Respectful parenting lessons from my anxious dog

OttoParents sneer when people without children talk about dog ownership as if it’s a practice run for having children. Dogs are not babies. Otto, my miniature
schnauzer, doesn’t wear Halloween costumes. He’s not my child. I’m not his mommy. And yet, I learned important parenting lessons during my two years with Otto before my first son was born. We made mistakes with Otto that freed us from making those same mistakes with our children. So while Otto is not my first baby (he’s a dog!), he was our guinea pig. Much like a second child gets experienced parents with a game plan, my first son got new parents who had already been disabused of misguided notions of behavior management and control.

Parenting Lesson #1: There is no control

By all accounts, Otto has led a nice life. He was born to a reputable, kind breeder in a loving environment and came to live with us as a puppy. We had read books about dogs; we had good hearts. He was loved. I first learned about the concept of a “yes environment” from a book on dog training, dutifully picking up and putting away all of the things that he was not allowed to chew, rather than yelling “no!” at him all the time. We trained him—he was smart. We did our best to socialize him with other dogs. We took him to a puppy class run by an animal behaviorist. But, since adolescence, Otto is a reactive, anxious dog. For a long time I felt guilty, what had I done wrong? But I came to realize (with the help of our excellent behaviorist) that guilt was misplaced. It’s possible we could have handled it better, but we did, and continue to do, our best. We can’t control who Otto is.

Parenting Lesson #2: Punishment is a bad way to influence behavior

At one low point, we asked friends how to deal with Otto’s reactive behavior—out of control barking, jumping, throwing himself at the door. Almost universally, the suggestion was punishment: squirt him with a water bottle. We were desperate and stupid, so we tried it. And he got worse and worse. At the time, we couldn’t figure this out. In retrospect, we know that he was anxious, and that instead of lowering his stress, we were increasing it. We were adding a new stress (the water bottle) on top of all of his other stressors. His body was in a state of constant high stress. The slightest provocation caused him to fly into a blind rage. That we thought punishment could change his behavior is evidence only of our profound misunderstanding of his situation. What helped Otto was to systematically lower his stress in every aspect of his life. We started turning around on walks if we encountered another person. We blocked him from seeing out the front window. We gradually introduced a crate as a safe space where he could let his guard down, and let him stay there whenever a visitor came to the house. Slowly, his behavior returned to (almost) normal.

Parenting Lesson #3: Seek respectful strategies

When the behaviorist helped us to understand Otto’s predicament, we realized that mainstream dog-training techniques are profoundly disrespectful. They do not take into account the motivations behind the dog’s “misbehavior,” they simply seek to control the dog. They seek to control the dog through force. And what’s more, if your dog is reactive, anxious, or fearful, attempting to control the dog through force can be dangerous. The dog trainers we met encourage positive reinforcement, never punishment or dominance-related strategies. Mainstream dog-training strategies made Otto worse, and we suspect they did damage that can never be reversed in full. Respectful, positive strategies that take the whole animal and context into account are much kinder and more effective.

Parenting Lesson #4: Raise the child—or dog—you have

We are now able to recognize an increase in Otto’s anxiety and counter it with efforts to lower his stress. He still, four years on, stays in his crate when people come to our house. He is put into his crate when our kids are acting rambunctious. Would it be nice to have a dog that happily greets visitors and curls up on the couch while we sit with friends? That romps around calmly with the kids? Yes! But that is not the dog we have. Otto, this dog, not the imaginary dog I would have wanted to have, cannot handle visitors. What is kindest for the dog we have is to let him opt out of stressful situations.

Parenting Lesson #5: Ignore judgmental onlookers

During the worst of it, when we were in the thick of trying to reduce Otto’s stress in any way we could, he would often decide in the middle of a walk that he would go no farther. Blessedly, Otto is only 23 pounds, so I would carry him home. I remember wondering what our neighbors were thinking, should they be looking out the window. But there was only one thing to do, to keep on walking, judgy neighbor be damned. Part of keeping Otto’s stress under control is prescription medication. (Interestingly, medication alone did nothing. Medication after our intensive stress-reduction regime worked brilliantly.) I sometimes mention off-handedly that Otto is on Prozac, and I can see the derision flash behind my friends’ eyes. I don’t blame them. I know that, before it happened to us, I would have judged dogs on prescription medication for anxiety. But to be a caregiver is to do what’s right even if others don’t understand—having a dog like Otto means constant reminder of the internal sense of purpose and assuredness that requires.

I often think of Otto when I’m reading parenting books, because topics remind me of things that apply to him. Robert MacKenzie says that “strong-willed children…do not respond to ineffective discipline.” Immediately I thought of Otto. Our difficult dog made us learn to be effective and clear, something we continue with our strong-willed child. What did we do to deserve such difficult charges?, I have wondered. But desert is irrelevant. The result is that I am a more effective dog owner, parent, and caregiver. What would have happened if we hadn’t learned these lessons from Otto before our children were born? Would my first son have been the guinea pig, suffering our mistakes while teaching us what we needed to learn? Otto is surely a gift—an anxious and difficult guru, reminding me of the need for love and respectful treatment for all creatures in our care.

I smile: my son is telling his friend that he shouldn’t yell “Bad dog!” at a dog. “That’s mean,” he says, quiet but intense. “You should just tell him clearly what you want, like, ‘Off!’ or ‘Sit!'” That’s right, sweet boy. That’s exactly right.


Are you struggling with an anxious or reactive dog? Find a qualified animal trainer or behaviorist, and check out these resources. And stay tuned for a follow-up post about how to manage an anxious dog in a house with small children.

Patricia McConnell

Behavior Adjustment Training

Dogs in Need of Space

Victoria Stilwell

Reactive Dog

Be a Tree Program

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