Parent Rehabilitation: Taking a Page from the Dog Whisperer’s Book

I’m a dog person. The thing is I haven’t had a dog in nine years. It was time to adopt the family dog. The girls are old enough to help. (Don’t all parents tell themselves that lie?)

Those of you who know me know I wanted to rescue a small adult dog that didn’t shed much. Five months ago we rescued a puppy – let me refrain, a Labrador, Doberman, Shepherd puppy. She is spirited to say the least. Of course she needs to learn everything. Actually, that is not true. We need to learn everything. The pace of our hectic lives and the pitch of our family soundtrack are not conducive to welcoming a puppy into the family. At all.

People ask me regularly, “How’s Hershey?” What do people expect me to say when they ask? I think some want me to admit I was crazy to adopt a shedding, growing, hyper puppy. Others want to hear that she is fantastic. The truth lies in the middle. Hershey is fantastic as she grows and sheds and destroys flip flops.

It’s not the puppy that isn’t trained. It’s the family. We are not yet in tune with her rhythms. Her accidents are because we are not paying attention or taking her outside. She jumps up because we are not consistent in our response. She runs wildly through the house because we gave her the run of the house. So in response to “How’s Hershey?” I now say, “We’re training the family. We’re getting there.” It follows the idea of “owner rehabilitation” courtesy of Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer.

She needs a calm environment with clear guidelines. That means we need to decide what kind of dog we want our puppy to become – can she get on the furniture? Where will she sleep? She’ll be big later so jumping up on us has to be out of the question. We cannot be consistent unless we agree on the limitations and how to articulate them in a firm but calm voice. Sounds quite similar to good parenting, doesn’t it?

Puppies and children are not so very different. Both feed off of the energy and the message we send to them. As parents and teachers we need to be consistent – correcting an unwanted behavior every time so it is clear that it is unacceptable and not merely a suggestion. It is hard to be consistent EVERY time, but it is harder to see the behavior last longer because you are not consistent. Using direct language in a calm and assertive voice conveys a clear message. Expecting a response after being told ONE TIME also conveys a clear command. If you say it over and over, you send the message you do not have to listen to me the first time. When the desired behavior happens, we need to acknowledge it. Encouraging good choices or reactions and offering a hug (or tummy rub, as the case may be) promotes repeated positive behavior.

My girls are realizing that the way I am working with Hershey is retraining me on parenting skills. I am conscious that some of their misbehaviors stem from my energy. You could say I am paying attention to parent rehabilitation – something teachers have long known about, but aren’t as eloquent in promoting as The Dog Whisperer.

So, “How’s Hershey?” She is rehabilitating her family. It’s fantastic.

– Elizabeth Hofreuter-Landini is head of school at Wheeling Country Day. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She and her husband have two daughters, ages 5 and 9.