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What is “Conscious (Dog)Parenting”

Did you know that the average age of dogs who are rehomed or given up to a shelter is between 9 and 18 months old?

And I guess that this is no coincidence given that this is arguably the most challenging age, as dogs move through their puppy and adolescent phases.

Jumping up, biting, barking, over-arousal, chewing, destructive behaviour, pushy behaviour and poor social skills are all common reasons why dogs get rehomed.

But, is this behaviour due to a lack of discipline or a lack of understanding and good ‘parenting skills’?

Parenting a young dog is challenging, as is parenting a young child.

I recently attended a family gathering, to celebrate my sister-in-law’s birthday. My nephew and his wife and 3 year old daughter were there too. I haven’t seen this lovely little girl for a while and I was quite surprised by how much she had physically grown and how she had mentally matured too! She showed me that she could type her name using a keypad and knew her numbers 1-12 as she demonstrated using a number puzzle game. Impressive! But, what fascinated me most was watching her mood and behaviour change, morph and flow during the 2 hour period that we were there all together. When I first arrived, I noticed that this little girl (let’s call her Miss L. for privacy reasons), was shy and reserved. She didn’t feel comfortable with the attention of the adults wanting to engage with her, and she retreated behind her parent’s legs and then asked her dad to pick her up. She clearly felt safer in his arms - up and out of the reach of the adults coming into her space and wanting to say hello.

As everyone’s attention gravitated away from Miss L. and onto more adult conversation with each other, I watched as Miss L. started to ‘warm up’ and chose to sit next to one of the adults she felt more familiar with - first her mother, then her grandmother, then her uncle and then I was chosen as one of those ‘lucky ones’ too. That’s when Miss L. asked me to join her in doing the number puzzle that she found so enjoyable and wanted to repeat over and over again. Her delight and enthusiasm at learning and ‘getting it right’ was joyfully contagious.

Then things began to change...

After about one hour Miss L. clearly felt obviously safer and more comfortable in this social space and started to get quite loud and even a little bossy. She was telling all the adults what to do, making us all sing for her, or count with her or insisting that we all watch what she was doing. It was pretty amazing to see this little 3 year old take centre stage. And of course (most of) the adults were obliging and happy to see this little being ‘shine’. It was at this point that Miss L. started swiftly and nimbly climbing and jumping over-under-behind-and-around the people that were all seated at the table, and before long the inevitable happened - she fell and bumped her head. And of course, the tears began to flow. Her dad swooped her up, gave her the little stuffed dog that was in her arms when she arrived, gently put his hand on her throbbing little forehead, and then took her outside into the garden for a little walk and a breath of fresh air.

After a short while they returned and all was well again, until Miss L. got another burst of energy and appeared to direct this onto her mother by becoming argumentative. This time it was mum’s turn to recognise what Miss L. needed and she got up with her and went to the kitchen to get her something to eat and drink.

Once again Miss L. settled and became sweet and friendly again to all. Shortly after that (around the 2 hour mark), her parents said that they felt it was a good time to say farewell to everyone and take Miss L. home. I felt rather special as Miss L. chose to take my hand in hers and ask me to walk home with her. It’s a short walk - only about 100 meters as we all live on the same road, but it felt lovely to have her trust and exchange some sweet chatter with her along the way.

So, what’s my point with this story?

I recognised (and remembered) just how challenging (and also beautiful) it can be to parent a young soul. It is with new eyes and a new perspective that I can now recognise all that was unfolding for Miss L. at this social gathering, and what was contributing to her behaviour throughout. It can be easy to slip into the old mindset and labelling that children or young dogs are stubborn, willful and sometimes even rude, and that they need more discipline or need to learn manners. But, perhaps it's more understanding, support and good parenting skills WE need. I sure wish I knew better when my boys were young lads.

Conscious Dog Parenting takes awareness and intention.

This shift in my mindset is all credit to what I have learnt through my dogs and how they have opened my eyes to recognising and understanding that behaviour is a way of communicating how the individual feels in that moment. It’s a reflection of their emotional state that is influenced by their needs to feel safe, heard and connected. It’s also a reflection of their physical and internal needs - safety, comfort, rest, hunger and thirst, the opportunity for movement to disperse built up energy, as well as space and time to reset their nervous system. Youngster’s brains and bodies are growing at an exponential rate, which means it's easy to get over-stimulated, particularly in social situations and busy environments. When we come from a place of deeper empathy and understanding, we become ‘conscious and aware’ and take inspired and intentional action to support our dogs and meet their needs vs trying to control and fix their behaviour.

Being a (dog)parent deserves a medal

Miss L.’s parents were amazing! They never lost their temper, even though I could see their irritation at times. They never corrected her, they simply took kind and loving action to meet her needs in the moment by providing:

  • Their support, understanding, patience and guidance

  • Space, time and a breath of fresh air to re-set

  • Something to eat and drink (busy bodies and learning minds need fuel!)

  • Their loving connection, their comfort and that of her stuffed dog and her pacifier (dummy)

A shout out to all the the human and dog-parents out there - particularly those with young and / or sensitive dogs:

It’s a tough role we have been chosen - but also very rewarding if we learn what we need to support both ourselves and our young ones during these times - which can be laced with struggle and conflict. Remember that this phase will pass, and your child or young dog will thank you for the time, patience and loving guidance that you are investing in them now - at a time when they are most vulnerable and need your support. And, if there’s one bit of advice I can offer, it’s this: Make SELF-CARE a priority! You can only find the strength and endurance you need, when your own cup is full.

  • Find time for your own activities that keep you grounded and fill you with peace.

  • Surround yourself with a good support structure so that you can take a break when needed.

  • Find a supportive community of like-minded dog-folk who share your values and principles when it comes to raising and living with dogs and other animals in your life.

Does this post resonate with you? I would love to hear your story about being a ‘dog-parent’, and what you have learnt from the experience. Are you feeling overwhelmed with your young / sensitive dog?

I know first hand how tough it can be, and that’s why I offer a free 30 minute support call for those who are really struggling and need someone to listen and gently guide them to get back on track again.


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