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Parenting Imperfect

July 23, 2011

Parenting would be easier if only I knew Dink's secret

One of my college housemates had a family dog named Dink.

Dink was a border collie, whose temperament was true to the breed, which means that he couldn't resist herding living creatures, be they sheep, cats or toddlers.

He was controlled by his need to keep his charges in a tight bunch in a place where he could keep an eye on them.

My friend's parents made sure to keep Dink well exercised, lest the lack of hoof stock in their suburban backyard drive the dog nuts.

He wasn't an easy dog because he was just smart enough and stubborn enough to consistently probe his owners for weakness. But, as my friend's mom said, the challenging dogs need good homes, too.

For what it's worth, she adopted me as well during the breaks that were too short for me to travel home but too long to stay on campus. I can be a challenging dog, too, I guess.

I stayed at their house enough to get to know Dink. He figured out that I am a pushover, the sort of person who will fail to notice that I've left a slice of buttered bread within easy reach of a curious dog. When looked at with big brown eyes, I will let you lick the peanut butter spoon.

What always amazed me, no matter how many times it happened, was how subtle Dink could be about doing his job. There could be four or five people scattered around a sizeable house, actively engaged in whatever they are doing. Yet, somehow, we would all end up in the tiny kitchen and Dink would be stretched out across the threshold, watching to make sure we didn't try to slip away.

I'm still not certain that the dog wasn't able to implant suggestions in our brains the way that Obi-wan Kenobi did in Mos Eisley. "You'd really like a cup of tea," Dink would think and wave a paw. And so you'd find yourself wandering down to the kitchen for a cup of tea.

Before you start to ask serious questions about what I believe dogs can do, I know Dink wasn't telepathic.

Mostly.

The way he'd herd us wasn't all that mysterious, really. Whenever you'd stand up, he'd gently press his head against your leg _ so gently that you'd fail to notice _ and steer you where he wanted you to go. And he was so good at this that it always felt like you'd moved there of your own free will.

If he tried to push hard enough to get your attention, of course, you'd be hip to the fact that you were being steered. Dink knew not to treat humans like sheep. The trick wasn't to bark and nip but to be an unfelt hand guiding your path.

Like I said, he was a very smart dog.

I was thinking about Dink the other day when I was trying to get the Diva to pick up her room. I tried natural consequences but her complaints about not being able to find anything had gotten on my last nerve.

We were rapidly reaching the point where we couldn't leave the house because she couldn't lay her hands both the right and left shoe of any given pair. And she has a lot of pairs, which gives you a good idea the state of her room.

I went negative. I tried threats. I withheld treats. I pocketed her allowance. Clean your room or you will have nothing fun again ever. All that did was make her dig in her heels.

I went positive _ but stopped just shy of bribery. Seriously. I am not going to reward being a slob with gummi bears.

I was on the verge of threatening to box up everything not in its rightful place and donating it to kids who actually appreciate having things. But I stopped short, mostly because that seemed like a lot of work for me. I know enough to not make a threat that I'm not willing to follow through on.

Besides, that seems like the nuclear option.

Both sides would escalate until the house had been rendered unfit for human life. The cockroaches would be happy, though.

And then I thought of Dink and his uncanny ability with a gentle but persistent nudge. That's the parent I want to be, the one who shoves her kids in the safest direction without ever letting on that is her goal.

Right now, with the Diva, I push, then she pushes back with an equal and opposite force.

Sadly, I can't ask Dink how he did it. Not only did Dink go to that great dog park in the sky almost two decades ago, he couldn't tell me even if he were here, simply because, you know, he's a dog.

Still, I wish I knew Dink's secret. I'd swap that knowledge for as much peanut butter as a very good dog could hold.

Adrienne Martini is a freelance writer, instructor at the State University College at Oneonta, mom to Maddy and Cory, wife to Scott, and author of "Sweater Quest," last year. Her columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/parentingimperfect.

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