Wednesday, October 3, 2007

If you love it, let it free...

When I teach puppy socialization classes I tell my students to try to ignore the puppies during off-leash play time. Yes, get involved if the puppies need them, but otherwise let them be dogs for 15 minutes a week. This is hard for some people. It's hard for some dogs, too. In every class there is one dog who will stick to their person and not move. They may be interested in the other puppies, but for whatever reason they want to stay near their human. Sometimes the student is flattered and doesn't try very hard to encourage the dog to play. Other students will try to get the puppy engaged in the group, but in either case the student usually feels at least a bit flattered that the puppy choses them over canine playmates.

All flattery aside, a puppy does need to learn to deal with other dogs in a positive way. Not every dog has to play with every dog it meets, but an "emotionally healthy" dog should appropriately deal with the presence of another dog. The best way to foster this is to allow puppies to play with other puppies in a safe, controlled environment - i.e. a well-run puppy play session. By this I mean puppies are divided according to play style and sometimes by size or age and the instructor is actively involved in preventing bullying, redirecting potentially aggressive play, and praising positive play behavior. Just throwing a bunch of puppies together and letting them go wild for minutes on end is not helpful to any puppy.

Then there are the students who call their puppies out of appropriate puppy-play for whatever reason - usually because they just can't help themselves. Often it's because the puppy is so cute they want to be a part of what's going on. Other times, though, I think if I picked the brain of the student I would find that they can't imagine the thought of their puppy having fun without them - their human - being involved. In other words, the human is jealous. After all, the puppy usually looks to them to have all needs met, especially entertainment. And now that puppy is having fun while excluding the human. That's a tricky adjustment for the human. (And one not every human tries to get over, but that's a different issue...)

Imagine my surprise last night when I found myself experiencing that jealousy. Only instead of calling my dog away from fun and appropriate play so I could be included, it was my 2 year old daughter I was calling away! We attended an indoor-water park birthday party and Bug was having the time of her life. The birthday girl is a 3 year old who is Bug's first good friend and Bug loves to follow her around and copy her. I've been so pleased that Bug has someone her own age to play with since her life is very full of a variety of adults but no one her age.

So why did I keep calling Bug's attention away from her friend and toward whatever I wanted to show her? The best I could figure out is that I was jealous! Yes, part of it was because I am very used to being Bug's Number One playmate, but there was an underlying jealousy factor as well. If Bug has other friends, friends her own age, will she still find me as fun and exciting as she has for the past 2 years? Because it's a big ego boost to be considered as hilarious and entertaining as my daughter considers me.

Once I realized what I was doing to Bug I was able to take a step back and let her interact freely with her friend, as long as what they were doing was safe. Unfortunately the damage was done. Yes, Bug would play with her friend, but she wanted me along as well and would look to me before looking to her friend for the next activity.

Like puppies, children need to interact with others their own age, as well as adults, in order to have the social skills necessary to function in the world. Actually, I'd argue it's more important for children to have playmates and unstructured playtime since they pretty much have to interact with other people as they get older. At least an anti-social dog can be kept away from all other dogs, although that's not much of a life for the dog which is why I advocate puppy socialization as much as I do.

Now I know the error of my ways and will hopefully improve the next time Bug has a play date. It's not easy, but if I love my child, and I truly do, I need to give her some freedom to explore and learn from others her own age. I hope that in the long run it will foster a friendship between us as she becomes an adult. Or at least not send her to the therapist's couch for decades of therapy...

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