At 4 years old, the world is full of possibilities. On a Sunday, while hosting a double play date, the question of marriage arose over mac-n-cheese. The older girls, fresh from working on their third grade Cinderella project, asked the younger boys who they would choose to wed. Neither boy hesitated: They would marry each other.
Lingering at the table, I listened as the girls attempted to modify the boys' decision. They giggled over same-sex marriage and the difficulties related to procreation, however limited their prospective, urging the boys to choose a girl, instead. One of them, perhaps?
It was here that my Worst Mother made her appearance. "Stop bothering the boys, girls. Leave them alone. Eat your lunch." Fortunately, I paused long enough to notice no one was paying any attention to me.
Retreating to a discreet corner of the kitchen, I watched the scene unfold. The dining room was quickly transformed into a banquet hall, and shredded napkins into rose petals. Standing at their makeshift altar, my daughter officiated the ceremony, as the boys waltzed forward to a recorder playing a wedding march that sounded remarkably similar to Three Blind Mice. The union was sealed with a kiss.
There are times as a parent I overstep my boundaries, interrupting my children's play with my adult introspection... then wish I hadn't. Other times, like today, I let the sage advice of specialists and teachers -- as well the similar advice I give as a dog trainer -- shine through. Dogs and puppies, like children, are driven to play, relive their experiences, and create their own uninterrupted version of fun. Viewing the world as limitless and hopeful, it's our job to keep and sustain their innocence for as long as possible.
As I tidied up the kitchen, I thought of how often clients have fretted over their dog or puppy's behavior. In a variety of formats, from lecturing to my private practice, I've been asked, "What's normal?" "Should I allow my dog to shake a toy? Might he then shake my baby?" "Are dog parks safe?"
My answer always depends on the dog. What is normal for one puppy or a dog may still overstep the boundaries of what is acceptable to another. At a home in Bedford, N.Y., I was asked to assess a newly-adopted 2-year-old boxer's interactions with a resident 7-year-old cockapoo named Queenie. It was a funny pair. While Rocky the boxer's play was completely normal (I assessed him first with my little golden mix-breed), it was threatening to the queen, who'd had limited social experience with other dogs. As Rocky danced through the house, trailing Queenie and trying to encite a reaction (like another younger sibling I know), Queenie would work herself into a lather defending her personal space. Fortunately, both dogs enjoyed the freedom of their outdoor enclosure and spent limitless time chasing each other back and forth until both lay exhausted at the backdoor. In that household, I worked with the family to teach Rocky self-control and relaxation techniques via some very basic training exercises. Without this type of intervention, Queenie would be agitated to the point of defensiveness -- and Rocky would need to have been rehomed, again.
Not all homes have to bar indoor play. I often find my four dogs -- ranging from 9 pounds to 90 pounds, in a twisted wrestling match on the living room rug. With their pearly whites gleaming, they pounce, spar, and tug -- though their interactions never rise to the level of petty confrontation.
Pearly whites -- as in teeth? Is biting normal? Aren't dogs fighting when they show their teeth? Many of my clients or listeners are unnerved when their dogs/puppies bare their teeth in play.
Dogs use their teeth like kids use their hands. As most children can control the power of their physical interactions and emotionally grasp what is playful and what is not, dogs are equally aware of their jaw's impact. Squashing interactive mouthing would be like restricting a child's play altogether. While people need to discourage dogs from them, oral grappling is a normal and healthy form of canine interaction.
In another home, a newly-adopted, Southern rescue puppy named Milo was introduced to a resident rescue, a 2-year-old mix-breed named Gerard. In what appeared to be a death grip, Gerard pinned the already groveling Milo to the ground, eye balling the intruder with his teeth barred. "This is a good reaction," I chirped, as the new mom dug her fingernails into my palm. The scuffle ended quickly as Gerald sniffed the new puppy head to tail, then averted his gaze as if in disgust. A canine eye roll. The puppy promptly crawled over to offer a few honorary chin licks. Translation? You 'da boss, you 'da boss.
Within days, the two dogs assumed a friendship that has blossomed like a rose. Days begin with a round of mouthy sparing, followed by late morning mud wrestling and a dribble fest at the water dish. Mid-afternoon routinely finds the pair on the carpet beneath the sun's shadow, curled together as Gerard mindfully tongue-caresses his puppy into a restful snooze. Though the family's first inclination was to interfere in the rough play, their modified approach allowed the dogs to develop an independent relationship, which in the end evokes tenderness in everyone. Life better understood.
As with kids, there are many paths to raising happy, well-socialized dogs. It's important to recognize that each situation is unique -- not only to those involved, but to the age and personalities of the individual dog or puppy. There are books, videos and professionals like myself who can interpret canine expressiveness and will passionately offer advise on an approach that works for everyone involved.
On this theme, please comment with any questions or stories that come to your mind. Whether you're adopting a second dog, or concerned about leash behavior or a reaction at the dog park, dog behavior is more easily understood with a little coaching. As spring is a wonderful season to socialize with dogs, I'll devote following blogs to this topic.
Reflecting back on my son's nuptials, had I intervened in the children's imaginings on that lazy Sunday afternoon, I would have missed the next two ceremonies: when the boys wed each of the girls. Love was in the air. Child's play uninterrupted.
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