So, as it turns out, flat tires and blizzard detours and dogs running through screen doors weren’t the only unfortunate things to happen this weekend.
Claire is seven and has never lived with dogs before. She’s been cautiously optimistic about living with my two, whom she met over a long weekend in Berkeley a couple of years ago. Joel and I planned for weeks for that visit, how we would introduce them, how they might behave in every single instance, where Claire would stand while I fed them — they’re kinda spazzy — where she would sit on the couch. We planned everything. None of our careful planning came to fruition, because it never does. But everyone got along great, until Cooper tried to climb into bed with her. “I don’t want that filthy dog in my bed,” she said. Even though he had just had a bath and was gleaming like a little State Fair piglet, we honored her wishes to sleep dog-free, and everything went off without a hitch.
We should have known that dogs and kids can get their wires crossed, but our one positive experience made us cocky. We spent tons of time, instead, worrying about introducing our two cats, and his cat and my dogs. We didn’t think about how the dogs would watch strangers empty their home of furniture, ride jammed in the back of a station wagon for four days, and then be dumped unceremoniously into a new house 2000ish miles from where they grew up. My own nerves were shot by the time we got here, so I can’t even imagine what is going on in their heads.
On Friday night, everything started to unravel. Joel and I were about to drop dead from exhaustion, and Cooper had a complete meltdown over the three billion squirrels living in the neighborhood. (More on those squirrels later, it’s madness.) Claire was super excited to have us all together, and acted a bit too familiar with Huck, who showed his teeth and gave a warning growl. After that, he decided to warn her away whenever she was near, and so he barked. Which made Cooper bark.
My dogs are big, and their barks are BIG. It’s unpleasant when you’re at your best, but after a cross-country drive, a diet consisting mostly of french fries, and almost no sleep, dog barking will melt your brain. Dogs barking at your seven year old? Soul destroying.
After a truly embarrassing crying jag, I started dialing. Even though it was after 9PM, I left messages with every dog behaviorist I could find with good references and a not-annoying website. (Even in my state, bad web design earned people an automatic dismissal.) Eventually, someone answered. His name is Rob, and he calls himself the Dog Whisperer of Minnesota.
Now, I don’t know what Caesar Millan would say about it, and I honestly don’t care. Rob was awesome on the phone, immediately put me at ease, and agreed to come out the following morning and work with us as a family. (It’s worth mentioning that calls to two folks who have worked with Huck and Cooper in the past went unanswered, which bummed me out.) The following morning, Rob arrived with an apprentice, and within an hour everyone felt about a million times better.
We didn’t learn much I haven’t heard before. Calm energy. Be assertive leaders. Correct bad behaviour before it escalates. Don’t feel sorry for the dogs. In the past, I’ve fudged a little a little on the specifics of dog training, which admittedly makes me a shoddy pet owner. But for the first time, because I have Claire to think of, I’m willing to follow the rules to a T.
For the last 48 hours, the dogs have been dragging around lightweight leashes, so we can correct any bad behaviour as soon as we see the signs. Both dogs are sleeping on the floor in their own beds — something Huck has almost never done — and we’re staying as long as it takes at the door to get a calm exit. We’re working on barking at mealtimes, and Cooper’s strange habit of barking at airplanes. It hasn’t been perfect, but already you can see their little brains re-arranging information. We have more sessions with Rob and classes on Saturdays for the next few weeks. I’m looking forward to both.
We’re all still exhausted from the constant vigilance, but today we went on a long walk in the park. Claire chattered beside us the entire time while both dogs pranced around us happily. Claire urged us to run down the hills, and as we ran, the giant knot in the pit of my stomach released and for the first time since we got here, it felt like everything would be okay.