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Once Bitten: A Mother Afraid Of Dogs, A Little Girl Determined To Have One

Dena Vardaxis: "I never imagined being a dog person, but here I am, learning to speak dog. I have my daughter to thank." (Ianchongzi/flickr)MoreCloseclosemore
Dena Vardaxis: "I never imagined being a dog person, but here I am, learning to speak dog. I have my daughter to thank." (Ianchongzi/flickr)

Growing up, I feared dogs, pretty much all of them, no matter how friendly, cute or benign.

In my early elementary school years, I was knocked off my brother’s Big Wheel by a Doberman Pinscher protecting newly whelped pups. I came to on the pavement with her on top of me, barking fiercely. I remember sharp teeth. I pushed her off and ran home, my brother’s Big Wheel abandoned. I bore no bite marks, but my arms and legs were covered in scratches, and the memory of those angry teeth was seared into my consciousness. A decade later, when I was a college student, a stray dog bit me.

My arguments against having a family dog were weak. Did I really want to tell my girls we could not have one because I did not know the first thing about owning one?

My aim has always been to maintain a comfortable distance from even my friends’ dogs. A polite acknowledgment, maybe even a quick pat on the head, and then a buffer zone. I do not speak dog.

So why am I standing in Puppy Class 101, holding the leash of Boss, my family’s new 5-month-old cream poodle? Because I am a mother, and motherhood has taken me on stranger, swore-I’d-never-go-there adventures before.

A little over two years ago, my oldest daughter, then 8, began an earnest campaign to get a dog, “so I can love it.” I suggested she love her two younger sisters instead, but she persisted. Sometimes, she woke up early, came to my bed and whispered, “If we had a dog, I would take it out now so it could poop.”

My arguments against having a family dog were weak. Did I really want to tell my girls we could not have one because I did not know the first thing about owning one? Great life lesson, mama: “I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.” I couldn’t blame my fear, either. How would that sit coming from the mom who always says, “I know you are nervous. Yes, it’s new. But you have to try.” So for two years, I read article after article about the benefits of a family pet, especially for a child on the autism spectrum, as my oldest daughter is. I knew I had to try.

Enter Boss. The first thing I noticed was that he smells like a dog. He is a dog, of course, how else would he smell? Good grief, I’d become a dog owner.

I jumped right into puppy training, because I find comfort in structure. I also thought it might give me confidence. I even hoped that if my girls saw Boss following my instructions and listening to me, they might try it, too.

My first surprise lesson in puppy class: When you own a dog, you need to get comfortable not just with your dog, but with dogs in general. This seemed like a big ask. I had signed up for one dog, not the entire species.

So it turns out that I am being dog socialized right along with Boss. Our progress has been slow but not without promise. In our last class, Boss and I met a dog named Chance. On a scale of 1 to 10, his energy level is a 25. He is Boss’s age but double his size, with gangly limbs, a tongue the size of Boss’s face and teeth that looked to my eyes like razors.

My first surprise lesson in puppy class: When you own a dog, you need to get comfortable not just with your dog, but with dogs in general. This seemed like a big ask...

Boss hid under my chair, tail tucked. I assumed the human version of the pose, sitting stock-still and hoping that Chance would not be interested in either of us. It worked. We spent class out of Chance’s view, practicing Sit, Down, Stand and Look commands. I was feeling competent. Boss was a proving to be a quicky study. It was all going so well. And then the instructor announced a dog switch, to ensure that our pups will listen to others, as well.

Naturally, I was given Chance. “Chance, sit,” I said, as authoritatively as I could. To my astonished delight, he sat! “Chance, down,” I said, and down he went for his treat, giant tail wagging. He looked right at me. “Stand,” I said, and he did. What a great puppy, I thought. High strung, but pretty darn sweet.

Boss and I have several months of puppy classes ahead of us, and my learning curve remains steep. My goal is to get him to Therapy Dog status for my oldest daughter’s maximum benefit. Having him in the house has already helped her regulate her outbursts so she doesn’t “upset Boss.” That alone makes facing my dog fear worthwhile.

I never imagined being a dog person, but here I am, learning to speak dog. I have my daughter to thank.


Related:

Dena Vardaxis Cognoscenti contributor
Dena Vardaxis is an alumnae of Wellesley College, Teach for America, and Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She currently works full time at an investment company and is raising three girls and a husband.

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