Wednesday, April 16, 2014

How demeaning to be treated as less than the family dog?

In the spring of 2001 I had a flash of insight.  I could almost see the light bulb floating over my head.  Maybe it should have been a giant wooden mallet smashing down on me and a voice saying “Duh!”  What caused this miraculous insight?  Our dog.  A little obnoxious mutt we had rescued from the pound a few months earlier.

When Gabe was just starting his early intervention program, I decided we needed a dog.  A dog would distract the boys from all the chaos in our lives.  They would be able to focus on something else and learn to care for an animal.  I was especially concerned that Nate was worrying too much about his brother and a dog would distract him.  Maggie, the cat, had been with us for years but was getting old.  She no longer wanted to be around little energetic boys. 

One cold winter day after picking up Nate from preschool, we headed out to the county dog pound.  The three of us looked at all the small and medium sized dogs.  A small, reddish, mixed breed caught Nate’s eye.  Since he was red, the Nate, my oldest, decided his name should be James after the red engine on Thomas the Tank Engine.  This was Nate’s suggestion since Gabe was still not speaking.  Even without saying a word, I knew that Gabe was happy to have a dog.

James was the distraction I thought he would be.  

The boys were elated to finally have a dog.  Nate couldn’t believe I got him one. Neither could my husband when he got home from work to find a mutt in the house.  Being a mutt from the dog pound with an unknown background, James had some terrible habits and only occasionally obeyed me.  In other words, he fit right in.

James and the boys quickly bonded.  

The dog had patience with them and they loved him.  Gabe and the dog formed a special bond.  Many times I found Gabe in the dog cage with James which was located in a hallway off the kitchen.  It had James’ cushion and toys in it.  My dad explained that it should be the dog den, his safe place to go when the boys get too wild or he is tired.  As predicted, the boys were often too loud and James would retreat to his den.  Gabe would follow and the two would sit quietly together.  I even have a picture of the dog and Gabe in the cage.  Both of them are relaxed and content.

The dog was great with my sons but had many behavioral problems.  The dog was rambunctious and undisciplined.  Nowhere in his past had he gone to Obedience School.  I set about to training the dog as best I could.  It is not easy to change the habits of a full grown dog of unknown age.  I thought if I had patience I could.  James was a stubborn dog and did not adapt to the rules of the house quickly.

One afternoon James had done something he shouldn’t.  I don’t remember the particular offense.  I do remember telling the dog that he knew better.  The dog looked back at me sheepishly.  He did know what I expected and he knew he hadn’t done it.  In that moment I realized that I was communicating with the dog, a nonverbal creature.  I wasn’t reading his mind or anything like that.  I was using my tone and posture to express displeasure.  He was reading my signals and responding.

At this point in time, Gabe was still nonverbal.  He would occasionally say a word or two but did not use language to communicate his needs, his wants or his concerns.  As long as he was doing what he wanted, he was quiet and content.  He seemed to ignore me unless he wanted the same thing as me.  He did not eat at the table.  Whenever we tried, he screamed.  We gave in and he ate while playing trains on the floor. I felt like there wasn’t much I could do since Gabe didn’t talk.

That afternoon I looked at the dog and realized I expected more from that ill-mannered mutt than I did from my own son.   

Not a pleasant revelation.  My attitude changed immediately.  I had no idea what was happening in Gabe’s head or how smart he was.  I did know he was at least as smart as the dog and probably incredibly smarter.  I needed to treat him as if he is an intelligent being capable of learning.  I remember thinking I don’t know how much he can learn or how far he will go but he can learn. I also remember thinking that he will never learn much if we don’t expect him to be able to learn.

How demeaning to be treated as less than the family dog?  

I had not intended to treat Gabe that way.  I love him and have always wanted the best for him.  Somehow our expectations had not been nearly as high as they had been for his older brother.  Realizing what we were doing, albeit unintentionally, was a profound eureka moment.  It changed the way I looked at everything.  How much were we holding him back by not pushing him?  I started pushing Gabe to follow the same rules as his brother.  He needed to behave, to sit at the table while eating and follow the rules of the house.  Why shouldn’t I expect Gabe to be capable of the same?

It was through my attempts to train James that I realized a horrible truth about myself.  

I expected the dog to learn the rules of the house and follow them.  When the dog disobeyed, I reprimanded him and guided him to proper behavior.  When Gabe did something wrong, I didn’t reprimand him or guide him to correct behavior.  I did not expect him to be able to follow the same rules like his brother or even the dog.

I realized I had higher expectations for my dog than my son.  

Not a pleasant realization but an honest one.  Neither talked but both were intelligent and were capable of learning the rules.  Why should I treat my son like he is less capable of learning than the dog?  After a few months we had to return James to the pound.  He was too aggressive and protective.  The lessons he taught me endure.  Whenever I start to slip into the old habit, Nate will remind me that I am treating them differently.  
Brothers never want to let the other one get out of doing chores or allowed more privileges than themselves. Striving for Independence: Ways to Help Children with Disabilities Learn to Function More Indepedently eBook: Kristan Payne: Kindle Store