Out of the Mouths of Pups

Post by volunteer Paige

Recently some foster dogs attended a weekly group exercise intended to help teen mothers learn some parenting techniques, by interacting with the foster pups.  It was a four week commitment for two hours each of the four nights. There were three moms, whom I'll call the Training Mamas, two Foster Mamas, one certified dog trainer, and the program coordinator. The logistics were a challenge-starting on time, ignoring all the distractions on all sides (we were assembled in the parking lot), keeping the dogs attention, and listening to instructions. But it was so much fun!

Having no knowledge of their backgrounds, or even their current situation (are they in school? Do they have jobs? Did they volunteer to be part of this exercise?), I didn't really know what to expect. The ladies were at times, typical teens, laughing at each other and the dogs, interrupting the instructors, disregarding requests for participation. There were other times when they were so mature-immediately understanding why a dog might grasp one new command (single task, like ‘sit'), but not another  (complex one like ‘rollover' which involves more than one movement, and also a submissive posture). They feigned disgust at picking up dog poop, but accepted the task when equated to changing diapers. They didn't like the dogs. Then they loved the dogs.

Day 1: Aug. 21

I was late. I brought Gopher, my foster (7 months old), as well as Paisle, my young pup (8 months old), because I wasn't sure there were going to be enough dogs to attend-recent rush of adoptions (yeah!). Sara brought Bowie (6 months old), so there were three puppies, and three teen moms.

The three ladies were afraid of the dogs. Some of their fear, I suspect, was posturing. Some of their fear was maybe just dislike for new people/new situation. But after a brief introduction each lady had a dog. Paisle's Training Mama had some questions, so I concentrated on helping her to understand what the instructor was suggesting she do with the dog. Bowie's Training Mama was very unsure of Bowie who is a bit of a jumper. Gopher's Training Mama had nothing but disdain for the young big boy, telling him he stinks. Looking back on those first few minutes, it was a riot of conflicting conversations, half-hearted participation, and general unease.

I am not really sure when things turned around for all three ladies, but all of a sudden Bowie's Training Mama had him figured out. She talked to him as a young child misbehaving, instead of just ignoring him. I think learning of Bowie's trouble hearing might have helped her see him as a youngster, instead of as a threat? Gopher's Training Mama realized he is just a big baby, and she (with Trainer Jen) taught him how to do "doggie push-ups" (sit/down/sit/down/sit/down). And Paisle's Training Mama, was just thrilled to learn Paisle could follow hand signals. She exclaimed over and over again, "I love this dog." Jane interjected comments and questions about what the teams were learning, and how that translates to working with their babies. The day really ended on a high note!

Day 2: Aug. 28

The girls were late. We stood outside in the parking lot waiting for them for about 20 minutes. When they showed, they did not want to partake in any exercises. Two of them pouted, and their body language indicated we were a bother. The third just kept away, but I swear she only did so because of peer pressure. It was hot, and everyone was on the verge of crabbiness.

And again, I am not sure when things turned around, but all of a sudden the Training Mamas were performing the things they'd done with the dogs the week prior. Bowie's Training Mama had to work out again, how to get Bowie's attention knowing he cannot hear her. She worked on shining the light as his clicker, and tapping him when his attention was diverted from her. Gopher's Training Mama lost no time in setting Gopher's expectation that she was the most important thing to him, and if he wanted any treats he had to pay attention. Paisle's Training Mama could not remember the hand signals that had thrilled her last week. There was a brief lull, when the dogs and the ladies seemed to lose interest in each other, so Jen switched from Obedience Command training, to tricks. What a hit! Bowie's T.M. worked with ‘shake.' Gopher's T.M. worked on high five, and the big pup got it right away. Paisle's T.M. struggled with the clicker, the treat, and the leading away with THAT hand, while reaching for the far paw with the OTHER hand. Her assistant (yours truly) struggled with juggling all those things too! Thankfully, G's T.M. stepped in to help, shaming both P's T.M. and I by successfully performing the trick with Paisle immediately. There were lots of laughs!

Day 3: Sept. 4

This is our last day. Our trainer, Jen, won't be here for the 4th week, so the program is going to concentrate on more parenting skills that last week, without the dogs. Once again, two of the girls are late, and the third is hanging back. A brief reprimand about being on time, and we are off to start training. The suggestions of what to do start out organized, but the mood feels more like high school after exams but before graduation-everyone is assembled but there's no reason to pay attention as the conclusion is just around the corner. The Training Mama's take their dogs, put them through some of the commands, some of the tricks. Gopher will not roll over. Bowie struggles to pay attention. Paisle wants food and will take anyone's, if given the chance. Now the T.M.'s really have to work to gain doggy participation, and after a few false starts they are each focused on their dogs, and the dogs are focused on them.

And just like the previous weeks, everyone is engaged. The T.M.s switch dogs. They try new things with the new dogs. They help each other. Bowie's Training Mama sits with him, chatting to someone else, while Bowie watches her. Gopher's Training Mama pays no attention to him, but he is fixated on her. Paisle's Training Mama occasionally gives her treats for no reason, and Paisle is watching her like a hawk. The ladies don't want to stop training, and write biographies for the pups. When they finally do sit down to write, each keeps their pup close to her.  Each dog remains focused on obtaining more treats. When they're done writing, we try for a group photo. We struggle to keep the pups sitting still, so we wing it with some commentary, some hilarity, and lots of partial group photos. It's time to leave, already? The girls don't seem too keen on saying goodbye, to either the humans, or the dogs. Instead, they just go inside. Program over.

After such a short time with the teens, it was gratifying to see them so relaxed with the dogs, and willing to work with them. By the end of the last day, I am certain the ladies were more confident of the dogs, than they were of us humans. As for the program, there is room for improvement of attention, respect, and feedback, but what a great beginning! Were I to put myself in the teen mothers' shoes, I am not so sure I'd warm up to strangers and strange dogs in a big hurry either. I hope we made one or two lasting impressions on the teens;  I am certain they made lasting impressions on us.

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