By Sheila Hanly
Now, before anyone gets all hot under the collar, I am NOT suggesting that our children are like pets or that bringing up a child is not vastly more complicated, challenging and important than training a dog. Yet, there are certain similarities, especially when it comes to teenagers.
A few years back we took our rescue pup to puppy training classes, as you do, and the trainer mentioned that it is now generally accepted that dogs, like humans, go through a sort of adolescence. At about 6-18 months of age, they seem to forget much of their careful puppy training. They start testing limits, disobeying commands and refusing to come back when called.
When this happens, dog owners react in a variety of different ways – many of which either don’t work or make the problem worse. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a bunch of dogs having a glorious time playing with one another in the park, when one owner decides to call her dog away. She calls. She calls again. She calls again. Her dog plays on. He is having a fantastic time, why on earth should he stop? The owner keeps on calling. The only thing she is succeeding in doing is training her dog to ignore her. There is no point in calling a dog to you when you are absolutely sure that they will NOT listen to you. All that happens is that a bad habit gets entrenched.So what should you do? Just let the dog do whatever it likes? You need to get home. You can’t stand around waiting until the dog chooses to stop playing.
Well, first of all, you need to pay close attention. If you are chatting on your phone, and then suddenly decide you want to go home and call your dog, regardless of what it is currently doing, you are going to be ignored. If you watch carefully, you will see that dog play has its ebbs and flows like any other activity. So, wait for a lull. If you have been yelling for the dog non-stop for 5 minutes, your dog will have tuned you out. But if you have been silent, waiting for your moment, and then give a big blast on your whistle when your dog is having a little play break, you are much more likely to get his attention. Now, if you just happen to also have something attractive about you – maybe a ball, a squeaky toy, a wavy stick, or a lovely smelling treat, your chances will be that much better.
You did it! Hooray. Here comes the dog. What are you going to do now? I still find it hard to watch when dog owners do finally get their dogs to come back to them and then shout angrily at the animal (or worse, hit them), grab them, put them on their leads and march them straight out of the park. What sort of an incentive is THAT to listen promptly next time? I mean, really. Can you blame the animal? Should he carry on having a lovely play or should he go back to that angry, shouty person who is going to yank him by the neck and frog march him home? A bit of a no-brainer, really.
But if that interesting thing that attracted your dog back to you comes fully into play, if you immediately start having a lovely game together and gradually move away from the other dogs, or even if you just give a delicious treat for coming when called, then of course he is going to be 100 times more likely to come back next time. In fact, even in the midst of play, he might start keeping a bit of an eye out for what better thing that owner person might have on offer.So what does this have to do with teenagers? On an internet forum today, an adoptive parent was worrying about what to do about her teenage child who was simply refusing to come home. She got plenty of different advice. One person in particular made very good sense. She said that adolescence is a time when children start forging identities separate from their parents; when they are testing out what it means to be a grown up without really having the skills, understanding or knowledge to do that successfully. It is a risky process and it doesn’t always go well, but it is also very important and necessary. She also pointed out that parents of teenagers who react to this boundary testing by being overly restrictive, often find this has the effect of their children pushing them even further away.
This got me thinking about how dealing with teenage dogs and teenage children has plenty in common.
Yes, your teenagers are going to test your boundaries. When you call them to you, there may be times when they point blank ignore you. You tell them to be home by a certain time and they say “no”. What do you do about it? Think dog. Don’t call when you have no chance of being heard. Don’t let “no” be your automatic response to a request for an additional freedom. Pay close attention to what is going on in your children’s lives so that you can spot the moment when you will be able to draw them closer to you. If you have absolutely no chance of enforcing a “no”, don’t say it. Your children will simply get in the habit of ignoring you.Watch for your moment. You can’t be metaphorically chatting on the phone and then suddenly decide you want them to do something regardless of what other far more interesting thing they might be engaged in. You need to be fully present in your teenage children’s lives, just as you were when they were toddlers. You may no longer have control over what they do, but you can know what they are doing and why they are doing it and be able to respond accordingly.
Something I have been doing for my teenage son is to try and even up the scales of attractiveness by working to make things at home more interesting and enticing than whatever else is out there. Of course, it’s not as simple as a bouncy ball or a swishy stick, and I can’t really compete with the external attractions, but I am trying to making sure that home is not such a terrible option – not the most boring place on earth and not populated by angry adults waiting to have a go at him.
Like the grumpy dog owners who wonder why their dogs aren’t keen to come anywhere near them, parents who do nothing but shout, punish, restrict and complain can hardly be surprised when they are avoided at all costs. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that children run away or stay out late because their parents are doing something wrong. Far from it. The most careful therapeutic parents have children who defy them. But that old proverb about catching more flies with honey than with vinegar has more than a grain of truth to it, as those old proverbs usually do. It is perfectly understandable if your reaction to your child staying out without permission is to impose a whole lot of restrictions and do some serious lecturing. But it is also quite likely that those strategies won’t help you achieve the desired outcome of them not doing it again.As parents we need to acknowledge that at adolescence the peer group’s opinion is not only more important to our child than our opinion, but in fact is the only opinion that counts. Like the dogs playing in the park, all you are to them is the provider of shelter and food – what you want or need really doesn’t matter to them. This is just something you are going to have to accept. I don’t think it is wise to try and compete by pretending to be a dog yourself – you won’t do a very good job and your dog will be left confused and not have any respect for you. Similarly, trying to be a “cool” parent and your child’s bff is not usually a successful strategy. You could perhaps try to influence the peers whose messages are being listened to. Not an easy thing to do, of course, but impossible if you don’t know who those peers are and what message they are delivering. If you possibly can, try to draw them into your family friendship circle. You will be in a much better position to either influence or moderate what is being said.Of course, it would be wonderful if things were so simple. If you do such and such a thing, this will be the result. Real life, with both children and dogs, is not like that. It is autumn right now, and the local woods seem to be awash with busy squirrels, collecting acorns. My dog was having so much fun chasing them on our walk this morning. She’s nearly four now, so her really giddy days are supposed to be over, and by and large they are. She is usually really good at coming when called. But I knew this morning that all those twitchy-tailed squirrels would be far too enticing, and so it proved. She did reluctantly come home when she really had to, but in the same situation a year ago I would probably still be waiting for her to respond to my whistles. So it is with human teenagers. Sometimes all those fascinating, bewitching, twitchy-tailed temptations are just too much for them to resist and all our strategies will fail. All we can do then is forgive ourselves and them and pick up the pieces and hope no one gets seriously hurt.
And talking of forgiveness, I have been interested to note how much easier it is to forgive our pets for their misbehaviour than it is to overlook our children’s shortcomings. In fact, I think many people are less inclined to blame animals in the first place. You will often hear – “it’s not the dog, it’s the owner”. I wonder why we don’t cut human beings a similar amount of slack? Even when a dog is quite old, a mention that it is a rescue dog and has suffered trauma as a pup will usually be enough to get people to understand and overlook certain behaviours. Yet adopted children who have experienced early trauma are expected to “get over it” with just a few years of stability and consistent loving care. I suppose it is because the stakes are so much higher and our emotional investment in our children is so much greater. But it might not be a bad thing to try and see the “hurt puppy” in our traumatized teenagers, and respond accordingly.
If I look at the trajectory of my dog’s life – traumatized pup to well-trained youngster to reckless, heedless, mischevious teen to sensible, compliant adult – as a sort of speeded up movie of a human life, it gives me great hope for the future of my children. I just have to hope that those damn squirrels don’t get them into too much trouble before they reach the calmer waters of adulthood.