Puppy Walks and Parenting
Daily walks with the puppy teach much about parenting.
Posted Jul 05, 2020
We adopted a puppy on the first day of Ohio's coronavirus lockdown. We'd been looking for a year, actively visiting shelters for two weeks, and suddenly, there he was. Our COVID puppy, fresh from his own parvovirus quarantine.
One of the many reasons we brought a new dog into our home was the joy of walking. I love to walk. Every time I was on the trail, I missed our old beagle, Zoe.
So Loki, our puppy, walks. An hour or so in the morning. At least one or two shorter sojourns later in the day. Watching him bounding ahead of me in the woods this morning, I was struck with how good a metaphor dog walking is for parenting.
Authoritative parenting balances high levels of support with high levels of structure. Over the last century, research has demonstrated that children and adolescents with authoritative parents thrive —doing well academically and socially, feeling self-confident, and staying out of trouble. Although in different times and cultures other parenting styles may be associated with equally good outcomes, authoritativeness seems a robust predictor of good outcomes everywhere.
Work by Diana Baumrind found that authoritative parents tend to be warmer and more supportive than permissive parents and more consistent in following through on the rules they set than authoritarian ones. A key characteristic of authoritative parents is that they only limit their children's behavior when it is necessary to do so and falls within particular domains that both parents and most kids recognize as legitimate.
That's what reminded me of dog walking this morning.
Two types of dog leashes, two goals of walking.
I have two different leashes for Loki and take her on at least two different types of walks.
Walking the dog has several major goals for us, besides the obvious one of allowing Loki to relieve himself.
- Exercise: Muscle development shapes bone development and is important for normal growth.
- Reducing boredom: Watching me on Zoom is not all that interesting for a dog (or anyone else). "Playing" with the cat is pretty strictly limited. Walking gives Loki something to do and later to think about. It also offers him new problems to solve (Does algae support my weight? How tangled does my leash get when I run into the bushes?).
- Socialization: Puppies—like all young creatures—have critical periods when they learn much about what is safe and what is scary. Exposure is key and has been a challenge during the coronavirus lockdown. We bring Loki with us everywhere. The more he sees and experiences safely during this time, the less fearful he is likely to be. He meets (and rarely greets) other dogs, sees strollers, bicycles, and horses, and sees people dressed in many ways and of many sizes, shapes, and colors, both masked and unmasked. All of that is now his new normal.
Rambles. We use a long 20' leash for rambling walks around the neighborhood, around our local pond, and through the metroparks so generously scattered around the county.
These types of walks are fairly long—now up to almost an hour—where we will rarely pass more than a few other people along the way. They follow a few rules:
- When we're ready to walk, he has to keep up.
- No pulling or, especially, jerking (it hurts my arm).
- No playing with nasty things—gloves, masks, horse manure, and dead animals spring to mind.
- No walking on lawns or in the street (except crossing).
- No barking or jumping.
Outside of that, he can do what he wants. He can follow his nose, run, or walk. He's everywhere—behind, ahead, or right beside us. We often stop to see what he's found. This week, that's included multiple snakes, hundreds of frogs, a few dozen turtles, and a mink (I'd never seen one in the wild before). Hundreds of squirrels and chipmunks. He missed several rabbits and a deer when they were in sight, although caught their scent as we passed their trail.
In this way, it is much like authoritative parenting. Once we'd set general guidelines for acceptable behaviors, he could do what he wanted. That's the essence of authoritative parenting. It balances the needs of the parent for the child to shape their behavior and accommodate others with the needs of the child to have their own needs met.
These walks also remind me of one of the things I loved most about parenting when my kids were young: discovery. Loki has gone from being scared of walking in puddles to gleefully diving neck-deep in mucky stands of arrowroot. With my kids, it was reveling in the perfect symmetry of the story, Blueberries for Sal. With Loki, it's sitting on a streambank watching him nose after crayfish for half an hour, recalling hours—days—weeks of long, hot, childhood summers.
Formal Walks. If you've ever taken a dog to obedience class, you know that their ideal is the "slack-leashed walk," where dogs are on a 4' or 6' leash walking in synch with their owners without distraction. This is a focus-intensive task for dogs and not one they do naturally. We are taking obedience classes with Loki now, and I can tell you that it has not been easy for any of the puppies to master.
It is a great skill for dogs to have, however, and one we have been working on. In a formal walk, the dog's needs are clearly attentive to the cues of their owner. We try to take Loki on a formal walk once a day, although they typically last only 5-15 minutes at this point. He's little. They are demanding.
When do we do them? In the same kinds of situations, you'd ask a child to behave. When we take him into stores (thank you big box hardware stores and pet shops!) and when we're walking in town. In those situations, there are many other people around and it is important that Loki learn to constrain his behavior to accommodate theirs. Although I think Loki is adorable, many people are frightened of dogs — particularly ones that are jumpy or move around quickly. He needs to stay close by my side so he doesn't interfere with other people who are walking — particularly people with mobility issues. It would be awful if he or his leash tripped someone. And I would be saddened to think he had scared a timid child because he couldn't contain his enthusiasm.
So we train him.
And that's another thing that reminds me of parenting. It is my hope that when he's older, he'll be able to come with me to work because I find that well-behaved dogs are comforting to students who are stressed and far from home. I want him to be able to be a support dog and be certified to visit folks in the hospital.
Well-behaved dogs are welcome in many places. Untrained ones... Not so much. Same as kids.
Working with Loki on a short leash is not the carefree ramble of our mornings in the woods. It takes all of my focus to keep him on task. I reward him constantly for staying close and focused and keeping that leash slack. I need to look ahead at what will be our next distraction or danger. And I need to be there with an early "leave it" or "eh-eh" when his nose is off into a stinky doorway, overfilled bin, or when he's all-too-eager to meet another dog or almost-friend.
It's also hard for Loki. He has to divide his attention between focusing on me for guidance and on his interest in the sights and sounds of store and town. He likes those walks, but being well-behaved is tough (and not always successful) and we're both relieved when we pass the last store on our way home, I can drop my mask, and he can sniff a little wider on his lead.
Parenting and training as money in the bank.
Is this time-consuming? Yes. It's one of the reasons we had hesitated to adopt a new dog after Zoe died. But it's worth it to me. Both long puppy-driven rambles and more demanding crowded walks burn energy and provide interest into both Loki's day and mine. They are also an investment — just like the time and training we give to children. People give young ones slack when they misbehave. They're small and tired and we know they're just learning. That goes away as they age. But as puppies and kids internalize the expectations of others, they learn to fit better into our families and our communities. It becomes part of who they are and how they behave. As they are better socialized, they are better able to explore and receive a greater welcome and more positive feedback from others.
To me, that's time well spent.