Raising Richmond: Mom vs. dog

How one mother used her newly-acquired parenting skills to once again find love for the four-legged member of her family.

Our dog Bunk is my first (my husband grew up with four). We adopted her a year before our daughter was born, and by the time I had an infant, we had already rearranged our lives to accommodate another creature’s demands and habits. I was used to sleepless nights, dropping tons of money, frequent doctor visits, having toys all over the place, and paying for tuition (Bunk was accidentally enrolled at the Waldorf School for four months). So the baby was no big deal…except that on top of a baby we still had a dog who is our constant infant and occasionally more work than our human child.

After my daughter was born all of the love and patience I had was restructured to lean favorably in her direction, and I sort of hated that I had a dog and two cats to deal with. My possibly inaccurate memory of my 10-week maternity leave is that I would hole up with her in my bedroom and watch episodes of “The Office” on Netflix (I mean, stare lovingly at my baby) until 15 minutes before my husband came home, and then I would uncrate the dog and pretend we were all hanging out together all day and I didn’t yell at any animal once.

Here’s some background on the Bunk: She was identified at the shelter as a pointer-mix and was very calm and never barked. Eventually we learned she is likely a German short-haired pointer, which is one of the most anxious and energetic dogs ever. How energetic? We had a six-foot privacy fence built to keep her in the yard. She can climb that fence and run very fast and far. You cannot stop the Bunk.

Although we’ve always been good about her diet and exercise, other than long walks and feeding times, most of my interactions with the dog were just me yelling at her. And when my little girl started to talk one of her first two-word combos was “No Bunk,” and she seemed as irritated at the dog as I was.

I had expected that she would grow up with Bunk as her best friend, but she was learning how to treat Bunk based on how I was with Bunk. I had to make changes. I had to treat Bunk the same as my toddler because until one starts to talk a lot, babies and dogs are kind of the same thing and need similar care. (Except one can sit on command. Point: Bunk).

Quick disclaimer: while Bunk is probably the most emotionally complex relationship I’ve ever had, and I can talk/write about her forever, my husband doesn’t have the anxiety I have regarding her because he is just better with dogs in general. Limit any judgmental responses to me.

Here are a few things that being a parent has taught me about being a better dog owner.

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1. Be consistent

Bunk came to us crate trained and with the basic commands. We worked with a trainer for some leash and house training tips, and she told us what every baby advice book says: the key to good discipline is consistency. We weren’t consistent in dealing with issues, like helping her calm down when one of us left the house or new commands. This is probably the most important thing to do as a parent/dog owner/or person. You have to take advantage of all those teachable moments to make them stick. And taking that time to work on them is good for the owner and for the dog.

2. Know that they are not out to get you

I have often complained about that person outside yelling at his/her dog as if dogs can understand yelling or English or anger. Also, I have been that person. I’m so sorry, neighbors. My dog is easily distracted and to get her to remember to pee I have to make a loud noise to get her attention. Still, I know it’s useless to get riled up at simple dog-like behaviors. Just because she barks at a squirrel or eats a block of tofu (two times!) doesn’t mean that she is doing it to make me mad. She’s doing it because she is excellent at being a dog, and that’s what dogs do.

3. Take time to show love

Dogs are part of the family, and you love your family. Or you should, and if not, work on that first before you work on your dog. When I get ready for work, if my daughter wants to read a book I sit down and read no matter how little time I have. There is always time for a three-minute book. And there is always time to stop and give the dog a pet or good word or big belly scratch. I’ve also learned that it’s better to play with Bunk when I take her outside than wait impatiently for her. It makes you feel better, too, to get that dumb look of love in return. Dogs are lovable, and Bunk is no exception, and I at least annually declare that I do love my dog and that she is very sweet and pretty and when I take her for a run she makes me run faster than I would have by myself.

4. Teach your children to take care of their pets

I think it’s taken awhile for my daughter to really warm up to Bunk because of the food situation. I am still amazed by not only what the dog eats but the lengths she goes to get it. Her habits of getting into everything have changed how we live (but also made the house pretty much baby-proof before a baby was there). A toddler who drops food constantly is the best gift we could give Bunk.

Our meals are peppered with me yelling at the dog to back up and leave the kid alone, and reminding my daughter to stop waving her food around because Bunk will get it. I talk about what grapes do to a dog with the same despair that parents of older children might talk about drug use.

So I take responsibility that my child freaks out when I give her a snack and the dog comes near her. I have to hold her, or put the dog away, or make a barricade of chairs so she can eat in peace. Through all this frustration comes the always funny “BUNK DON’T EAT MY PANTS” plea we hear all the time now from our daughter when Bunk finds bits of breakfast stuck to her pajamas.

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I don’t know that it’s related, but after I started to make a better effort to be calmer and nicer with the dog (and the cats, ugh) our daughter has more genuine affection for the pets, and delights when Bunk licks her face or when she can sneak in some dog pats while Bunk runs around, and is okay when she gets knocked over by her, too (remember, you cannot stop the Bunk). She still does not want to share snacks.

My daughter likes to help us feed Bunk. Although it makes the process about four hours longer, it’s teaching her a valuable skill and teaching Bunk that this tiny human is a junior associate of ours and her commands need to be heard, too. She also likes to chase Bunk with her toys. At least one of them has learned the difference between dog and baby toys (though I think dogs would also love Sophie the Giraffe).

I’m still working on being a better dog owner, but I’ve already seen the positive impact my small changes have made. I still have my bad moments with Bunk, but every day is an opportunity to do better than the day before. I’m not so worried about my daughter.

You are on your own on how to fall back in with your newly unloved cats. Just remember to feed them every now and then, and they’ll probably live forever.

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Kelly Gerow

Kelly Gerow lives and writes in Richmond. She probably does other stuff in Richmond, too.

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