Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Pitter Patter of Little ... Paws?

Read Alli Palmgren's column in the April 3, 2014 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin. Alli is the Technology Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library.

A few years ago, my husband Andy and I decided to expand our family of two. We settled on getting a puppy.

While I had had a dog as a kid, my family had rescued our Boxer, Helen (she was from Troy, New York), as an adult. Because she had been used for breeding in a puppy mill, the only thing she knew was how to be a mom. For all intents and purposes, she was a human that just happened to walk on four legs instead of two. She didn’t fetch or play with toys. Helen just liked to watch TV. We had never really trained her and while she didn’t know any fancy tricks, she knew how to act like a civilized person.

I recognized that Helen was special and that raising a puppy would be nothing like what I had known of dog ownership thus far. My husband was no help either. He had a cat as a child- a cat that HATES him to this day. Feeling unprepared, I did what I always do. I went to the library and picked up every book I could find on selecting and raising a puppy.

 As I read, I found that it is very important to select a puppy that will fit your lifestyle. My husband and I are very active: we mountain bike, backpack, and cross-country ski.  We needed a dog that could accompany us on these adventures. So small dogs were out. I also read about the number of dogs that are euthanized each year because of animal shelter overpopulation and I knew firsthand that puppies from pet stores often come from places where the mother and puppies live in inhumane conditions. Therefore, we decided to adopt a shelter dog.

The biggest thing that the books didn’t tell me was that adopting a puppy can be a huge ordeal. Once we found a rescue that we liked, we had to submit an application, conduct a phone interview, and then have a home visit to determine if we would be suitable owners. After being approved, we picked out our puppy- a 12-week old Black and Tan Coonhound mix from Alabama.

When the day came to pick up our new puppy, we were giddy with excitement. As my husband filled out the paperwork, I was handed a tiny puppy. He was so little that my husband remarked that at least for now, I could carry him around in my handbag like one of those tabloid socialites. I balked at the idea, I was never letting this little guy out of my arms, never mind into a purse. It was love at first sight.

 As the days and weeks passed, the tiny puppy we named Bear grew steadily and we settled into a routine. I would bring him outside in the wee hours of the morning (pun intended) as we worked on house training, then Andy would take Bear to work with him. It was obvious that my guys were thrilled with the arrangement. Andy loved having Bear with him at work and Bear loved the belly rubs from everyone that came through the door. I, on the other hand, was terrified that Bear would come to like Andy better than me because of all the time they spent together during the day.

When I spoke to a friend about this, she teased me for acting like a first-time parent. Then it dawned on me, I was behaving like a first-time parent. My baby just happened to have floppy ears and a tail. Looking back at it, not only was I jealous of the bond my husband was forming with our little one, I was extremely overprotective of him. Overreaction had become my default response.

For example, I noticed a couple of red bumps on Bear’s belly. Within minutes, I had convinced myself that my poor dog was dying from any and every incurable disease. I was so worried that I skipped over the first step in my usual course of action when presented with an unfamiliar issue, researching the possible causes and solutions. Instead, I immediately called the vet and convinced her that she needed to see him right away. After taking one look, she flatly explained that my dog had been bitten by a mosquito. A quick Google search could have saved me $50 and a lot of embarrassment, but I was too concerned to think rationally.
As much as I hate to admit it, there were many more instances when my overprotectiveness reared its ugly head in those first weeks. I simply didn’t trust my puppy to learn, explore, and grow without my constant supervision. Eventually, I managed to resist intervening each time Bear faced a challenge or took a tumble. Despite my “helicopter parenting,” Bear managed to develop into a wonderful dog and our faithful companion. He even inspired us to start fostering other dogs rescued from high-kill shelters in the South and we have since added a Bloodhound/Boxer mix, named Layla, to our family.

When we began fostering, I revisited the books that I had relied so heavily upon in the first weeks that Bear was with us. This time, I was able to better evaluate which one offered practical advice. Two books in particular stood out.

“The Art of Raising a Puppy” by the Monks of New Skete was my favorite by far. The Monks of New Skete take you through the processes of selecting a puppy and learning to communicate with it in a language that it will understand as well as providing a training framework. Beyond outlining their simple techniques, the anecdotes the Brothers shared are entertaining and heartwarming.

Similarly, “The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs” by Patricia McConnell also guides dog owners in finding a common language with their dog. Her methods focus on how a dog owners can change their behaviors to make their expectations clearer and thereby improve their relationship with their pet.

Parents often say that babies do not come with an instruction manual. The same can be said about puppies, but these two books come close. The only thing I wish the authors had included in their books is a reminder every few pages that reads, “Stop stressing. Enjoy the ride.” Your dog is only a puppy for a short time, don’t waste it worrying (too much).