Getting on the Same Page about Pet Parenting

My mother moved in with us a few weeks ago. She and my father are relocating to the Carolinas, and she transferred early for work. I can’t tell you how lucky I am to have a mother who enjoys helping out around the house. She’s been the glue keeping our walls together these past few weeks. Without her, I guarantee I’d be more than just a few days behind this holiday season.

Of course, with the perks also come the pitfalls. For us, the greatest challenge has been getting mom on board with our way of pet parenting our rescue dog, Hope. I suppose some of the friction we’ve experienced is typical between grandpawrents and pawrents. Add in the fact that the hubs and I are both pretty particular about “our way” of doing things, and the fact that we use non-intuitive science-based pet parenting techniques. We are bound to butt heads with grandma about what the dog needs.

Mom has visited us in the past, so she’s familiar with several of our dog rules. She’s never stayed longer than a few days, so it was no surprise when a week into her move we stared noticing some annoying behaviors in our dog. Hope started jumping up when we got home – a nuisance behavior we had worked hard to replace. Our dog also started hanging out in the kitchen and climbing up on the sofa before being asked – both habits we worked hard on preventing from ever starting. Then Hope started begging at the dinner table, and sh*! got real. A dog pawing and whining at the dinner table is one of my biggest pet peeves!

Although Hope’s behavior was getting on my last nerve, it was my mother I was most frustrated with. She had been ignoring my past instructions. Instead, she regularly reinforced Hope’s jumpy greetings. I also discovered my mom was slipping my dog food. All. The. Time. At all the wrong moments and in all the wrong places. And most annoying, she kept denying she was doing anything wrong!

Needless to say, we needed a Come to Jesus talk. Before seriously underlining the dog rules in bold, neon colors, I decided to take a step back and evaluate how I contributed to my mother’s behavior. What had I done to unintentionally encourage her to disregard our rules? What could I have done differently to help her adjust her own behavior around my dog? When it comes to dog training, taking ownership in the human’s progress is just as important as taking ownership in the dog’s progress.

On the night of my dog’s worst begging session, I turned into the red-face angry emoji. Sitting across from my mother at the dinner table, I made some passive aggressive comments about how Hope never used to do that. Then, as our meal wrapped up, I informed my mom in a very condescending tone that she was no longer permitted to feed Hope anything. At. All.

I’m not proud of losing my cool and telling my mom off. That’s really no better than telling the dog off. I’ve worked hard to learn healthier ways of communicating, but it’s funny how old habits rear their ugly heads in our worst moments. I knew I needed a good night’s sleep to deflate, relax and reflect, before approaching my mom in a more productive manner.

Asking myself those ownership questions helped put me in the best headspace for what I sensed would be a challenging conversation. I was able to understand my responsibility in the problem and get past my own frustrations. It is only then that I began feeling empathetic towards the other human in the equation. Mostly, reflection helped me get back into a calm, problem-solving state of mind.

Turns out, I needed every ounce of patience I could muster because the next morning, my mom proudly told me that she had slipped my dog more treats while I was in the shower. Are you kidding me, mom? Why are you so disrespectful and defiant? Is this payback for me being a bratty teenager? Why do you insist on making all your dogs fat? Are you trying to make my life more difficult? These questions all crossed my mind, but asking them wouldn’t help me build any bridges.

Instead, I took a deep breath and got started on brunch. After we had all filled our bellies on the traditional Peruvian breakfast mom and I teamed up to prepare, I decided to address the elephant in the room. I started by encouraging mom with open-ended questions to tell me her side of things. “Can you tell me more about what happened earlier when you gave Hope treats?” I let her paint the picture in her own words.

I also made sure to ask about her emotions. “How do you feel about me asking you to only use food as a reward for my dog?” Mom explained that she doesn’t feel she’s doing anything wrong by feeding my dog, whenever, wherever. Mom is used to dishing out ‘cookies’ at a rate that turns all her animals into ottomans. She thought it was mean that I “make Hope work for food,” and she didn’t want to see my dog hurting.

Although I disagree with my mother’s opinions about my dog’s emotional experience, it was still important to create a space where she could express how she was feeling. When we feel heard, we are more likely to hear someone else out. Seeking to first understand my mother’s experience also helped me figure out how to help her. Helping my mom communicate better with my dog is what this entire conversation was all about.

You see, although I had given mom some of the tools for communicating with my dog, I had forgotten to explain why those tools work. She knew what to do but not why it mattered, so she didn’t really think it was all that important. I felt pretty dumb for failing to give her the education I am so passionate about sharing with everyone else. After validating mom’s feelings, I apologized to her. After all, how can I expect my mom to do better if she doesn’t know better?

I started to explain some of those “whys” behind our rules. The number one reason behind every hard and fast dog rule of our house: SAFETY. For instance, I need Hope to stay out of the kitchen to eliminate an unnecessary trip hazard. I’d hate for anyone to get injured when she could have easily been keeping me company from a few feet out of the line of fire. Similarly, when we have kids I don’t want my dog to think it’s okay to jump all over them when we walk through the door. She could easily scratch them or knock them over. This may not be a big deal for our kids, but it will be for their less dog-savvy friends.

After giving mom some examples of my safety concerns, she started to understand that I have rules for a very good reason. This isn’t a power play. This isn’t a teenage daughter trying to assert her independence. This is me doing my best to keep my dog safe and prepare our family for the future. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Most of my expectations for my dog prioritize prevention.

Mom and I agreed to work together on mini training sessions with Hope. The next day, I sat with her for a few minutes to discuss marker training. The day after that, I pulled mom into a training session to work on clicker mechanics. We alternated between click and treat duties. Mom’s timing was surprisingly sharp! On top of that, she started identifying her mistakes on her own, which helped her progress quickly.

It’s been a week since we finally got on the same page, and things are notably less tense. Mom has been abiding our dog rules and Hope’s begging is subsiding. The other night, mom showed me what they’ve been working on. My mother cued my dog to nose target, then looked back at me proud of her accomplishment. I pulled out my phone and asked her to show me more. With a bait bag on her hip, Mom proceeded to cue sit, nose target and kiss. I was tickled!

Getting on the same page with the people we’re cohabiting with is critical to a peaceful household. It’s hard not to become frustrated and resentful when you feel like someone is undoing all your hard work. Or worse, when you feel judged and unappreciated. Mom and I still have more work to do, but at least we are now having fun with it! Here are some of the takeaways from our experience:

  • When establishing boundaries, it is important to communicate the why behind the what
  • Without the why, we often overlook or disregard the what
  • Use real life examples that grandpawrents can relate to
  • Give grandpawrents the benefit of the doubt. It’s a safe bet they have the best of intentions
  • Communicate rules in the positive not the negative. For example: “pet the dog when she has four-on-the-floor,” instead of “stop encouraging the jumping”
  • Break down tasks into smaller pieces. Like working on clicking in one session, then working on treating in another
  • Take a break when frustrated. You’ll make better choices after you’ve had some time to regroup
  • Accept responsibility! Examine your own ‘fault’ in the conflict
  • First, seek to listen and understand, instead of first seeking to be heard
  • Be willing to say “I’m sorry,” and make sure you mean it
  • Make sure your expectations are realistic. You can only expect from others what you’ve been willing to invest in them
  • Have fun helping someone learn and they’ll have fun, too