A Puppy's Role In Raising a Family

Sometimes I feel my destiny is to become better at starting over, to be more at ease with transition than with security.

When I feel a suffusion of calm, a lull in the large and small emergencies of life, a mistaken belief that I rest in a place - or, in fact, that I rest at all, I know that change is impending.

As soon as my shoulders, the last place where I'm braced for the next shift, relax, it happens. Life as I know it is over, altered, turned into something unfamiliar and new.

It was this way at the births of my son, Dylan, and daughter, Hallie. I knew it would be this way when we got a puppy. Birth is the embodiment of the chance to start over. And, clearly, forgetfulness is what allows us to give birth more than once.

Anyone who has had a puppy can tell you that it is like adding a child, with a full set of teeth, to any household. The fact that they are cute wears off within minutes as they latch onto anything that moves and things that don't move as well.

The children in a puppy household have promised to forgo Christmas and birthday presents for years to come in order to have this new family member. Don't believe them. The day our puppy, Bear, arrived, Hallie was in the process of erasing the memories of anything she'd said pre-puppy. Out came the Christmas wish list.

I, on the other hand, have come to love having this puppy - most of the time. I buy into the fact - hook, line, and dog treat - that dogs are not human but members of a pack. I think part of what happened is that I'm finding that I like being a member of the pack as well.

Especially appealing is the chance to be the head dog. This is the first individual in our home that has responded to my commands so quickly without talking back - a misguided expectation I used to have about my children.

Dogs don't negotiate, bargain, or complain. Given a reasonable amount of attention, they do what you ask politely. They even keep your feet warm.

I didn't know much about raising dogs until our older retriever, Blitz, entered our lives. Three years old when we got him, he has spent the last five years traipsing upstairs when Dylan is wary of the dark or going into Hallie's room to sleep at the foot of her bed.

After my husband's death, Blitz became a middle-of-the-night listener. I took him to obedience classes. And though he remembers those commands ``selectively,'' we've learned to live well with each other.

Blitz is so gentle. He's never growled at anything save the dog next door. Originally, I thought Blitz would protect our garden from the deer. I gave up that idea when I found him trembling against the front door as he spotted his first doe.

But with this puppy, Blitz has found a new sense of himself. He lets the puppy crawl all over him, then growls just enough to scoot Bear, rear up, backwards, a little lower down in the pack chain.

I tell Bear to come, offer a treat, and I find Blitz prancing as much as he can behind. Never has Blitz been so well behaved. He is sterling.

I knew, no matter the protestations otherwise, that the puppy would not be the focus of Hallie's life. I think, secretly, I was glad. My work is flexible enough that often I can take the dogs with me, or at least come home at lunch.

The other day, I called the woman who helped me train Blitz to sign Bear up for lessons. I was never a dog person until I met this woman. She helped me understand the way a dog views the world. It looked good to me, and I can see now why people grieve the short life span of a dog as much as they would the loss of a family member.

``Just keep on doing what you're doing,'' she said. ``Spend a lot of time with him; let him know you love him.''

Good advice. No problem. I'm at the point in my life where it's easy to spend time with someone who wants to play, who's happy to see me, and who keeps my feet warm.

``It must be nice to be a dog,'' said Dylan last night.

``I think you can learn a lot from them,'' I said.

``Maintain a few seconds of eye contact with your dog,'' it says in my book, ``The Art of Raising a Puppy.'' That's what the Alpha dog, or dog mother, does, the book says. I look at Bear, I look at Hallie and Dylan. I know that my children and I are not dogs; but honestly, at that moment, the advice for training dogs seemed the best advice on raising children I'd heard in a long while.

And giving your mother a treat once in a while isn't a bad idea either. It is nice, I think, to be a dog - a member of the pack.

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