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February 9, 2018

The Nature of My Dogs and The Nurture of My Child

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.
DSC05412.JPGI’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.DSC08495.JPGThere 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.6.JPGI 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!”6.JPGI 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.9.JPGPenny’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.DSC01640.JPGBy 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.DSC09952.JPGI 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.DSC08212.JPGI’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.DSC01440.JPG 

Comments for The Nature of My Dogs and The Nurture of My Child

  1. may (without “hem”) it be… I love what you wrote… and the last picture shows that you are right !!!

  2. VICTORIA COLEMAN says:

    i love the pic of Lincoln, Penny and Zero in the box – could Lincoln have a cuter expression – i don’t think so – great blog – helpful and entertaining -you are definitely the zen master of dog rearing and child rearing

  3. Amanda says:

    Mark,
    I read all your posts and this is easily one of the best, I was laughing and crying at the same time! I have struggled so often with trying to tame the free spirit of my ridgi and you have made me realize I’ve been doing it all wrong…..or at least looking at it in the wrong light. Thank you and keep writing
    Amanda

  4. I LOVED this. So very true, and such a poignant reminder much needed, at least for this dog foster mom going into her eleventh month with a free-spirited dog. Thanks for the post (and the smile). You’re going to rock this dad gig, I’m certain.

  5. Kismet says:

    Put your dogs to useful work. Let them potty train Lincoln.

  6. You are very wise for your age my friend…..you have paid attention to the little lessons you’ve been given to follow (or not) along the way of raising pets AND people (!) and certainly have learned much in a relatively short time. This bodes well for the future of ALL of you – and makes all of US very happy. Those who recognize the bumps in this journey of life as opportunities have a smoother ride. Love all the photos but the last one of Lincoln with the pups is – well – PERFECT!

    Pam

  7. KarenS says:

    And this applies to those of us who are caregivers for aging spouses. I know our 11 year old pup will never change in his basic personality from when he was a pup. And used the same positive methods you used with Penny. But it is hard to take this when dealing with people. We expect them to change. And they can’t.

    I’ll take yours words as a way to meet each day as the frog, knowing I took this on willingly.

  8. Eve says:

    YOU have learned well my grasshopper! Now if I could only do the same with mine! The photos were great and both your boys have grown so much in the past year! Keep up the good work! HUGS to all!

  9. “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.” Spot on! Great post.

  10. czechsix says:

    My day is only a few hours old, but that last picture already made it a memorable one, and a well needed chuckle.

    As to the rest of your post, well said, well and true.

    Now I’ll go give a hug to Mina, who’s depressed and sulking after spending ten days at a high end boarding facility. I hope she’ll snap out of it, but it’ll probably take a few days for Miss Sensitive Ridge to become her old self.

  11. coastingnz says:

    Wow Will your writing just gets better and better.

  12. MAYLOR says:

    Love your words: strike so many chords! Would you consider granting permission to reprint this? I will happily give further details but not sure if this is a public forum or not. 

    From: Marking Our Territory To: maylor@btopenworld.com Sent: Friday, 9 February 2018, 13:39 Subject: [New post] The Nature of My Dogs and The Nurture of My Child #yiv0245097328 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv0245097328 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv0245097328 a.yiv0245097328primaryactionlink:link, #yiv0245097328 a.yiv0245097328primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv0245097328 a.yiv0245097328primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv0245097328 a.yiv0245097328primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv0245097328 WordPress.com | Will (MarkingOurTerritory.com) posted: “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 drow” | |

  13. Elyse says:

    Wonderful and true — highlighted by that picture that will be treasured

  14. Emmadog says:

    No one can truly change who someone is, we have to learn to work with the personalities we are given. For us, Bailie and her need to shred has been a big challenge, but it is now something that happens, nothing to be upset about, we quietly remove the object and move on. Her shredding has lessened but still occurs. We all have things that are just the way they are. Mom says as she ages she realizes the things that are in her nature and she tries to avoid the others. When humans are younger, they often try to make themselves change to love doing things against their nature but it is almost always a failure. Love the sour puss photos of Lincoln we see. So cute and funny!

  15. Nothing is quite as humbling as puppies or babies. You seem to have learned the in’s and out’s navigating that path quite well on both counts. Well done!

  16. I love that last photo!

    Kudos to you for recognizing this early. Most parents figure it out with the second child…the one that typically challenges all of your rules. Also, thanks for the reminder. We’re on round 2 of child-rearing…after 5 kids, now we’re raising grandkids. Not only are we learning who they are to begin with but also the added influence of who their parents were “helping” them to be. It’s a serious challenge to say the least!

  17. So true. The circumstances will be what they are. Being ready to respond (before you drown) is what matters. Enjoy that big box of fun in the last picture! Awesome!

  18. What a great post. It’s difficult for us to get to the beach (i don’t drive) so i can understand how many wouldn’t think of leaving just after 5 min. So many things for new parents and pawrents to learn and to accept. Love the last photo everytime i see it.

  19. Sue Unger says:

    “Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!”

    Well now you’ve done it. Your writing was the hook. Your photos sealed the deal. But referencing ‘The Princess Bride’? (sigh…)

    Fortunately for us all, I am stilled tethered to sanity enough to refrain from throwing my backpack and 4 dogs in the car, setting out to find you, planting myself on your porch, lawn, stoop, never to leave. My kids are grown and I think my husband might vaguely understand….

    Great writing. Keep em comin. However, I’m warning you, mister…. NO musical references! You’re killin’ me!

  20. I’m once again charmed by your gorgeous family and your clever and insightful writing, Will. A friend years ago told me that she used to give dirty looks to people in the grocery store with crying babies. Then she had kids and realized how judgmental she had been. We have so little control. We do the best we can, engaging our compassion and understanding and we all grow together. Thanks for another great post.

  21. Alys directed me back here Will. I am so happy she did! This is such a full and rich and wise post words fail me except – well done and thank you and I hope many puppy and baby parents come by and take note. It was you who convinced me the time would never be perfect to adopt a dog , so just get on and do it now and I have never regretted it – and I have learned pretty much the same way Penny taught you that an alert parent and consistent consequences are the best socialisation tool we have in our kit. Thanks again Will, it’s lovely to be back in your followers!

  22. UrbanCollieChick says:

    This one helped me calm down and go a little Zen at work today. Much appreciated.

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