Did you grow up with great family dog? If so, you should probably thank your mom.
Although this family dynamic is clearly shifting today, a majority of women in previous generations were stay-at-home moms. Dad went to work, the kids went to school, and mom stayed home with Lassie. This means Lassie learned most of her habits and household behaviors from mom. Dad might have reinforced some strong-handed training early on, but Lassie spent the majority of the day with mom. Mom let her out, fed her, disciplined her, groomed her, maybe even walked her. This practice of mom as the primary caretaker and trainer of the family pooch may have fostered some of today’s gender imbalance among trainers and breeders in the canine world, a topic which I’ve speculated on before.
I think back on my own family, growing up with Emma, our Australian shepherd. We were a very unorthodox American family in that both Mom and Dad were stay-at-home parents. For a large part of our childhood, my father was a self-employed computer programmer who worked out of our home. My mother homeschooled the four of us and ran the accounts for the small business she owned with her sister. This means that all six of us were home, together, all day long. I realize today that this closeness of the family led to one very happy Australian shepherd. She got to be with her “flock” all day. This is a huge gift to any dog, but especially to a herding breed. Because of this, Emma never developed any form of separation anxiety.
But she did develop into a dog who didn’t get the proper amount of exercise and who suffered from a lack of consistent training. Early on, my fourteen-year-old self was responsible for training young Emma. I had read all of the dog books; I had been the one to pick out the breed and pick out Emma from her litter–and so I appointed myself as her trainer. Aussies are very smart and highly adaptable puppies and Emma was no exception. She was housebroken in a week and never made an accident in the house for as long as we had her. A few weeks later, she could consistently sit, stay, and lie down. We taught her tricks like rolling over, doing an army crawl, and hopping on her hind legs. She was very bright and eager to learn.
However, my teenage self made the mistake of thinking that training stopped there. We taught her how to do cute things, but we didn’t train her how to do useful things–like how to walk on a leash and how to stop barking. As I gained interest in boys and high school, I unfortunately began to lose interest in Emma. My mom became Emma’s primary caretaker. She fed Emma, she kept her clean, she made sure her heartworm and flea medications were administered. But Mom wasn’t especially interested in training Emma–particularly since my father was more interested in undoing all of the things I had taught her.
My dad loves dogs. He grew up with dozens of different dogs on farms in Indiana. He also loves wolves, though, and tends to think that dogs should be allowed to behave like wolves–at least, to be as wild as they please. In Emma, he found another playmate. Emma loved to tear around the house after him and he would egg her on. He loved making her jump on us while we were sleeping in our beds. He wrestled with her in the living room and enjoyed teasing her, inciting her to bark and snap at him. I was frustrated and distraught; I was watching my supposedly “perfect dog” be ruined. I felt powerless to intercept my father and address the bad behaviors he had taught Emma.
Together, Mom and Dad were on opposite ends with their approach to Emma–something I’m sure she picked up on. My mother wanted her to be obedient, calm, and cuddly. She was obedient if you asked her to do something, but she was rarely calm around my dad and almost never cuddly (probably because my five-year-old brother was always trying to use her as a pillow or as a miniature horse). On the other hand, my father wanted Emma to be his wolfish playmate, a gleefully wild animal with whom he could wreak havoc around the house. The poor dog was constantly getting mixed messages from her family.
I can only wonder what would have happened to Emma if my mom had had more jurisdiction over her. Maybe we wouldn’t have given her away. Emma didn’t deserve to be abandoned by her family. Even though it wasn’t my decision, I will feel guilty about that for the rest of my life.
Regardless of whether or not I end up being a stay-at-home mom, I hope that I’ll be a consistent and faithful parent to my dog. That’s what Emma deserved.