How liberal parenting went to the dogs

When Holly wanted a dog, I couldn't tell her no. It was a bad idea for sure; she was kindergarten age, and I was not interested in a dog mucking up my life. Dogs shed. They bark. They drool. And when it came time for Holly to go to college, I would be stuck with the thing.

As a matter of fact, I'm partial to dogs - outdoor dogs, that is. My wife, Kerry, and I ran sled dogs for years, and we consider dogs as part of our happy history.

Kerry's and my very first dog was a Siberian husky female. Everything I knew about dogs was from reading Alaska Magazine, so I naturally decided a Siberian husky was the thing. We got Chulitna as a puppy and took her back to college with us.

The next dog was Joe, a trailer-park reject. Some family that was splitting up had thought a malamute might fix things. We saw a note on a bulletin board at the laundromat advertising Joe as a free sled dog that bit kids. When we got there, sure enough, three kids with sticks had Joe cornered against a car. We rescued him.

Then a family that was moving had to dump their husky, so we gladly took her. And there was Comet, who had eaten his owner's cockatiel before coming to our hapless kennel. I built a dog sled in Kerry's parents' basement in Boston using photos from magazines as a guide. Years of sledding adventures followed.

So how could I blame Holly for wanting a dog? Didn't she deserve to have an adventure just like her dad? I had learned so much from all of my choices, and the liberal parent in me felt it was unfair to keep Holly from making hers. For all I knew, she might become the next world-famous dog racer! And I just hated to say no.

As the doggy debate developed in our home, the words of my hard-line folks rang in my ears: "Not when I'm paying the bills!" That would have been really easy, but not my style. I like goofy adventures, and wanted my kids to feel the same freedom and self-determination I did. But a dog in the house?

That was my real problem - the "in the house" thing. I'd never had to deal with dog hair in my food, and I didn't want to start now. But a kid wants a dog to play with. And in Alaska, it's not much fun to go outside at 40 below so that you can "play" with your pet dog.

So I hatched a big and evil plan: I put the decision in Holly's hands. Let her get a taste of dog ownership that would help her see things my way. I never expressed any unhappiness with her idea. I asked her all the pertinent questions. I pretended to believe her when she promised, "I'll clean up after my dog, Daddy. I'll feed it. I'll train it. I'll love it and bathe it and brush it and walk it and it'll never bark...."

It was easy to spring my trap; she thought I was on her side. I offered to give her dog-training lessons. Who was better with dogs than her old man? Fortunately, my favorite dog in the whole world was still around: Chulitna, our very first puppy, had gone from pet of college students, to nearly worthless sled dog, back to pet again. We threw food to her every day, petted her, and turned her loose for several good romps a week. She was in heaven.

It was a delicate sell, convincing Holly that test-driving my old sled dog was the first step to being a good owner herself. She wasn't into sled dogs, but she knew my dog was well-behaved and she knew she wanted to raise a well-behaved dog herself. So she agreed to walk Chulitna twice a day, feed her, clean up after her, and obedience train her. Surely, the tedium of pet ownership would dissuade her.

Well, I was stunned. I thought Holly would give up in a few days. It lasted weeks! Every day this kindergartner would walk the dog in the morning before school, throw food at her in the afternoon, train her for half an hour, and walk her again at night. It was looking bad for me.

But finally, it happened. One night, we came home from a movie and it was 30 degrees and raining. Holly had gone upstairs and was ready for bed when I asked if she'd walked the dog that afternoon. So she headed into her room to get her foul-weather gear on. A few minutes later, she came out and asked to talk to me. It was a short conversation. "Daddy, I think I'm too young for a dog."

Ha! Victory! I got everything I wanted! My kid had a good lesson in self-determination, I didn't have a fur factory in the living room, and I was the greatest dad in the world because I hadn't said no to her. I muted my glee, though. I let her think it was her decision, when I had been planning it this way all along.

Well, I won the battle, but lost the war. After trying hard to convince my kids to see things my way and never saying "no," I find our home invaded by furry (and feathered) friends. Holly is in middle school and has a dog. Robin is in high school and has a dog. Big dogs, in the house, shedding and barking and wagging and drooling. We have two cats and two (outside) ducks. What can I say? Being a liberal parent can get a little "hairy."

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