I didn’t want a puppy and now that we have one, I still don’t. Everyone tells me “It’s like having a new baby.” I set them straight and say babies don’t chase you around the house nipping your ankles, chewing power cords and swallowing rocks. They smile and nod. It seems like the conspiracy of childbirth, the general amnesia and softening out the edges of traumatic memory. I still remember! When people I know have babies, I don’t ask them the name or how heavy or the gender, I ask them how horrific it was, how long it went on, who was there with them, which drugs and did they get a private room to hide in quietly and cry. Having babies is hard core. Surely a puppy would be a walk in the park, so to speak.
Not so much. Although he was officially given the name Jasper, he quickly progressed to other names. These included Bitey McBite-face, his night-time name of Whiny-Whiny boy-dog and another impolite habit earned him the title of Humplestiltskin. The day he arrived I was unpacking the dishwasher when he launched a posterior attack. His jaw locked tightly around my ankle, his piranha sharp teeth firmly embedded. The children ran to their bedrooms and closed the door and my husband watched in horror. This wasn’t exactly the way we imagined it might be, like in those toilet paper ads with the cute music and the baby puppies licking the kid’s faces as they all cuddle and roll in the grass. We didn’t get that dog.
We take photos when he is not biting the girls and post them on social media. The world comes to visit. We make appointments for puppy cuddles, people arrive at the same time and it is overwhelming for him. He licks, bites, snuggles and runs away. We hear the advice about the ticking clock, the hot water bottle, we had already tried both without success, we listen to the advice of letting him sleep with us, sleep without us, inside and outside dogs. My neighbour reminds me of the python we had last year in the garden. We listen and can’t process it all. It’s like learning a new language. By the time a school mum mentioned anal gland draining, I just blocked it out.
I get used to getting up twice or three times a night to stand out in the cold watching him pee. I think about the people who said it’s like having a baby, it is and it’s not. At least babies have nappies and don’t shit on the carpet. Our house is tracked with mud and grass and smells like poo. My hands look like a bare knuckle fighter, bloodied and scabbed.
He continues to cry and yelp and whine when we put him to bed. I text my next door neighbour at 9:40pm to apologise for the noise; she has two dogs. She understands. We have moved him from the laundry with toddler gates, where he cried and peed, then to the en-suite so he can see us. He flings himself at the bars like he’s been falsely imprisoned. He bites the edges of the shower tiles; I suspect he is filing his teeth. He yanks down my bathrobe from the back of the door and humps it. He growls and bites and chews my bedside table legs when I take him out to passify him and let him sleep beside me.
On the third night we are both on the bed with our feet up screaming at each other. “Why is the dog tearing around?” I flip up my eye mask and check the time its 12:02am “Why are you coming in at midnight?” I shriek at my husband. “The World Cup was on!” The dog is jumping up at the bed growling and biting. I am so tired, it feels like we are both in a sinking boat with a wild storm and huge waves thrashing us. “ I don’t know what to do with him,” he says. “I hate him,” I cry “ I want to send him back!” around and around the bed the dog races with his high pitch bark and growling and now I get the meaning of the word throw cushion. I want to hurl these at him and stop the noise. Instead I let him lick Rescue Remedy from my fingers and put amethyst and rose quartz crystals in his water. “Like that’s going to help,” mutters my husband. Eventually we all sleep.
I speak to my family and friends about his behaviour and they mention crates. I get one from K-mart which is fabric and an inoffensive colour and cheap. On the way to the vet he tries to rip it apart, I see the whites of his eyes and his bared teeth and growling while he carries on like a mini Cujo. I have to pull over and stop a few times to let his head out of the zip at the top. He escapes and walks over my lap and chews on the handbrake. I’m reminded of the Afrikaans saying “Buying cheap is buying expensive.” I know I need to get a proper sturdy crate and give this one to someone with an aloof cat. He starts looking up when I call him Silly-dog.
“You do realise I can see your Google searches on my iPad mum,” my daughter informs me after finding my 11.45pm search of “Why do puppies eat their own poo?” my husband is gagging in the en-suite as I come in with the Spray ‘n Wipe and paper towels to clean up the remains of the day. We did buy the premium puppy food for extra nutrition, but I had no idea it was so good he would eat it twice. Apparently, to them it is a delicacy, it’s only humans who find it repulsive. Puppy poo eating is a thing. That wasn’t on the paperwork, or mentioned under the breed category. Nor was anal gland draining, for that matter. I take him to the vet, she tells me how I need to clean his teeth, fold the ear back and reach in deep to pluck the hair out. Jesus. I think I stop listening.
During the week, a friend mentions boundaries, suggesting a play pen. It reminds me of the kids with the little back packs with ropes on them and I say “I don’t like the idea of animals in cages,” she raises her eyebrows and drinks her tea. I phone the vet and ask can I have the puppy training classes sooner than later. I had booked this when my life was about me, and not revolving around sharp toothed, stealth ankle biter with a penchant for shredding my pyjama pants and eating his own poo.
The pack leader at the puppy school means business. I note her outfit, dark long pants, closed in shoes, long sleeves, hair pulled back, like she is going into battle. She tells us that one in three puppies has issues. My daughter and I exchange a look, which says God, that’s us. Of course we get the one with issues.
We learn quickly. We get a clicker so the sound can be associated with a reward. I learn about positive reinforcement and understand why shouting NO was not ever working. We learn about boundaries. Pens. Crates. I buy both. I buy blankets, towels, toys, treats. I buy some overpriced dog collar from the vet which has the smell of a lactating mother on it for $127. We use bacon, ham and salami to teach him to sit, come, chase a ball and it starts to be fun. We click the clicker and treat. He stops biting us so much and popping him in the pen means I can unpack the dishwasher in peace. Every day gets better. I start to play music, burn candles, and vacuum, I disinfect all the rooms he has been in, I wash all the blankets and open the windows. Containment, boundaries, praise, treats. I get it now.
He probably hated us too. He had gone from the comfort of his mother and brothers and sisters to a family of big people who yelled NO all the time, who ran away from him and left him locked up at night.
I can now see how it is like having a new baby, because we learn to parent. It takes a little while to get to know one another, how everything works, what the other likes and dislikes, how we all need connection and containment and treats. It has been interesting to notice the need for time to ourselves when things get overwhelming. It is perfect to see how encouragement works better and more effectively than shouting. I also became aware of how we present ourselves and families on social media. Here is a photo of my cute dog, with a perfect background and kids playing outside in the sunshine. When the reality sometimes is, here is my dog eating his own turd at 2am locked in the bathroom. We don’t post the unflattering stuff. We filter. We select how we want the world to see us.
It’s been a steep learning curve for us. I haven’t had a dog since 1985, we didn’t have poo bags back then. Now I have the black bags in one pocket and treats in the other, I’m dolling out bacon, chicken, saying a lot of “Good boy!” and clicking the clicker. Last week I realised how instinctive it had all become as I dropped the girls to school, called out have a good day, and reached into my pocket for a treat.
If you are a new parent, have a new pet, or are in a new relationship, I wish you luck. Ask for support when you need it, take time out for you, watch and learn. Sometimes everything goes belly up, but that’s when the personal growth happens. As you learn more about them, you learn more about you. You learn kindness, patience, acceptance and love. And bacon. Because life is better with bacon.