Today, I’m musing about family while sitting in a gray-rubbery chair at the O’Hare Airport. I’m trying to get back home after attending my nephew’s wedding in Texas.

It is said, “We teach what we most need to learn.” I’ve been teach, teach, and teaching (whether paid or not) ever since I got started teaching in elementary school; informing each of my neighborhood pals that there was no Easter Bunny, that there was no Santa Claus felt like what I had been born to do. At the end of all my teaching, my conclusion is that there is no such thing as teaching; there is only learning. But I’ve digressed…

In one of my earlier columns I wrote; “I am convinced of two things after decades as a student and as a professor: 1) questions, not answers, are what are important in life and 2) humility–being teachable–is the mark of a true scientist…” My teachableness was recently called into question. Up until creating a new family with Nancy, Sophie and her brother, Jack, (the three-legged Wire Hair Fox Terrier that I’m working to not favor), I thought I knew about dogs and dog training. I was unaware of the research on wild grey wolves that requires acceptance of a totally new foundation for teaching and living with dogs. Many studies have now determined that the natural wolf pack is typically a family. Up until learning of this fact, I believed in and I based everything I did and said about living with dogs based on a chain-of-command military unit concept of the pack. All the “alpha” and “dominant” concepts are flat out wrong. The time is now for me to create a new mental image a wolf pack. The true natural wolf pack is a family unit. Young wolves of age leave their families when they come of age. They disperse into new territories of their own, to find other wolves and to begin their own family units. Within the pack, there is no aggression or conflict. If conflicts arise among wolves, it is usually between families/packs.

This one scientific fact changes a lot of things. For example, old-school dog training assumed that any and all interactions with one’s dog should reinforce that you, not the dog, is the “alpha”. An example is what I heard dog trainers say about the game tug-of-war. I was told that, if I let my dog win, the dog would think it was “alpha” or dominant and that my dog would now consider me the submissive one. Specific well-designed and conducted scientific studies have shown that this is not the case. Dogs are more likely to want to play tug-of-war later and more often if they are permitted to win. Which, by the way, is exactly what this playful veterinarian found in playing tug-of-war with any of his dogs.  Consistent with a new foundation, the studies found that dogs that win at tug-of-war exhibit neither more nor less aggression or other indications of dominance or submission with their owners than dogs that don’t win.

My middle daughter got married last August. I had the opportunity to give a toast. As I’ve reflected on marriage and the current state of our society, I reduced what I hoped my daughter and my new son-in-law would hear to this: “The best things in life are family. The worst things in life are family.” Just like heroin addicts spend the rest of their life trying to return to the sensation they had when they first experienced heroin in their veins, I think we all yearn for that feeling of home, for the sensation of belonging that comes from being part of a healthy and happy family. On the flip side, statistics indicate the vast majority of murders and violent crimes occur within and among family members.

Marriage is quite different than all of our other experiences of family. We don’t pick where we are born, we don’t pick our parents, and we don’t pick our siblings. However, we do pick our mates. Like the truly natural wolves, we leave our families and explore territories and then begin new family units. If we procreate, darn if we don’t discover that we don’t pick our children. Each child enters this world with an identity all their own.

I suspect that one of the reasons dogs become such a large part of our lives is that, similar to creating new family units through marriage where we unite the tangled family roots of two distinct genealogical trees, dogs are preprogrammed to do the same. One of my favorite images is of rescue or “pound dogs” who pick their owners. When a prospective owner walks the aisles of kennels, they think they’re engaged in a process of finding just the right dreamed-about dog. What is actually happening is one particular dog (the very same dog some other prospective owners witnessed as a listless and dull or in some way “undesirable” dog) has been laying in wait. He or she been waiting, waiting, and waiting to leap up! To spout irresistible LOVE when he or she finally sees the person, the family of ITS dreams.

There is something about the concept of families, of us sharing an underlying structure with dogs that warms my heart.  The family that Nancy and I have created also includes two cats, Bassui and Mia. What I hear myself say in that never-ending discussion of cats versus dogs is this, “Living with a cat is like having a pet squirrel.” The implication being that it is a privilege and a joy to be able to live with a wild creature and, thereby, giving cats a break, excusing them for their independence and aloofness. That Sophie and Jack are made to live like us, that they have a gift for living with us, leaves me with a feeling that I live in a kindler, gentler world.

Published in the Waupaca County Post East newspaper, 7/7/11.





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