Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Obedience training

     Dogs are great in theory.  Man's best friend.  A faithful companion who will sleep curled up next to your children and scare the monsters away at night. A guardian that will keep bad guys at bay and door-to-door salesmen off your porch.  Someone who will sit faithfully by your side in the good times and bad and even go out and fetch the paper in the morning. I don't take the paper, but if I did, that would be cool.

     In reality I have found that cute fuzzy puppies are a headache.  They get bored.  They pee on the carpet, then they chew holes in the same carpet.  They use furniture as chew toys as well.  They tear open trash sacks and spread the contents all over the garage and yard.  They cost a fortune in medical bills and food.  Why do I need a dog?  I have 5 kids to do those things for me.

     Moose is the latest installment in out series of pets.  We had to have a puppy when our basset hound passed away at the ripe old age of 14.  After all, our golden retriever was also 14 and didn't have long for the world and he would be able to teach the new puppy everything there was to know about being a proper dog.  Unfortunately, Fletcher passed away and if he taught Moose anything before he shuffled off his mortal coil, I'd be hard pressed to tell you what it was.  So we had another very large, out of control puppy adding to the chaos of our home.  The children were terrified to be in his vicinity. I was sick and tired of cleaning up after him and having him destroy his weight in household items on a daily basis.

     That's when Karlye told me he was going to obedience training.  I objected on principle.  I had already wasted a small fortune on that mutt.  There was no way I was going to fork over another large sum of cash on the off chance that he had enough neurons sparking in his thick skull to learn anything.  As usually is the case, I was overruled and 6 weeks ago, Moose was shipped off to learn the finner art of canine civility.  I was immediately happy with the decision.  I didn't think for a moment that the training would do a bit of good, but at least the dog was gone.  I tried not to think about the money I was spending not to have a dog in the house.  It was worth the cost.  Maybe if I was lucky, the trainers would grow so fond of him, that they would not let us have him back.

     This weekend, I went out for the first time to see what Moose had learned.  I have to say, I was blown away.  I mean, don't be mistaken, this dog was not jumping through flaming hoops or riding a skateboard, but when I said "sit", he sat.  When I walked away, he still sat.  He sat and stared at me, his butt quivering a little, a sad expression on his dog face.  Then I said "Moose, here".  He ran to me and lined up perfectly against my left side.  No jumping, no running around with me chasing him.  He just obeyed.  It was amazing.  Sure, he only knows a few commands.  Sit.  Here. Heel. He had those down pretty darn well though.  We took him home for a trial, to see how he would do in his old environment, with kids and trash and chaos beckoning him to return to his nefarious ways.  The trainer sold us a crop to swat him with when he disobeyed.  We were assured that he would test us.  He would have to see that the new rules still applied in our house as well as the kennel.  I'm glad to admit that with a few hiccups, the weekend went very well.  Now instead of a wild brute, we actually have a dog that the kids were climbing on and playing with who can be trusted to come in the house and behave.  Maybe dogs aren't as bad as I have always thought.

     Elijah loves the new dog.  I honestly don't know if he ever realized we had a dog, because we never let Moose near him in his feral state.  He wouldn't let the poor hound alone all weekend.  Elijah also learned his first word.  It was "sit". Elijah carried the crop around in his hand, which was challenging as it is twice as long as he is.  He held that crop and followed Moose everywhere shouting, "Sit. Sit. Sit. Sit"  I think he was quite impressed with himself.  Moose played nice and never once acted annoyed.

     I was so impressed that I am now considering sending Will to stay with the trainer for a couple of months.  Oh how I wish that I could.  As much as Moose's demeanor has improved, Will's has degraded an equal amount. That boy is pushing us to the limit of sanity.  His siblings are not trailing far behind in the parental exacerbation rankings.  Will is a good kid.  I love him to death, but there are times I think he is channeling a hardened criminal.  I think, no I'm certain, that I get more frustrated with him than with the other children, because I see so much of myself in him.  Many of his most annoying qualities he inherited from me, and they are so much harder to live with when someone else is exhibiting them.  I also get frustrated at him, because he is different from me too.  It is a constant struggle to help him be himself, and be his best self, without trying to make him be a miniature version of myself.

     It seemed so simple when I was younger and much wiser, this concept of training children.  I would only need to lovingly and rationally face the child and reason with them, showing them the error of their ways.  I would be firm, but in control.  I would let them face the consequences of their actions graciously forgiving their mistakes, while helping them learn from those mistakes.  It all seemed so clean and clinical, before I had children.

     In reality I'm discovering that parenting is a dirty, messy business.  If you have been a parent, then I'm not telling you anything you don't already know.  Parents have emotions too and children know how to play those emotions like a finely tuned instrument.  You can approach the child calmly and thoughtfully with every intention of staying calm and in 5 minutes you are the one screaming and thrashing about.  Well, I can't speak for anyone else, but I know I have had a few isolated instances where I might have let my kids gain the upper hand by letting them whip me up into an emotional fury.  It's not pretty and it doesn't help the situation, let me tell you.

     Sunday, Will and Karlye and I shared a very important bonding time together.  It was one of those moments that will linger for many years in our minds.  There were many tears, lots of drama, some screeching, and some banging of heads together.  In the end, I think Karlye and I did pretty well.  We were a great team. We slept very well that night, mostly because we were physically and emotionally drained.  As hard as it was for all of us, I think it was worth it.

     Here's how it played out.  There sat Moose, the formerly out-of-control Golden Retriever, sitting ever so sedately in the kitchen whilst the 3 oldest boys ran tearing through the house.  Will let out an ear piercing war cry as he made an attempt to inflict bodily harm on Caleb as they raced around and over the top of the couch.

    "William!  Stop.  Settle down and stop running." There, just like with Moose, I issued a firm directive and thought that the matter was under control.  After a 2 second pause the air was split with another cacophonous shriek as sweet young William leaped over the couch, undaunted in his pursuit of his younger brother.

     Emboldened as I was with my success at getting the dog to respond to my command, I once again stated firmly in a serious but unemotional tone. "Will, come here right now."  Maybe Will didn't perceive my tone as being an unemotional as I intended.  Whatever his reasoning, he looked at me for a moment and then turned and ran away from me as fast as he could, ducked in his room, and tried to hide under the covers on the top mattress of the bunk bed.  I looked thoughtfully at Moose's fluorescent orange crop sitting against the wall, and I will confess that I gave serious consideration to seeing if it worked as well on 8-year-old boys as it did dogs.  I think Karlye read my mind, because she gave me a look that sent a chill up my spine.  What transpired next was 10 minutes of me trying not to lose control of my self and the situation as I managed to get him out of his room and into the kitchen where we could discuss his choice of action.  I heard many things from my son during the process.  He knew I just wanted to spank him. I didn't love him. I was just being mean. I was unfair. He didn't do anything wrong.

     That last statement was the one I wouldn't let stand unanswered.  No one wants to take responsibility for their actions any more.  I'm convinced that one of the biggest problems in the world today is that everyone tries to shift the blame, play the victim, deny that they have done anything wrong.  I want my kids to be the ones who stand up and admit that they've made a mistake and then rectify the situation.  I assured him that I had no intention of trying to spank him at that moment, but would instead find other ways of making him understand just where he had gone wrong in the decision making process.  For the moment I occupied him by having him empty and reload the dishwasher while we talked.  Apparently unloading dishwashers is a form of child abuse.  It also is apparently quite painful.  He did it anyway.  I asked him to explain to me why he was getting in trouble.  I was told it was because I liked to be mean to him.  Wrong answer.  I asked him again.  It was Caleb's fault.  I asked him again.  He didn't do anything.  I assured him he knew that the reason he was getting in trouble was because he twice looked and me and directly disobeyed.  After church I had a plan to help him learn that.

     By noon, things had calmed back down. I think Will thought we had forgotten about his promised punishment. He was mistaken.  After lunch, Karlye and I sat him down at the table with 5 sheets of paper.  We decided to go old school.  His assignment was to write 100 times, "I will obey my dad and mom immediately without arguing."  Oh the tears that flowed from his blue eyes.
     "That's not fair.You are mean."
     "Will, your mom and I want you to learn why you are getting punished.  Maybe if you write it down enough you will remember."
     Two sentences in he stopped.  "This is too long.  Can't I just write, 'I will obey'?"
     "Apparently the not arguing part is something you NEED to focus on."

     How long does it take for an 8 year old to write 100 sentences?  For Will, about 7 hours.  Well, we let him go to bed at that time with the promise that he would finish the next day.  We fought through paralyzing hand cramps that developed on sentence 5.  We discussed why he didn't need to change the word choice or order.  He beat his hands on the table.  At one point he stopped writing and refused to go on (around sentence 12).  Unfortunately his mother and I had to resort to giving him a spanking to get him started again. Poor Moose was shaking, apparently thinking he was somehow going be mistaken for Will's accomplice.  I think if he could have talked he would have given Will advice along the line of "Trust me, just do what they ask, it will work out much better for you in the end.  I know what I'm talking about."

     Eventually, despite that long hours of drama, he finished.  We reassured him that we loved him, that we want him to learn to take responsibility for his actions.  We told him in no uncertain terms that it was his choices that  brought the punishment on.  He certainly knows now our expectations as to how he should obey us.  Instead of resenting us, he actually seems to want to be around us. We are getting along much better since the incident. He's behavior seems to have improved quite a bit, at least for now.  As an added benefit, Karlye and I worked together as a team and grew stronger as a couple through the experience.

     Maybe after reading this you think I'm some horrible monster of a parent. So many people live in fear that they will damage their child or that if they punish their kid, someone will call SRS. (Karlye is cringing as she reads this.)  I know that my great-grandfather was a much harsher father than I even know how to be.  He sacrificed his relationship with his son trying to break my grandfather's stubborn will.  I know that there used to be much more respect and civility when parents weren't afraid to discipline firmly.  Today everyone is so concerned with hurting their baby's feelings that they raise irresponsible brats.  I'm just trying to find the balance.  I want to teach my kids with love, being firm when necessary and never jeopardizing my relationship with them.  I also know that this relationship is one of a father to his child and not one of coequals and friends.  Maybe someday if I do a good enough job now, I can have that kind of friendship with my kids. Then I can sit back with an inner smile as they relate to me the trials and tribulations that they are experiencing raising their own little herd of devil-children. Until then, I'm doing my best to carry out the responsibility that God has given me to care for and nurture these munchkins to the best of my ability.  I have a great partner to work with and I am so thankful to have her. Of course when  it get really crazy I like to remind her that SHE was the one that wanted this many children.  She loves it when I do that.

     If nothing else, we have a dog that listens and obeys now.  I never thought that would be possible.  I realize children are much more complex than Golden Retrievers, but at least that gives us some hope.  It's going to take a lot of work.  Lord give us strength.  Only 20 more years to go.