When we were camping at Fall Creek Falls last month I was amazed by several people I saw hiking with their dogs on no leash. These dogs would swim, walk, climb and run with complete freedom from their owners, yet I could tell these dogs were also obedient and loyal to their owners at the same time. They were well behaved, never barking or bothering other park visitors, and they definitely were not going to run away.
On the other hand, our family dog Lucy (a straight-haired mini-labradoodle) will bolt out the front door if she has the chance, and this has led to a few movie-esque dog chases through the neighborhood. I know she is not the only one either. My in-laws have a whole pack of dogs at their house, and the biggest 2 dogs (both yellow-labs) will gladly power past you, even knocking you down, to escape the door when they sniff any opportunity. Last week they were gone for 3 hours, finally returning home covered in all kinds of filth.
So what is it about these dogs that run freely while also staying obedient? Does it have to do with their breed? Are some dogs just wired differently? Obviously proper training must play a major role in this behavior. As I have been walking and running with our dog Lucy a few times a week lately, I have wondered if I could ever let her run totally free without worrying about her running away, attacking someone or getting herself into a dangerous situation. Would she ever be as obedient and loyal to me as the dogs I saw at Fall Creek Falls?
As it is right now I have to keep her on a pretty short leash when we are running. We have a Power Walker retractable leash that extends out to about 16 feet, and as often as possible I let her run with it fully extended. Unfortunately I too often must keep her leash at about 4 feet to keep her from running in front of a car or bothering other people on the local running trail. She goes crazy at the sight of another dog, and she always tries to get in front of people running or biking the opposite direction. She is a good dog, but right now she is not very disciplined when she is out in public.
However it does help when Lucy and I run in the grass instead of on the paved trail at the park. When we are on the grass I can almost always leave her leash fully extended, and we both enjoy it more that way. This works great for awhile, but eventually we always come across someone having a picnic or find that we must get back on the paved trail because of a giant ditch. We cannot just avoid other people altogether, and I must always be ready to tighten the leash when necessary. So basically as it is right now with an immature dog, sometimes she must be kept on a very short leash, and sometimes she gets more freedom. I think it could be months or years (if ever) before I could ever run with her totally leash free. That would not even be legal in our town, but my long-term interest in the idea comes from the thought of taking her trail-running one day. I could see the leash really restricting both of us on the trail during difficult areas or narrow sections. I just really do not know if she will ever be like those other disciplined dogs at Fall Creek Falls, but yesterday as I was contemplating these ideas during our 8-mile walk together, it also had me thinking of my parenting techniques and the way God treats us as His children.
MY OWN PARENTING
I just recently became a stay-at-home dad to our 3 kids, and I am still trying to figure many things out about parenting in this role, as parenting is very different for the stay-at-home parent than it is for the full-time working parent. Just like when I am running with Lucy, sometimes I am very strict on my kids, while other times I am very flexible. I try to be consistent with the kids, while also showing grace and trying to just have fun sometimes. Sometimes the kids are breaking the rules, but other more important factors are at play that cause me to let things slide a bit.
EXTEND THE LEASH
For example, if I see that a really valuable lesson could be learned, and the rules have already been broken anyway, I may just let it go for the sake of the “life-lesson” that I can discuss with that child later. Sometimes this is the case when the kids are fighting with each other. I want them to practice forgiveness and reconciliation, and I want them to learn to work through disagreements. So I might just take a step-back during an argument and see how it all plays out. Sometimes they work it out themselves, and sometimes they come tattling to me. Other times they just keep fighting and do not even ask for my help. It takes quick discernment for me to know when to jump in and when to stay out, just like when I let Lucy run with the leash fully extended while also remaining alert and ready to quickly tighten the leash to avoid bad situations.
I also try to be aware of other factors that might add to poor behavior and extend extra grace when things are abnormal and disruptive to the kids. If we are traveling, they might just be sick of the car after a few hours and get restless. If they spent the night with their grandmother and did not get enough sleep, the kids may be a bit grouchy the next day. What good does it do for any of us to be extra stern in these situations?
TIGHTEN THE LEASH
Other times I am very quick to discipline my kids or take an active role in resolving negative conflict. This is kind of like when I am running with Lucy on the road and must keep the leash short at all times to avoid cars that come upon us too quickly for me to tighten the leash in time. When my kids have a history of breaking the same rules, or they are in a conflict that I know will quickly escalate, I jump in very quickly. If I have to tell Sam 15 times to start brushing his teeth, and he repeats his disobedience daily, then it has reached a point where I will have to be very strict on Sam about brushing his teeth. In a situation like this, I cannot trust that he will just go in the bathroom and start brushing without me hovering.
With Lucy I use various levels of strictness with her leash depending on the situation, and this is often for her safety or the safety of others. Perhaps one day running with the leash will train her to be obedient while trail-running without the leash. If she never grows to this point, then she will always stay on the leash. Similarly with my kids, I use various levels of strictness depending on the situation, and this is often for their own safety. Other times it is to teach them and train them to be the kind of adults I hope they grow up to be. The difference is that one day Jennifer and I will have to remove the leash completely with our kids. Kids will grow up, and while I hope they all stay obedient to the things we teach them now, how they decide to live will largely be out of my control at that point. Even before that I will have to loosen the leash as they become teenagers and then go to college. I am not going to hover over a 17-year old to make sure he is brushing his teeth, but there will be totally different, bigger issues that may require a short leash at that age. Ultimately I just hope that the parenting we do throughout their childhoods, teen years and young adult years will prepare our kids to be faithful not only to the basic disciplines and morals we are teaching them, but even more importantly to God.
Compared to the way I parent, whether strict or loosely, how does God treat all of us as His own children?
HOW DOES GOD ACT AS A PARENT?
As a believer that God gives us free will, my 1st instinct is to say that God gives us no leash, and that He allows us total freedom. Others may argue that God has a very short leash given all the “rules” in the Bible. The more I think about the things God does for us, I do not think that free will necessarily equals no leash. As our loving Father, God is always there for us, hovering if you will, and in my experience, God can give us both stern discipline and loving grace at the same time. Yes I believe that God lets us make our own decisions, like the decision to follow His teachings or not, but He also does things in our lives, whether we see it or not, that help us grow, learn and change. He gives us parents to raise us. He gives us scripture to teach us how to live. He gives us forgiveness and grace that can radically change our identities from those of terrible sinners into those who are forgiven by the blood of Christ. When we make mistakes, God might let us hit rock bottom, but He always gives us a way back up from our self-inflicted Hell. He puts friends in our lives to help us. He closes and opens doors to guide us down the right path. Sure we may not always listen. We may not always follow His lead. We may not always accept the help or the forgiveness that He offers, but that does not change the fact that God is always there.
What more could we ask for from a parent than what God offers us? So does God always keep us on a short leash? Does the fact that He gives us the 10 Commandments, and other lists of things to do and not to do throughout the Bible, mean that He is a strict, overbearing parent? No I definitely do not think so, but I do think that God knows exactly what we need and exactly what decisions we should make. If He does step in to discipline us or to gently (or firmly) point us in a different direction, it is only out of love because He knows what is best for us much better than we know for ourselves.