When I was a child, my parents bought a puppy. She was a beautiful 6-week old, golden cocker spaniel, and we quickly decided on Sandy as her name. (We weren’t very original, I know. But in my defence, I was only 10 years old. And I voted for ‘Salt’.) Like all puppies, she was adorable. We loved it when she started little play-fights with us, biting at our fingers with her milk-teeth and giving little puppy-growls. We wanted her to sleep on our beds, follow us to school, and sit under the table at dinner to eat our leftovers. My parents had other ideas.
“She needs to be trained,” they said.
“She needs rules,” they said.
“If she doesn’t learn the rules when she’s a puppy, it’ll be harder to train her later,” they said.
So Sandy was given a basket and a kennel, and trained to be an “outside dog”. If she tried to bite us, even in play, she was in trouble. If she barked for no reason, she was in trouble. But if she barked for a good reason, she was rewarded.
Dad taught her to sit, stay, come, lie down, and stop. He taught her to walk on a leash, and to stay on his left side at all times. He taught her to stop and sit when they came to a road, and to ignore other dogs while they were walking. He was firm in his discipline (although he never raised a hand to her), and effusive in his praise.
By the time she was two years old, a teenager in dog years, Dad never had to raise his voice to her. We could take her out to the park, or the beach, and she’d walk along beside Dad, with or without a leash. She did as she was told, she was affectionate and loving, and she was disciplined and polite. I only ever saw her hackles rise and her teeth bared once, and that was when a stranger was trying to take her basket away. When he put it down, Sandy immediately chilled out and went back to wagging her tail happily.
That was a long time ago, and eventually Sandy passed on. I still think about her, and remember her fondly.
Around the same time we got Sandy, a family friend also bought a new dog.They named him Shep, and he was (perhaps unsurprisingly) a german shepherd. His ‘Dad’ had a more liberal approach to dog training than my own. He’d read a lot of new-fangled books and believed a puppy should be allowed to be a puppy.
If Shep was scared in the night, he was allowed to go inside — it would be cruel to leave him outside.
Shep didn’t need to be toilet-trained — did you know that you can buy “puppy pads’ to put on the floor of your house and protect the carpet from stains caused by dog urine?
Shep was given leftovers from the dinner table and encouraged to lick everyone’s plates clean at the end of the meal.
Shep was allowed to bark as much as he wanted — it would be cruel to try to stop him communicating.
Shep was encouraged to play bite-and-attack games with the kids. It was just too cute watching his little lips curl up in a snarl as he yipped and bit at their fingers.
Shep wasn’t taught to obey commands as a puppy. There was plenty of time to teach him when he was a bit older.
By the time Shep was two years old, a teenager in dog years, he was a menace. Taking him for a walk was an invitation for disaster. He wasn’t used to walking on a leash, so would charge ahead, almost pulling your arm from its socket. He barked at everyone and everything. He snarled and growled at other dogs, and sometimes children. He didn’t listen to commands, and wouldn’t come when he was called. He was an accident waiting to happen.
Shep wasn’t much better at home. He’d let himself into the house as he wished (he’d worked out how to push the door open). He’d eat whatever food he could find, pee on the floor, tear up bedding, knock over furniture, and generally leave the house a mess. Out in the yard, he dug holes, tried to attack the postman every day, and menaced visitors.
“He’s not a bad dog,” his family would say. “He’s a part of the family. We love him.”
Then they’d go back to yelling at him to stop doing what he was doing, and he would ignore them.
One day, the inevitable happened. Shep escaped from the yard and disappeared for an afternoon. While he was out, he attacked a neighbour’s child. She was okay (having been rescued by her father), but sustained a nasty bite on her arm and spent a few hours in hospital. A decision had to be made.
Was he “just a bad dog”? Did he deserve to be “held accountable for his actions” and put down? Should he be given a “good beating” to knock some discipline into him?
Who was to blame, anyway? And isn’t it really “too little, too late” for Shep?
I ask myself those questions whenever I see news reports of schoolyard bullying turned to violence, fifteen-year-olds attempting to rob a convenience store, or teenagers verbally abusing police. I ask them again when the community calls for harsher penalties for teenage offenders, and corporal punishment in schools.
Are they “just bad kids”? Do they deserve to be “held accountable for their actions” and locked up? Should they be given a “good beating” to knock some discipline into them?
** Note: No puppies were harmed in the creation of the allegory.