Wednesday, June 6, 2018

3 Small But Important Things About Puppy Instincts and Traumatized Children

1. Puppies Behave Badly.

I guess we had too many shoes, so we got a puppy. He flings boots around the yard by their laces, rips the flip out of flip-flops, and chews my slippers so often that my toes have gotten used to their new slimy sensation first thing in the morning. And though he is clearly bent on destruction, he’s also a floppy-eared puppy. He’s white with tan freckles and spots, and one eye ringed in black like he lost a fight at the animal shelter. So his sweet face makes even his 5 am wakeup calls endearing. We call him Moby—like the whale.

Moby’s four months old now and he’s already potty trained—mostly. He does get excited to see people and leaks a little, but who doesn’t? He’s still learning not to puppy bite, or jump up on people, countertops, or the cat. But bad puppy behavior aside I was glad to get a young dog. It gives us the chance to train him correctly from the beginning. We can train him to wag instead of bark. 

2. Beginnings Make Things Good or Bad.

A woman I once knew rescued an adult dog that had been abused. It was a black, skinny thing that cowered under her desk all day growling and nipping at people who stopped by. The dog never wagged its tail, or excitedly licked anyone, or seemed happy to see people at all. This woman had saved that dog from a terrible life, but she had failed to rehabilitate it. It wasn’t actually her failure. She wasn’t the one who treated the dog badly in the first place. Some things puppies learn when they are very young cannot be unlearned, no matter how loving and caring a new owner may be.

Humans are like this too. Whatever happens to us when we’re very young creates our instincts for life. Humans who are abused, especially when they’re young, learn to snarl instead of smile, to bark instead of wag. Like abused dogs, they have their instincts turned on their heads. So when people try to respond to what they think these dogs or humans would want, they’re usually surprised with bared teeth and snarling.

If it’s serious enough, then it’s useless to try to get these sorts of creatures to stop biting people and growling. I thought about this a little when we set off for the Humane Society to get our dog. I was afraid we would get one that despite all our best efforts would not stop growling. I have that fear deeply ingrained in my mind now, because of our youngest daughter. We rescued her too, fostered her, and then adopted her. She was treated badly the first half of her life and never has stopped growling and nipping—not for the second half of her life. It was a reality check for us, like no other, that sometimes damage like hers cannot be undone. But we put her under our metaphorical desk for awhile—even if she was not happy, she was safe and cared for.

3. Believing Puppy Is Good Is Good.

Now we’re caring for Moby. He’s okay. No one hurt him. So his instincts are pretty good. Eating shoes, jumping on people, and puppy bites aside, he’s a good boy because that’s what we tell him, and ourselves, and we all believe it. We work on behavior and he learns. It’s a pretty good setup when it’s working the way it was intended—for humans and dogs. And even when things go wrong; when Moby tangles his leash around my legs and takes me to the ground, (like this morning) we make them right. I get back up. Moby licks my scratches and wags his tail. And we start running again.

Rebecca Barnes is married to an amazing man, who encourages her faith and listens to her typing a lot. She has three daughters and a son-in-law. She loves to cook for anyone who likes good food, and she feels competitive about weeding her flower garden. She lives in Old Town Lafayette because it’s a little eclectic, like her.

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