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From Canines to Kids: Pregnancy Brings Adventure Dog-Training to Bear

I wasn’t one of those girls who dreamed of her wedding day, having a family and decorating a home. I dreamed of adventures and exploring the world with dogs – lots of dogs – all with a handsome guy by my side, of course!

maria on stand up paddleboard with her two dogs in their float coat dog life jackets.

[Gear pictured: Float Coat™ Life Jacket]

Those dreams have come true. My home is filled with photographs and souvenirs from faraway places my husband and I have explored, and images of our four amazing Australian shepherds. (RIP, sweet Kona girl.) The thing is, I can honestly say I felt completely fulfilled. Life was good!

But it seems Mother Nature had her own ideas. When the home pregnancy test I haphazardly took one morning back in November turned up positive, my first thought was, “Oh, sh*t! How am I going to do this with three dogs?!” Yep, that’s where my head went. It’s always been about the dogs.

close up of empty baby shoes set next to dog paws.

Photos contributed by dog trainer Maria Christina Schultz

Funny, my initial feeling of being overwhelmed ebbed and flowed, but eventually subsided because of the dogs. Over the last 14 years, I’ve raised four adventure companions from puppyhood to confident adults. Training each one has held new challenges, presented different personalities, and brought a unique kind of love in return.

My “ah-ha” moment came when I realized that raising adventure dogs has actually prepared me for – not prevented me from – raising an adventure kid.

When I dedicated some thought to this, I realized that my principles on raising puppies can form the foundation for how I hope to bring up my son. (Yes, we’re having a boy!) Instead of feeling overwhelmed, I now feel excited and confident about being a mom.

Here are some basic ideas I hope to transfer from my puppies to my little person.

Maria in artist series trucker hat with her two australian shepherds in front range harnesses sitting next to each other on a big rock slab outdoors..

 [Gear pictured: Front Range® Harness]

Let them explore the world at their pace. 

I never push a puppy into a situation or experience they aren’t ready for. Instead, I sit back and allow them to decide how far they’re willing to explore on their own, especially when it comes to the water.

I wanted all my dogs to be swimmers, so I took them to the beach, unclipped their leashes and let them go as deep as they dared, while staying close for support.

For Riley, it took several trips – and a Chesapeake Bay Retriever – to make water seem fun. Kona was sold on her second go-round. Bodie and Willow just jumped right in. All my dogs have become highly confident swimmers, and the river is still our most favorite place. I can’t wait to share it, and this learn-as-you-go philosophy, with our son.

Maria's puppy in Front Range harness running through the water.

Learning new things should always be fun.

I like to think of my work with puppies more as teaching than training. Let’s face it, sometimes learning something new can be scary. I don’t buy into the “practice till perfect” approach, at least not early on. We train a new skill a little at a time, make it super fun, then quit while we’re ahead, ending on a positive note, before frustration or boredom sets in. This lays the groundwork for a positive experience next time around, and we can always circle back to refine skills. 

Breaking complicated skills into bite-sized pieces to build on makes hard tasks more accessible. Keeping things fun cranks up motivation, because who wants to do something that isn’t fun, right? I want my son, too, to look forward to learning and trying new things. Lifelong learning is something I have always embraced because of so many wonderful teachers who made learning fun. 

Maria's puppy in float coat sitting on stand up paddleboard with her getting treats.

Love, praise and treats.

Have you ever met someone who was so passionate about an activity that it inspired you to try something new? That kind of love and enthusiasm can be contagious.

Skiing, biking, paddling, and climbing have brought so much joy to our lives. My dogs, my husband and I all light up and become our best selves when we are out doing these activities. I want our little guy to feel this passion for adventure early on and be inspired by his parents and dogs.

It’s so easy to tell puppies – and people – what they’re doing wrong that we forget to praise them when they make a good choice or do something nice, we may not have asked for. I hope to remember that a well-timed “good job, I’m so proud of you!” can go a long way. Praise is just as important for kids as it is for dogs. They should know when they did something good.

I don’t believe in spoiling kids (dogs, maybe), but sprinkling in some treats and positive reinforcement can be motivating and effective. We all work for paychecks; I think dogs should get something for a job well done, too. And so should kids. Ice cream after a long day of yard work, a new bike after a season of mastering that blue trail, a weekend camping trip for a good report card. This should keep mom and dad motivated, as well!

Maria holding her puppy in her arms getting kisses.

Teach them balance early on.

I’m amazed by Bodie and Willow’s confidence navigating obstacles and uneven surfaces on hikes. I put them on agility equipment when they were about 10 weeks old to give them an understanding of balance.

How does that translate to toddler months? I don’t know. But I do hope to be able to say that my kid was riding a bike or learning to ski before he could walk! Many parents have shared with me recently that balance bikes are the reason their young children learned to ride in just one afternoon. Now, that’s a concept I can embrace! 

Get down on their level and actively listen. 

Let’s look at the world from a smaller point of view. When I come across a dog who’s a little bit shy or uncertain of me, I like to make myself smaller and less intimidating. I keep my body language loose and avoid direct eye contact.

I’m trying to make my body say, “I’m no threat to you; let’s look at the world from the same point of view and do this together.” I plan to do the same thing with my son. I want him to know that I was little once, too; that we can see the world from the same point of view. I want him to know I can be on his level and actively listen. 

Maria and her pup sitting up on a viewpoint.

Be a consistent, benevolent leader

I want my dogs to know that when they come to me, they will always be met with acceptance and love. If I was a constant bag of mixed emotions (with maybe a pass here and there for pregnancy-induced hormones), they may start to question what disposition they’d find when they came to me.

The same is true for people. I feel confident approaching my bosses at work because I believe they’ll have a positive attitude. That’s a quality of a good leader, in my mind, and it’s the type of mom I want to be – someone my son can always feel comfortable coming to, no matter what.

Maria using the pacific loop toy to play tug a war with her dog on the beach.

[Gear pictured: Pacific Loop™ Toy]

My favorite author and trainer, Patricia McConnell, says it best – play together, stay together!

I make it a priority to play with my dogs, when they are puppies and when they are grown. I aim to be fun, engaging, fair and creative during our sessions together. This is when we truly build our bonds. 

I hope to be rolling on the floor, splashing in mud puddles and riding bikes with my son soon. I see a lot of scraped knees in our future, but I’m hoping the lessons I’ve learned training puppies will serve me well in motherhood. 

Turns out, I’m more ready for this next chapter than I thought I was back in the fall when that pregnancy test turned my world around. Not only have my dogs been preparing me to raise my son, they’re taking the journey with us!