Miller set for Broadway

Sienna Miller

Wisdom I've absorbed as a parent, preschool teacher and columnist rings true with lessons I've learned from an unlikely, unconditional source: our dog. Here's how:

My husband brought an orphaned puppy home after work nearly 11 years ago -- unannounced. He wondered whether his surprise was a mistake. But the pup, peering up from a mail crate in the front passenger seat, had me with her puddle-like brown eyes.

We named her Typo.

The first parenting lesson: Trust your gut feelings. If the concept of letting your child "cry it out" doesn't work for you, don't do it. But define a bottom line with your spouse. For example, baby starts out in a crib in your room but not in your bed.

Typo made nary a peep her first evening. When she finally cried overnight in her new nest, nobody heard her except me. I was relieved, though, that she felt safe enough to whimper. No way could her new mom let her cry.

A second lesson: Don't get caught up in the parent trap of comparing children's milestones. Who sleeps through the night first, who is potty-trained first, it all becomes a blur as your child grows up and new worries come into play.

Typo, a mix of Australian shepherd and chow, arrived house-trained at six weeks old thanks to her breed, but unlike her genius cousin canines, she never got beyond the commands of "sit, stay, shake." At prompts to find hidden objects or fetch, she just looks at you with her big brown eyes and crocks her head as if in wonder. Lots of unconditional love and soft fur but no rolling over, this girl.

A third lesson: Recognize with kids that if you use bribery to correct behavior, be prepared to pay up again and again. Instead of bribes, teach and model the behavior you want to see. Use praise and affection and you'll receive it in return.

Similar to a whining child who wants mom's attention, Typo is disruptive and barks when I'm on the phone in her area of our house. Unfortunately, she has learned from my mixed signals that if she barks while mom is on the phone, she gets a treat to hush her up.

A fourth: Set up a routine and train your own sensitivities to read your child's cues before she gets hungry, tired, anxious or overly stimulated. For our dog, certain barks mean certain things: one for food and several for the UPS deliverer, vs. the other extreme: Pacing and barking with anxiety over fireworks, kids coming at Halloween, or the worst: stormy nights. That's when she always breaks the rules and sneaks into our bedroom to sleep. We pretend not to notice.

A recent story about a border collie trained to recognize more than 1,000 nouns sparked me to break Lesson Two, about not comparing accomplishments. As a journalist, I got defensive. Although Typo is no wordsmith, she has ample-enough communication skills: Shoes on? She's at the ready by the back door. Jiggling keys mean a car ride. At the mention of "puppy camp," she whips into a frenzy; she loves to visit her kennel. "Matthew's here" means her "litter mate" from day one is home from college. And she well-knows the phrases "Daddy's home!" and "We'll come back." Because we always do.

Betsy Flagler, a journalist based in Davidson, N.C., is a mother and teaches preschool. Reach her at p2ptips@att.net.