Dr. Seth Meyers, Clinical Psychologist

Dr. Seth Meyers, Clinical Psychologist

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dogs Teach the Darndest Lessons: How Pet Parenthood Prepares You for the Real Thing

We all know that kids do the darndest things, but any dog owner can tell you the same truth applies to dogs. Not only are they little furballs of personality, but living with them and tending to their every need can also have helpful real-life applications that prepare you for a different kind of nurturing. I have found that dogs can actually teach you how to become a good parent to your children.

As I mentally prepare to have children of my own, I'm fraught with the predictable anxieties: Will I be a good enough father? Patient enough? Flexible enough? Yet as I battle my own neuroses, I must take solace in the fact that I have already had some experiences parenting. True, I haven't dealt with a bawling infant or a defiant toddler, but taking care of dogs brings with it unique needs. For one, your dog probably won't develop language skills, so you will eternally need to try to decipher the language he speaks and meet him on the communication level he is capable of. Actually, perhaps having a dog is kind of like having an infant who never grows beyond sixteen pounds!

When I think back to my first experience as a dog owner, I recall a period a few years ago when a gorgeous lemon beagle puppy came into my life. Never having raised a dog before, I (maybe) engaged in some punishment techniques that weren't so effective. (Whoever said that clinical psychologists take their own advice?) And yet years later, when a second dog entered my life, I found that I approached my new chihuahua mix from a more balanced perspective. The reality: I'd done it before and had learned how to take care of a dog as a result of my experiences.

I have found that taking care of pets introduces you to some of the same issues that I know exist in children and adolescents. For example, if you ever want proof of the fact that dogs can have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, I would refer you to Misha, the chihuahua mix. Though his upbringing (which subjected him to abandonment and, we believe, abuse) understandably caused anxiety that would later become manifest in what appear to be OCD symptoms, his current life with me seems fairly stress-free. Despite the about-face towards comfort, his compulsive symptoms (for example, mock-chewing one of his paws in a perseverative, urgent manner for no reason) continue. In the moments when he engages in this activity, I must check my own impulse to stop the behavior. He isn't truly hurting himself and he's engaged in this behavior for years as a means of self-soothing, so who is it really bothering besides me?

My experience getting triggered by my dog's OCD symptoms reminds me of behavior you often see parents engage in with their children: "Stop doing that," they often snap, or "Don't do that," and the list goes on. It occurs to me that parents often focus on activities their children engage in that aren't inherently bad, or even bad for them. In fact, the anxiety is often the parents', and the constant barrage of directives by the parents can actually increase a child's anxiety and, accordingly, increase the very anxiety symptoms that drive parents nuts to begin with.

So I no longer try to stop my dog from engaging in the unconventional, idiosyncratic behaviors. After all, these behaviors are merely the archive of his experiences and personality. I know that my own ability to take a step back, to engage in benevolent punishment when appropriate, and to accept the bad with the good all stem from my experience taking care of my dogs. In hindsight, I am intensely relieved that I checked a few of my not-so-parental impulses prior to having actual children. No one ever told me that being a parent to a canine first would smooth the road for the real thing, so I thought I'd be the first to say it to you.

(This article written by Dr. Seth was also published at Psychology Today).

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