Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Talk Of The Town (Mom's Pet Project)

Hard to believe it's been just over a year since we adopted our spunky Sirius. In addition to gaining weight, he's matured a good deal. He responds to commands well now, and suppresses instinctual, reactive behavior more. Since raising two kids is the only other milestones-related experience I have, my tendency is to lean into what I know. So overall, I'd say Sirius is exhibiting more middle-schooler than toddler behavior these days. And because he responded so well to the semi-consistent, hackneyed training we've done with him, we know he's wicked smart. Seeing this potential gave me an idea.

There's an account I follow on Instagram by a speech pathologist who, by using paw-sized buttons that each play a word when pressed, along with cues and patience, taught her dog to talk. 

The idea fascinated me. Watching Christina Hunger's dog Stella use buttons to communicate with her owners convinced me that Sirius could learn to do the same. I got a starter pack with six buttons, along with Christina's book so I could learn the method. We started in the spring. I ignored my husband's and son's eye-rolling at my new project, and demonstrated the buttons to Sirius along with modeling.

For example, I'd push the PLAY button, and then I'd get a toy and offer to play with him. I placed the WALK button by the front door, and would press it right before attaching the leash, then push it again before we left to walk. OUTSIDE was used when we'd go into the yard and play fetch for a while, to differentiate it from WALK. EAT and WATER were next to his bowls, so I'd use them when I gave him kibble or water. LOVE YOU was a little more of an abstract concept, so I'd push that and then give him lots of love and scritches. 

Initially, Sirius seemed to surmise we were a bit of a goofy family and these buttons just confirmed it for him. But we took the buttons with us when we went to Massachusetts in July. We took them when we went to Delaware in August. By the time we brought them home after all our travels, Sirius would tilt his head when we pressed them, but otherwise not really show interest.

In October, I finally put all the buttons next to each other in the living room. I've kept them in the same order, and we continue to use them to 'talk' to Sirius each day. Again, we were met with lots of head tilting, but no attempts to push them himself. 

Then one day, it clicked.

My husband and I were sitting and reading the newspaper. Sirius looked at each of us, perhaps tired of being ignored, and walked over to the buttons. He laid down next to them and pawed the OUTSIDE button. Then he did it again, and looked at us. 

It was as if we'd just seen our baby take its first steps. We jumped up, cheered for him, pressed the OUTSIDE button ourselves, then took him out into the yard to play. 

Young parents have a joke that you spend the first two years of a kid's life teaching him to talk and then the rest of his life trying to get him to shut up. So it was with Sirius.

Once he's made the connection between pushing a button and getting us to pay attention to him, he was pawing them like piano keys. But with some more modeling and cues, we were able to get him to understand each of their placements and meanings. When we sat down to dinner one evening, he walked over and pressed the EAT button and then laid down by the couch. 

"Did he just comment on the fact that we're eating?" I said incredulously to my husband.
"Um, it seems like it."
"Ben, you fed him after you walked him, right?" I asked.
"I did, and I watched him eat it," Ben said. 

The three of us just stared at each other. 

These days, it's not unusual for Sirius to stretch at around 10:30am, then walk over and press the PLAY button, followed by OUTSIDE. This is a cue for my husband to go kick around an almost airless basketball with him in the yard. Then they'll go on a little hunting excursion to root out chipmunks from leaf piles or chase squirrels up trees. 

Mid-afternoon, Sirius will press his WALK button. When I tell him he has to wait for Ben to get home from work, he hops up onto his chair by the bay window and watches the street until he sees Ben's car arrive. Then he runs downstairs to sit by the front door. 

By far, my favorite request is when he looks at me, then presses LOVE YOU followed by OUTSIDE. This is his way of asking me to sit on the couch in our screened porch, with him in my lap, and give him some pets and scratches. 

Even though the buttons were my idea, and everyone in my house thought I was wasting my time,  I still shake my head in wonder that Sirius has learned how to speak our language, and is using his voice to tell us his desires.

More than feeling vindicated though, what this experience has taught me is the power of potential, and of believing in something or someone despite the naysayers. Perseverance brings about change. Hope, even in the early days of no progress, is a strong motivator. And success is empowering.

If we can teach our pets to talk, is there anything we can't accomplish?

Monday, November 7, 2022

You're Doing it Wrong (But That's OK)

"Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” — Maya Angelou

Having a dog again after years without one has brought up many of the same emotions I had as a new mother. There's excitement in watching him learn. There's joy in the moments when his playfulness comes out. But there's also frustration when he behaves in a way I didn't expect. You'd think I would find these feelings, as a mid-lifer rather than a young parent, more funny than anxiety-inducing. 

You would be wrong.

When Sirius chews on my computer wire as I'm trying to write, pokes me in the back of the leg with his toy while I'm walking with a cup of hot coffee, or climbs up on the furniture to look out the window, I use the commands I know he understands. 

"Drop it. That's not for you."

"No. Settle." 

"Sirius, down."

But when he seemingly ignores me or gets even more persistent, I question my ability as a dog owner. 

He recognizes the words. He knows what they mean. Why, then, does he sometimes obey and other times not? I mentally review our morning. We've walked. We've played. He pooped. He's been fed. Now he should be lying down so I can work. So what's the problem? What am I missing?

I'm not saying every new pet owner would feel the same as I do. In fact, I think the anxiety stems from my philosophy about caring for a dependent. As a mother, like many expectant mothers, I had read all the books and prepared as best as I could. And like many new mothers, I found all that preparation helped only a tiny bit.

Why isn't the baby sleeping? Why does he cry so much? Is he sick? In pain? Hungry? Suffering in some invisible way I can't see? I've done everything I'm supposed to do. Why isn't it enough?

What am I doing wrong?  

Did I consider the fact that this was a new creature in my house and the world, one who was learning how to be a part of our family, how to express himself and understand us at the same time? No. As a new mother, I believed the answer to all these questions was that I was inadequate.

But why? Why do so many mothers feel this overwhelming sense of inadequacy, failure and guilt? I don't think it's hormones, sleep-deprivation or lack of knowledge. Nor do I think it's because of social media, parenting magazines or random strangers on the street offering unsolicited advice. 

I think it's because we care. 

We care so much about the well-being and happiness of this new life in our home, we are so devoted to its health and ability to thrive, that it is not merely a job. Yes, it's work. A lot of work. But it's work that matters. We have a desire to nurture, teach, comfort and help this baby blossom. We want him to grow up and make the world as wonderful as he's made our lives. 

Wrongly, we think that if we do everything we're told we're supposed to do, the baby (or in my case, new dog) will sleep well, eat well, suffer minimally and be generally happy all the time. Perhaps it's because we haven't learned to think of this new life as an individual with wants and needs it can't yet fully articulate or express. Or perhaps we underestimate just how complex the role of caretaker truly is. 

As a mother, this underestimation turned out to be a good thing for me. Did that naïveté drive my anxiety? Probably. But it's also what kept me going each day, mulling the questions in my mind and looking for new potential solutions. It's what gave me the courage to keep trying, even when I felt like I was failing. It's what forced me to listen to my baby tell me what he needed, rather than insisting he take what I was offering because I'd been told it should be enough.

All change is uncomfortable. Without that anxiety, I don't think I would have grown as much as I did. Listening to the needs of my kids made me question what I could do differently, or better. It made me a more empathetic person, and a more critical thinker. It also helped me realize what I could accomplish when I really focused on hearing them, instead of just going through the motions. It convinced me that no one is a failure if they are willing to keep trying.

Now, in mid-life, Sirius has rekindled all of those feelings of inadequacy in me. Sure, I could do without the anxiety this new dynamic has brought on. But what it tells me is that I'm not done growing. I may be doing it wrong. But Sirius seems happy to help teach me for as long as I'm willing to keep trying.

It started me thinking. What if everyone cared enough to try to understand, not just babies and dogs, but each other? What if we started listening when others tell us what they need from us, instead of just giving them what we've always given them? 

As my kids taught me, respect means letting others be heard. Caring means ensuring their needs get met. We all deserve that. But it will only happen if we, and others, are willing to listen and learn.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

The Honeymoon is Over

It's been a full month since Sirius joined our pack, and the shields are down. The first week we had him, he was a caricature of a "good dog". He observed intently, to understand how things worked in our house. He obeyed. And when something was unfamiliar, he learned quickly whether it was allowed (dogs in the kitchen) or not (dogs on the furniture). He didn't even bark. He was clearly on his best behavior, showing us what a perfect pet he would be, if we'd only give him the chance. It felt like a first date.

Four weeks in, let's just say things have changed.

Once the honeymoon period ended, Sirius relaxed into the realization that he's here to stay. Ever since, as each day passed, we saw seen glimpses of his personality peeking through. His intelligence, for instance. His first vet visit yielded some meds he needed to take. Flea, tick and heart worm prevention began, in separate pills on separate days. It didn't take him long to figure out that these were not yummy things I was offering. Even though he knows where we keep the dog biscuits, and I put the medicine in the same cabinet, he's now suspicious of any round 'treat' I offer him. 

He's also got chutzpah. And possibly some Border Collie in him. Although he knows we are the alpha dogs, this doesn't prevent him from trying to 'herd' us on the stairs to keep us from moving away from the front door (through which he is always eager to leave). He'll bound up and stand on the stair in front of me to prevent me from reaching the top of the staircase. After our morning walk each day, I'll sit down to have coffee and check my emails. But that's when he wants to play. If he's too worked up to take no for an answer, he will repeatedly poke me with his nose or nip at my elbow and knee while I'm seated at the table. He'll also bring me a toy and nudge me with it until I respond. Clearly, he thinks I'm not very bright and need repeated training to understand what he's trying to tell me. 

Finally, if you read my earlier post about the dog with no voice, you needn't worry. He's since found it. In spades. Car or truck going by us while we're out walking? He will leap and bark as if it's a dragon trying to eat me. Another dog spotted down the street that he wants to make his best friend? He'll bark so much and so loudly that the poor owner will figure he's too aggressive and will turn and go in the other direction. Neighbor kids playing outside? He'll pull and bark to get me down there so he can say hello. He's gone from caricature to character.

I'm thrilled that he's comfortable and willing to let his personality come through. I'm happy that any anxiety he initially harbored about being passed from home to home has finally abated. But I'm worried his personality will just get bigger and stronger if I don't do something soon.

My plan is to look into training. For me. Because ask either of my kids and you'll learn what a pushover I was when they were growing up. It's because I loved them so much, and always wanted them to be happy. But Sirius has sass and strength, and he's wicked smart. And he doesn't understand time-outs. So I need to learn  how to be a good Alpha Dog, and make sure he knows it. 

Otherwise I may never get to drink another morning cup of coffee again.

"Dropped ice cream" by deux yeux is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.