On a cool October morning, I repeat today’s plan to my mom as we drive to pick up Tuco.
“The book said I need to bring back something with the mother’s scent. This will make the puppy’s transition from his den to our home a lot smoother.”
Over the summer, in preparation for the puppy, I read Cesar Millan’s book How to Raise the Perfect Dog and watched dog training videos on YouTube. I have a sample puppy schedule and a potty-training chart taped to the inside of my notebook with the rest of my puppy research.
“Then,” I continue, “I’ll put his new collar on, attach the leash and walk him to the car. Cesar said puppies shouldn’t be carried like human babies.”
We ascend the dirt road that leads to Ellis Labrador Farm, Tuco’s home, for the last time. I think about the first time I drove up here with my boyfriend Tristen, a week after Tuco was born. His tiny body fit perfectly in Tristen’s hand. The breeder, Patti, told Tristen and me that Tuco was born with fluid in his lungs and was given mouth to mouth by her daughter, Katie.
I pull up into the long, wet driveway covered in yellow leaves. My breath flutters. “The book said a leader must have a calm-assertive energy. Gentle but firm discipline.” I put on my face mask. “As long as I mimic the behaviour of a mother dog, Tuco will follow,” I tell my mom before knocking on the door.
Tuco is the last puppy to go. He whines and howls for Sam, his mom. We sit with Pattie, the breeder, and discuss puppy training dos and don’ts, most of which was all review for me. I’m ready. I’m confident I can apply everything I learned about puppy training, from boundaries and limitations to affection and positive reinforcement. The idea is simple: correct unwanted behaviour and encourage good behaviour. While Pattie wraps up our conversation, I rub a towel over Sam.
We finally arrive at the handoff I had imagined all summer, leash ready in hand. Katie holds Tuco as I hold the leash. She stares at me as I stand there, wondering why she’s ignoring my leash that’s right in front of her. I inch towards her.
“He won’t walk on a leash for a while.”
“Oh! Sorry!” I reply and scoop Tuco into my arms.
On the walk back to the car, I think about what kind of psychological impact holding Tuco in my arms would have. Cesar said not to hold puppies like humans, that puppies need to physically feel that they’re moving. If they are carried, they will be disoriented.
I place Tuco inside the basket we prepared for him with a blanket, treats, and a rubber bone for him to chew on. The second Tuco’s paws touch the blanket, he tries to climb out. My mom drives while I sit in the back with Tuco.
I repeat the rest of the plan to her. “The book said when we get home, we have to walk the puppy straight to the yard. Cesar said not to let the puppy explore the entire house because they have to learn the house has boundaries.”
Tuco is asleep in my arms when we arrive back at the house. I place him gently on the driveway so he can explore his new environment. Tuco’s bum hits the gravel and he looks up at me. I pick him back up and head for the door when my mom stops me for a picture.
“The book said to restrict the puppy to a specific part of the backyard, so I’m going to take him along the back fence,” I tell my mom as I bring Tuco into the yard. As soon as I put him down, Tuco sniffs around and makes a left toward the garden. I watch him as he sniffs and digs in the grass. He picks up a leaf and I dash toward him to pry it out. I bring Tuco back inside and google “are leaves bad for dogs.” According to labradorsite.com, leaves are not harmful but provide few nutrients.
At 10:00 p.m., I place Tuco into his crate and tuck a Winnie the Pooh plushie next to him. Curled into a ball, Tuco falls asleep; I hop into bed, ready to do the same.
A soft whine wakes me up. It’s midnight. I take Tuco out to potty and place him back into his crate. He begins to whine, staring at me with his paws gripping the cage. I try my best to ignore him. The book said the first night would be the hardest. When puppies are away from their mom and littermates for the first time, they will cry and howl for them. The crying is piercing, so aggravating that our instinct is to comfort the puppy and stop the crying.
But Cesar said not to. Cesar said I must let Tuco overcome his fear of sleeping alone and teach him that crying out for me is not a means of control. Part of being a strong leader means I must ignore Tuco. I leave the room and sleep in my sister’s childhood bedroom. Every shriek cracks my heart open. I plug my ears and hide my head under the pillow.
Growing up, I was rarely given a leadership role within my family. As the youngest of four siblings, I could always look up at one of them and copy their behaviour. Being a puppy parent is a first in my family, and I promised my parents Tuco would be a calm, submissive dog. I approach every new project in my life the same way: I do my research, I take notes, and I plan. If I’m going to do something, I will do my absolute best.
It’s 3:00 a.m. when the crying finally stops.
The first week with Tuco is all laid out for me in my puppy schedule. This week, my training goal is to teach Tuco his name by saying it aloud, then hand feeding him.
I kneel to Tuco’s level with kibble in my hand. Right away, Tuco lunges at my hand, nibbling and licking my fingers. I try to keep him in a “sit position,” but he finds the bowl with the rest of his kibble and lunges toward it. I grab it just in time and start over.
I think back to the puppies on YouTube that are calm and well-behaved.
Week two on the puppy schedule is focused on luring with a treat in hand. The idea is that Tuco will follow my hand into a “sit position” and eventually a “down.” I lure Tuco’s head back, and as his bottom hits the floor, I say “sit.” Timing is crucial in dog training since dogs only live in the present; they are masters of association.
Every training session starts with a clear image of what I want Tuco to accomplish.
Today, I try to teach Tuco to take a treat out of my hand without biting too hard. Tuco’s sharp canines dig into my knuckles, and I pull my hand away and feel my jaw tighten. I try again, and Tuco nips my hand again. Anger turns to rage, and I feel my chimp energy coming to life.
I give up.
It’s week three. I’m sleep deprived. It’s the potty breaks every two hours. I always thought my maternal instincts would kick in when raising a puppy, and I would magically turn into Mother Teresa, but instead, I’m a tyrant. Is this the kind of mother I would be to my future children?
My dad comes home from work and Tuco hops to the front door, his tail whipping side to side. I take this as a training opportunity to teach Tuco door manners.
“Tuco, come!” My dad says as he shuts the door behind him. Tuco jumps onto my dad’s legs and lunges at his face—everything I don’t want Tuco to do. I sigh in frustration as I watch my dad scratch Tuco on the head.
Puppies repeat behaviour that gets them attention and affection. The book said to ignore puppies when you come home and only greet them when they are sitting and calm.
After 10 minutes of playing tug with my dad, Tuco gets the zoomies. He sprints around the kitchen and through the living room. Every corner he turns, I worry he will slip and break a bone or crush his skull against the wall.
I pull out a treat and get him to stop. I pick him up and he starts to squirm in my arms. He growls and jams his teeth into my arms. I start to cry as I place him into the crate for nap time. Plopped on the floor, I drop my head between my legs, defeated. I feel like a failure. I don’t have the calm-assertive energy required to be a good pack leader.
My dad walks into my room, still chewing on his dinner.
“Don’t cry, Sonia. He’s fine.”
“Yeah, but the book said not to associate the crate with negativity because—”
“He’s a dog,” My dad interrupts. “Dogs have survived for thousands of years in the wild. He’s inside. He’s got a bed. If he cries, just ignore him. He’ll stop eventually. That’s what we did to you guys when you were babies.” He chuckles.
“I’m scared I’m going to turn him into an aggressive dog.”
“You won’t. In El Salvador, dogs would be outside day and night. We fed them tortillas and milk, and they lived for 15 years and never attacked us. Just walk away when he’s crying. He’s not going to die.”
It’s been a month since Tuco came home, and we have finally settled into a routine. During his nap times, I can tend to myself. I can exercise, meditate, clean up, eat—anything to maintain my physical and mental well-being.
Today, as I wash dishes, I listen to Jack Kornfield’s podcast on Spotify, Heart Wisdom Hour. As plates and forks clank together, Jack’s soothing voice shines through the sound of running water.
So, forget the tyranny of perfection. The point is not to perfect yourself. It is to perfect your love. Let your imperfections be an invitation to care.
I lift my gaze from the soapy water and shut the tap off. The beauty of mindfulness is that it brings about these moments of insight. Raising a puppy is a great privilege that should be fulfilling. Up until today, I’ve resented my role as Tuco’s leader.
Resentment is a state of being I often encounter. As I stand here and reflect, I think about what led to this moment—why it’s so familiar. When I began my first year at UTM, I coped with feelings of unworthiness by boosting my ego with good grades. I believed that if I could aim for perfection, I could avoid failure, but the problem with perfectionism is that everything below perfect is registered in the brain as a failure. To fear failure is to fear imperfection, and to be imperfect is too shameful to endure.
I thought I was past that stage in my life. I thought I had learned that lesson, but here I am repeating the same perfectionist cycle—only this time, my behaviour is affecting an innocent being. Every stumble in Tuco’s progress felt like a direct reflection of my own failure as a dog owner.
I dry my hands and walk over to the crate to wake up Tuco. I uncover the blanket that drapes the crate, and I see Tuco rolled on his back, exposing his pink belly with pride. I stroke his soft fur and whisper a phrase from Jack Kornfield’s podcast.
“The goal is to perfect my love.”
I dice an apple and hide some pieces around the living room, some under a towel, a couple behind a toy, and I watch Tuco circle as he sniffs for sweetness. I love to watch Tuco’s primal instincts at work.
To perfect my love is to accept Tuco for what he can do today and not focus on my expectations of how he should be or his future potential. How he arrives today is good enough.
I pull out some training treats. Tuco dives in front of me and plops into a “sit.” I take a deep breath. I lure Tuco into a down command and give him praise. One “down” is good enough. This way, I not only honour Tuco’s progress but my own progress as a dog trainer.
Dog training is not about perfecting commands but about cultivating a relationship. Every mistake I make as a puppy parent is an opportunity to practice self-compassion. Every challenge with Tuco is a chance to bond, to grow trust and respect, loyalty and love.