In honour of my older dog's 10th birthday today, here is the essay that was published in the (first defunct, now resurrected) Dogs In Canada magazine in 2006.
I am raising what the experts call a “spirited child”. At three, Stella has all the hallmarks of this type of child: strong-willed, intense and persistent; lovable and bright; and above all, a unique challenge. The experts warn that the usual parenting techniques likely won’t work with a spirited child and so far, they seem to be right. Raising Stella has involved many tears and frequent threats to give her away except that everyone in my neighbourhood knows who she is and what she’s like. After three years, Stella has become an adorable companion inside the house but once we head out into public, she transforms into a little monster: Frankenstella.
Stella is a girl who needs room to run and play and she reacts ferociously when she is held back from what she wants. If someone walked up to me during one of those awful moments when we’re struggling to walk nicely down the sidewalk and announced, “I have forty acres and a couple of high-energy Labs. I’ll take her off your hands if you like,” I’d hand over the leash on the spot.
My three-year-old Boxer came to me as a nine-week-old puppy with a mouth full of razor sharp teeth, no reservation about the crate, and a love of snuggling under the covers after her six a.m. pee – after holding her water all night. She defied all behaviour expectations as outlined in the three puppy books I’d read so when I read a magazine article about “spirited children”, I realized I had the canine version of what the experts were talking about: Despite books and classes, do the parenting methods you’ve tried not work well with your child? No! The first book I read was a guide to your dog’s first year but twelve books, six trainers, and one animal psychic later, I’m stuck with the same problems. Do other people’s children seem obedient and easier to read? Yes! Every training class seems to have several well-mannered Golden Retrievers that sit quietly next to their owners while Stella lunges and barks at the end of her leash as I shout, “Sit! Stop! Off! Leave it!”
A woman raising a spirited child like Stella doesn’t have many friends. No one invites you to their home because they can’t be bothered moving anything with wooden legs out of the living room, clearing off all the countertops, and having the conversation interrupted with screeches of “Stella, no! Stella, leave it! Stella, drop it!” No one approaches you on the street or at the park because they know they’ll be lunged at, boxed, dominated and possibly humped. No one walks by you; they cross the street and hide behind parked cars. Studies have found that people walking dogs are perceived as friendlier and more approachable; likely that’s why dog walkers are often asked for directions. Me, I’m too busy trying to haul Stella out of the driver’s window.
If Stella was a human three-year-old, she would be the kid in the sandbox who refuses to share her toys then hits the other kids on the head because they won’t play with her; she’d be the smart kid who goofs around at school but still gets good marks while the kid who sat in front of Stella and was tormented by her all semester, fails math; and she’d be in big trouble for leaving your side (at the mall/amusement park/grocery store) and disappearing for an hour then as you are buckling her into the car seat wishing you believed in spanking puts her hand on your cheek and says, “I love you”.
Then there’s the phone call from the daycare centre that every parent dreads: Please come pick up your child because she tried to bite an employee. As the story goes, someone came in to visit and the dogs got very excited. When the employee grabbed Stella’s collar to haul her back from the indoor fence, Stella reacted by turning her head to reach what was restraining her. I’ll give you the nip but Frankenstella wouldn’t intentionally bite anyone.
It’s heart-breaking, raising someone who wouldn’t pass a Good Citizen test. Stella is friendly and curious and athletic but she doesn’t grasp the concept of leash manners. I’m dreading the day when someone accuses her of being not high-spirited but dangerous. The person would be wrong (I’m the catalyst for her bad behaviour because she doesn’t do it with the dogsitter) but in the current climate of ban-the-bad-dogs, a parent can get a little sensitive.
The thing about raising a spirited child is that they are bright and lovable. The thing about raising a Boxer is that they are intelligent and goofy. It’s what makes these three long years – and the next eight to come – bearable. When she is good, Stella is very, very good. Then I open the front door…
(Moving to Nova Scotia a year later where there is an alpha male and lots of room for running was exactly what this "spirited child" needed!)