When we adopted Tui the Wonder Dog, nearly six years ago, somebody told me that raising her would be excellent practice for having a baby. Their reasoning was twofold: when you have a dog, you have to take into account the needs of a creature that relies upon you for food, shelter and all other material needs – just like you do when you have kids; and training a dog is (apparently) akin to dealing with a toddler – you have to be patient, reward the behaviour you want to see, ignore the behaviour you don’t want to see, and be consistent.

Until recently I haven’t had too much cause to think about these issues, although I did take on board the importance of patience, consistency and perspective while we taught Tui how the world works. And we were rewarded with a lovely little dog that even avowed non-dog people seem to adore, so I guess we managed to do something right. However, last week and today I was given a chance to really understand just how similar dealing with a dog and dealing with a small child might be.

Tui has become accustomed to two walks a day, and as our access to the beach is restricted to mornings and evenings during daylight savings, I often used to take her for a walk on the lead during the day. This hasn’t happened during the past couple of months, owing to my inability to be on my feet for more than ten minutes or so without feeling rough, so Tui has instead had a beach visit first thing in the morning (around 6ish, usually), and then a second beach visit at 6.30 in the evening.

Generally speaking Tui is a very chilled out little dog and is happy to snooze the day away, but at some point each afternoon she tends to need to head outside for a wee, and I usually use that as an opportunity to throw her tennis ball a couple of times and generally give her a bit of a play, to keep her cheerful (our garden backs onto a park, which is brilliant).

Anyway, I let her out one day last week and played a few games of fetch with her, but when it was time to go back inside, we had a bit of a Mexican stand-off: she wanted to stay in the park, lying under a tree. I could see why she wanted to stay put – it was quite warm in the house – but I was absolutely knackered and needed to get back to the sofa, and as she hangs out all day without her collar on, I didn’t want to leave her unsupervised in the park, albeit it right outside our boundary (also, I didn’t want her to be there unsupervised because she was liable to find something dead to roll in) . I called her: she ignored me. I trudged back to the house and grabbed her collar and lead: she very reluctantly came with me, only to flop on the ground outside our front door and refuse to get up again.

In the end I lost my temper with her for the first time ever. I shouted at her and hauled her in, which was not pleasant for either of us (she weighs around 20 kgs, which is too much for me to lift, so I had to shove her through the door). She then scuttled into our bedroom and hid, tail firmly between her legs and ears flat against her head, looking the very picture of an abused dog.

Of course, I felt absolutely terrible – and even more so when she firmly resisted my overtures of friendship for at least half an hour. I tried all sorts of things to tempt her back into the living room with me: cocktail sausages; her favourite toy; a brand new rawhide chew. Nothing worked: she wouldn’t even wag her tail at me. Eventually, I won her over by offering her a bit of a cookie – the lure of people food was too great to resist. However, for the rest of the day she was a bit out of sorts with me, and she spent that evening firmly glued to Tristan’s side.

What I learned:

  • losing my temper is really counter-productive for me: it just makes me feel bad about my own behaviour
  • reacting impulsively is not very helpful
  • bribery works if the bait is right
  • even though they’re in the wrong, the disobedient party can still put you through the wringer if they’re sufficiently cute and make you feel bad enough about getting cross with them

Fast forward to today: it’s warm and sunny again, so when I got home from the supermarket I let Tui out into the park and played a few games of fetch. Once again, it was time to go inside and, once again, Tui wanted to lie under a shady tree. I decided that, this time, a new strategy was required, so I gave her a pat and left her where she was. She looked quite confused. I went back to the house and did a couple of chores, all the while keeping half an eye on her from the window. She lay here, reasonably relaxed. I opened the door onto our balcony and she saw and heard me, so I said hello to her and still left her to her own devices. She started watching the house a bit more closely.

I ended up going downstairs to do the laundry, and opened the french doors into the garden. I called her and she saw me, but she stayed where she was. I cracked on with hanging out some wet washing and putting another load of dirty stuff on, and when I was finished I called her again – and this time she got up straight away and came inside. She had a bit of a hunted “I bet I’m in trouble” look on her furry little face, but I just gave her some pats, told her that she was a good girl, and took her to the kitchen for a celebratory cocktail sausage. And she’s now lying asleep on my feet on the sofa, like the world’s hottest slippers.

What I learned:

  • staying calm and keeping my temper works well, particularly when it means that I don’t have cause to regret my own conduct
  • taking a moment to figure out what to do, rather than reacting impulsively, leads to a happier outcome
  • calling somebody’s/something’s bluff can be highly effective, and can lead them to decide themselves to do what you originally wanted them to do – win/win!
  • giving somebody/something the freedom to do what they want doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to be inconvenienced, so it’s a good plan to pick my battles
  • rewarding good behaviour is more effective than disciplining bad behaviour

Now, let’s cross our fingers that the kids are as easy to figure out as Tui!

4 thoughts on “Practising

  1. I could have with reading this when you and your sisters were small children. Maybe not having a dog first was a mistake.

  2. They’re not QUITE the same as babies but cats and dogs are very good practise for being responsible for someone totally reliant on you and they also help you pick up on their subtle moods. I gave my cats two favourite chairs to the op shop last week (leaving him with only 2 couches in that part of the house, the indignity!) and boy did I get the silent treatment! You definitely learn to compromise with pets and learn that yelling at them is totally pointless and achieves nothing.

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