I Parent My Dogs Differently, and I Won’t Let Myself Feel Guilty About It


Ushering GhostBuster, my LabGolden mix, out the back door, I was just about to turn the key to lock up when I heard a sound that made me feel like the meanest dog mom ever. My other dog, Marshmallow, was whining the saddest whine ever. She didn’t know where GhostBuster and I were going, just that she wasn’t coming with us. With my hand still holding the key in the lock, I paused for a minute and listened to her cry, guilt threatening to overpower my good judgement. GhostBuster and I were off to an off-leash group hike — he was eagerly wagging his tail, desperate to get in the car and get on with it — and for a couple seconds I considered going back in the house to get Marshmallow, a timid, rescued terrier mix who is about as ready for being off leash as I am for a zombie apocalypse.

“You would be doing this to make yourself feel better in the moment,” I thought to myself in a voice that sounded a lot like Dr. Phil’s. “This would be about you — not her. This isn’t what’s best for her.”

I took my key out of the door and walked to the car.

“You would be pet parenting out of guilt,” said my inner daytime talk show host.

GhostBuster gets the whole bench to himself because Marshmallow has to stay home. (All photos by Heather Marcoux)
GhostBuster got the whole bench to himself because Marshmallow had to stay home. (Photo by Heather Marcoux)

As GhostBuster and I drove off to meet our hike buddies, I was confident that I’d made the right decision. After all, I knew what happened the last time Marshmallow was put into a situation she wasn’t ready for — and I wasn’t even there.

It happened almost a year ago now. My husband took both the pups to a local dog park to meet up with a friend of ours who was bringing her dogs and her little girl, who Marshmallow loves and always tries to snuggle (this will be important later). This dog park has a small, fenced training area separate from the larger park, and we had let Marshmallow off leash to work in the training area before, but never let her loose in the dog park.

I felt (and still feel) that Marshmallow is not ready for off-leash adventures. She lacks the confidence and recall training that GhostBuster has. She is easily spooked, and she’ll either pancake or run when things get scary. Prior to the incident I am about to describe, people (including my husband) would often ask me when I would be comfortable letting Marshmallow off leash. They would ask this impatiently, as if I were holding her back. I always say that I won’t even consider it until she’s graduated from the same training classes that GhostBuster did. She’s just not on the same level as he is yet (and she may never be).

Marshmallow does better clipped to me, but GhostBuster can go free.
Marshmallow (my little Jack Russell mix) does better clipped to me, but big boy GhostBuster can go without a leash sometimes. (Photo by Heather Marcoux)

Anyway, on the day of the incident, my husband took Marshy and GhostBuster to the dog park and let them both off leash. Guess what Marshmallow did?

She ran. And ran and ran and ran and ran. She was probably overwhelmed, overstimulated, and scared. According to my husband, Marshmallow eventually came not to him, but to our friend’s little girl.

Just typing that gets my blood pressure pumping. There are about a million things wrong with that scenario. First of all, Marshmallow should never be off leash without her bonded person — me — there. My husband has actually had to call me home from work before when Marshy’s taken off on him, so she has a history of not coming to him when called. Also, since we’re still working on her recall, we need to stick to fenced yards and training areas, not just unclip her in a 40-acre dog park. The time of day might have been bad, too — it was prime dog-walking hours, right after work for most people. I try to socialize Marshy at not-so-busy times, in areas with just a few dogs. When my husband later told me what happened, I felt hot tears behind my eyes as I imagined how it could have gone even worse.

One good thing to come from this incident is that my husband no longer asks me why I don’t want Marshy to go off leash. It’s also what I think about whenever I’m tempted to treat Marshmallow like she can do all the things GhostBuster can. She can’t.

Our doggy daisy chain: GhostBuster is a good trainer. He lends Marshy confidence.
Our doggy daisy chain: GhostBuster is a good trainer. He lends Marshy confidence. (Photo by Heather Marcoux)

When GhostBuster and I returned from our off-leash hike a couple of hours after we left Marshmallow whining, she was sitting there, quietly waiting for us. I hooked her up to a leash, and together we all went for a nice walk through the neighborhood. Watching Marshy’s tail wag down the sidewalk, part of me still felt a little guilty about leaving her behind earlier — but the bigger part, the responsible part, knew I had made the right call.

This crazy pup may never be an off-leash girl.
This crazy pup may never be an off-leash girl. (Photo by Heather Marcoux)

Maybe it’s because I grew up with a sibling close in age, but I always feel this drive to make things equal for my dogs — like if GhostBuster gets a treat, Marshy gets a treat; if Marshy gets to sleep in the bed, GhostBuster gets to sleep in the bed. I want them to feel like everything is fair, but when it comes to off-leash adventures, treating them equally actually wouldn’t be fair at all.

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