So, the thing is… we have a new dog.


Last September, my husband brought home a new puppy. See, he’d been traveling for work which gave him lots of time to think about how he is the only male presence in our house and how that made him just a little too conspicuous. So, he took a small detour on his way back from Houston one time to buy a puppy. It was a bargain puppy, actually, because although the man with the tattoos and the leather vest wanted $20 for him, my husband only had $13 in bills, three dollars in quarters and a lottery ticket. A deal was struck and some fourteen vomiting/urination/worse episodes later, my bedraggled spouse walked through the door of our home with thirteen pounds of flea-infested cow dog.

And you know what? It really worked. Not one of us has noticed my husband since. The puppy is cute, oh, gosh, he’s cute. We think he’s part Border Collie, part Australian Shepherd and part Energizer Bunny. Jane (4) named him “Scout” after a little girl in her preschool class and that’s the name that stuck. I really liked Ana’s suggestion, which was “Hank” because this dog is a cow dog but he just wasn’t a “Hank” then. Not yet anyway. (Plus, of course, Jane always wins and the sooner we all accept that the less screaming we have to endure.)

Now the puppy outweighs Jane by a good ten pounds and frequently knocks her down. He’s so exuberant. I’m sure our neighbors are very impressed by the shouts of “DOWN! DOWN! DOWN, you miserable hound, before I send you straight back to Tattoo Village!” My husband calls him “Mr. Happy” when he’s not calling him the “Fresh Prince of Westlake Hills.” I have a few worse names for him but I try not to yell at Scout too much because, as it turns out, he has a Nervous Bladder.

We’d acquired a new dog because our other dog, Sydney, is getting older and we knew that if we were ever going to get a puppy, we had to do it before Syd got too old to show him who’s boss. Plus, she’s a dog who needs a job and although I joked about renting a cow for her to herd, I really had no intention of doing so. (Yes, I see the irony now that Scout is the SIZE of a cow but I didn’t know that at the time. Ha ha, the joke’s on me. Ha.)

(Sigh.)

When it became clear that Scout would soon be the size of our sofa, we signed him up for some obedience classes. Initially, I just assumed that my husband would be the one to take Scout to these --after all Scout is HIS and we never let him forget it. But my spouse made the mistake of asking if I’D like to take Scout to class and I leapt at the chance to be gone one evening a week. Plus it made sense that since I’m with him the most, I should also be the one to understand how to reinforce or, um, DISSUADE his behavior, especially since losing my mind isn’t that effective as training techniques go.

(I hadn’t counted on the fact that Scout-- along with the Nervous Bladder, the shedding, the barking, the unending energy, and the sheer SIZE-- also is (are you ready?) incredibly carsick. It’s just a Barf Festival the whole way there and back. Plus, I have to pick him up and put him forcibly in the van… well, we can only hope the neighbors aren’t outside with their video cameras. But I digress.)

The classes have just been fascinating—and I don’t just mean because of what some dogs will do to get a piece of cheese. The classes are teaching me a lot about parenting. We give such conflicting messages. For example, you can’t simultaneously expect your dog to never display aggression toward humans AND expect that dog to be a good watch dog. But we do. For another, one night I was looking murderously at my husband after admonishing Scout for the 700th time for barking. He said, “Yeah, but he’ll make a heck of a racket if anyone ever breaks in.” That’s true, he will. Unless (through some miracle) we train him not to bark. But will he be even more confused if we teach him to “speak?”

It has really made me think about the mixed messages we give our kids. We want them to learn social skills in their primary grades. We talk about learning how to fit in and how to make friends. I tell Ana (7) frequently that she can’t direct all of the play —sometimes she just needs to do what the group wants to do. But then our kids hit their teens and we tell them, “Don’t bow to peer pressure. Be your own person. Do what you know is right even if everyone else is doing the wrong thing.”

Or with Jane, I often say, “Don’t talk to strangers.” Yesterday, a stranger in the grocery store complimented her on her beautiful hair and I said, “Jane, what do you say when someone gives you a compliment?” What’s the message there? “Respond pleasantly to strangers who compliment you but not to pedophiles, okay?”

We teach our dogs not to pull but then we buy retractable leashes so that when they pull, they are rewarded by more slack in the line. We say, “Don’t chew on that piece of leather because it’s my shoe, but chew on this piece of leather because it’s a rawhide toy.” We tell our kids not to talk in the hallways at school but are astonished that they don’t speak up when they see a child doing something dangerous. We tell them not to tattle but then assign a class snitch to tell on the kids who talk while the teacher is out of the room.

Taking Scout to these classes has really made me realize how confusing the world must appear, both to puppies AND to children. We adults must look so POWERFUL. We know all of the rules! We get to paint on the walls if we feel like it! We get to eat whatever and whenever we want! We get to decide how the money is spent! We get to give and withhold treats at will… We get to bring home totally spastic, incontinent, motion sick puppies with no notice! (Not that I’m bitter.)

I don’t know. It makes me feel a lot more compassionate toward my kids. It makes me realize that they don’t quite know the language here in Adult Land. The same goes for the puppy --he’d never even slept inside a house before we got him! And now, at the age of eight months, we expect him to understand all the house rules.

I wonder at what age I can expect the same of my husband?

(c) Barbara Cooper 2005

Barbara Cooper is the mother of Ana (6.9) and Jane (4). She lives in Austin, Texas and it’s pretty amazing what she’ll do for a piece of cheese, too.