I have three badly behaved children and a damn good bird dog. My Brittany spaniel, Millie (age seven), is far more biddable and obedient than my daughters, Muffin (eleven) and Poppet (nine), and has a better nose than my son, Buster (five). Buster does smell, but in his case it’s an intransitive verb.
My dog is perdition to the woodcock and ruffled grouse we hunt hereabouts and death itself to the pen-raised Huns, chukars, and quail she encounters at the local shooting club. Millie hunts close, quarters well, points beautifully, is staunch to wing and shot, and retrieves with verve. My children…are doing okay in school, I guess. They look very sweet—when they’re asleep.
As my family was growing, I got a lot of excellent advice about discipline, responsibility, respect, affection, and cultivation of the work ethic. Unfortunately this advice was from dog trainers and was directed to my dog. In the matter of child rearing there was also plenty of advice, all of it contradictory—from family and family-in-law, wife, wife’s girlfriends, pediatricians, nursery school teachers, babysitters, neighbors and random old ladies on the street, plus Dr. Spock, Dr. Phil, and, for all I know, Dr Pepper: Spank them/Don’t spank them. Make them clean their plate/Keep them from overeating. Potty train them at one/Send them to Potty Training Camp at fourteen. Hover over their every activity/Get out of their faces. Don’t drink or smoke during pregnancy/Junior colleges need students too. And none of this advice works when you’re trying to get the kids to quit playing video games and go to bed.
It took me years to realize that I should stop asking myself what I’m doing wrong as a parent and start asking myself what I’m doing right as a dog handler.
The first right thing I do is read and reread Gun Dog by the late Richard A. Wolters. This is the book that revolutionized dog training in 1961. (Of course, the dogs are now forty-nine years old and not much use, but the book is still great.)
“Start ’em young” is the message from Wolters. And that’s why, if we have another child, he’s going to learn to walk pushing on the handle of a Toro in the yard instead of teetering along the edge of the sofa cushions in the living room. Wolters, along with a number of other bird shooters, had realized that waiting until the traditional one-year mark before teaching a puppy to hunt was like carrying your kid in a Snugli until he was seven. Wolters was sure he was right about this, but he wasn’t sure why. Then he came across the work of Dr. John Paul Scott, a founder of the Animal Behavior Society. Dr. Scott was involved in a project to help Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc. Seeing Eye dog training was considered almost too difficult to be worthwhile. Using litters from even the best bloodlines, the success rate for guide-dog training was only 20 percent. Dr. Scott discovered that if training began at five weeks instead of a year, and continued uninterrupted, the success rate rose to 90 percent.
It goes without saying that the idea of Seeing Eye kids is wrong—probably against child labor laws and an awful thing to do to blind people. But I take Dr. Scott’s point. And so did Richard Wolters, who devised a gun-dog training regime that had dogs field-ready at as early as six months. That’s three and a half in kid years. My kids weren’t doing anything at three and a half, other than at night in their Pull-Ups.
The Start-’Em-Young program turns out to be a surprise blessing for dads. Wolters writes in Gun Dog of a puppy’s first twenty-eight days (equal to about six months for a kid), “Removal from Mother at this time is drastic.” That’s just what I told my wife about the care and feeding of our infants—drastic is the word for leaving it to me. According to Wolters, I’m really not supposed to get involved until the kid is one (equivalent to a fifty-six-day-old pup). Then I can commence the nurturing (Happy Meals) and the “establishing rapport” (sitting with me on the couch watching football).
Next the training proper beings. “Repetition, more repetition, and still more repetition,” enjoins Wolters. I’ve reached the age where I’m repeating myself all the time, so this is easy. “Commands should be short, brisk, single words: SIT, FETCH, WHOA, COME, NO, etc.” In the case of my kids the “etc.” will be GETAJOB or at least MARRYMONEY.
“Keep lessons short,” writes Wolters. And that must be good advice because notice how all the fancy private schools start later, end earlier, and get much more time off at Christmas and Easter than P.S. 1248. Wolters also points out that body language is important to the training process. “Your movements should be slow and deliberate, never quick and jerky.” Martinis work for me.
“Don’t clutter up his brain with useless nonsense,” warns Wolters, who is opposed to tricks such as “roll over” or “play Dick Cheney’s lawyer” for dogs that have a serious purpose in life. Therefore, no, Muffin, Poppet, and Buster, I am not paying your college tuition so you can take a course called “Post-Marxist Structuralism in Fantasy/Sci-Fi Film.” And, meanwhile, no, you can’t have a Wii either.
Wolters favors corporal punishment for deliberate disobedience. “Failure to discipline is crueler,” he claims. I do not recall my own dad’s failure to discipline as being crueler than his pants-seat handiwork, but that may be my failing memory. In any case, a whack on the hindquarters is a last resort. Wolters prefers to use psychology: “You can hurt a dog just as much by ignoring him. For example, if you’re trying to teach him SIT and STAY, but he gets up and comes to you, ignore him.” When I was a kid, we called this dad working late every day of the week and playing golf all Sunday.
According to Wolters, the basic commands for a gun dog are SIT, STAY, COME, and WHOA. With no double entendre intended concerning the GIT OVER HERE directive, those are exactly the four things my boy Buster will have to learn if he wants a happy marriage. My girls Muffin and Poppet, on the other hand, seem to have arrived from the womb with a full understanding of these actions—and how to order everyone to do them.
“The last two, COME and WHOA,” writes Wolters, “are so important that if a dog had good hunting instincts and knew only these two commands he would make a gun dog.” It’s the same for accomplishment in every other field, among people and pooches alike. If you had to give just two rules for success in business, politics, family, friendship, or even church, you could do a lot worse than SHOW UP and SHUT UP.
Wolters begins, however, with SIT and STAY. And these are important too. Kids today are given frequent encouragement to STAND UP FOR THIS AND THAT. But SIT TIGHT ’TIL IT BLOWS OVER is wiser counsel. Wolters employs a leash to pull the head up as he pushes the rump down. I’ve found that the collar of a T-shirt works just as well. Wolters uses praise in the place of dog biscuits; he writes, “I do not believe in paying off a dog by shoving food into his mouth.” I, on the other hand, try to make sure the kids eat their green leafy vegetables once I’ve got them seated.
Wolters teaches STAY by slowly moving away from the dog while repeating the command and making a hand signal with an upright palm. But I’ve found that if your kids get Nickelodeon on cable TV, you don’t have to say or do anything. They’ll stay right there in front of it for hours.
Once SIT and STAY have been mastered, you can go on to COME. Wolters lowers his palm as a signal to go with the command, but a cell phone signal will also work if your kids are properly trained. Mine aren’t. Getting a kid to come when he’s called is a lot harder than getting a dog to, probably because the dog is almost certain that you don’t have green leafy vegetables in the pocket of your shooting jacket. Wolters suggests that if you’re having trouble teaching COME, you should run away, thereby enticing the dog to run after you. This has been tried with kids in divorce after divorce all across America, with mixed results.
The command that’s the most fun to teach using Wolters’s method is WHOA:
“The dog,” writes Wolters, “is ready to learn WHOA as soon as he will STAY on hand signal alone and COME on command. When he has this down pat, my system is—scare the hell out of the dog. Put the pup in the SIT STAY position. Walk a good distance away from him. Command COME. Run like hell away from him. Make him get up steam. Then reverse your field. Turn, run at the dog. Shout WHOA. Thrust the hand up in the STAY hand signal like a traffic cop. Jump in the air at him. Do it with gusto. You’ll look so foolish doing it that he’ll stop.”
Personally, I don’t have to go to this much trouble. Just my morning appearance—hungover, unshaven, wearing my ratty bathrobe and slippers Millie chewed—is enough to stop my children cold. I reserve the antics that Wolters describes for commands to this idiot computer I’m writing on. Gun Dog was authored in the days of the simple, reliable Royal Portable. Thus Wolters has nothing to say about computers. Besides, dogs don’t use computers. (Although, on my Visa bills, I’ve noticed some charges to rottenmeat.com.)
Children don’t need computer training, either. Muffin, Poppet, and Buster—who can’t even read—have “good computing instincts.” When the Internet says COME, they come. Mom and Dad try WHOA on certain Web sites, but whether that works we can’t tell. I’m the one who should be taught some basic commands, to make this darned PC…
“What’s the matter, Daddy?” Muffin asks. With one deft flick of the mouse thing, she persuades the balky printer to disgorge all that I have composed. I see her frown. “Daddy, Millie chews everybody’s shoes. She bit the teenager that mows the lawn. She killed Mom’s chickens. And every time you come home from hunting, you’re all red in the face and yelling that you’re going to sell her to a Korean restaurant. And…”
And here is where my Richard A. Wolters theory of parenting goes to pieces. There is one crucial difference between children and dogs. You can teach a dog to lie. DOWN.