My dog and I take the same walk through our neighborhood every morning. Dogs like routine, I heard when we adopted her — a young-adult Boston terrier we named Nora Charles — and I do my best. Like her namesake from “The Thin Man” films, she’s beautiful, clever and the life of every party. The part of our morning walk when Ron waves to us after his morning run, and then we stop to chat with Susan on her stoop — that’s what I imagined having a dog would be like. Finally, a reason to make occasional eye contact with the strangers around me. Look at me being a competent, trustworthy adult — some days out of bed before sunrise even.
Nora has never met a two-legged stranger, but when it comes to other dogs, she has the temper of a junkyard Rottweiler. The local small fry rarely earn a second glance — Bagel the Chiweenie with her “redrum” bark, for example. But larger, dopier dogs set her off. I think she thinks she’s protecting me. When Weimaraner Pulling a Jogging Girl approaches — eight long limbs flailing, a haunted look in both sets of eyes — Nora transforms from kissy-face social butterfly into snarling hellbeast, like an adorable pixie girlfriend who has to be dragged kicking and spitting from the bar because some guy looked at her wrong and now we’re all about to get arrested or stabbed. Walking Cocaine Katie in public every morning is not what I thought having a dog would be like.
Ten years ago I decided I would not have children. That decision destroyed an ill-advised early marriage that needed to be blown up anyway. Not long after moving out, I adopted a cat, because I finally could. A few years later, a second cat — a present for my new husband Drew, to whom I had blurted a no-kids warning early in our relationship.
I grew up with cats, and I understand them. People say cats are fickle with their affections and perhaps are incapable of loving us, while dogs love their people unconditionally. That’s not only a gross misunderstanding of cats; it’s a gross misunderstanding of love.
On your most pitiful day, your dog can make you feel like an asshole for wallowing in your failure. I trusted you, her big eyes telegraph. She will sigh as you burrow deeper under the blanket on your couch to avoid her gaze. And we did not play ball today as promised. A dog’s love does not waver. The dog still loves you — broken, undeserving mess that you are. But the dog would feel better if you got your shit together. You will vow to do better tomorrow, for her sake.
On the same day, a cat will hop up on the couch next to you or even onto your lap with no comment. If the cat could talk, he would only say, Netflix. You pick the show. The cat accepts you as you are in any given moment. The cat doesn’t care if you’re a functioning, healthy person committed to your group exercise goals. The cat sees you and does not judge. That, too, is love.
I needed that style of steady, unconditional love as I struggled to establish myself as a writer — a capricious, rejection-riddled profession — and as a woman and partner who wondered if the charges of selfish, immature, incomplete she had rejected from that previous life might on some level be true. Our cats, those ridiculous beasts steadied me as I put in the work, the one thing I know how to do. I built the career I wanted. I got better at marriage. We bought a home. The cats thrived. We were ready to add one more body into the mix.
I knew it would be a big leap from cats to dog — and not just in terms of daily care. A dog’s love is more potent than a cat’s; it packs higher highs and lower lows. A dog’s love is trickier. It is an active love. You have to prove yourself worthy of it.
Three years into our relationship Nora’s coping skills with other dogs are improved but not perfect. Maybe she was taken from her mother and litter-mates as soon as she was old enough to be sold and never learned how to be around other dogs. We all have childhood traumas. So we take it slow. We have yet to visit a dog park, but she can do overnights with my mother-in-law’s impressively well-mannered Shelties. They earn ribbons in obedience and agility competitions. Nora figured out how to exploit their eagerness to follow directions and made them her minions, her own little girl gang. You say bossy; I say leadership skills.
In the neighborhood while other dogs pass us on the sidewalk, I work on teaching her to sit, stuffing her face full of training treats until they are a safe distance away. It works about half the time — she has a Gwyneth Paltrow-like ability to resist snacks — but everyone’s in a hurry in the morning so the snarling hellbeast outbursts pass quickly, with an occasional side-eye thrown our way. “We’re working on it!” I offer, with an unconvincing smile. I have no plan, no answers. Every encounter is an improvisation.
Things got rougher when the Mean Girls started showing up every Tuesday — two ladies of retirement age who walk their dogs together so they can chat. One has a Lhasa apso with an expensive haircut, a walking wig of no consequence to Nora. But the sidekick has a big dumb-looking golden retriever, a real Mr. Peanutbutter of a dog, just the kind of dog that Nora despises. What’s more, the lady lets her dog run off-leash through the small park we pass through on our route. Which makes her not only a petty criminal but quite dumb herself.
The first time Nora freaked out at them, I tried explaining because most dog owners are sympathetic. Not these two. They think it’s hilarious that I have to pick up my little Cocaine Katie and carry her as she abuses their dogs from the safety of my arms.
“I see you’re walking the dog today!” the matron of the walking wig trills, and boy do they bust a gut. “She doesn’t like other doggies!” they singsong to their doggies, and one howls in response.
I have a pretty thick skin — I work on the internet — but these women who are older than my mother are mocking my clever, adorable, loyal little girl, and I am filled with impotent anger. They suck. But don’t I suck, too, for not working harder to teach her how not to flip her lid at strange dogs? Even the ones whose owners obviously deserve it?
I get a lot of packages. I know this because the postal carrier once caught me outside and told me, “You get a lot of packages.” UPS stops by so frequently I’m starting to think that one of the drivers has his own packages delivered here, too. And I hear every delivery, because Nora Charles goes apeshit bonkers, barking like she’s stopping a home invasion. I’ve tried shush-ing, I’ve tried the command “quiet.” She barks over me. I’ve learned to tune it out and wait it out, which I realize is not good, but I am busy and distracted.
Many of these packages contain books from publishing houses. When I opened Sarah Hodgson’s “Modern Dog Parenting: Raising Your Dog or Puppy to Be a Loving Member of Your Family,” I laughed — modern dog parenting? — and then I tore into it.
Hodgson’s first page drops a bombshell on me. “Dogs, as researchers now insist, act more like young, preverbal kids than they do wolves.” The better we understand their signals, she claims, the better we can communicate with them. “To transform your relationship into something beautiful and long lasting, you’ll need to set aside the myth that your dog is closely related to the wolf and thus needs to be controlled, manhandled, or dominated.”
Oh, thank God: Commands and control are a real drag. But since when am I parenting a preverbal child? You can’t leave a toddler in a crate while you go out to dinner if you want your relationship to be “something beautiful and long lasting,” so obviously there are differences. But I’d be lying if I didn’t find some of these comparisons to kids at least a little comforting. I prefer kindness to domination, understanding to control. With actual kids, those ideals would be tested daily. For a little dog utterly lacking in guile, I have an infinite capacity for tenderness. As a result I’ve been accused of “spoiling” Nora. From parent friends, I’ve learned a polite rejoinder to comments like that: “This is what works for our family.” I think it means go fuck yourself.
Overall, Hodgson’s methods, which are rooted in communication, empathy and fun, seem to be aligned with my instincts. This line jumps out at me: “All dogs (and puppies) need to know two things in life: where they should go and what they should do when stuff happens.”
I look at Nora, who’s sitting next to me on the couch, blissfully shredding her stuffed chicken. Oh, little girl. Me, too.
I take a quiz to learn my dog’s personality type. Apparently, Nora is equal parts Type A and Party Animal. I feel closer to her than ever.
Then I take a self-assessment. I am a “comic person.” People like this are “generally uncomfortable in the control seat,” according to Hodgson. “They recognize good habits but don’t always reinforce them.” It’s true; in my downtime, I can be lazy. And Nora’s seriously adorable, so I can’t help laughing at her antics, “even when [the] dog’s behavior demonstrates emotional stress.”
“Someone needs to play the grown-up!” The assessment warns. Ouch.
OK, but one thing first. My husband and I are not “dog parents.” We’re more like . . . legal guardians. (I have learned that if you want to start a real ruckus, you should tell people who do feel like parents to their, um, fur babies that they are not. So far be it from me to speak for anyone but myself.)
When my mother, perhaps worried that I would feel left out as the sole sibling without kids, called to wish me a straight-faced “happy Mother’s Day” on behalf of the cats and the dog, I appreciated the sentiment. But you know, it’s a little silly.
And yet I have researched the perfect diets for our picky eaters. We co-sleep. I shell out for American Apparel dog hoodies: Its cropped cut just fits her barrel chest better than the generics do, OK? And once, to keep the peace between my dog and my sister’s dachshund, I wore Nora in an actual baby sling for an entire afternoon to keep her from getting in a fight.
But I am not her mother. Drew is Daddy, I regret to report. Once, I cheered “Daddy’s home!” — ironically — when I saw him walking up to the house, and Nora went into full celebration mode before she even saw him. Shit. I suppose in her former life, that’s what He was called, and she remembered the association. It stuck.
We all bring baggage into a new home.
Nora’s behavior reflects on us, though — both the good and the bad. It can be embarrassing, like when UPS delivers during a phone meeting or when a friend wants us to have a playdate. But before I started reading Hodgson’s book, I hadn’t much considered how our behavior affects her.
“Dogs taught with encouragement show greater long-term memory and express creativity in their thinking and problem-solving skills,” Hodgson advises.
“Encourage more than you discourage,” she writes. “If your dog’s a barker, encourage quiet.”
Encouragement, I can do. I spend most days working on a laptop with Nora snoring, sometimes sleep barking, next to me. Several times a day I look over at her little body and coo, You’re a good girl; you’re such a good girl! — as if I am trying to convince her subliminally as she sleeps. It strikes me one day that maybe, depending on how my week has been going, those affirmations are really directed at myself.
Hodgson’s process for training includes five steps to teach your dog a variety of common lessons. She also advises, instead of dwelling on bad behavior, to “obsess” over the opposite behavior instead: “Obsessively reward silence, obsessively reward not digging or digging in the right place.”
I am reminded of an obnoxious meme I have seen online: Don’t reward yourself with food; you’re not a dog. Like most fitness memes, it is astoundingly rude with an undercurrent of uncomfortable truth. But unlike me, my dog will actually turn down food when she’s stressed. She has probably internalized a parallel dog meme: You are not a human; don’t eat your feelings. Persuading Nora with training treats to be quiet while the postal carrier is dropping off packages has not worked, historically. The barking, it seems, is its own reward.
Hodgson suggests for those with hardwired barkers to turn it into a game of “Speak and Hush.” When Nora starts barking, say, “speak” and bark along with her for about five seconds. Then say “hush” and proffer the treat. Reward when she stops. Rinse and repeat.
The UPS guy is not impressed with our new routine.
Two weeks into my adopting the book’s suggestions, I think it’s going well. She’s getting faster at responding to requests. I lavish praise; I reward with treats. She’s Type A, after all. She wants to do a good job.
And then it’s Tuesday morning, and we steel ourselves for the Mean Lady gauntlet.
There they are: One smug little wig on the ground, one Mr. Peanutbutter running in circles like a big fat show-off, their ladies’ heads swiveling in our direction.
I hear Hodgson’s words in my brain: Where should I go now? What should I do when stuff happens?
I can’t have Nora sit still because it’ll turn into a standoff. The ladies and their dogs are dawdling over their spot, not interested in diffusing the tension. I can’t turn around because that would teach Nora that when scary stuff happens, running is the right option.
I make a decision. I take a deep breath, and I walk Nora straight toward them. The Lhasa apso’s lady starts talking to me — it’s obvious to me now that we are part of the day’s entertainment — but I am not reacting. I am not even looking at her. I am acting like she and her walking wig and her sidekick and Mr. Peanutbutter aren’t even there, much less trash-talking me and my dog. No hesitation. Head high, eyes forward, steps brisk and regular, with Nora on the leash at my side. And she’s not pulling. She’s not snarling and barking. She’s not reacting at all because with my entire body, I am telling Nora that where she should go is straight ahead with me through our neighborhood where we will accomplish everything we need to do this morning at our own pace, and what she should do is disregard the undermining distractions and ugly voices around her telling her to feel inadequate, unprepared, ashamed of herself because they don’t count.
She’s a good girl, such a good girl, such a very good girl, I tell her after we’ve crossed the park and are safely on the other side and I pass her treats without breaking our stride to reward her, so yeah, maybe she’s eating her feelings on this one, but she’s earned it, and don’t let anyone, ever, make you feel otherwise.
I will never be Modern Dog Parent of the Year — nor, truthfully, do I want to be, although I would accept a ribbon for Most Improved Legal Guardian — but I think we won this round.
One neighborhood victory notwithstanding, I know we have long-term work ahead of us. We’re both caught between a drive to get it right and a willingness to indulge ourselves when the work feels too daunting. But I am learning slowly how to play the grown-up — for her, if not for myself. And I am getting very, very good at barking along with her for exactly five seconds. Nora, for her part, remains shaky on the “hush.” We are both works in progress.