I was walking down my street the other day when I passed a couple walking their puppy. They were alternately beaming and giving commands to their tiny dog as it meandered obliviously behind them. As I passed, I perceived their eyes covertly scanning my face and I knew exactly what they were thinking. They were wondering how long it would be before I noticed their pup and commented with something like “Aw! What a cute puppy!” Which of course I did because this particular puppy really was cartoonishly cute and, well, because I’ve been in their shoes. I’ve been one half of the couple that gets a dog that subsequently becomes their first child. The dog they take on vacations, the dog they take zillions of pictures of, the dog they arrange play dates for, the dog they hope their parents will accept as grandchildren so that they can stop getting pressured to have actual grandchildren.
I know what some people say, “A pet is NOTHING like a child!”… But, being both a pet parent and a kid parent, I respectfully disagree, particularly when that pet is a dog. I’ve had cats my whole life and I love them, but a cat is more like a really hairy blanket that you buy. They kind of just lay around all day or sit on your book when you’re trying to read. Oh and they barf a lot. I love cats for their distinct personalities and cool customer ways, but they’re nothing like dogs. Dogs are needy and vulnerable and repentant and naughty, like real kids.
We got our dog 14 years ago as a rescue puppy. As we drove to Alabama to pick her up, I remember telling Eric that I wanted to name her Millie. Somehow it seemed perfect for this brown-eyed yellow lab mix with a white fur heart on her forehead. When we arrived to get her, we were told that they’d been calling her Melina – and I knew it was meant to be. I was in love with our little Melina (Millie for short), the instant I laid eyes on her. Her sweet face emanated soulfulness, empathy and kindness from the beginning.
But I’d never had a dog before in my life, let alone a puppy. I had no idea what I was in for.
Let me tell you Friends, puppies are hard. Like really, exasperatingly, not-a-moment-of-peace hard. Millie the puppy was constantly under my feet, chewing up things we used to love, crying pitifully when we attempted to kennel train her, rifling through the garbage when we were gone, pulling and tripping me as she attempted to chase squirrels on walks, hoisting her big muddy paws on our dinner guests… I remember the first year we took Millie to meet our family for Christmas. After an 11 hour car ride, we’d finally arrived. Eric’s entire family had gathered in the living room to commence Christmas activities when Millie ran right into the middle of the room and proceeded to poop all over their carpet.
Another time we took her to a ribbon cutting ceremony for the grand opening of the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge. As we joined the crowd taking Nashville’s first stroll across the beautiful new bridge, Millie waited halfway to christen the new gem with yet another signature poop.
All of these things, including the time she snatched an entire rotisserie chicken from the kitchen counter, I looked at as my own failings at the time. I took great pride in being an excellent, disciplined pet owner. We worked very hard at training Millie and made sure that she had outstanding manners and, despite these examples, she really did. She was an intelligent dog and a fast learner. It wasn’t long before we’d taught her many tricks, including how to shut doors and pass notes to each other from one end of the house to the other.
But dogs are, well… Dogs. And despite her well-intentioned ways, there would always be the occasional snatched chicken, spilled garbage or errant BM. I remember being furious each time though, feeling such anger that my dog was less obedient, less disciplined, less intelligent than she was supposed to be, and that I had failed to make her so. I had created this image of what a perfect dog should be and she was NOT measuring up. I am ashamed to admit that I yelled at her, I smacked her on the nose with a rolled up newspaper, I even ignored her for hours if I was really mad at her.
There was this time Millie and I were walking on a greenway and she suddenly lurched into the brush and emerged with a tiny baby bunny rabbit in her mouth. She shook the bunny to death as I screamed and cried for her to stop. I was devastated. I could not believe that my beautiful, sweet Millie could be so savage or so… Dog-like. I could barely look at her for several days after that, seething with anger and disappointment.
Finally, there came a point where I realized, thankfully, that I had it all wrong. That attempting to train Millie through force and negativity was not working – that negativity only reinforces negativity. That force only fosters resentment and rebellion.
So I began downplaying her bad behavior and praising the good. I intentionally let go of this false image of a perfect dog and a perfect owner. I began to realize that, although she was entrusted to my care, that she wasn’t really ever mine – she was her own. And, despite my failings she had been quick to forgive me each and every time and continue loving me unconditionally. She had no expectations of me – just hope that I would pet her in that certain spot on her rump, drop some popcorn on the floor now and then, and take her with me when I walked.
Sadly, Millie died this past year. In the hours before her passing, I remember laying nose to nose with her on our basement floor weeping with regret and gratitude. For all the ways I had messed up with her, for all the forgiveness and love she’d lavished on me anyway, and mostly, for all the lessons she’d taught me about parenting with positivity instead of expectation and criticism.
And now, as Mom to my two beautiful human children, when my expectations or my imaginary reality of parenthood starts rearing its ugly head, I remind myself of Millie’s hard-earned, but simple lesson – to be a little less owner, and a little more dog.