Meeting Needs, 5 a.m. Puppy-Style

I spent a few years of my adult life as a single mom. Tuck that fact away for future reference.

Maya and Midnight. Photo by Margaret or Ted Pitera

This morning Tom and I were awakened at 4:50 a.m. by impassioned whining. Bindi was crated for the night and it’s unusual for her to suddenly commence whining during the night. I had been dead asleep so it took me a moment to become coherent.

“I think she needs to pee,” I announced, knowing full well Tom was awake.

“I’ll take her,” he replied and got up.

Genius, I thought. What a fabulous solution to the problem of “I don’t want to reward whining” versus “I don’t want a soggy crate pad.” Bindi is a good girl for Tom and listens to him but he is NOT a reward. She still fears him and is a bit of a clingy Mommy’s girl with me. By having her whine answered by Daddy, we’re killing multiple birds with a pile of rocks… or maybe something slightly less violent.

They returned to our hallway (we all sleep in a hallway. The joys of building a house: The bedroom is a work zone.), and Tom asked me if he should crate Bindi. I said no, it’s only an hour, I’m wide awake now, and she jingles. If she is moving around, I’ll hear her. She can try behaving like a big girl, loose with the big dogs, for an hour without any human attention. Let’s see how that goes. That was my thinking.

Tom got back into bed. Bindi bop-waddled over to his side of the bed and stood up (paws on the side of the bed) and peered through the darkness at the (faux) sleeping humans. Neither of us responded at all, but she and I made eye contact. I managed not to laugh at her ears. Don’t ask me how.

She stumbled over to my side of the bed and stood up. Instantly I had puppy feet in my hair and eyes, and a snoot in my neck. I gave her a slow calm pet and said in my yoga teacher voice “oooooh kaaaaay, sshhhhhhhh” or something like that. She hopped down, ambled off and was still and silent until 6:20.

So here’s the thing: every smart and sensible dog trainer on the planet would advise against doing what I did. DO NOT REWARD BEHAVIOR YOU DO NOT WISH TO SEE REPEATED. That makes total sense. It’s bang on the dot correct for 99.99% of dog training situations and most of life is a dog training situation. So why the hell did I pet her when she was seeking attention at 5 a.m.? Why reward puppy paws on my bed, or in my face?

Meeting needs… remember that I was a single mom? My kid was raised by a malinois mom: she had to learn to handle me or she would see teeth (or tears… or guilt trips…). I can sum up my parenting ethos in one simple analogy: do not ask me for a ride to the mall if I’m hungry, tired, or in a bad mood.

You cannot ask me (or, in my opinion, any other living being) to perform, comply, or be nice when I’m overwhelmed with unmet needs. I can’t help you with your homework if I’m exhausted, ill, or haven’t slept. But give me five minutes to get some of my most pressing needs met (e.g. let me get a cold drink and a few minutes of silence or a brisk walk with the dogs) and I can then be Nice Mommy – pleasant to be around and helpful with whatever you ask.

I spent 16 years diagnosing and treating mental illness as a clinical social worker and one of the life lessons I learned is that meeting a living being’s needs isn’t enabling or coddling: it’s empowering. More to the point: if a kid or a dog or your spouse is overwhelmed with anxiety, simply demanding anything of them is pointless. It’s a “can’t” not a “won’t.”

One of the most basic tenets of dog training is building relationship. Call it bonding, call it leadership, call it whatever you want, but at its base, it’s about trust. The dog needs to trust you. You need to trust your dog. Refusing to meet basic needs does not build trust; it builds the opposite.

Back to my 5 a.m. bedside “aha moment” – I petted and gave verbal attention to a dog that I wanted to go away from me and settle down. Seems totally contraindicated, right? I just reinforced that dog “bothering” me, right?

Wrong. I met a need. Once her need to connect with me was met, she was able to go settle down WITHOUT BEING TOLD. I gave no command, no “go to place,” no correction for paws on the eye. I just met her need and deepened the trust that’s developing. I gave her a clear message: ‘I am here. You are safe. All is well.’ Her anxiety melted away and in that calm and safe space, she was then empowered to go be a good puppy and shut up and lie down.

Here’s the tricky part: I had to know which approach to take in that moment. I had to glean “is this a puppy seeking to be a bratty spoiled pushy (AKA totally normal) jerk at 5 a.m.?” or “is this a mildly anxious puppy who needs a little reassurance?” They look pretty similar. I definitely had to make a judgment call. That meant even at 5 a.m. I had to be focused and intuitive and “feel” her, rather than judge her. I had to consider her needs… while deep in the throes of my own. I really wanted to go back to sleep.

2003, Photo by Maya Fischer. Iske and me

While training involves a ton of technique, it requires a ton of feeling. To me, feeling with a dog is pure magic. It’s why I have sacrificed all that I give up to live with five very messy dogs. Sometimes some folks seem impressed with my lifestyle and the sheer volume of caninity I share my home with, but it’s really not that hard. I just meet their needs. It all flows from there.

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1 Response to Meeting Needs, 5 a.m. Puppy-Style

  1. Tasha says:

    I love this. Thank you for your story!

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