You Might Call My Toddler a Puppy Whisperer
There's a definite magic that happens when you put babies (or young children) and puppies in the same room. I've had a deep appreciation for this since my daughter, Emily, was born a little more than three years ago. Until then, I had been living a fairly dogged-up life, having dogs of my own as well as working in the field of animal welfare. I had also started my own little rescue group, Southpaws Express.
Emily has been surrounded by a lot of dog friends since she came into the world. She particularly delights in the company of puppies, and indeed we've jokingly named her Southpaws' No. 1 Volunteer Puppy Socializer. Emily generously gives attention and affection to all the foster puppies, and she's had special relationships with a few of them along the way.
One of the earliest to capture Emily's heart was a pup named Peezie. We had her in foster care along with three of her siblings, but Emily (only about nine months old at the time) formed a special bond with Peezie. They seemed to be on the same wavelength, and moved about and engaged with an uncanny synchronicity. Emily and Peezie would sit side by side, each playing with a toy; then they'd both decide to do some wandering around the room; then they'd both sit down again, at the exact same time.
Seeing the parallels in these babies of different species was at once hilarious and touching. When they noticed each other directly, there was a recognition that passed between them. Emily would coo over the pup, and Peezie would nuzzle her happily.
It wasn't too long after this picture was taken that baby Emily said her very first word, which was –- drumroll please -– “puppy." (For those curious, her next words were “doggie” and a version of “Chachi,” one of our other dogs' names. “Mommy” wasn't uttered until a good bit later, so I guess I know where I rank!)
Later, Emily had a precious friend in a puppy named Ophelia. This brindle beauty was one of a litter of three we had accepted into the rescue. These Mastiff mixes all came to us incredibly shy and withdrawn, most likely having been under-handled in their earliest weeks, and Ophelia was the most timid of them. When she arrived, she did not even want to make eye contact or respond to invitations to interact with adults. She would just shut down.
Yet, after spending a little time with one-year-old Emily, the puppy soon became relaxed and happy, with her tail thumping ever so gently and her head in the child's lap. Later, we noticed that even when Ophelia was in the backyard for exercise, if she heard the sound of any child's voice nearby in the neighborhood, she would stop, perk her ears, and wag her tail. Clearly, she had an affinity for children; perhaps she'd had another child friend in her earliest days, even before she knew Emily. Shelter puppies can't tell you all their secrets, but sometimes they show you a hint.
In the spring of last year, when Emily was two and a half, we had a litter of eight puppies in foster care. These were all quite adored by the toddler, who knew all their names and kept them straight even better than we adults did. This batch of puppies had dessert names: Sundae, Pudding, Tiramisu, Truffle, Snickers, Peppermint, Taffy, and Dolce.
Emily loved them all, but she had a special connection with Peppermint. He constantly followed her around and seemed to demonstrate just the right balance between silly and sweet, playful and gentle. Accordingly, Emily's interactions with him toggled between romping and squealing -- and couch snuggling. There was plenty of couch snuggling. Emily was a bit bigger in size and could hold a puppy physically on her lap, which thrilled her to no end. She also liked to “read” her many books to Peppermint while he would lounge beside her. Then they'd go back to chase-me-'round-the-kitchen-table games.
The best thing about having a little Volunteer Puppy Socializer is how it benefits human and canine babies alike. For Emily, not only does she immensely enjoy the puppies, she's also learning how to behave around them, how to be kind and communicate. For the puppies, they are being taught positive associations with tiny humans, and as part of their socialization, this will only help them be more adoptable and able to fit in well with an adoptive family and other children they'll meet in the future.
So, Southpaws' Number One Volunteer Puppy Socializer truly has an important job to do. And she'll grow up with memories of a childhood enriched by puppies!
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