Old Dogs and New Tricks: Buttercup’s Boundary Lessons

This morning when I came in from my ride, I was greeted by Buttercup, one of our Boxers.  She grabbed her favorite ball and wiggled sideways to where I was leaning against the counter waiting for my coffee. Instinctively, I put my palm up and she sat.  For that, she was rewarded with a head scratching. The minute I stopped however, she stood up. Her paws played a tattoo on the ground. Her butt joined the dance. It wiggled right and left and right and then got stuck on the left, turning her into a vibrating comma. I knew what was expected of me, so I resumed scratching.

Buttercup is hilarious and adorable. That is not what was going through my head at the time, though. I was thinking about my weekend with my daughter and her two dogs, Bradley and Rocco. They are sweet and rambunctious. She and her boyfriend have done a great job training them. They sit and stay seated when told to.  This is but a dream with Buttercup the Judgmental and her sister, Delta the Destroyer.  As my cup of joe filled, I pondered the pitiful job I have done training Buttercup. For about a second, I considered enrolling her in puppy school and starting her training over but the old adage, “You can’t teach and old dog new tricks”, flashed through my head. 

I was about to concede and take my ill-behaved pooch to my office where I would be intermittently scratching her ears while trying to write a novel. It hit me that the adage is not strictly true. After all, I am ‘old-er-ish’ and I learn new tricks all the time. I saw the truth with the clarity of a German Shorthaired Pointer alerting on a chubby pheasant in tall grass at dawn—my dog has trained me! And she has done a masterful job. When she wants to be scratched, she sits. When I’m done, but she is not, she stands. So, I tell her to sit…. It’s an endless cycle of sit and reward, or perhaps head scratching and punishment.  What have I done?!? Or rather what has she done?!?! My dog is an expert in human training. Apparently, a dog can teach an old human new tricks.

The thing is that we are both getting what we want on some level or we would not stay on the merry-go-round. I want my dog to have four on the floor and to give me love without mauling me (She’s a stout specimen who hugs enthusiastically.) She wants her head scratched. In this case, she gives me what I want only as long as I give her what she wants. (Is there family therapy for dog-moms and their cagey canines?)

It doesn’t have to be that way. I could do what I need to do to stop this vicious cycle of sit-scratch-stand-repeat. It will take some effort. The result could have negative consequences. She might shun me in hopes that I will get in line with her vision for our relationship. Anyone ever given you the silent treatment? Well, they are no match for Buttercup the Judgmental. If that doesn’t work, she will definitely make a, no doubt successful, attempt to get what she wants from my husband. And why wouldn’t she? She is getting what she wants from our relationship. Buttercup is not interested in learning a new trick. She can. She doesn’t want to change. (You might be thinking by now that I am giving too much credit to the Boxer mind, but they are a crafty breed.)

Really the responsibility is on me, if I am unhappy with this arrangement. I can hope that she will change. The truth is that I have to want to change. In the end, this is not about Buttercup learning a new trick. It is about me learning a new trick. In this case, it is me setting expectations and boundaries and sticking to them. I knew the right thing to do when she was a puppy. I didn’t do it consistently. (Did I mention she is hilarious and adorable? It is pretty hard to resist.)

Buttercup got me thinking about relationships with humans. How we treat each other and what we come to accept as treatment from others comes from practiced interactions. Those interactions can be healthy and nurturing with open communication about what is acceptable or not. But, if we are not open and honest or if we are in an unsafe or uneven power situation, we can also be conditioned to respond positively to things that we don’t really want in order to preserve the relationship or avoid punishment. That includes parent-child, partners, friends, family, and work. If we do not trust our heart and gut, we can learn to accept things that make us uncomfortable and are ultimately wrong for us. We might do it to make something negative go away. We might do it to keep something we like. Either way, it will grow. If you are lucky, it will be a demanding, 80 pound Boxer who just wants to be loved all the time. If you are not lucky, it could be an unhealthy home, social, or work situation, that makes you feel powerless and robs you of your efficacy. Fortunately, even old dogs can learn new tricks. This is one trick worth learning: Set healthy boundaries and expectations for how you will be treated. It will be worth the effort because you are worth the effort.  The joy you get will be pure joy and not the water-down version that comes from accepting less than you deserve.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to teach a dog to sit. When we are done with that, I’ll give her a good belly scratching.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2022

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