Say No to Household Fascism

photo courtesy of Andrew Branch

photo courtesy of Andrew Branch

Let's be clear. Most of our clients aren't interested in creating a totalitarian regime over their canine companions. They choose to work with Wildflower because they want to help their dog become a positive and valuable part of their family. And we believe each person within a home has as a unique and individualized relationship to their dog. 

And yet, a week doesn't go by that we don't come across some confusion about "double standards" or whether a single set of rules for their dog is necessary.

I want to unpack this. Let's look at how rules exist in households:

  • Parents are allowed to do things the children aren't, like drink liquor and watch late night TV.
  • Babies are allowed to do things the teenager in the house isn't, like puke on the furniture and throw her food at the dinner table.
  • And grandpa is allowed to do things with his bodily functions that nobody else would ever dare try in the house.

We live in a complex, social web where different rules apply to different people, based on their role, age and their relationship with us. But even these rules aren't applied consistently in every situation.

This is because rules that regulate our behaviour depend entirely on context. And we learn quickly what rules apply to what situations. Figuring this out is a normal part of growing up in any household, community or society.

For example, I wouldn't DARE eat ice cream straight from the container if Mom was home. But Dad didn't care so much. In fact, I'm pretty sure he taught me how to use my spoon to carve out the edge bits without damaging the container.

But touching Dad's tools was a hanging offence. Whereas, if just Mom was home, she seemed relieved if I spent the afternoon outside playing with Dad's tools in the forest (and invariably leaving them in a random trail of rusting metal.)

I could pester my sister endlessly until she agreed to give me the remote control. Not so much when Dad or Mom were nearby. And I don't think Grandma even knew what a remote control or a computer was, so I had total control over the world when grandma came over to watch us for the evening.

Social rules and norms are always contextual. Even in our homes.

It's not about everyone treating your puppy exactly the same. It's about recognizing the relationships involved and helping your little friend to find his loving place in your growing family.  

It's okay if Rover is allowed to sleep on one person's bed but not another's. It's also perfectly acceptable that Mom allows the dog up on her lap for snuggles, but Grandpa prefers to teach a sit and wait.

If there was a place for a consistent set of hard rules, it would be around the training methodology you all agree to use, such as positive reinforcement and force-free methods. Having Mom and Little Sara both using rewards while Grandpa is using aversives, like hitting the dog with a rolled up newspaper, does not always end in a good place for you, your family or your dog.

But short of that, it is totally okay and normal to develop a set of guidelines that are contextual to the individuals and the situations. Rover will learn quickly not to beg at the table and to meet Jimmy in his room to devour all the yucky bits that Jimmy snuck into his socks. My dog certainly did.