Our dog, Gracie, recently turned two years old. Age is not mellowing her. I often think of her as our fifth daughter, because, like the other Gong girls, she’s full of energy and a little tightly wound. Parenting Gracie is a lot like parenting our other daughters, as well; it’s trial and error, making appropriate adjustments for whatever irritating habit she’s developed in a given week.
Also, we love her a lot.
One of the ways that we allow Gracie to be herself and burn off her energy, while also maintaining boundaries to keep her safe, is by using an electric dog fence around our property. Because we live in the woods, this isn’t a fancy-schmancy suburban dog fence underneath our manicured lawn. We have no manicured lawn, so the dog fence is a wire that sits aboveground and runs around the perimeter of our yard (and our neighbor’s yard, since Gracie is best friends with their golden retriever).
When we let Gracie outside, we put a special collar on her. If she gets too close to the fence boundary, the collar beeps a warning. She’s learned that, if she goes through the fence, the collar will give her a brief but strong electric shock. (It’s uncomfortable but not cruel; I can tell you as someone who’s accidentally shocked myself with her collar).
Here’s the thing: Sometimes Gracie breaks through the fence. This is when she’s feeling particularly strong-willed about something, for instance; her dog friend next door breaks through the fence, or our family goes out for a walk without her, or she sees a squirrel, or just wants an adventure. So, she screws up her courage, gets a running start, yelps when she gets the shock, and then she’s free and clear!
Or so she thinks.
Because when Gracie jumps the fence, she may be free, but she’s not safe. There are cars and trucks out there that drive too quickly. There are (really and truly) bears and coyotes around these woods. There are hunters with guns. She has no experience taking care of herself, finding her own food. It’s not good for her to be outside the fence; that’s why we installed the fence to begin with.
But, here’s the funny thing: Often, when I’m actually trying to take Gracie out of our yard — on a walk, or to meet our daughter’s school bus — she refuses to come. She’s afraid she’ll get shocked. Even though she’s not wearing her collar, even though I’m leading her on a leash. She’ll dig in her heels, and I have to tug on the leash while attempting to reason with her: “It’s okay, Gracie. See, your collar isn’t on? No shock, okay?” Sometimes I have to pick her up — all 54 pounds of her — and carry her down the driveway.
We went through this just the other day, and it occurred to me: Oh my gosh, Gracie is JUST LIKE ME!
I, like Gracie, have a screwed-up idea of what freedom is. I think we all do; my daughters certainly do. We assume that if something’s safe, then it isn’t really free. So we’ll gather up our courage, get a running start, and risk pain and punishment — an electric shock, a time out, a broken relationship — for the “freedom” to go play in traffic.
For the “freedom” to mingle with bears and coyotes and hunters.
For the “freedom” to be the boss of me!
On the other hand, whenever I’m being prompted to do something that I really should do, something that would be fun or soul-expanding — I tend to dig in my heels and fight against it. I’m afraid. Afraid of imagined harm that could befall me, the shock that might zap me.
I have the freedom to do these things, but I don’t trust that freedom. I don’t think I’ll be safe.
Examples of this kind of misguided inertia include: Picking up the phone to invite my child’s friend over to play (I know, I know — it’s completely irrational to be afraid that another parent will refuse to allow their child to play with mine…but it’s true). Writing a book, or even just submitting my writing to new outlets. Leaving my children in order to do something “selfish” like spend an afternoon alone or a night with friends.
The trick is knowing the difference between the safe and the stupid kinds of freedom. For Gracie, it seems simple: When somebody is leading you on a leash, do it; if nobody’s walking you down the driveway, stay in the yard. But when you’re the one wearing the collar, it’s a lot harder to discern whether you’re leading yourself or being led.
I don’t think there’s an easy solution to this conundrum. But I do suspect — and I might catch some flack for this — that we are smarter than dogs. Most of us, if we take a minute to reflect, can distinguish between playing in traffic and going for a stroll. And most of us, if we’re still and patient, can hear the warning beeps as we approach the safety fence — or feel a gentle tug at the end of the leash.
When we feel that tug, we should go. Because, unlike Gracie, it’s unlikely that someone else will pick us up and carry us over that fence.