When Control Goes To The Dogs

Katie Young
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Wednesday - January 18, 2006
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It seems I have lost all control. I’m not really sure I ever had any in the first place, but now I’m fairly certain I have none. This is all thanks to Mr. Pono, the wiener dog.

He is the boss of me. I hate to admit it, but it’s true.

Now I need to figure out how to get back to the top of the “pack,” or I’ll be doomed to a lifetime of letting my dog rule my world.

The hierarchy, in fact, used to be different. I used to be in charge (or so I’d like to think) when he was a baby. I was Mom and Dad all wrapped up into one. But once I got into a serious relationship and Pono had a full-time “dad,” things changed. I became the mom who fed Pono, cleaned up his puppy pad area and the person he ran to when he was scared or sick.

I also, however, became a bit of a pushover. I no longer did the disciplining. That was left up to “Dad” - the alpha male.

Without intending to, I had set myself up at the bottom of the pack. Mr. P knew that Dad was in charge. There was no messing with Dad because he’d catch you, scold you and not feel bad about scolding you.

Mom, on the other hand, might feel sorry for you. If you give Mom the right look - those big, sad eyes brimming with doggie tears - she’d fold like one of those portable futons.

This happens all the time between Mr. P and I. He tips over trash cans, pulls socks out of the laundry basket and has figured out how to bang his foot on the bottom of kitchen cabinets to open the door and fish out tasty morsels.

More often than not, when I catch him in such acts, I berate him with a series of stern comments, “Bad dog.” “No, No.“And, “What do you think you’re doing?!”

But Mr. P knows how to work it and will respond with sad looks - the saddest looks I’ve ever seen - he puts his head down and, if he feels really bad, he’ll roll over on his back and wag his tail in submission.This is all the “act” I need to drop the “strong mommy” front and spend the next hour cuddling and loving my small, furry child.

“It’s OK,” I coo. “I understand, you’re sorry. I know you won’t do it again.”

Of course, Mr. P always does it again. And the cycle continues.

But here’s the thing: With a “dad” around, Mr. P still maintained good behavior most times as one of the members of our family pack. He knew someone else was in charge, and even though it wasn’t me, it also wasn’t him.

When boyfriend became ex-boyfriend, however, and it was just Mom and Mr. P again, we started to have a problem.

Now, I like to call Pono “Mr. Independent.” Where he used to wait for me to get up in the morning before he’d get off the bed, he suddenly took to leaving the bedroom long before I’d even open my eyes. I’d walk into the living room to find him bathing in a sunbeam. He’d barely lift his head to acknowledge my presence - instead he’d just give a couple beats of his tail on the floor and go back to napping.

Pono would always be at my heels no matter where I’d go. As soon as I would lay down, he’d hop up right next to me for a little cuddle time. Now, however, Mr. Independent keeps to himself. He prefers his “alone time,” whether it be in a sunbeam or just lounging on a pillow that’s not by the mom.

This behavior started to worry me a little, but what worried me more was when I’d wake up in the middle of the night to find Pono sitting directly on top of me, staring down the hallway, like he was protecting me. He also refused to sleep completely under the covers like normal. Instead, he would poke his little head out from under the blanket so he had a good view of whatever might be going on. I assumed he no longer felt safe. He had become the man of the house and it was his duty to protect the rest of the pack - which was mostly me.

But what worried me the most was the day I tried to scold Pono for doing something bad and he actually spun around and growled at me. It was very un-Pono-like. And when I scolded him again for growling, he growled even more and nipped my hand. What was going on with my sweet little wiener dog?! He was turning into a vicious beast, I decided - emotionally scarred and angry at me, I guessed, for making him be in charge. He just wanted to relax and not worry about being the alpha male.

This is not an uncommon phenomenon, according to Dr. Douglas Chang, a veterinarian at Aloha Animal Hospital.

Our “pack” changed when Dad was no longer around and suddenly Mr. P and I were left vying for the open position of “alpha.” Only, I didn’t know that’s what was happening.

“Humans are just funny-looking dogs to a dog,” says Chang. “Now from Pono’s point of view, the hierarchy has changed and you have to jockey for the position of dominance. You have to re-establish your role. “

Chang says I have to become more aware of the behaviors Pono will interpret as dominant so I can begin to exert control.

“Pono cannot think like a human no matter how hard you try,” explains Chang. “His criteria for dominance is different than ours, and how they express it is different than us. You have to learn to talk like a dog.”

One of the best ways to do this is to take your dog to obedience (or what Chang calls “dog parenting”) classes, not so that your dog will learn, necessarily, how to be a better dog, but so that we, as humans, can learn to better communicate on their level.

“It’s a hard pill for some people to swallow, that they may have inadvertently trained their dogs to behave in a certain way,” says Chang. “It’s like having children. We all think we’re good parents, but maybe based on the results, we realize we could have been a little bit wiser.”

For example, Chang says, certain daily behaviors of Mr. Pono’s were showing his dominance over me, such as when he nuzzles under my hand to be petted and I reach down and show him love - on his terms. Instead, if I say “No” and pet him even just minutes later - on my terms - I’m showing my control. It’s the same thing when I give him snacks. If I give him a treat when he begs for it, Pono knows he can “command” me to do as he pleases.

I told Chang I felt mean, saying “no” when my baby boy wanted a snack or some love, but Chang says it’s not about being unloving or cruel, I’m just changing the interaction.

The bottom line is that there really isn’t much motivation for Mr. P to change at this point. He’s in control; he’s on top of the pack. So the solution, then, is for me to learn how to talk to my furry child and exert my role as the alpha mom.

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