Monday, December 3, 2007

Cute=Good...Or Not?

Lesson Number Six: Cuteness CAN Get You What You Want (Or...Choose Your Battles)

Everyone’s a sucker for a Cute puppy. Those eyes—Puppy Dog Eyes—are famous for a reason. “Don’t look at me with those Puppy Dog Eyes!” The manipulative qualities of Puppy Dog Eyes are infinite in nature. Besides the eyes, puppies have lots of Cuteness: floppy ears, a particularly adorable tail, tiny teeth, the way they prance, the way they fall all over themselves when they are running, the tricks they can quickly learn when they figure out that there are rewards involved, and those paws! These, and many additional things (depending on the dog and the sensibilities of the owner), not only melt a master’s heart in seconds, but also can sometimes be the very reason why puppies are not trained properly. Cuteness—there are two kinds of it: natural and learned—breeds inconsistency…unless you’re careful!

It can be quite tempting to just let a puppy do whatever she wants to do, merely because of its C.F., or Cute Factor. When you first bring a puppy home, almost everything she does is about a “ten” on the C.F. scale of one to ten:
• Look, she’s curling up on a blanket!
• Look, she’s eating her food!
• Look how cute she is while she’s drinking her water!
• Isn’t that simply amazing, the way she tugs on that squeaky toy?
• Uh-oh, she peed on the carpet! Bad girl! Ooh, but you’re so CUTE!

After a time, though, puppy owners, just like new parents, must be sure to separate Natural Cuteness from Learned Cuteness. They arrive at a figurative Fork in the Road. Some owners take the Wrong Fork. They make a semi-serious effort to train their dog and subsequently give up because it’s “too hard” (and even sometimes because they don’t want to hurt their puppy’s feelings with the Tough Love that training requires!) and their dog is just “too Cute”. Some owners take the Right Fork. These owners are rewarded handsomely because they train themselves first, and then use consistency to teach their dog right from wrong.

Jim and I definitely wanted to take the Right Fork. It was important to us to balance Bijoux’s sky-high Natural C.F. rating with solid discipline and training so that her behavior would stay in check, and thus, her Learned C.F. (her ability to get what she wanted by just being cute) would be low on the scale. After studying “Superpuppy”, I was sure that we were up to the task at hand. We, having no children yet, spent much of our free time each day with Bijoux, balancing play with behavior management. There were some bumps in the road, however; i.e. the Couch Incident and Bijoux’s ability to “Cute” herself into bed with us. Over time I slowly realized, because Bijoux showed me, that people can bend rules occasionally and still stay on the Right Fork. Learned Cuteness can sometimes be, well, Cute.

Generally, we praised Bijoux as much as possible (when she deserved it, of course!), and when she misbehaved, we disciplined her but were quick to forgive her Little Cute Self. (I was definitely quicker than Jim, though; I’m the Softy) Once we came out of the “New Puppy Fog”, we achieved great balance, but only after we started choosing our battles.

Cute? When Bijoux would actually make it from one trip outside to the next, without soiling the floor. Not Cute? Well, you guessed it. As with all puppies, we had good days and bad days in the housebreaking department. Cute? When we hung a ribbon filled with jingle bells from the handle on the sliding glass door in back as well as on the front entrance to our home, and taught Bijoux to ring them with her nose when she had to do her business. It took time; each time we took her outside we’d say, “Do you want to go outside?” and then gently hit her nose against the bells. It was a relatively easy lesson for her to learn, and it was a charming trick to show visitors. Battle won.

Cute? When Bijoux would run outside in the yard, suddenly put her nose to the ground, and roll on her back, rubbing her body into the grass beneath her. Not Cute: when Bijoux would come to the door and smell like who-knows-what because of some kind of stinky bug (or something!) she had been rolling in.

Cute? When I would then give her a bath and then sprayed her with one of my sweet-smelling Bath and Body Works products as she sneezed and stared at me sheepishly, seeming to feel remorse for her actions. Not Cute: when, thirty minutes later, she would beg to go outside again, acting like she had to urinate, and then perform the same rolling act in a different, yet just as stinky, area of grass. One summer I was bathing her three or four times in a day because I couldn’t stand her smell. Leaving her outside for the day was out of the question; it was too hot. Battle lost. I gave up; how do you keep an Animal (In Bijoux’s defense, I often told Jim “Don’t forget, she is an Animal,” and ten minutes later I was claiming to have had a meaningful, non-verbal exchange with my Girl. I truly felt like we understood each other.) from doing what comes naturally? In some cases, it’s not worth trying. I kept the Dog Shampoo industry in business for years.

Cute? Bijoux’s ability to catch things, like tennis balls and, in winter, snowballs. Not Cute? A dog that constantly begs for you to toss food at her. Cute? Her Puppy Dog Eyes, upon smelling and hearing that you’re microwaving popcorn for dessert. Cuter? Her ability to leap up and catch said popcorn. Battle lost. Or won? It depends on who you ask. There were challenges everyday, and making the decision about which issues could slide and which weren’t to be negotiated was only one of the many joys of having a dog in the house.