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When my dog pushed my buttons, and what I learned from it

Bonnie Harris' dog, Maggie, hitching a ride on a kayak.

Bonnie Harris' dog, Maggie, hitching a ride on a kayak.

The other day I went kayaking with my husband, some friends, and my puppy, Maggie. Last summer, Maggie’s first summer, she learned to nestle with me in the dell of my kayak. She wasn’t always happy to sit still, but she got better as the summer progressed and seemed to enjoy being out on the water with us. This summer, I was anxious to see what she retained from her kayak experience.

As I had done the previous summer, I attached Maggie’s leash to her harness and tied it around my waist. She would have none of it. I worked for a while encouraging her to sit as she had done last summer — when she was much smaller I might add. As she kept fighting what I wanted her to do, I got more forceful and controlling until I was screaming at her and trying to push her down into a sit.

She squirmed and barked and refused to sit. She tried to get up on the bow of the boat, and I pulled her back afraid of her falling off. Forget paddling! Everyone was now way ahead of me, which I was actually grateful for, as I didn’t want them to hear our power struggle. Her yelps and barks — my growling and yelling. I have often said, even when our last dog was a puppy, that no child ever pushed my buttons as much as my dogs!

I finally gave up, called to my husband in fury and told him I had to go back to the landing. I was actually furious at him for wanting us to bring her with us. We were near the opposite side of the lake, so he said let’s get close to the shore and let her swim. She was happy jumping in and out of the water, and then she swam over to my husband’s kayak where he hauled her in to his boat.

Not having nearly the opening in the dell of his kayak, Maggie immediately put her front paws up on the bow. He simply let her. Soon she was fully up on the bow with all fours and slipping around. He simply let her. She eventually got her footing and lay down on the bow, happily leading the way. There was lots of high-pitched, very human whining noises if any of us got ahead of her kayak. The lead was where she wanted to be. Hmmm. Sound familiar?

My husband was able to sit back and let her find her way through a difficult situation. I clearly was not — she had to do it my way or else. Again, sound familiar?

As the day wore on and Maggie got more and more able to quickly get in and out of his kayak, find her bearings on the bow, and settle down with her tail dragging in the water, I realized that what I was witnessing was a great example of what I advise parents to do — but was not able to do myself.

My husband’s laid-back attitude gave Maggie the freedom to see where she would go and how she would get there. Maggie often reminds me of our extremely stubborn and determined daughter when she was young. I struggled to get Molly to do it my way for several years before I finally got what my attitude was provoking in her. As soon as I was able to step back, see her misery and frustration, and understand that she needed to find her own way — that she would not be told what to do — then I could settle back and watch. It didn’t mean that I didn’t continue to guide her, to problem solve with her, to find ways to put firm limits on her behavior. It’s just that I learned how to set those limits in ways that did not push her buttons, in ways that still honored her need to find her own way through difficult situations.

Watching Maggie settle down on the bow of my husband’s kayak reminded me of those wonderful moments when I was finally able to sit back and allow Molly to find her way — even though I was always there to haul her back in the boat if she fell off.

Parent Wise Columnist Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed, is the director of Connective Parenting and founder of The Parent Guidance Center, now The River Center, in Peterborough, where she teaches parent education classes. She is the author of “When Your Kids Push Your Buttons” and “Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With.” Email bh@bonnieharris.com.

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