The Cleverness of Puppies and Toddlers Should Never Be Underestimated

Kevin and GlennaGinger has recently become more adventurous. I used to be able to open the door to let her out and be assured that she would not wander more than 20 feet away from me. As September waned, she grew bolder and even started to leave the confines of our small property. Lately, she has become so brave as to worry me that she might run out into the street after a dog or cat. Her sneakiness in trying to outwit me so that she can escape is both entertaining and exasperating. Although we occasionally venture out without a leash, I usually keep her close now.

This transformation into a daring pup reminds me of my daughter’s audacious behavior as a tot. Glenna was sassy, physically able, and mischievous in her determination to best me at every opportunity. She would wait until I was distracted for a few seconds and then race for the nearest door; street; or dangerous, large, and moving object. And she was fast too. When we were home, I had to keep an eye on her almost every second unless she was parked in front of a video. Even then, I had to check on her frequently to make sure she wasn’t getting into trouble, but, at least, I could accomplish a few chores. Or so I foolishly believed.

On one weekday afternoon, she and her brother were relaxing while watching a favorite film. Taking advantage of the opportunity, I took the garbage out to the garage and grabbed something else I needed in there. When I reentered the room, I noticed her shirt on the floor in front of the couch. The conversation that ensued evolved something like this:

“Why is your new shirt on the floor?” I asked.

“I threw it there,” my three-year-old replied.

“Why did you throw it there?”

“Because I took it off.”

“Why did you take it off?”

“I don’t like it anymore.”

“Why don’t you like it anymore?”

“Because it isn’t pretty now.”

“Why do you think that it’s not pretty now?”

“Because it has a hole in it.”

“How did a hole get in your new shirt?”

“I cut it.”

“Why would you cut a hole in your shirt?”

“I had scissors.”

“So you cut a hole in your shirt, took it off, and then, threw it on the ground.”

With irritation, she said, “I don’t like it anymore. I want to watch the video.”

Serves me right for leaving the room for 120 seconds and paying full price for a fancy Gymboree® shirt for a three-year-old.

Rending her shirt was a relatively mild offense compared to her attempts to publically demonstrate my maternal incompetence. On one particularly eventful afternoon, I decided to take my then three-year-old son, Kevin, and 18-month-old Glenna shopping with me. That decision wasn’t too unusual except that on this occasion, I wanted to journey to the local department store and battle with the other women over clearance racks.

A few days earlier, I had purchased a wrist lead for my daughter. (Okay, I’ll admit it; I bought a leash for my kid.) She was so impish that I finally faced my vexing predicament head on, and procured a tool that I had previously scorned all others for owning. For the first 10 minutes or so in the store, it worked great. While she indignantly tried to remove the offending constraint (this alone kept her busy), I held it and her brother’s hand as we walked toward the much-anticipated sale.

The area was a beehive of activity. The racks were extremely tightly packed together, one virtually on top of the other. All were crammed with hundreds of articles of marked-down apparel. About thirty women swarmed the environs; each with her arms loaded down with goods. A few eyed my tethered child and threw disdainful looks my way. Excited by the prospect of finally purchasing myself some clothing after a virtual three-year hiatus, I didn’t care what they thought.

All was going swimmingly as I approached the third round garment rack of my search. My son timidly commented on my choices, and my daughter was marvelously cooperative and quiet. For a few brief moments, I was in paradise.

My heavenly sojourn was not to be long-lasting, however. Without warning, wailing emerged from around my feet. With great stealth and amazing agility for one so young, my toddler had managed to tangle herself around the base of the rack. To my surprise, she was so intertwined in the framework that she could barely move. Kevin proffered advice while I searched for a way to disentangle her. The only solution was to unstrap her wrist. In a nanosecond, the frustration and fear evaporated from Glenna’s face, she laughed (“sucker”), and took off, weaving her way through the maze of clothing, racks, and legs.

Trapped and unable to pursue her, I knelt down next to my son and said, “I give you permission to find your sister, knock her down, and sit on her.”

“Really?” he asked, disbelief screwing up his perfect, little boy features.

“Really,” I said.

He vanished as I struggled to my feet. For about a minute, I hunted for my wayward child from my vantage point; I then heard her angry cry coming from the other side of room, just outside the sale area. Dropping my would-be purchases, I ran over to find a triumphant Kevin sitting on top of a flattened and very irked Glenna. “I did it!” he exclaimed.

My child was found, and my mortification was complete. Imagining the clucking all around me and barely looking up, I bid a hasty retreat.

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Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile and Puppy Toddlerhood

After a couple of weeks of job applications, interviews, infections, allergic reactions, and schlepping children off to a college and an internship, I finally have time to post on my blog. It seemed every minute was accounted for by all of the above and taking care of Ginger. Despite her now reaching the ripe old age of 4 months, she is still very needy. In many ways, more so than before. Until recently, she was constantly at my feet. Now, she is a little braver and wanders off in the yard or the house, requiring me to go after her to make sure she hasn’t decided to bother a skunk, chew a hole in my comforter, or wipe her behind across the kitchen floor. (That surface has become her favorite place for after-constitutional cleansing.)

Having a puppy this age reminds me of raising a toddler. The puppy is completely dependent on me. I feed the puppy. I bathe the puppy. I calm the puppy. I play with the puppy. I discipline the puppy. I clean up after the puppy. I try to make up for lost time while the puppy is napping. The difference between now and when I first brought Ginger home is that she is so much more mobile and has so little judgment. Sound familiar, you parents out there?

Of course, there are certain socially, morally, and legally acceptable differences between caring for my puppy versus parenting a toddler. For obvious reasons, the Department of Children and Families in Massachusetts will not investigate me if I:

1. Put Ginger in a crate for two to three hours and leave the house. She cries at first, I walk away, and despite feeling a tad guilty, I am pretty sure that every other puppy owner is doing the same thing.

2. Spray my puppy with a hose if she gets really dirty outside before bringing her back in. She seems to enjoy these impromptu showers, actually. I assure you I wasn’t in the habit of doing this with my children although I will admit to being tempted on several occasions.

3. Encourage my dog to rub her rearend on the grass/walk so that she doesn’t do so on my floors. (What joy is in my heart when I discover such a smudge under my clean socks in the morning.)

4. Growl at my puppy. Lately, I have begun barking and growling at my dog. No, I haven’t suffered a psychotic split or finally revealed my secret alien self to my confused family. It’s just that sometimes the only action that works to break her manic moods is to bark and growl. If I say, “No,” to her, she often just barks right back at me and continues to bite my feet. 

5. Walk her around the neighborhood on a leash. Ginger demonstrates little talent for walking on leash. My husband and I can be seen on occasion pulling her along the street trying to get her to walk cooperatively. She must look quite pathetic while we are doing it. I must confess to having used a wrist lead with my rambunctious daughter on two occasions. She completely outwitted me and escaped, but that is a story for another post.

When my children were toddlers and riding in their car seats in the back, I wouldn’t even step out of the car to cross the sidewalk and return the Lyle, Lyle Crocodile video to the library dropbox. Partly, this irrational fear arose from the fact that the Taunton Police Station was about 40 yards away across the parking lot. I imagined that I might be characterized as an unfit mother if an officer saw me walk the 6 feet to the dropbox without my children in tow.  Partly, I was truly worried about leaving them in the car, if only for 10 seconds. My husband thought I was being quite neurotic; I wasn’t so convinced.

So, I have a question for all of you dog owners out there. How long does toddlerhood last in a dog? For example, when will I be able to leave her for 15 minutes to take a shower or walk around the block and not find my cell phone charger chewed to bits?

On Ants and Other Pets

Kevin and Ginger
I have always loved animals. All kinds of animals. At one point when I was a kid, I wanted an ant farm. Yes, you read that right. An ant farm. I envisioned myself spending hours watching them as they scurried to and fro carrying food, pupae, and eggs. The farm would be large and have glass walls. There would be hundreds of productive workers, and I would be in control.

When I broached the subject with my mother, she looked at me as though I were clearly insane and no doubt was wondering how I could have possibly emerged from her womb. You see, she was pretty, stylish, and talented. She made my wedding dress from scratch with no pattern and sang soprano in the church choir. She was feminine and knew what shoes to wear. She belly danced and made crafts as hobbies, and her house was always clean despite housing our numerous pets, five children, my father, and my grandfather within its walls.

I figured, why not an ant farm? I reasoned she would surely appreciate the value of studying a genuine ant society right in my own room. I would be able to see all of the activities of the colony’s industrious inhabitants. I would observe these Formicidae, take copious notes, and discover something really important. My mother, (voted most attractive and most versatile in her high school class) was no fool, and informed me, in no uncertain terms and without further elaboration, that she was not going to buy me an ant farm to decorate my room with. And she went back to cooking dinner.

Frustrated, but still determined, I returned to my book on ants (obviously, what else should I be reading?) Not too many days after that conversation, I stood in the driveway watching the insect wildlife when I saw a huge, very obviously gravid, black ant lumbering across my path. The solution to my dilemma had presented itself.  Assuredly, the source of my mother’s objection was the expense of purchasing the farm. If I provided my own queen laden with eggs and made my own enclosure, she would not only capitulate, but be thrilled with my ingenuity. I captured it in my cupped hands and ran inside. Frantically, searching for the perfect container in the kitchen cupboards and finding none, I ran upstairs to search for something suitable. First, however, I stored my ant in the kitchen sink, by removing the dishes and then plugging the drain. The heavy queen was unable to scale the slippery walls.

Desperately, I rummaged through my and then my brothers’ rooms looking for something that would properly accommodate the most awesome ant farm science had ever known. Nothing seemed like it would work. I peeked downstairs and saw that my ant had not escaped, and continued to search. Just a few minutes later, I heard a loud exclamation and the swooshing noise of the sink spray hose. Panicked, I ran to the kitchen; my mother looked at me and said, “You will never believe what I found in the sink. The biggest ant I have ever seen. That creature must have been almost an inch long.”  Crestfallen, I explained that the queen had been the proposed progenitor of my ant project. She was to have been the Eve that would have informed my intellect with knowledge on ant-kind.

“You brought a queen carpenter ant into my house?” was her simple response. Seeing the look of disbelief on my mother’s face, I slowly began to realize that she did not share my excitement about the ant farm. I think that I must have looked quite pathetic then because she suddenly began apologizing while explaining that carpenter ants are generally not welcome guests in houses made of wood. (Who knew?) Feeling a tad guilty, she distracted me with a chore or a story. I don’t remember which.

I look back on this and other instances now, and I realize how truly indulgent my parents were when it came to their children and pets. At various times my parents’ house and yard sheltered three dogs, seven cats, seventeen rabbits (not all at once), many tens of fish, and a gerbil. Not to mention the hundreds of birds my many bird feeders attracted or the frogs my brothers brought home in buckets after their adventures in the woods.

So did we deprive our children by only having one cockatiel, three parakeets, one hamster, and a 16-gallon tank of fish? Or perhaps my parents truly overindulged my siblings and me. Either way, this spring finally seemed the right time to welcome a dog into our midst.

My son lobbied for a dog for about three months when he was young. I seriously researched dog ownership and decided instead on a cockatiel, who turned out to be a wonderful, smart, and loving addition to our family. Fast forward 10 years later, and I had to break the news to my son that my husband and I had decided to become dog owners, and that we had already chosen the puppy and a name. Preparing for an explosion of pent-up emotion regarding his childhood’s being deprived of a dog, I broke the news to him while sitting in the RER in Paris as we rode to Versailles. He was surprisingly calm and accepting. So at long last, he has a dog. We all do; and everyone is thrilled, and she is settling in quite nicely. Somewhat like the carpenter ants that the exterminator discovered in my house siding a few weeks back. I finally have my ant farm after all.

On the Need for Emergency Backup Children

Joey at Hammonasset Beach

Alex M. is our emergency backup son. Let me clarify. He is actually our son’s best friend from childhood. He has always worn the moniker of EBS proudly. When called upon, he would serve, he said. Good to know.

He and Kevin, my firstborn, have been best buddies since middle school. They survived Children’s Island Camp, attended the local charter school, and commuted to Catholic high school together. They dated girls who were friends, and they spent a great deal of their time in Alex’s basement. You see, Alex’s parents are wise, and they knew if they had a cool basement hideaway, their teenagers and their friends would hang downstairs. What better way to know what is going on than to lure the juveniles to gather right beneath your feet?

Our house is not cool. It is small and has no basement. With its unimpressive TV, lack of a decent backyard, and little rooms, our home offered no place for the teenagers to retreat to. Hence, they did not hang here. As a result, I had to rely on spies to find out what was going on with my son. Unlike my daughter, who divulged her social and academic particulars more willingly during our mother-daughter tête-à-têtes, my son kept his own counsel during his adolescent years.

Both Kevin and Alex are home from college working for the summer. The other day Alex came over to meet Ginger. Noting that Kevin and Ginger have the same hair color, Alex informed Ginger that he was the well-established emergency backup child and she had better not move in on his territory no matter how cute she is.

Are my intentions really that transparent? Four years ago, my sister-in-law adopted a black lab when her last child, a daughter, went off to college. Joey is Ginger’s cousin, and he is a big, drooling, loving, and wonderful dog of inelegance. What lab is anything but? In most respects, he is nothing like my niece, who is blonde, slender, beautiful, intelligent, and graceful. Regardless, he is a substitute child, who gives and receives love in spades. That has been clear since the day my sister-in-law started talking about him.

And, yes, I must be upfront with myself, so is Ginger. There, I said it.