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My Name's Not Lassie

Puppies should come with disclaimers -- tags that clearly proclaim, "I'm not Lassie." If they did, then maybe more prospective dog owners would realize that fictional dogs like Lassie -- perfectly trained to appear more human than dog -- don't come ready to read minds, speak English or rescue small children from burning beds. Disclaimers on labels aside, what does it take to warn people that beseeching big brown eyes and cuddly little pot-bellies are falsely advertising, belying the mischief and mayhem deep in the heart of any "Scamp" that ever charmed his way into civilized society?

Choosing to introduce another species into a human ecosystem is usually, at best, a conscious choice which presumably has received some thought and direction of will. But, it seems that many new owners just aren't prepared to deal with canine idiosyncrasies and personalities. Puppies, not having benefited from a role model like Lassie, have their own personalities, their own identities, and their own priorities. In other words, they are more dog than human.

In fact, to illustrate how naive and unsuspecting new owners can be, just compare the difference between how most new computer owners and new puppy owners prepare for their new arrivals. The puppy owner probably buys food, some treats, toys, tags, leash, collar and maybe a few grooming items. The new computer owner, however, gets thick operator's manuals along with all the other computer accessories. New computer owners knowingly submit themselves to probably hundreds of hours of trial and error, frustration and self-education to achieve mastery of an electronic tool. But, there's a big difference between computers and puppies. Computers don't eat expensive shoes and Oriental throw rugs or hump the neighbor's leg. They don't pee on the carpet or throw up in your bed or yelp all night their first night in your house. A computer isn't going to last as long as a puppy, lick your tears, make you laugh, play ball with you or care if you ever even come home. Yet, the average computer user will invest more time and energy in getting a letter to print than many new dog owners will ever invest in learning how to live with their puppy. Sometimes, these are even the same people!

Maybe it's John Wayne's fault for popularizing the myth of self-reliance and man triumphing over nature that most mortal and real people seem to have come to believe that raising a puppy is instinctive, presumably like motherhood. Maybe lots of people are just dumber than dogs. Who knows for sure? But, it seems that making the transition from kennel to kitchen would be a lot more successful for most puppies and people with some basic grasp of the differences between dogs and people..

While there are hundreds of books about training puppies that people could read, it seems that most attempt to muddle (or in this case, puddle) through the ordeal of raising a puppy without benefit of help from the experts or the experienced. But, even for those wanting to wing it on their own, still a little common sense could boost their success ratio simply by suspending their own self-centered view of the world long enough to view it from the puppy's point of view once in a while.

Consider Mr. Dimwit's first night with his Lassie. There he is lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, listening to Lassie yelp pitifully, protesting what appears to him to be total abandonment. Out of sight, gone forever is his take on this new experience. Most people would holler for rescue if lost and alone in a strange place. Facing the fact that the puppy may wail long past the time Dimwit needs for a decent night's sleep, he finally sees the light, gets up and goes to the puppy. He turns on a radio, gives the puppy a warm, friendly stuffed toy, a chew bone, and, if available, something that has the scent of his mother or litter mates on it. He leaves on a night light. Chances are the puppy will calm down. If not, that's another chapter on dog training to be referenced at the library or with a call to the vet. The point here is that once seeing the situation from the puppy's point of view, it becomes apparent that while Dimwit saw this as only one night, to the puppy it was forever.

Most modern parents go to extreme lengths to baby-proof their homes when junior gets mobile. But surprisingly, plenty of people overlook puppy-proofing their homes when the little tyke arrives. One Christmas a new owner I know dropped his guard and overlooked making his bedroom "safe" before taking a nap with his puppy. As a consequence, the puppy had a very interesting Christmas dinner, joyfully helping himself to a new leather belt, down ski jacket and suede bill of an expensive Cleveland Indian's baseball cap. Puppies seldom respect private property rights. Theirs are mostly crimes of opportunity involving two parties-- one to provide the opportunity and the other to do the crime. Needless to say, this puppy did not get named Lassie.

Most children aren't toilet trained until around the age of two or more (some less depending on how obsessive their parents are) which is certainly not as much as you can say for a puppy who, with the right guidance, can be housebroken in a matter of weeks. Puppies have something most babies (and too many adults) don't have -- an instinct for cleanliness. If this basic instinct isn't corrupted by people, any pup will instinctively avoid soiling the areas where he sleeps and eats. No baby ever does this! Dog trainers have learned how to use this to advantage when housebreaking a puppy, and while there are several methods that work, new owners need to take time to learn how the pup's natural instincts will help the process rather than impede it.

Getting them housebroken is only part of the job though it seems to be the one that sabotages most inter-species unions. Having them come back in the house once they are regularly going out on their own can be quite convenient at 3:00 a.m. on a cold night with six inches of snow on the ground. One owner who was impressed with his puppy's waking him up to go out, sadly realized that the job was only half complete when the puppy wouldn't come back in after dutifully taking care of business. The puppy, enjoying the snow, began running large circles around the back yard as fast as he could run. Moonlight dancing on the virgin snow gave the illusion of a spotlight, holding this owner up for ridicule in this slapstick performance: every time the owner would try to snag him, the puppy would seem to almost laugh with glee and run faster, giving off the appearance of a little black torpedo whizzing around the yard, while a half-dressed, helpless adult jumped up and down in soggy slippers first begging, then ordering, and then threatening his Good Time Charlie to "come in right now." Teaching a puppy to come on command is also part of the assimilation process.

Puppies' crimes of opportunity should never be assumed to be limited to the owner's absences. Another owner told a story of a puppy that loved to steal plastic shampoo bottles, toothpaste tubes and such. This owner was taking a bath when his puppy's delinquency was first revealed. This owner ended up chasing his puppy naked through the house, dripping with bath water, after his shampoo had been snatched from the bathtub ledge while the owner was showering. Give them an inch, they'll usually go the mile. My question to this owner was why was the puppy left unsupervised. Oh, well, another chapter in the Stupid Human Tricks book.

The point here is to deny opportunity. Puppies should be supervised, and they should learn who runs the show. By the time the puppy has been in the house a week or so she's often hopelessly confused by the role reversal that's sometimes occurred between her and her owner. Dogs are, by nature, pack animals. Within the pack, they have a place of their own from which they derive security and a sense of purpose. Mother dogs are better at keeping their pups in line than most owners. They know the pup needs a firm hand and to know her place at the very beginning of life. But, far too many owners, who have their own misguided notions about free will, can be found chasing their dogs around the house with a rolled up newspaper or hopelessly barking "No," "Stop" "Get out of there," endlessly at a pup who has effectively tuned them out. These pups usually graduate to bolting out an open door, running through the neighbor's garden and vanishing for hours, returning at their own convenience or after being ransomed from the government for a costly fine. Had these owners taken the time to learn a few basics about dominance and a few training techniques, their pup wouldn't be under the impression that his true name is "Top Dog."

The irony is that puppies have already instinctively grasped what passes over many new owners' heads -- the psychology of dog ownership. The puppy knows that deep in the heart of any human considering dog ownership is the quest for unconditional love. Even when your own kids ignore your coming home after eight hours of drudgery, the dog is jubilant when you arrive. Even if you yell at your dog or forget to feed him, he'll still lick your hand and want to rest his chin on your lap. Even if you are a low down dirty slime ball, you can count on your dog to elevate you to supreme being. It's a shame to think that there are so many people who miss out on this experience because they don't take the time to learn the basics about raising a puppy. Dogs haven't generally been known to file for divorces or expect expensive presents on their birthdays. The joy of dog ownership is that your presence makes them happy. So, even if puppies can't always live up to the movie star image of Lassie, if they're raised right it won't matter because for your dog, there's only one you, and you are enough.

By Linda Norris


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