Dog Therapy

If you want to teach your children about accountability and hard work, allow them to adopt a puppy.  The feeding and care and training of a dog takes enormous effort, and your children will gain a special understanding of what is meant by the word "responsibility" as they watch you do it.

When my older daughter told me she wanted a puppy, I explained to her no she didn't.  I told her how difficult it is to take care of dogs, and she listened very carefully so she could be sure to ignore everything I was saying.  She responded that since she was an independent adult, living in her own apartment, attending college and working full time, she had a right to make her own decisions and she had already adopted a dog and the only thing she needed from me was to watch it when she was at work.  Or class.  Or on a date.  Or had plans for the weekend.  And she needed me to pay to have the dog spayed.

The dog's name is Duchess, though sometimes my daughter calls her "your majesty," as if the animal is the descendent of a long line of British nobility known for peeing on carpets.

When my daughter suggested that the two of us take Duchess to a specialist to try to figure out why the dog insisted on seeing my house as a giant canine urinal, I assumed we'd be seeing a trainer, but Doctor Stillsutter turned out to be something entirely different--a dog psychologist.

"A what?" I sputtered.  "That's crazy!"

"And who better to talk to when someone is crazy than a psychologist?" she responded.  Her answer had so many things wrong with it I felt physical pain.

Stillsutter was a doughy man who sat in a dimly lit office.  I decided he kept it gloomy so we wouldn't notice that all the diplomas framed on his wall had been printed on his home computer.

Stillsutter charged sixty dollars an hour, which mean it cost us nearly twenty bucks for my daughter to explain why we were there, and another dollar and a quarter for Stillsutter to consider his reply. "When dogs resist housebreaking, it is often because they sense hostility in the home," he intoned.

"What, now it's my fault that the dog wets the rug?" I protested.

"You're the only one home, Dad," my daughter answered.  "Who's fault could it be?"

"Oh, I don't know...the dog's?"

"Mr. Cameron, if I might interrupt, can you see how making this about the dog just makes Duchess defensive?"  We all glanced at Duchess, who did her best to look unjustly accused.  "Do you yell at her?"

"No!"  I yelled.

Both my daughter and Duchess gave me an "oh-come-on" look.  "Well, yeah," I amended.  "When she chews up my shoes, then I yell."

"Chewing shoes is a sign of hostility," Stillsutter informed me.

"Hostility?  To what, footwear?"

"No, your hostility.  Duchess senses you are hostile."

"I'm hostile to coming home and finding she's been snacking on my loafers," I agreed.

"Your father and Duchess just need better communication," Stillsutter confided to my daughter, who nodded as if this made any sense at all. "Mr. Cameron, when you talk to Duchess, tell her why you are so angry--what's really behind your reaction."

"I'm angry at her because..."

Stillsutter held up a hand to stop me.  "Don't tell me, tell her."

I took a deep breath.  "Duchess, when you eat my shoes it makes me mad because they cost more than you did."

Stillsutter groaned in disappointment, and Duchess looked away in shame.  My daughter put her hands on her hips.  "Nice going, Dad."

"We never mention dog adoption as involving a purchase," Stillsutter lectured.  "It makes them feel owned."

"Oh for heaven's sake."

"Let's do some verbal exercises," Stillsutter suggested.  "I'll teach you to use language that opens up the conversation, rather than building barriers."

"Conversation?  Has anyone here noticed that Duchess is a dog?" I demanded.

"Try using more supportive language.  Let Duchess know you appreciate the things she does well."

Duchess stared at me expectantly while I pondered this.  "Duchess, you do a good job chasing the tennis ball when I throw it."

Everyone beamed.  Duchess shrugged modestly.

"You don't bring it back, but you do chase it."

There was a long silence.  Duchess gave Dr. Stillsutter a "see-what-I-have-to-put-up-with?" expression.

"And that makes you feel..." the doctor prompted.


"When Duchess doesn't bring the ball back, that makes you feel..."

"It doesn't make me feel anything, it's a stupid tennis ball!"

"Perhaps Duchess senses that you think it's stupid, and that's why she doesn't bring it back," my daughter said, using the same soft, "I'm-a-psychologist-and-you're-a-mental-patient" tone of voice. Duchess nodded.

At the end of the session, my daughter asked me to pay for it. Apparently I am her dog's health insurance carrier.

On the way home, I tested my new language skills.  "Duchess, when you pull your head in from out the car window and sneeze all over me, it makes me unhappy because I don't like dog slobber on my face."

"See?" my daughter praised.  "Was that so hard?"

~ Bruce Cameron ~

[ by W. Bruce Cameron Copyright © 2004, ( -- {used with permission} ]


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