A beaglish sort of mutt, probably crossed with a Jack Russell and maybe more, he looked smart. He looked ready to go home with us, to play with our older dog, to snooze on our laps. You know how it is. You can’t always save the people you love, but you can pretty much always save a homeless dog.
Right away we learned that Charlie had a lot to learn. He needs to be housebroken, to understand whose stuff is whose, to play nicely, to walk politely on lead, to sit, stay, come when he’s called, recognize his name, not barf in the car.
Lots to learn.
It’s been 9 years since I last worked with a puppy, so I called up a trainer and made a date. Here’s what she had to say:
*Create an environment where it’s hard for Charlie to make mistakes.
*Reward good behavior. Be firm about recognizing bad behavior, but don’t dwell on it, instead focus on celebrating and rewarding what he does right.
*Set a schedule and stick to it. Especially where eating and exercise are concerned.
*He needs his sleep. Plenty of it. Puppies in new environments who are learning new behaviors need rest to help them learn.
*Dogs often learn best by playing. Make the lesson fun, interesting, rewarding, and he will learn quickly.
*He needs affection, warmth, calm kindness. He needs to feel secure.
*Try Cheerios, not cheese, as a reward.
*He needs patience. It takes months for some lessons to sink in, hours for others. He’s smart, but has a lot to learn. Give him time, and love while he learns it.
*Sometimes he will backslide. Just go back to the basics and begin again.
I look over the list and realize pretty quickly that everything Charlie needs, I need. We all need. And of course I’ll have a much easier time providing these things for Charlie than providing them for myself. But why?
Haven’t I said before that losing weight, developing better eating and exercise habits is like raising an inner puppy? Sure — an inner puppy with a strong appetite, no language skills, and a deep desire to sleep on the couch. An inner puppy who sometimes likes to eat his own poo. (Well, okay, maybe the metaphor only stretches so far…)
Our inner puppies don’t respond well to harsh criticism, but learn more quickly when rewarded with praise and affection. They learn faster when we’re consistent in our behaviors. And if we’ve spent a long time ignoring them, or started training late in life, the pooch within can take a long time to learn new tricks.
But we can learn. We can. We’re never too dumb, never too late, never too old. Never too busy, never too stressed to give ourselves what we need to survive. So, give yourself some puppy love this week, take yourself out for a nice walk, stick to your exercise schedule, eat well and on schedule, get plenty of rest and water and play. Be kind to yourself. I will if you will.