Libby’s Lessons of Dog Ownership

Shredded leaves and gnawed branches lay strewn throughout our house. Dirt from five once-thriving houseplants was scattered all over the light beige carpet in the living room, dining room and hallways. Saturn-like rings had been made in the soil, evidence of a creature running in deliriously happy circles.

Paw prints led to the rock waterfall we received as a wedding gift a year ago. The cord was chewed all the way through, its polished stones buried among the detritus of the plants.
A pile of poop was left to cool near the kitchen.

Sitting amid this creative destruction was our new 6-month-old puppy, Libby. Her tail wagged joyfully as she greeted me at the door. On the other side of the room was someone with an entirely different demeanor – my wife. Conflicting emotions battled to dominate her face. Her lower lip trembled with suppressed grief while her brown eyes blazed with the fury of betrayal.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Libby appeared to be the perfect dog. When we brought her home, we laid her on a fluffy, down-filled doggy bed and clucked over how preciously cute she looked. She was remarkably well-behaved.

The shelter recommended crating – as do most veterinarians and trainers – but I thought I had a better way. One end of the kitchen can be closed off with a door. I bought a baby gate to block off the other end. The arrangement seemed to work for everyone.

She didn't bark. She eliminated outside every time. She seemed very respectful of her new home, the furniture and of us. In short, we marveled at how perfect she was. She engendered such trust that we debated the need to keep her restricted to the kitchen.

My first mistake: I assumed our innocent dog would remain in this wonderful state.

On that fateful Wednesday (less than a week after we brought her home), she realized how flimsy a barrier that baby gate really was. She shoved it aside with what must have been canine contempt and used our home as a racetrack, playpen, obstacle course and toilet.

Lesson One: Listen to the experts and crate your puppy. An older, wiser dog may not require it, but a young puppy demands it.

Libby was not housebroken, as we so fervently hoped. I squelched the pangs of guilt and bought a crate. Given praise and treats, Libby has accepted her crate and seems grateful to be learning the rules of the house.

We soon became Libby's cheerleaders during her bathroom runs. My neighbors enjoy describing the sight of a grown man rooting whenever his dog poops in the yard – but I'd do the wave for her if I could muster a large enough crowd.

Then I discovered another fact of dog ownership no one ever told me about – sometimes they forget they have to go. One day, Libby had "assumed the position" to perform a Number Two, but I stopped her in time to take her outside. Once out of the house, she became excited at some scent, and we spent 15 fruitless minutes wandering around the yard.

I knew she had to go. I thought she knew she had to go. But she wasn't going. The feeling reminded me of waiting for a bus that's late – you knew it had to come sooner or later, but when?

Lesson #2: Patience. Patience. Patience. You can't will, command or cajole your dog to go, even if it's raining and miserable, even if it's the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, with seconds to go and the score tied. She'll go when she goes.

There are ways to signal what you want her to do, such as saying "Hurry up" whenever she goes – she'll connect the words with what she's supposed to do. But every dog is different, and a puppy for sure will take time to learn – and even then, there's no guarantee she's going to do her duty when you want her to.

That brings up another point: communication is a two-way street, and your dog is more likely to learn your signals before you learn hers. Whenever Libby went to the door, we made a mad dash to get her leash on her and take the girl outside. Bright dog that she is, she quickly realized how to manipulate us.

After a couple of false alarms, I resolved not to heed her every beck and call to go outside. I am, after all, the alpha wolf. Then the other night, as I prided myself on asserting my authority by ignoring her signals to go "out," she pooped at the doorway. My wife pointed out that the price of my alpha wolf status was the job to clean it up.

Lesson #3: When she wants to go out, take her out. She may abuse her position, but better safe than sorry.

By observing her carefully, we eventually learned more about the subtle signals she offers. We take her out every time, and place bets with one another on whether an "outing" will be productive. The loser does the dishes, cleans the next accident, that sort of thing.

Potty training is one of the biggest issues any new dog owner faces. Another revolves around acceptable toys. Nylabones, squeaky toys and tennis balls all constitute acceptable toys. Shoes, clothing, the remote control, chair legs, our CD cases, keys (and this list, taken from real life, will probably grow) are not acceptable chew toys.

But try telling that to a puppy. All they know is that some things are okay for them to slobber on, and others are not – and they can't tell the difference. I left the remote control on a low table, and when I sat down again it was gone. My television, however, began changing channels on its own. Libby was busily mouthing the buttons.

Just a week before, she never would have touched it. But back then she felt like a newcomer, an intruder. Now she feels at home, and everything is a toy until we tell her it isn't four or five times. This brings me to another lesson.

Lesson #4: How your dog behaves the first couple of days may be very different after she gets used to the idea that this is her home and she is a member of the family.

Along with this lesson is another important one: Consistency, consistency, consistency. If it's wrong for your dog to sit on the couch, enter the bedroom or receive treats from the dining room table, it must always be wrong. No exceptions. Otherwise, forget a disciplined house.

The "black Wednesday" episode that resulted in the demise of our plants and carpet taught us of another lesson:

Lesson #5: A tired dog is a good dog.

This is another piece of wisdom from the experts. It is also a basic truism. The day Libby went on her rampage, I had only walked her a couple of blocks because she hadn't had her stitches out yet. The best way to avoid "the maddies" is to tire her out. That, of course, is easier said than done after a hard day at work – but really, it's a healthier lifestyle for you and for her.

Speaking of experts, I want to make clear I refer to the truly knowledgeable, not the legions of homegrown animal "experts," who once took care of a neighbor's cat and therefore think you and your dog will benefit from their minutes of experience. This brings me to my last lesson:

Lesson #6: Everyone thinks they are an "expert" – especially the in-laws.
People continually heap advice upon us – even those without dogs. Others want to tell you what to do even though their own dogs are as well behaved as a coyote.

But these are just slight bumps on the road of contentment. What's amazing is how quickly Libby has fit into our lives. The other day I dropped her off at the groomers for an hour. When I came back, my wife was again in near tears – she didn't like the sudden quiet orderliness of our house, and she wasn't happy until Libby was once more ensconced safely in her home.