Awhile back, long before we brought Chara into our life, I picked up the book “The Art of Raising a Puppy” by the Monks of New Skete. At the time I was ravenously consuming all literature about dog training and puppy raising–even though I was a year away from adopting my own dog, I wanted to be prepared.
The book totally enthralled me. It followed a litter of puppies from their birth until their adoption day, and then went into training tactics for molding the perfect puppy. Some of the methods they used sounded awesome–like tethering the puppy to yourself at all times so that they learn how to be with you in all different settings, and keeping a set schedule so that they learn what to expect out of life. Others, which relied on old fashioned wolf pack dominance theories, were less palatable, like scruffing the dog and holding him or her to the ground in punishment for poor behavior. Regardless of my mixed feelings about the training techniques themselves, I was excited about the overall message: that a puppy is more than just a puppy. It is a piece of art to be carefully molded into your perfect companion. And an adult dog is not just a dog, but rather a reflection of your hard work, diligence, and compassion.
What a romantic way of looking at it! I imagined myself doing everything right from day one, carefully teaching my puppy how to interact with the world, molding patience and attentiveness into her nature, showing her how to be both a dog and woman’s best friend as we navigated daily life together. I didn’t want a fluffy little bundle to snuggle with (though that was a definite perk). I wanted a way to test my own merit and meddle. I was in it for the final product–an adult dog who was my ultimate partner in all things–from running and hiking to running errands.
As soon as we moved out to Minnesota I started looking for potential pups. I knew I wanted to be able to select a puppy out of a litter, because I wanted to be able to compare temperaments between siblings when choosing my dog. The other thing I should note is that I was specifically looking for a dog in between ages 8 weeks and 12 weeks–something that as an advocate for rescue I felt guilty about. Puppies get adopted much more easily than adult dogs, and as someone who was young, active, and had time to spare for working on behavioral issues, I felt like morally I should go with an older dog. But as this was my first, I wanted the experience of being there every step of the way for her. I wanted to try my hand at molding a dog from the ground up.
Finally, I found Chara’s litter on Petfinder and submitted an application. The foster mom got back to me right away, saying that they had accepted my application, and that I should set up a time within the next week to come pick out a puppy. That email was probably the most exciting one I have ever received–soon I would have a furry face to pair with all my imaginings of our adventures together. In the time before I went to pick her out, I went into overdrive mode preparing. I compiled a color coded excel file with the puppy’s schedule (every minute of every day accounted for. Jordan still teases me about this), a list of favorite names, the house rules that our puppy would be trained to abide by, and the specific commands and skills that we would work on from day one. In other words, I was prepared to be a doggy super mom (…more like crazy insane dog person who has way too much time and way too few things to worry about in her life and so channels them all into her dog).
On the big day my sister accompanied me to the foster mom’s house. Puppies dominated the conversation on the way there. Would I pick a boy or girl? One of the yellow ones or black ones? What would the mom be like? How would I know when I found the one? What would I name him/her? I remember pulling up outside and the puppies’ foster mom, Becky, greeting us by the gate of the garage with two puppies in her arms, and having the sudden realization: in the next hour, I’d know what my new best friend looked like. We followed Becky in and the puppies quickly took over the show. There were four females and two males. Three of the females were yellow, and one girl and the two boys were black and white. I was immediately drawn to the little black and white female–she was by far the most relaxed out of the whole crew, sitting quietly and observing as the other puppies tumbled around her. But she also wasn’t shy or scared. When I held out my hand to her, she slapped a paw on it, surveying me soberly out of blue-grey eyes.
There was no contest after that. Becky knew right away that I’d found the one. I signed a few forms, handed over a check, and boom. I had a puppy. We made arrangements for when me and Jordan would pick the puppy up (after her spay surgery that week), and then all of a sudden I was out the door again. In one week, I would be making the same trip, but that time with a puppy in my lap!
The following week me and Jordan began preparing. We picked up a crate and plush bed, purchased a tiny little collar and matching leash, debated dog foods and then finally settled on one, bought her numerous toys of all textures and colors, and stocked up on doggie disinfectant and paper towels. In short, we were all ready to parent our pup to perfection.
On the day of her arrival I taped her schedule to the fridge, each moment carefully accounted for. Actually picking Chara up was a blur–I can barely remember driving there, or saying goodbye to Becky. All I know is that suddenly I was in the car with a puppy in my lap, and that she was NOT happy. The howling started about five minutes into our drive, and boy did our little puppy have lungs! She cried and cried, until finally we swaddled her up in the pee-stained blanket that Becky had given us to help comfort her and turned on the radio. I had always known that raising a puppy would be difficult, but that was the moment I realized that it would be difficult in ways that I hadn’t anticipated.
By the time we got home I smelled like puppy pee from the blanket, and I had a headache from the mixture of heart-rending howling and music that we had endured on the way home. And that kicked off the tone of the next few days: an exhausting combination of worrying about sticking to our schedule, trying to ignore Chara’s howls of desolation whenever we closed the door to her crate, and general anxiety over whether Chara was healthy and happy.
That isn’t to say we didn’t have wonderful, fun moments too. I taught Chara to sit within three minutes of her being home–she quickly and easily made the connection between the treat in my hand, the word sit, and her butt touching the ground, something that filled me with doggie-parent joy. We began working on calmness training with her (teaching her to settle on command). We watched her bound and leap across her designated “potty spot” with total obsession, and I took roughly two billion photos of her.
However, after a week of little sleep–the schedule dictated that she go potty three times a night, and also that she sleep in the crate, which led to horrible scream-cries that probably kept our entire apartment block awake–I came down with the flu. I was exhausted and sick and worried that I had bit off more than I could chew, when my mom called. She could tell right away that something was up, and managed to weasel out of me that the puppy was slowly killing both me and Jordan. And then she gave me the advice that probably saved me from dying of exhaustion: “Sarah, you need to relax. Ditch the schedule. Stop worrying about the training so much. She’s going to turn out fine.”
And so we did. And lo and behold, by letting go of this carefully crafted schedule I was trying to impose on everyone, we formed one that actually worked. We stopped using the crate at night and instead used the umbilical method and tied Chara to our ankles. We let her sleep through the night instead of getting her up. We let her tell us when she had to go potty by whining at the door.
Finally, we ditched the crate altogether after a neighbor admitted that they had initially wondered if we were abusive toward her, since her cries were so fervent and horrible. (We had already mostly given up on it because she broke two puppy teeth trying to chew her way out of it, and then ripped her spay incision open climbing over the puppy gate we decided to try in its stead–the vet dubbed her with having barrier anxiety, and we realized that we’d just have to be really good at puppy proofing and use the umbilical method to get her potty trained).
I was beginning to feel disappointed in myself. I had failed at crate training my dog, something that everyone claimed was key to successfully potty training them, and important for their safety and well being. In fact, a lot of dog literature (and one of our vets) insisted that the only way to have a healthy, happy dog was to crate train. And if I couldn’t do something as basic as crate training, how would I ever succeed in turning her into the dog I wanted her to be? Somehow, when envisioning molding my puppy, I had never imagined that she would have a disorder, or that it would take countless hours of work to even get her to lie quietly in the crate for a few minutes (because oh how we worked–timing it by the second, playing games of chicken with our fluffy ball of joy where we tried to guess just how long we could keep the door closed before she decided her kong wasn’t tasty enough to distract her and started howling, at which point we had to wait it out until she stopped).
I was also worried about our training methods. We had laid out from the beginning how we would train her–positive reinforcement only, with specific words and commands. And for the most part, that worked wonderfully. From a very young age we taught Chara important life skills, like how to politely greet other dogs, how to relax in public settings, how to sit, stay, leave it, drop it–you name it. But then there were those moments when I lost my temper, and resorted to negative reinforcement–telling her “no” when I caught her with a forbidden item. Or when, as a 60 lb 6 month old she jumped up in play and bit my face, hard, and I smacked her on the nose. Those moments haunted me. I wanted to have better self control. I wanted to be able to take a deep breath and think through how to constructively handle our worst moments together. I was worried that the bad moments would color our relationship, that every time I yelled at her or lost my cool, I was damaging the trust I’d so carefully worked to build.
Now, looking back on it, I see how silly those worries were. Chara matured, and those specific problems slowly began to fade as we learned how to work around them. No, Chara still doesn’t like crates. But she was fully potty trained by the time she was four months old, and the worst thing she’s chewed up was a Harry Potter book and some recycling. Now, she can even be trusted alone with food on the counter. She knows countless tricks, waits quietly outside of buildings while I run errands, is never aggressive or snappy. She gets along with every dog she has ever met, and loves every person she sets her eyes on.
And despite the moments of negativity, she still trusts me and loves me, and is incredibly confident navigating the world around her. As I watched Chara turn into an O.K. pup despite all the missteps, I began to realize that maybe raising a puppy isn’t an art. Sure, it takes a lot of patience and diligence and finesse. But puppies aren’t just paints and canvases that we can manipulate to our bidding. They’re individuals. They have ideas of their own, and specific preferences and needs. What works for one puppy may not work for another. By relinquishing the notion that there was one “right” way to raise a dog, I relaxed. I let my instincts guide me, and usually those instincts told me to be kind and forgiving, to work hard on the things that were really important to us, and to be clear about the things that were unacceptable to us (like snapping at people’s faces).
That isn’t to say she’s perfect now. No, as the old problems have died away, new ones have slunk forward to take their place. Somehow Chara has lost the cool composure with which she greeted people as a puppy (and which we so carefully tried to train into her). She wiggles and whines and tries to jump and generally freaks out when people she loves are around. Sometimes that extends to strangers, which is embarrassing for us and scary for them (cause, y’know she’s huge and scary looking). And she doesn’t always heel, despite the fact that we have spent countless hours teaching her to do so. And once in awhile she will ignore her recall command.
But I have a different perspective on these problems. I understand that together we’ll work through them, and that with time these too will pass, to be replaced by new issues. More importantly, I understand that Chara isn’t an art project to be molded into some paragon of dog-hood. She’s an individual, with her own specific issues and quirks. She may not be the exact dog I wanted when I wrote those ground rules a year ago. But she’s my best friend and partner, and I couldn’t ask for a more wonderful being to share my life with.