Our First Son Wore a Dog Suit

An old friend taught me everything I needed to know about child-raising. He stressed the need for regular mealtimes, daily exercise, and consistent discipline. Most of all though, he taught me how to earn love and respect by being what I’ll call an alpha friend. That’s the kind of person who makes decisions by taking everyone’s wishes into consideration, while also accepting responsibility for their safety and wellbeing. If you can do that, it’s more likely they will follow you peaceably, and if they don’t follow you, you’re perfectly justified in carrying them along kicking and screaming.

My old friend survived alligator attacks, hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, rip-tides, lyme disease, and just about every other rock that mother nature can throw at you. He also found a way to get into trouble every single day of his very long and happy life. In other words, dealing with Duke the wonder dog was perfect practice for raising kids.

It’s a short trip from being a dog whisperer to being a baby wrestler and alpha friend. Hence I will spare you the need to digest all of the parenting books that clutter Amazon’s endless shelves. The only tricks you’ll need to know are contained in this one short chapter.

At first, I didn’t want the responsibility of a dog. I finally felt it was time for children. Wife didn’t want children yet, but she wanted a dog. We compromised and got both. The other conflict to resolve concerned the fact that I was raised with the understanding that I was to do what my parents asked me to do, when they asked me to do it, and with no return commentary on my part. There was no other way to wrangle eight kids running in different directions all the time. On the other hand, Wife was raised with the grace of knowing that her opinion was worthy of consideration, even if that opinion sometimes involved a reversal of the parent/child decision making process. Our differing views about whether to have children, and how to deal with children if confronted with them, would be resolved thanks to the blond wolf-dog puppy we adopted and named Duke, after Duke Kahanamoku, the legendary waterman of Hawaii. Duke became the subject of an experiment designed to educate a child-free couple about how to keep another animal alive and behaving with a modicum of civility in their house. Because he could not entirely grasp the implications of his predicament, he stepped gladly into the role of understudy for our #1 Son.

At first, we tried training him on our own, but he was wild and tough and we learned something new: mixed breeds that include strong Chow strains will do strangely aggressive things, such as developing signature Judo moves to be performed on unsuspecting deliverymen. Duke’s throw was spectacularly effective, yet involved no teeth on skin. He would grab a pant leg and get all four paws pulling full speed in reverse until the man went down. I would run to the rescue, only to find Duke looking up at me gleefully as if to say, “hey! Look what I found in the yard!” But I was an ungrateful owner who did not want deliverymen delivered to my front door. This sport became so much fun for him that it soon became necessary to call in professional help.

Our dog trainer was a retired Miami K-9 police officer who immediately identified the problem: in Duke’s opinion, we were all just buddies. Wife and I had diverging approaches to training, and so Duke concluded that he could divide and conquer us, leaving the pack hierarchy basically flat. He then felt perfectly justified to do what he pleased most of the time. The trainer said we would have to jointly express our dominance over him, and keep expressing it in a unified voice, until he realized that although we were all spirits sharing a journey through the material world, he was under our authority while he remained under our roof. We had to firmly and consistently reinforce behaviors that we expected. He might eventually get a glimmer of understanding that these actions were for his own happiness, and the happiness of those around him.

Authors of how-to-raise-your-child books like to make it complicated, but it’s really simple. You must be a benevolent dictator who lives for the singular purpose of serving the masses. If a child decides to turn on you with bad behavior, or on themselves with self-destructive behavior, the root of the problem is the same: you are not serving their personal growth toward responsibility for their own freedom.

Now, problems seem to arise because some parents don’t know how they want their kids to act anymore. For example, schools are bombarding students with anti-bullying programs in an attempt to balance out bad parenting. These programs are entirely ineffectual because when the bully is identified, it certainly cannot be my wonderful and perfect son or daughter. The hierarchy quickly gets flattened back out, and the issue slides until somebody shows up at school with a gun. The trick is to try to understand the experiences that your child is going through, listen carefully to their problems, do your best to offer wise counsel, and never stop issuing the orders. You’re the leader of the pack, the circus ringmaster who keeps the tigers in their place and the clowns having fun. Show them how to limit their own worst impulses by getting your smart phone addiction under control, and how to become the unique creation that they are by finding ways to express your own, even if they go completely against the grain of our post-industrial zombie consumer mindset.

One thing I do not want to do here, though, is to glaze over the challenges of keeping a dog when you also have kids. Puppies drink deeply from your well of patience, leaving precious little for your children, who will pay the price when it runs dry and your temper flares from the well fracked by too many distractions. Grown-up dogs aren’t much easier, and they’ll raise the roof with thunderous barking just when you thought that a moment of peace might be descending upon you, your house and your life.

Duke is almost as needy and expensive as my human children, so I figure that he counts as half a child, which brings us up to the requisite US average of 2.5 kids. But he is toying with that statistic because he is really too smart to be a dog, and he knows it. If I ask him to fetch a ball, he’ll go get it, but if I throw it again, he’ll look up at me with pity for displaying such stupidity, as if to say, “I just went and got that ball for you. If you persist in throwing it, you’ll have to go fetch it yourself.”

On the upside, a dog will get your fat ass out of the house for a walk after dinner. Don’t underestimate the value of this moment away from the tumult–the life you save could be your own. If you take your young kids along on the dog walk, remember to bring two bags, because when the dog goes, your kid will take it as a cue and insist that they, too, must perform a #2 on the spot. The first time this happened, one kid heaved a dump right next to Duke’s on the grass strip that runs next to the sidewalk. There was simply no choice. It was either there or in the pants. It lies there still. But I shall retrieve it shortly, and forever after carry at least two bags on my nightly excursions.

Duke the golden wolf-dog lived to be 17 years old. Two months before he exited this corporeal existence, a six week-old Chow-lab puppy appeared at the local animal shelter. The symmetry was undeniable. Whereas Duke was yellow with eyes that glowed like amber lights in the dark, this one is a black fluff ball with retinas that burn a piercing green fire. We took him home to meet the dog who taught both of our kids to walk by grabbing onto his thick fur; the dog who cycled between both their bedsides every night on self-imposed sentry duty, the dog who understood everything we said, and who showed us that we could raise children together, after all. The bear-like little pup saw that he had huge paws to fill, and so he turned and commenced chewing up the scenery, just like his older cousin had so many years earlier.

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