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January 21, 2019

A Tale of Three Dogs

Fostering Community

A Tale of Three Dogs

I have three dogs. Yes, you read that right. Three. (How that happened is a long story that my patient husband still shakes his head at.) Coco is 15½ years old, Hugo is almost five, and Haddie is just over a year. Coco is the grand dame of the household, a petite Havanese, more cat-like than canine in personality, her feistiness belies her old age even as she declines in vision, hearing and the ability to climb the stairs. Hugo is an Australian Labradoodle, our gentle boy. Fast as lightening on the field and nemesis to many a soccer ball, his sweet nature and endearing “happy howl” make him a particular favourite of the students at morning drop off. And then there’s Haddie, also an Australian Labradoodle but oh, so very different than her big brother (who’s actually smaller). Rambunctious, endlessly curious, unbridled in her enthusiasm for life and cheese, she leaves a trail of chewed socks, shredded newspaper and baseboard fragments in her wake, ensuring that the lovingly bestowed moniker “Hurricane Haddie” remains decidedly appropriate.

Like children, each dog is different. Hugo eats almost nothing, Haddie eats everything, and Coco would eat non-stop but for the fact she has few remaining teeth. Hugo hates the cold, Haddie is impervious to sub-zero temperatures, and Coco no longer registers if she’s cold and has to be retrieved from the backyard lest she freeze in place. And just like having children, my husband and I have to adjust how we “parent” based on each dog’s age, temperament and needs.

Nowhere was the need to differentiate more evident than when we began to train Haddie, an ongoing process that remains frustrating, humbling and occasionally puts our patience to the test. Coco more or less trained herself, and much like a cat, decided what she would and would not do. But because she was a small dog, this seemed to work for everyone. Hugo was a breeze. His steady nature and eagerness to please made training relatively easy, and except for an innate streak of stubbornness where squirrels, rabbits and frisbees are concerned, even his recall off leash is fairly good. And then there’s Haddie. Oh, my sweet Haddie. How she does thwart my best efforts.

We knew we had a different sort of challenge on our hands when Haddie was “fired” by our dog walker after only 10 minutes into her inaugural walk. Well, that’s not exactly true. The first hint of challenge occurred when she ate a sock at three months of age, but in fairness, lots of puppies do that. But back to the dog walker. The tactful text message from Carolyn (who has been walking Hugo for 3-1/2 years) simply stated, “It’s not going well. I don’t think Haddie’s ready. Let’s try again when she’s older.” Apparently, uncontrollable excitement and mild anxiety when on leash caused Haddie to run furiously in circles around the entire pack of five dogs (and the ankles of the walker), resulting in an entanglement of labyrinth-like complexity. Two subsequent entanglements over the course of 10 minutes sealed Haddie’s fate, and I was informed she would require a one-on-one walk. (I believe that’s the equivalent of the Kindergarten teacher telling you your child needs help to “play nice with others.”)

And then there was also the actual problem of playing nice with others. For a cheerful and friendly dog that loves to frolic in the open field with any and all living creatures, Haddie, it turns out, is anxious when she’s on a leash and regards all other leashed dogs as mortal enemies against which she must defend the universe. The behaviour is called “leash reactivity” according to Google and the dog trainer we consulted. The solution is a combination of puppy manners class, doggie daycare and leash training with lots of treats and praise when she successfully passes another dog on the street without losing her mind.

Slowly but surely things with Haddie are getting better. She loves her friends at doggie daycare, she graduated from puppy manners class (albeit she wasn’t first in class), and the leash training is…well, it’s winter and darn cold out, right? I know we’ve still got a ways to go, and I promise to be more dedicated when it’s not below zero.

I no longer have children at home. Our daughter moved into her first apartment last fall. Our niece and nephews who lived with us for a number of years are grown. But my wee pups remind me daily how good parenting requires us to adjust our sails to the winds of childhood and adolescence. Skilled parents check the weather forecast and see the storm clouds on the horizon. They learn to cherish smooth sailing on a sunny day, and know when to batten down the hatches when the seas are rough. They understand that each child is different and recognize that what works for one may not work for another.

Good teachers do this, too. They adjust instruction, sense what supports each student needs, and intuitively know when gentle words will bring about a better outcome than a corrective glance. These masterful teachers come in all different shapes and sizes. Some have been teaching for decades while others are new to the classroom. What they share is empathy, a desire to help, and super hero powers that let them see through the façade of student behaviours to reveal the child within.

I’m proud to say that I know many of these good teachers. In fact, I’m fortunate enough to see them every day in the classrooms and halls of our Castle. I think the fact that we’re a small school makes it easier for teachers to know our girls, but being small isn’t the whole story. There’s a culture at our school, built over time and nurtured with care, that tries to put the child at the centre of the story. We understand that girls learn best when the relationship with their teachers is strong, and we believe that strong relationships develop inside and outside the classroom – in those fleeting but important moments of a shared smile, a kind word, and sometimes a thoughtful talk when things aren’t going well. I’m not suggesting that we get it right all the time. Sometimes even the most caring of teachers can’t solve the enigmatic puzzle that is the struggling student. And on occasion, there are a multiplicity of external factors that complicate our ability to provide the right support. But good teachers persevere, and just as I do with Hurricane Haddie, believe that kindness, patience and time will help them discover what each student needs in order to thrive.

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