12/04/2013 05:27 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2014

Training Dogs, Teenagers, and Myself

On a recent late afternoon, I found myself panting up a steep wooded trail after my 20-year-old daughter. I stopped for a moment to clutch my chest and, gasping for breath, reveled in the knowledge that if my heart seized up and stopped beating, at least I would die happy.

Up until a few years ago, if I had keeled over in Aviva's presence, it would have been in a fit of rage, and quite likely with both hands still wrapped around her throat. That's how bad it was between us.

We've both grown up a lot in the past few years. She left for college and gained some perspective and maturity. I socialized service dogs-in-training and along the way, learned to be patient and in control of my emotions.

I didn't know crap about raising my teenage daughter until I started working with puppies. Actually, I did know what kind of parent I should be -- calm, rational, smiling no matter what my kids threw at me, but I was utterly unfit for the job. I was too emotional, my daughter too eager to find fault with me. By the time Aviva reached high school, the atmosphere between us was so charged that you could hear the crackle in the air whenever we got too close. A single angry spark and... boom!

Then I met Daisy and slowly, things started to change between my daughter and me. Daisy was a sweet, caramel-colored Lab puppy with a bright future ahead of her as a service dog. She was being trained during the week by a prison inmate; I was the volunteer who took her home on Friday nights so she could experience life outside the wall. My role was to spend a year of weekends exposing Daisy to a wide variety of situations and settings so she'd become a well-adjusted assistance animal for someone with a disability.

The organization I volunteer for, NEADS Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans, uses positive reinforcement training techniques: you reward the behavior you want and redirect what you don't. This requires that you be aware of both your puppy and yourself at all times. One moment's lapse, and you'll find yourself swearing between gritted teeth while digging the spider plant from your puppy's mouth. The only lesson the dog will learn is to swallow more quickly next time. However, if you're doing your job, you'll see her galloping, jaws open, toward the plant and have the presence of mind to holler a cheery, "Daisy! Cookie!" When she veers away from the greenery to collect her treat, you've both won. Keeping your puppy in sight and your worst impulses in check prevents the dog from tearing apart a house plant (an experience so lovely she'll want to do it again and again), while confirming to her that you are a nice person worth listening to. The jackpot for both of you is that your bond tightens with each disaster averted, each cookie rewarded.

At some point during my year with Daisy I tried applying these same dog-training techniques to my daughter. It would go something like this: Aviva would appear in the doorway, hands on her hips, and demand that I do something about her younger brother, Josh, who left a mess in the bathroom, or took something from her room, or simply existed on the same planet. My body would react to my daughter's tone before I could even process her words. Blood would rush to my extremities then slosh back up to my face, heating it to a rosy glow. My palms would sweat. I knew what was about to go down. Aviva and I had been here many times before (maybe even 15 minutes before, and 30 minutes before that).

Pre-Daisy, I would have responded with reasonable words, but in a voice saturated with annoyance. My tone was the verbal equivalent of spraying water onto a grease fire. Aviva would toss a pitcher back at me, and soon we'd have a wild, out of control conflagration to stamp out (or more typically, flee from, slamming doors behind us).

Post-Daisy, I'd take a deep breath and look at my daughter. Really look at her. And I'd see that she was frustrated -- probably for a hundred different reasons all having nothing to do with me and everything to do with friends and enemies and homework and teachers. Her brother's latest infraction was the one thing in her life that she could yell at somebody for. With a steady voice, stripped clean of negative emotion, I would explain to my daughter what I would do, and she would accept it. No screaming, no tears. And we'd both be satisfied until the next time she showed up in the doorway, hands on her hips, which could be within the next hour. But at least it was a start. Just as Daisy and I learned to communicate with one another, my daughter and I were finally talking, and more importantly, we were listening.

At the end of that year, Daisy graduated and went off to live with a boy with Asperger's syndrome. Our whole family still feels her absence. Her presence lingers, though, in the way I pay closer attention to the people I love and to myself. She taught me to take deep breaths and think before I react, to be kinder and more patient, and at the very least, to apologize when I blow my top. Which I still do sometimes.

I didn't collapse on that steep wooded path that day a few weeks ago. Aviva encouraged me to keep going, tried to make me feel better by lying that she, too, was out of shape, and we made it. The two of us climbed to the top of the small mountain. We looked out at the whole of the Pioneer Valley and grinned wildly at each other, exhilarated that we had made it so far.