Leader of the pack

Never hit the dogs.

It was one of the few rules my mother enforced in our family home. Mom never hit us either. Her father had a violent temper and she swore off physical punishment in her home.

Never hit the dogs had an unspoken decree that governed the house though — never discipline the dogs.

“Let them be dogs,” my mom liked to say.

Our four-bedroom tract home in the suburbs of San Diego may as well have been a canine kingdom of ill repute. The dogs licked our dinner plates clean from the bottom rack of the dishwasher, slept in beds and on furniture, and (I swear) she fed them breakfast cereal in the morning with a teaspoon of sugar sprinkled on top and drenched in milk.

Mom rarely said no to the creatures we brought home. We had two dogs at all times; four to five cats; guinea pigs, pet rats and the occasional snake. Luckily our neighborhood wasn’t zoned for livestock or my horse would certainly have had his head through the kitchen window where mom would have fed him corn-on-the-cob over the sink.

The absence of rules governing the dogs annoyed my siblings and I. If “Rosy,” our retriever, grabbed the sandwich off my plate at the table when I rose to get a glass of milk, my mother would scold me for tempting her by leaving my food unattended. If one of the dogs tore up a cherished toy, my mother would argue, “She’s just being a dog.”

Of the 15 dogs my parents had in their lifetime, half were killed by cars — mowed down in the road because they were rarely leashed and not under voice control. By the time I moved out of my parents house I was convinced of the perils of dogs left to their own devices.

I was 30 years old before I adopted a dog of my own, a black Labrador pup I named “Que.” Back then I was single and waitressing 25 hours a week. I spent most my free time training and playing with Que. “Sit” and “stay” were the two commands I was most diligent in teaching her. I knew if Que could sit and stay, it might save her life. I’d make her sit a distance from me for 15 minutes sometimes. When I gave the command to come, she’d comply. My mom thought this was cruel. She’d tell me I was too hard on Que. My reply was always the same: “Mom, I don’t want her to die a stupid car death.”

Now I’m trying to train my puppy “Lulu” with much less success — family life and a full-time job take most of my energy. Lulu’s training isn’t going so well. Yes, we’re in puppy training class and I am also reading one of the dog whisperer’s books. I agree completely with Cesar Millan’s advice to make yourself the pack leader. The problem is I’m too tired most the time to be forceful. My “Gee, cut it out,” lacks conviction and Lulu knows it.

Cesar warns that the pack leader must possess the energy of a leader. He advised one of his clients to impersonate Cleopatra while walking her dogs. The woman was an actress and apparently this came naturally to her.

Cleopatra, I am not.

On our morning walk the other day Lulu drove me to my breaking point. I really wanted to hurt her. Fortunately I was able to channel my anger productively when I realized who was really at fault here … me.

No more allowing her to pull ahead on the leash or bounce around excitedly when someone approached with another dog. I shifted into the role of enforcer. Rather than be dragged around on our 7 a.m. walk, I held her at a heel for the full 45-minute walk. By the time we were done, Lulu was walking at my side. My arms were finally relaxed and my hand wasn’t frozen in a claw from tugging on the leash.

Then I realized who my iconic figure was that I needed to empower for our walks: The Terminatrix — that chick robot from “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.” No more smiling and pleading for my pup’s attention. No more fun and games. Once that leash is on I am a stone-faced Terminatrix commanding fear and respect.

Sounds harsh, I know. But I remember how hardcore I was that first year of Que’s life and how well she responded to firm leadership. Looking back now I wouldn’t do it differently. That first year was hard on both of us, but the next 13 years were fun and easy. Freedom through discipline is my maxim.

I’ll adhere to my mother’s rule: Never hit the dogs — and add to that — but train them.

• Pam Woolway is the lifestyle writer at The Garden Island. Her column “Being there” appears every other week.

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