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The parenting lesson our dog taught us

I spend so much of my time thinking of my children as just that, children, I forget that at 17 they are far closer to being parents themselves than they are to the babies I can still glimpse in their now-bearded faces.

But recently I got a sneak preview of the kind of parents my sons might be when we were confronted with some behavioral issues involving our newly adopted shelter dog, Shadow.

She is a beautiful, sweet black Lab/border collie mix who has always been a little nervous and a bit of a barker. (The woman at the Humane Society of Fairfax County, where we found Shadow, described it as a “Timmy is stuck in the well” kind of bark.) But in recent weeks — thanks, in part I believe, to my well-intentioned but ill-conceived attempt to socialize her with other dogs by joining the neighborhood dog group — Shadow responded to the sight of another dog with ferocious barking, snarling and lunging.

A neighbor chided his dog for getting too close to “a dog who wants to eat you.”

I consulted books and called dog whisperers. A routine trip to the vet led to a conversation about Shadow’s behavior, and the doctor and his technician both suggested “vibrating collars.” They advised us that the collars could be set to “shock” the pet, but most dogs respond to the vibrating setting. Perhaps most tellingly, the vet said, “You have a large dog, demonstrating aggressive behavior. You really have to do something to be able to manage her.”

In the family discussions that followed, I glimpsed the men who may give me my grandchildren. They were embarrassed to walk Shadow; they hated that her barking would interrupt watching television or that when a worker came to the house, it was a nonstop barkfest. They wanted the barking to stop, but were filled with empathy. “I don’t want to punish her for what comes naturally to her,” Andrew said. “I wouldn’t want her to think we were hurting her and have her not trust us,” Christopher added.

The conversations went on for several weeks — at the dinner table and almost always over Shadow’s barking.

So we went to the pet store and talked to a clerk who recommended a citronella collar, which sprays a harmless fragrance when the dog barks. “Oh no, we can’t spray something at her,” Andrew objected, until the clerk insisted that it was more humane and effective than a vibrating collar.

At home, we set up the collar and looped it around Shadow’s throat. It didn’t take long before she barked — and got sprayed. She looked confused and — allow me a moment of anthropomorphism here — betrayed. She was quiet the rest of the night, but she wasn’t Shadow. “I don’t think I can do this,” Andrew said at bedtime. Still, we decided to try to make it through the weekend.

By Monday, Shadow was a new dog. She was her happy self, tail wagging, begging for food at the table. But she was no longer a crazed barker. On walks, she no longer lunged at other dogs. She had occasional relapses, but the spray seemed to act just as a reminder and not a stern rebuke. Most surprisingly of all, she seems less anxious — as if she hadn’t liked all that barking, either. A miracle of modified behavior in three days.

The Shadow experience reminded me of when the boys were 9 months old and still not sleeping through the night. Other new parents had recommended the “Ferber Method” of sleep training. I remembered how my husband and I had wrestled with the idea of letting our poor babies “cry it out.” I remember worrying over how they would feel abandoned by their parents.

And I remembered the euphoria we felt when on the third night of using Ferber, the boys slept for seven hours straight. Yes, the two nights of crying were hard to live through, just as the way Shadow behaved when we first attached the collar was heartbreaking.

Ferber taught me an important parenting lesson: Being a good parent is about being able to be empathetic. Our experience with Shadow has shown me that my boys have that in spades. But being a good parent is also about setting expectations for behavior and following through so that the family works well for everyone. Kids — and dogs — learn a lot more quickly than we often give them credit for.

I hope, years from now, my sons will remember the lesson of Shadow when my grandchildren won’t sleep through the night!



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