When I first got Dempsey, I never thought training a service dog would teach me anything about child-rearing. I changed my mind the other night, when Dempsey started barking in the dollar store.
It all started when we were waiting in line to buy some bubble gum. There was a little boy ahead of us, maybe about five years old, who started pleading with his mother for some gum: “P-l-e-e-e-a-s-e, I want gum! Just gum! Please Mom, please!”
Mom said no, but the line was long, and the little boy kept pleading. Finally, Mom relented and said yes.
As Nancy, our instructor, has often told us, “You get what you click.” The little boy wasn’t stupid. He’d just learned that persistent whining will get you a treat.
He applied this lesson immediately, by asking for some candy, too. Mom said no. The boy kept whining, louder and louder, and finally threw a temper tantrum.
“I want this one!” he screamed, grabbing a box of candy and throwing it on the floor. “And this one!” He threw that on the floor, too.
Dempsey, I’m proud to say, was a good little boy, staying dropped on the floor by my feet. He was curious, cocking his head, but he stayed put.
Mom wasn’t as patient. She reached down and hit her son.
It was at this point Dempsey jumped up and started barking. He’d never seen anyone get hit before, and he knew it wasn’t right.
Mom yelled at her wailing son. “Shut up! Put the candy back! And put the gum back, too!”
“No! My gum!” The little boy wasn’t about to give up his hard-earned prize. He held it tight.
Mom reached down again and wrestled with her son, finally prying the gum from his hands. The little boy cried: “My gum! My gum!” Mom hit him again. The boy wailed again.
Dempsey didn’t bark this time – I had gotten him to drop again, and was treating him for quietly staying put – but he kept watching as Mom picked up her son, flailing and wailing, and carried him out the store, leaving the boxes of candy and gum strewn on the floor.
Well. It was now our turn, so I asked Dempsey to step forward to the register, and he did, neatly sidestepping a box of candy.
“Your dog is better behaved than that kid,” said the woman behind me.
“I never hit my dog,” I replied.
Which is true, but there’s so much more than that. When Dempsey used to ask for rawhides at the pet store, I said no, and I meant no. It was exhausting the first few times, but Dempsey has learned that “no” means “no,” and that his best bet for earning prizes is to do what I ask him. I never give him something, and then try wrenching it back. And I’d never even taken him to a dollar store until he was over a year old, and had learned how to behave in public.
I’m trying hard not to be sanctimonious, but I can’t help but think that the world would be a better place if everyone had the skills I’ve learned from Helping Paws.