Donna Decker: Alpha Mama on Father's Day

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ASHBURNHAM

Josh Billings said: "Money will buy you a pretty good dog, but it won't buy the wag of his tail." It also won't buy his obedience. But I've got that in the bag. In this season of Father's Day, I confess to feeling particularly Alpha and far too smug about it.

To my credit, Alpha is not something I come by easily, or -- really -- ever. In my family, I was the one who read books. My three siblings never sat still long enough to read a book. They were tethered to playing fields and basketball courts. Crazy athletes, all of them. Not I. Five-feet-one-inch tall and nerdy, I made one fierce attempt at playing basketball for St. Joe High and found myself more mascot than forward. I was spirited and talentless.

But this week, I am lord of the dance. I've laid down the law. My dog Otis knows who is boss. I have taken dog training into my own hands, and I am prevailing.

Otis is a 12-pound silky terrier, 12 pounds of willpower. I, on the other hand, have 12 pounds of books by Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, and my marathon reading has uncovered this: my dog's problem is -- me. He feels leader-less, like he has to perform insane acrobatics to protect our house and me, all of this because I have not exerted clear leadership.

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It is true, what Cesar says. I am not a dog leader. Sure, I did raise three children, and I do teach 18- to 22-year-olds every day in university classrooms, all of which I manage with aplomb, albeit moments of sheer terror. These, however, are not transferable skills. Cesar says I do not speak dog. My best intentions are not yielding good dog behavior. I need to learn a new language. I need to be the leader of the pack, Alpha Mama.

No easy task this black-belt management of a feisty dog long used to ruling the roost. Cesar says the single most important tool for controlling my dog is me, my energy, my "beingness." (Not to quibble with the master, but isn't it my being-ness that got me into this mess?). I had to exert a more muscular kind of handler mojo.

Full days of Cesar-ing little Otis ensued, practicing calm-assertive energy, and discerning the difference between Otis's "personality" and possible "instability." We were a team, Otis and I. We established rules and boundaries. We avoided common owner-dog mistakes. We learned, as Cesar promised, to take our relationship to a higher level.

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Given my transformation from blundering disciplinarian to pack leader, Otis is now wagging away, loving and respecting me like the puppies on the covers of Cesar's books. I feel empowered, like I deserve to borrow Cesar's cape and mask.

Resting on my laurels, en route to work one day shortly after claiming Alpha-ship, I pulled into my favorite Dunkin' Donuts to order tea. From the speaker planted in the orange and pink menu board, I heard: "Did you know it is National Doughnut Day? What kind of donut would you like?" Doughnut Day. National. Seriously now. To the speaker, I asked, "What are my choices?"

I do not do doughnuts. That is because I love doughnuts, and the whole give-an-inch-and take-a-mile rule comes into play. One is never enough. But this day, I left the house with my dog all fed and watered and pottied outside. I deserved a doughnut. As the speaker listed the options, strawberry frosted, lemon filled, I heard the words I knew were for me, the Father's Day Star donut. The Alpha of doughnuts. Boston crème, chocolate frosted, in the shape of a star. I was being rewarded by the universe for sticking to my guns, for soldiering on, for being in the trenches, for leaning in -- I had mastered the damn little dog, and I was getting the purple heart of breakfast confection, a star-shaped doughnut.

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Maybe it was the sugar, but that donut gave me pause. All fathers deserve a star donut, I pondered, mine notwithstanding -- 81 years old, the man quelled fires, raised children, fought demons, loved his family and brotherhoods of friends.

My Father's Day Star doughnut was gone in a munch. My thoughts lingered. It took patience and willpower and just the right degree of Alpha-ness to tame a tiny canine, how much more to render the four of us respectable adult Deckers, the athletes and the nerd?

Josh Billings also said: A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than you love yourself. Maybe not. Maybe dads love in their own protean ways, with their unique energy and being-ness, the children they whisper into fulfilling lives.

Donna Decker is associate professor of English at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H. She grew up in Pittsfield.


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