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What Dogs Can Teach Kids

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When Jack was about 6 months old, the dog snapped at him, a single sudden nip that happened so fast we didn't see it. Prior to this, Alice, an Australian shepherd, had shown monumental patience, but lately we'd caught her reading the Book of Job, looking for answers. To Jack, she was a giant plaything that he could lie on, hug, pull, pinch, prod, and poke -- we suspect it was an eye gouge that proved to be the last straw. We called the breeder, an expert in canine behavior, fearing it had been a pack-rival dispute in which Alice was protecting her place in the order of things. The breeder said it was probably more of a maternal response, similar to how female dogs let their pups do just about anything to them for the first four to six months before saying enough, which in dog language means nipping. Alice was unlikely to repeat the offense, the breeder said, but we couldn't take the chance. We bought an extra-wide child gate and erected a barrier between them that we kept in place for the first two years. As soon as we put it up, Alice walked over to me, stood on her hind legs, put a paw on my shoulder, and said, "Thank you."

"When you have kids," Bruce Springsteen is said to have said, "your dog is just a dog again." Prior to Jack, Alice and I had been something of a team, but The Boss was right. Jack was the priority now, and if I'd needed to find Alice another home, I would have. I didn't want to for a number of reasons, among them a belief that kids who grow up with dogs learn things that kids who don't can't.

First, there is the simple benefit of companionship. I grew up with a golden retriever named Piper who was very much my father's dog, but I considered her a friend, even though I had a brother and two sisters; Jack is an only child, and unless his mother and I can figure out how to give him the older brother he keeps asking for, Alice will remain his only sibling. She also takes some of the parenting load off of us, playing with him when we're worn out.

Second, she gets us out of the house, providing Jack with all the fitness benefits of regular exercise.

Third, she teaches him responsibility, though I'm not expecting him to groom or feed her any time soon. When the pet turtle my family had when I was young died from ... uh ... neglect (somebody turned it upside down and put a rock on its stomach, and then everybody else neglected to right him), my mother left him in his dish until one of us noticed, to teach us a lesson. But we never noticed, until she had to bury him at sea with a flush or two and then spray the room liberally with Lysol. Responsibility is a slow process — the point is that Jack lets Alice out, or in, and thinks of her needs.

Fourth, she keeps us safe, both in Jack's imagination and in reality. Monsters are, it goes without saying, afraid of dogs, and when the darkness becomes too much for Jack, we've occasionally called Alice up on the bed to stand guard. I explained one night that a dog sleeps with her ears wide open, the auditory part of her brain as alert to sounds in the night as when she's awake, and it seemed to help. Alice is a complete wuss, but potential burglars don't know that. I also have confidence, when I read those Lassie-like stories in the papers of kids lost in the woods who cling to their dogs to get them through till morning, that in a similar situation, Alice would do her part.

Fifth, in an elementary but important way, Alice has taught Jack empathy. Scholars argue as to the extent, but clearly dogs and humans have learned to understand each other and to communicate, and Alice (who, let's be honest, can't actually talk) communicates with body language, which Jack has learned. She signals him when she wants to play or chase sticks, and she turns aside or walks away when she's had enough of his ministrations or doesn't particularly feel like wearing a party hat at the moment. He's learned when to stop, even though he likes to push her buttons as much as he enjoys pressing ours.

Jack at 4 is fearless, approaching every dog he sees with a sense of mastery, though we've taught him to ask the dog's owner before he pets the various hounds we come across. It drives me crazy, walking Alice, when I see parents scooping their kids up from the sidewalk as we approach -- what better way to inculcate a phobia? Jack knows all dogs are different. He's still learning how to calibrate his cautiousness.

The unintended effect of having a quarantining barrier between Jack and Alice for two years was to increase his attraction to dogs, the forbidden thing he yearned for. Now wild horses couldn't keep him from them (and if we tried, we'd probably have a wild horse problem). It worked against him last summer when we were on vacation in North Carolina and Jack got nipped again, by a dachshund on the sand dunes near Kitty Hawk. He'd asked the person holding the leash for permission, but she was the dog's owner's girlfriend and perhaps didn't know the dog as well as her boyfriend did. The dachshund had just had surgery, with stitches still in her belly, and was in no mood as Jack pressed his affectionate attack. The result was a puncture wound about half an inch from Jack's eye. An hour after we got out of the emergency room, he was back at it, molesting every pooch in sight. At least now he stays clear of dogs that shy away or hide behind their owners' legs. He pets only dogs that welcome him, and he's less aggressive in the way he approaches -- he's aware of the dog's feelings.

In the end, having a dog, for a child, is purely an emotional experience. The hardest emotional lesson, of course, is yet to come. Alice is 9 years old. We might have another six or seven years with her. We might not. Dogs don't flush. Not even Chihuahuas. You have to do something about it when they fail. To this day, I don't know the story of Piper's last days, only that my father took her somewhere one night, when I was in high school, and when I woke up the next morning, she was gone. I don't know if he put her down without telling us because he wanted to spare us, or because it was a private experience for him, something he didn't want us to see, for I'm sure he cried, and that was something he never shared with us. I can't say what I'll do when it's Alice's time, but if there's a way to teach loss, or how to grieve, perhaps we'll include Jack in that. I'm guessing he'll bounce back faster than I will. Meanwhile, she rides with Jack in the back of the car, walks with us when we go for hikes, brings him stuffed animals, cleans the floor when he spills, chases the sticks he throws, sleeps at the foot of the bed, and teaches him what his mother and I both know -- that we are a family of four, not three. Maybe I'm anthropomorphizing, but I think she loves him. We know he loves her, and that is all good.

About the Author: Pete Nelson lives with his family in South Salem, New York, where on school days at 3:15 p.m., he and Alice, now 11, wait outside their house for the bus to drop off Jack, now 7 -- and for the fun to begin again.

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Supernanny for Dogs
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