Monday was one of those days full of frustration, when I despaired of getting anything done. I wanted to work on the new newsletter and continue revisions on my memoir-turned-novel.

But Scout had taken over my life and I was starting to resent it

I knew I needed to be more patient. She would grow out of it. But right then I felt like I was in a time warp, once again a stay-at-home mom with a toddler, pulling her hair out because she could not get ONE MINUTE of time to herself.

On my good days, I smile when Scout wakes me at dawn, her wet nose and whiskers tickling my face. On this morning, I did not smile.

On my good days, I cheerfully—okay, not cheerfully but at least willingly—get dressed and take her out for a walk, patient as she thoroughly investigates every smell in her path. Monday, I was impatient.

On good days, I make sure she gets lots of exercise at the dog park or beach so I can count on a few productive hours while she naps. Not this time.

It’s the barking I hate

Even when there is no one around to be annoyed, Scout’s sudden, loud outbursts—just when I am intently focused on writing or reading—almost always startle me to the point where my fight-or-flight reflex kicks in.

My heart races. I yell at her to be quiet, which does exactly zero good. I get more angry and yell louder. Then I get angry with myself for having so little control, and that just makes things worse.

All of my less attractive, primal instincts are in play now

Dog ownership is bringing up issues I thought I had long ago put to bed, issues I never thought I would have to deal with again.

The summer I turned fifteen, with my parents’ permission I got a job as a live-in babysitter for a family with three young boys. While their parents worked during the day, I stayed with the kids. Two of them, Tommy and Nate, were rambunctious grade-schoolers who ran out to play every morning and came back only for lunch.

The third, a two-year-old towhead named Mike, was my nemesis.

Mike pushed every button I had. I knew nothing about normal childhood development or the so-called Terrible Twos. All I knew was that this kid got on my last nerve.

And to my horror, I realized I wanted to hit him.

It was a grim epiphany to know that I could totally be a child abuser but somehow, I got through the summer without smacking Mike upside the head.

I decided I should never have children of my own

Well, I did, of course. Four years later, I was pregnant a month after losing my virginity to a sleepy-eyed musician in tight jeans. And not long after that, I was a young housewife faced with my very own little ‘Mike’. Who pushed every button.

I didn’t abuse him but I did neglect him. I put him down for naps and left him in his crib for hours while I watched TV or read magazines—anything to block out his cries and incessant rocking of the crib against the wall. Sometimes while he napped, I walked to the supermarket a few blocks away, leaving him alone.

A neighbor even reported me to Child Protective Services but since there were no bruises or other signs of abuse, the social worker left with a warning: “If we get another call, we will take him away.”

I didn’t know what to do with him

I was honestly afraid of him. He threw tantrums when I took him out in public, throwing his rigid body to the ground as we crossed a busy street, screaming at a pitch that curdled my blood. More than once, he head-butted me in defiance, causing a fat lip. He was big for his age and seemed almost stronger than I was.

He was an angry little boy. And in retrospect with the wisdom of experience, I can understand why: my efforts to contain and control him were exactly the wrong solution. He wanted to play with other kids but I kept him holed up in the apartment to avoid the tantrums he always threw when it was time to go home. He needed activity and stimulation, not isolation and containment.

I didn’t know it at the time—had never even heard of them—but I was suffering from post-partum depression and on the cusp of agoraphobia that grew worse as my son grew older and my marriage fell apart.

By the time he had grown into an adorable seven-year-old, I was divorced and filled with regret for my failures as a mother. I had enrolled in a community college, and for my final paper in Psych 101, I chose to research child abuse and neglect.

I wanted to understand why I had come so perilously close to harming my beautiful boy

I learned that abusive or neglectful parents often have a personality clash with the child (not that it is ever the child’s fault but the parent may be too immature or inexperienced to understand this), and they often expect the child to be more advanced developmentally than is realistic for his age.

I realized that I was guilty of both.

That knowledge saved my relationship with my son because it helped me see things from his point of view for the first time. I stopped being a self-centered, overgrown adolescent and began to learn compassion.

Now the question is, can I do the same for my dog?

Days later, the answer is apparently yes.

Writing all this out really helped.

I have been giving Scout more attention and affection, which seems to have improved our relationship.

She still barks and whines but I don’t get as annoyed any more. Instead, I use more appropriate (and effective) responses, like distraction. And I frequently remind myself that she is just doing what comes naturally.

Most important, I think, is the conscious effort to be more affectionate — petting and cuddling at every opportunity.

It seems to be working — on both of us.

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Showing 6 comments
  • yolanda

    Great post LaVonne and timely as I find myself babysitting my grandchildren and re-living the hell of the terrible threes with a boy that I clash with.
    Soldier on!

  • Lynn

    Totally understand, last week I was honestly thinking of dropping my dog at the shelter. AND she was sick to make it even worse.

    She had an abscess and the vet gave her 6 different pills on top of the two she takes for being hypothyroid. It was impossible to get the meds into her and she was whining in pain. I was mad at the vet, my dog, myself and the world until my mother said “I think animals can heal themselves”

    Yes, they can and a week later, she is back to her old self and I am only out $100.00 for pills. Lesson learned.

    • LaVonne Ellis

      Thanks for the validation, Lynn — so glad your pooch is feeling better!

  • Jackie Howlett

    LaVonne, I would shout at my dogs all the time about barking. We have had the same neighbors that have to walk upstairs to get to their apt, for three years. She even takes my dog out with hers sometimes. But as soon as they hear the sound of someone coming in, its off to the land of bark. If they ever get a hold of the mailman…..
    I am completely ok with them barking as a warning, but after three years c’mon.
    A couple of weeks ago my friend very cleverly said, “would you shout at an abused little child like that”?
    Every since then I have told them in a much more controlled way, softer voice, to stop barking. I tell them “no” and praise them immediately. Now, how long this will last for I have no idea. It is making me less stressed.

    • LaVonne Ellis

      Exactly. I wrote this post because I was feeling like an abusive parent, angry and guilty at the same time. Since then, I have been much more loving with Scout, and we both seem to feel and get along a lot better. 🙂

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