I’ve always enjoyed the parable of “The Scorpion and the Frog.” The synopsis, from Wikipedia –
A scorpion asks a frog to carry it across a river. The frog hesitates, afraid of being stung, but the scorpion argues that if it did so, they would both drown. Considering this, the frog agrees, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When the frog asks the scorpion why, the scorpion replies that it was in its nature to do so.
The short tale captures the essence of a timeless dilemma – is it possible to ever truly change one’s nature? And who is responsible for what comes of that nature? Do we blame the scorpion for being what it is, or do we blame the frog for believing the scorpion could be anything but?
I was a frog. I believed reason determined behavior. I thought nature could be tamed by circumstance. Then I got a puppy.
There is a precocious naiveté shared by people on the cusp of getting their first dog. We imagine our pup to be a blank slate upon which we will impress only the wonderful things we wish them to be. However, we quickly learn the only thing impressive about the situation is how wrong we were.
This revelation usually occurs while picking up the debris of a destroyed couch cushion, while being dragged at the end of a leash, or while chasing after an escaped dog wearing only your boxer briefs. Both I and my scarred-for-life mailman can confirm some revelations are more revelatory than others.
Thus, with half-destroyed cushions and half-naked bodies, we discover our dogs have a unique nature all their own.
I once tried to fight against the aspects of a dog’s nature I did not like. I reprimanded Eko for his insolence and vocally disciplined Penny for her wildness. I saw it as a test of endurance to determine whose will would submit first.
But I soon understood this was an unwinnable war of attrition. The time I spent admonishing my dogs wasn’t useful training. It wasn’t really useful at all. It was an expression of my own frustrations. My frustration at Eko’s tendency towards independence and Penny’s penchant for excitability. In short, a friction between who I wanted my dogs to be and who they inherently were.
You cannot outlast nature, so next I tried to bargain with it. Miss Penny Mayhem was the consummate scorpion. She’d sit politely by the door begging for a trip to the beach. I knew she would try to cause mischief at the first opportunity but I convinced myself I could negotiate a peace.
I brought Penny’s favorite treats with me to the beach as a lure, set her loose and watched her immediately incite chaos. As she tore down the shoreline I could practically hear her shout, “I’M SORRY, BUT IT IS MY NATURE!”
I have lost track of how many times a dog’s nature has stung me and how many times I have drowned because of it. Eventually, even a frog as foolish as myself begins to reconsider giving rides to scorpions.
One alternative is to go it alone. To refuse the risks of traveling with any companion whose nature conflicts with your own. I find this alternative both lonely and boring, two risks much more frightening than drowning in my opinion.
I discovered the other alternative is acceptance. Not a passive act of indifference, but a willful embrace of things beyond my control. An embrace where we can accept a thing’s nature without accepting behavior born of that nature as inevitable.
What does that acceptance look like? Well, instead of waiting to be surprised by stings on my back I decided to ask the scorpion to sting my face.
Penny’s nature as mayhem-incarnate provided a prime proving ground for my theory of acceptance. I stopped waiting for her to get herself into trouble and deliberately went looking for that moment so I could intervene just before it.
When I saw Penny getting too riled up at the beach, I’d quietly leash her up and head home. Some days we made it an hour, some days we left after five minutes. I considered both a success. With each trip I felt her sting lose potency.
More than any discipline or admonishment, leaving the beach proved to be the most effective behavior modifier. Without my ire to distract her, Penny could more clearly see the consequences of her nature. The question became would she rather run free for an hour or crash into three dogs in three minutes and then have to leave?
I left the answer up to her, I just took care of the consequences.
Since then, Penny’s nature hasn’t changed a bit. She’s still fiery and fearless and relentless. But her behavior has changed significantly. She’s not shy about working herself into a tizzy but she knows when to disengage in order to keep playing.
By accepting the nature of my dogs I inoculated myself against the aspects of their personalities which might taint our relationship. The result is that I became like the Man in Black from The Princess Bride who tells his opponent he’s poisoned one of their cups and the opponent must choose which cup they each drink from. In truth, the choice never mattered because both cups were poisoned and the Man in Black was immune to it.
It seems this is the lesson for us frogs – we must build up our immunity so that when we are stung we do not drown. We keep swimming. After my experiences with Eko, Penny and Zero I felt somewhat prepared when people warned how difficult it is for new parents to keep their heads above water.
What I was not prepared for is the culture war over how we should think about the relationship between children, dogs, and ourselves. There are a lot of angry blog posts detailing the manifold ways in which dogs are not like children. There are equally impassioned posts pointing to all the ways dogs are similar to children.
When I saw what I had waded into I felt the best course of action was to turn off my computer and go for a walk. (Generally, this is always the right answer.) With Lincoln’s impending birth I knew I would find answers on my own soon enough.
I suspect many first-time parents suffer the same delusions about their children as people do about puppies. Thankfully my dogs disabused me of the notion that any of us is a blank slate. They gave me the gift of meeting Lincoln without any preconceived notions of who he is.
And what a relief it was to know that Lincoln already is who he is going to be. My responsibility is to help him be the best version of himself by guiding and shaping his nature in the best interest of his future.
I’ve only been on the job eight months but the Venn diagram of how/if dogs and children overlap doesn’t seem particularly important to me. What matters in any relationship is the humility to accept the unique nature of a creature (human, canine or otherwise) and the empathy to nurture growth in a way which respects that nature.
I discovered this humility and empathy through my dogs. It is thanks to them I am miles ahead of where I would have been as a father otherwise. Still, as I traverse these new waters with Lincoln I know that friction, frustration and failure are inevitable components of our relationship. Components which might threaten to drown us both.
Like the frog, I accept these risks. Unlike the frog, I expect them and I’ve prepared for them. A gift from the natures of my dogs to the nurture of my child.