Mindfulness

Goals, Intentions, and Invitations

In many yoga classes, students are encouraged to set an intention at the beginning of practice. Intentions are not quite goals.  I see goals as some kind of finish line, a completed achievement.   In the context of yoga, a goal could be to be able to accomplish a particular feat such as touching your forehead to your knees in a forward fold, tucking your legs into full lotus position, holding a challenging arm balance, or (maybe hardest of all)  not fidgeting or thinking about to-do lists during savasana, the final pose of asana practice. Goals are about where you are going, while intentions are about how you get there. 

For me, in my yoga practice, intentions are thoughts or feelings I want to carry with me through the class or an energy or attitude I want to be carried by.  I have set the intention to focus on my breath, to let my inhales and exhales be the source of my movement.  I have set the intention to move with love for myself or to send love to someone else.  Sometimes my intention is to focus on correct and careful alignment of my posses rather than depth or intensity.  Sometimes it is to stay grounded in the present, to keep my mind from spinning on events in my life.  It changes, but when I’m on my mat, my intentions are always “good:” they are meant to offer support, stability, softness, or something similar.  Whatever they are, my intentions always come from inside me: they are something I want, something I want for myself and my practice that day. 

A month and some change ago I injured myself. First I pulled a hamstring on my right side and then, shortly after, I sprained my left ankle. It was a “true sprain,” as I was told, meaning I did some real damage that will take quite a long time to heal.  The hamstring, too, will likely take several months of babying before it’s fully recovered from whatever I did to it.  

The first time I was back on my yoga mat for a vinyasa class was exactly two weeks after the sprain. I went in with intention: to have an easy practice by being soft with my body as I go through the poses. My mantra was going to be, “if it doesn’t hurt, be gentle; if it does hurt, don’t do it.”   Good intention, right?  I thought so, too.

The class I chose to start with was one with a teacher I feel safe with, trust, and respect, someone who I know would support me doing whatever modifications I felt necessary, even if my body was making a very different shape from the rest of the class.  This was an important choice: I needed as much as possible to feel familiar and safe because I knew my body would not.

I laid down my mat in the furthest corner of the room without a mirror in front of me.  I wanted to turn inwards, not be affected by what I looked like, and only barely be able to see what everyone else was doing.  Comparison is a toxic, toxic drug for me, and the less I could see of others the better I knew I would be able to care for myself.  I didn’t want to feel “inspired” by what the other students were doing to push my body further than what was smart or safe. I didn’t want to see all the beautiful shapes their bodies would make that mine could not.  I even opted to wear glasses instead of contact lenses because when I take my glasses off for practice I am rendered basically blind. This would mean that when I did catch a glimpse at what was happening around me it would literally be out of focus; the reduction of external information would encourage me to stay inside myself, to focus on the sensations in my body, not the bodies of others.

I really tried to set myself up for success, to manifest the “easy” class I had intended for myself but it was punishing.  The greatest difficulty was not the poses (although I did physically struggle through learning what asanas were and were not accessible to me), and it wasn’t that I found the flow of the sequence particularly demanding. For those 75 minutes, I suffered not from physical pain, but because it was an emotionally devastating experience for me.  My heart was breaking for myself with frustration and—to be completely honest—deep self-pity. I took care of my body, but taking care of my body’s needs was, for all my good intentions, not enough to be true “self-care”.

My intention to care for my body was wise.  My intention to allow my practice to primarily be guided by softness to my physical abilities was appropriately conservative, practical, and necessary, but it wasn’t enough. I thought I prepared myself for the emotional experience of being back on my mat because I had put so many safeguards in place against external influences, but I wasn’t even close to shielded from what came up in my heart and mind.  I fought my way through that class: I fought myself through that class.

Every twinge of my ankle, every limit of my hamstring, every newfound tightness or inhibition of my body landed on me like defeat.  Never mind that in some distant, rational part of my brain I understood that injuries heal and I would recover.  Never mind that I was still basically able to practice. I was consumed by everything I couldn’t do, so deeply attached to the way I used to be able to move, that I was unable to step out of the river of suffering that I created through my own narrative to open myself to the invitation that my new circumstance offered.

In yoga, no matter one’s intentions when beginning a practice, there are other forces at work that will determine how your practice goes.  In a studio class, your practice is affected by the instructor, the music, the energy of the students around you, the temperature of the room, the sequence of poses offered, and so on.  When practicing at home you may be affected by a different set of sounds, smells, or events around you: anything from dogs barking, phones ringing, other people moving about and living their lives, even the sight of unwashed dishes may help or hinder your intentions.  You will be touched by all the elements of the environment you are in whether on a beach, in a studio, at a park, or on the floor of your living room.  In addition to our surroundings, regardless of where you practice, there are also internal factors at play.  How both your body and mind feel that day and how they react to what occurs both inside and outside of you over the course of your practice will affect your experience on the mat. 

The events, internal and external, that occur as you practice may support your intention: the sound of the next student’s strong breath may keep you in tune with an intention to maintain mindful ujjayi breathing, the music you play may support an intention channel strength, a feeling of openness in your hips may aid and intention to move smoothly in and out of postures.  You may also feel your intention frustrated. It may be challenging to manifest a sense of deep peace if your dogs explode when a package is delivered, to focus on careful alignment if the instructor offers a particularly vigorous sequence with quick transitions, or to work towards greater balance and stability if your mind, unbidden, keeps replaying a difficult conversation. 

When our intentions, our desires for how we want our yoga practice—or anything else in our lives—to feel and flow are hindered by what is happening inside or outside of our bodies, when our practice doesn’t go the way we want it to, there’s more possible than “making the best of it” and pushing through towards what we want for ourselves. Sometimes the barriers in the way of our goals and intentions, instead of being obstacles are detour signs: they may in fact be an invitation to have a distinct and precious experience independent of the one we intended. But we must recognize and accept that invitation in order to receive its gifts.

When I adopted my dog Kit I had a whole world of goals: he was going to be my adventure dog.  We had a future of road trips, weekend hikes, camping trips, playdates, and outings to dog-friendly places.  My intention in adopting a third dog was to have a “good” one, a dog who was not so fearful that they couldn’t do the things that “normal” dogs can do.  After three successive dogs with fearful behavior (two of whom are still with me), I wanted to have the experience of having an easy dog*, I had specific things in mind that were going to be in our future.  It was gonna be rad.  

I made plans, and the universe laughed.  Hard.

The experience of learning who Kit was and what he could or couldn’t do was excruciatingly painful.  Wall after wall shot up in front of my goals and my intention to adopt a “good” dog was crushed by reality.   Nearly everything I wanted was clearly vetoed by Kit’s unfolding personality and behavioral (ahem) quirks.

No to hikes at high-traffic times or in high-traffic places.  No to dog beach.  No to road trips or being in urban environments. No to easy vet visits. No to making friends with other dogs.  No to peaceful neighborhood walks. No to being my demo dog for classes.  No to being my “helper dog” with clients. No, no, no.

And every “no” from Kit felt like a failure.  Every “no” made our world smaller, with fewer opportunities, and left me smoldering with grief and disappointment because Kit was not the dog he was “supposed” to be.  He was explosively reactive, anxious, and unable to tolerate frustration.  He had meltdowns over dogs, children, doves, holding still, visitors to my house, car rides, vet visits, …the list went on.  I took the loss of my should-have-been dog harder at some times than others, but it always felt like something was taken from me, a promise broken. 

Everything I wanted from him seemed dead on arrival, or nearly so, but for a very long time I still kept my eyes on that impossible horizon of our never-to-be future.  I was looking at what I had wanted, not what was in front of me.  

It took years to shift my gaze and see that Kit and my life with Kit offered me something else, something completely unrelated to what I wanted: an invitation to have a life-changing experience, an experience I never would have asked for but have grown from ten thousand times more than I would have from any number of dog-accompanied road trips or visits to dog beach. 

The invitation I was offered was not to do, which had been at the front of my intentions and goals, but something much more valuable: I was offered the invitation to take each struggle with him as a gift of insight and opportunity to grow.  

To re-learn the emotional reality of life as an overwhelmed new dog-parent, to have my fresh experience of being at a loss, crying with frustration, and feeling helpless open me to greater empathy for the people I work with.

To learn a new understanding of stress, anxiety, and reactivity, both Kit’s and my own, and discover gentler ways of responding to them when they arise in each of us.

To learn the power of acceptance itself, to sit with grief, frustration, and shame when they emerge and give those feelings room to breathe.  To offer love to those feelings because they are true and deserve to take up space. 

To learn what it truly means to meet my dog where he is each day, to respect his limits.

To begin to learn what it means to meet myself where I am each day and respect my own limits.

Kit: not the dog I wanted, but the dog I needed

When I adopted Kit I unknowingly traded desired external experiences for difficult and demanding internal experiences. I traded adventures for perspective and I traded all the things I wanted for so, so much that I didn’t know I needed. 

Invitations often come with conditions.  In order to access what is on offer, we have to agree to the terms presented.  You may attend an event but have to abide by a particular dress code, you are welcome for Thanksgiving but have to leave politics at the door, you are admitted to a college but have to pay tuition.  Whatever the invitation is, the terms are set by the inviter.   

The terms of my invitation from Kit were that I had to truly let go of my attachments to everything I wanted my life with him to look and feel like.  I had to voluntarily, without bitterness or resentment turn away from my goals and release my intentions.   I had to surrender what I wanted to what reality made available.  Instead of feeling frustrated by Kit’s behavior, I had to learn to see the invitation to grow and learn from those daily moments of conflict between who he is and the idea of who I wanted him to be.  

Accepting his invitation didn’t happen in a sudden flash of enlightenment.  Nearly four years deep into our life together, I am much more at peace with the reality of who Kit is, but I still—often—struggle to accept his behavior in the moment.  It’s been a slow trudge, an often painful process that is ongoing, but the hardest part is over.  The hardest part was to see the invitation to begin with: to take off the blinders of attachment to my goals and intentions, and open myself to what was being held out with open hands paws.

On my mat, during that first class back after the sprain, I couldn’t see the invitation I was being offered.  I was paying all my attention to my body, my physical experience, which was in line with my intention but did not serve all of me well.  By keeping my focus on tuning in to the edge of where possibility ended and pain began, I was unintentionally clinging hard to all the nos I was receiving from my body.  No from my ankle.  No from my hamstring. No from all the muscles in my hips, low back, and upper body that had tightened and changed to compensate for my injuries.  I took each no like a rejection, like a failure.

At the end of class, in savasana, I took a restorative pose, legs-up-the-wall. This pose has always felt comforting to me, but this time I chose it primarily because it allowed me to elevate my ankle. I lay there thinking about how I needed to put an ice pack on it when I got home and I cried. I was grieving the loss of the body I had just a few weeks ago. I was grieving the loss of access to poses. 

It pains me to admit the intensity of my self-pity in that class, but it was profound, and I was buried in it.  I’m not going to say I was ashamed of my lost mobility, it wasn’t quite like that, but I had—unknowingly—so closely intertwined my ability to move (mostly) confidently on my mat with my idea of who I was as a yoga practitioner, that my suddenly reduced range of motion struck a huge blow to my ego.  I felt like I was failing and being the person I wanted to be. I felt like something important was taken from me, some crucial piece of how I thought of myself, again forgetting the temporary nature of injury.  Despite the fact that I claim to believe that “real” yoga is in the heart and the breath, not the postures, I felt like my ability to have a “real” practice was lost.

It was days after that class that I finally saw the invitation.  The blinders of attachment to my asana practice, the deep waters of self-pity and ego that I was drowning in, and my own good intention to focus on discovering the edges of my ability closed me off from seeing the invitation that was extended to me.  

The invitation was an opportunity to soften my heart to my own emotional experience, an opportunity to care for myself—however that may look from the outside—without judgment.  To change my perspective from seeing the edge of discomfort not as the place where movement ends, but as the place where nurturing begins.  To stop viewing the limits of my body as a “no,” but as an opportunity to show compassion for myself, to respect the boundaries of my physical body, and even take pride in doing so.  To recognize each modification and moment of doing less as an act of love myself, not as a failure of ability.  To remember the truth that I keep tucked away somewhere deep in my marrow, so deep that I often forget it: that I am deserving of my own care and tenderness, no matter the shape of my body or the shapes I can make with my body.

There are some invitations that are easy to take.  If I had intended to spend the day in the garden but the weather is cold and rainy, it would be easy to let go of my plans and take the day’s invitation to snuggle on the couch with a book and some tea.  When Shine, my 14-year-old dog, stops to roll in a patch of grass while we’re on a walk, it’s easy for me to pause from the goal of our activity to take the invitation to delight in her delight.  

The invitations that are harder to accept are the ones that have steep terms, the ones that require us to give up something dear, but those are the invitations that offer the most.  The terms of the invitation I received that day on my mat, just like the terms of the invitation I received from Kit, were that I must surrender my attachments to the way I want things to look and feel, that I must step outside my intentions to see what is truly possible. 

Letting go of my goals, intentions, and attachments–many of which are deeply rooted in constructs of who I think I should be, what I think my life should be like, how my dogs should behave, or what my body should look like or be able to do–is hard.  It’s really, really hard. 

I’ve been back on my mat several times since that class, and I’ve tried to remind myself of the invitation waiting for me in that room.  I don’t always remember and I lose myself in my attachments, grasping for everything I wish I could to do and be.  When Kit is sky-high on adrenaline and cortisol I don’t always remember that it’s an invitation for me to soften and open to a new understanding of how each of us responds to our respective triggers.  

The ability to become aware of those pivotal invitations and then choose to accept them, willingly setting down my goals to reach for something harder and greater, to accept the terms of all life is inviting me to experience will be something I struggle with until the day I die.

But slowly, I’m learning.  I’m learning to see when my intentions are serving me, when they are supported and elevated by what life holds out.  I’m learning to see when they are well considered, but need to be adjusted by the reality of the present moment.  And, most difficult of all, I’m learning to see when it’s time to leave the baggage of my best intentions, my hopes, and desires on the side of the road, to accept life’s invitation to ride unencumbered and discover something unanticipated and beautiful. 

Mindfulness, Uncategorized

The Role of Ego in Dog Training (Part 3) – Finding Peace

In Part 2 of this series, I described how ego (Buddhist, not Freudian) can show up and insert itself into the ways we live with, train, and generally interact with our dogs, to the detriment of everyone involved. Here we will examine how to acknowledge when and where ego appears, why it’s detrimental to both ourselves and our dogs, and explore alternatives to ego-driven reactions. 

In order to begin to recognize where ego is a primary motivator in our responses to our dogs and their behavior, we have to do something that many find difficult or at least unpleasant: witness our experience and feelings.  It is in the examination of our interpretation of events and our emotional responses to them that we can see what is propelling those feelings into existence.  

Right now I want you to think about an aspect of your dog’s behavior that you don’t like. Barking? Counter surfing? Pulling on leash? Jumping on visitors or lunging and growling at other dogs? What’s your pup’s baggage that you wish you could make disappear?  Now, what emotions come up for you when you think about your dog doing that thing?  Here are a few common ones: anger, shame, frustration, helplessness, exasperation, irritation.  Any of these sound about right?  Do you know why you feel that way? 

What is it about that particular behavior or habit of your dog’s that you find so aversive?

Is the answer, “Because I don’t want my dog doing that,” “Because it’s embarrassing for me,” “Because I find it annoying,” “Because it makes walks or being in public unpleasant or difficult for me,” or something along those lines?  If so, you and your ego have made your dog’s behavior about you and how these situations are negatively impacting you personally or possibly people’s perception of you.  

 I don’t want my dog doing that.

 It’s embarrassing for me.

 I find it annoying.

 It makes walks unpleasant or difficult for me.

Me, me, me.  

Okay, we got it: it’s about you. This is ego at work. 

As a refresher, ego is our perception or construct of “self.”   We suffer when our dogs’ behavior contradicts our idea of who we think we should be (or appear to be) as dog owners.* This is directly related to the Buddhist concept of attachment which I will loosely define as resistance to separating from something.  In the context of this post, attachment will most frequently appear as resistance to separating from (i.e. letting go of) our ideas of how our dogs “should” behave.  Our attachments to these constructs of “good” behavior are direct reflections of our egos: we hold on for dear life to our ideas of how we think our dogs should behave because of what we imagine their behavior says about us. 

If you don’t believe me, here’s a situation that may resonate: When you are walking your dog, do other dogs bark at you from their windows and yards?  Do you think that those dogs are doing anything that they shouldn’t or do you think that they are behaving like normal dogs?  What about when your dog looks out the window or runs the fence line and barks at a passer-by?  Is it a normal dog behavior now? Or is it  “problem behavior”?  Many if not most of us are much more judgemental about our own dogs’ behavior than about others’ because now it’s about us

Stop Making This About You

When your primary motivation to change your dog’s behavior is for your own sake, to make your dog line up with your idea of who they should be or how they should behave, for your convenience, for your neighbors’ eyes, or for your attachment to constructs of “good” and “bad,” you are setting yourself up for suffering.

Suffering is caused not by aversive experiences, but by our own reaction to them: how we handle the unavoidable unpleasantness of life.  As the saying goes, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”  We are causing or increasing our own suffering when ego drives our responses to our dogs’ so-called misbehavior.  

When we stop making the primary motivation for training or behavior change about us, we open a space for the critical question, why is this actually important?

Many of the things you don’t like about your dog’s behavior are legitimate concerns and absolutely should be addressed, but when your motivation to address them comes from this space of self-serving egoic need, the path to “better” behavior will be littered with obstacles of your ego’s own creation: destructive emotions, harsh actions, and closed-off perceptions and attitudes.

The Door You Walk Through Changes the Path You Walk

In a literal sense the above statement is obvious: when we alter our entry point into a physical space, the direction we move and our experience of that movement changes. You can think of a room with multiple doors, a hiking trail with multiple trailheads, or a parking garage with multiple entrances.  The feel of the terrain, sights seen, sounds heard, and ease of movement from point A to point B will be affected by where you begin.

The same is true for your interactions with your dog.  When you begin from the door of ego you are choosing a difficult path with more obstacles and fewer constructive emotions.  This path limits opportunities to learn and grow from your experience.  When you close that door and open a new one, choosing to react to your current situation from a different starting point, you can soften the experience for both yourself and your dog, reducing conflict and increasing peace.

In a world already bursting at the seams with acronyms, I am hesitant but committed to propose a new one to help clarify just how the door you walk through affects your experience of any given challenge with your dog.  The door you walk through, your motivation, changes your PEACE:

Perception:  How you see what is happening

Emotions: How you feel about what is happening

Attitude: The manner with which you react to the situation

Choices: Your actions and speech

Elasticity: How mentally and emotionally flexible you are during and after the event

Our perception, emotions, attitude, choices, and elasticity are all determined by our starting point. When we respond to our dogs from a place of softness our every step forward is cushioned by the tenderness of our intentions.  To find that softness we must look outside ourselves to determine why behavior change is indeed important.  Outside of our fragile egos, calcified attachments, and knee-jerk judgments we will find motivations that better serve not just ourselves–though we will absolutely benefit from them–but those around us… especially our dogs.  

When our egos are at the center of our motivation:

Perception:  The situation is seen as being only relevant in light of how it negatively impacts us. Our perspective excludes the validity of our dog’s (or others’) experience (closed perspective).

Emotions: Our emotions tend to move towards destructive feelings like frustration, anger, or shame.

Attitude: We move from a place of resistance, judgment (black and white thinking), and blame.  Blame may be directed back towards ourselves manifesting as shame, or away from ourselves towards our dog (or whoever we perceived to be at fault).

Choices: Our speech to our dog, ourselves (self-talk), or even others around us will be harsh.  Actions will be mechanisms to try and make the situation less aversive to us: to limit our own suffering by exerting external control, to try and make the situation look more like we think it should without acknowledging or giving weight to how our actions may affect others.

Elasticity: Low.  In the moment: minimal ability to adapt or change the course of our response due to tunnel vision of ego: we are stuck on “fixing” the situation to mitigate our own discomfort (emotional or physical). After the event: minimal ability to bounce back emotionally, let alone learn or grow from the experience due to attachments to ideas of “good” and “bad.”

There’s hope, though: you can flip your brain, turn your ego on its swollen head, find new ways to perceive situations and softer, more constructive ways to respond.  We just have to start from a different place. 

When our PEACE is shaped by compassion, community, or relationship-based motivations we can replace the destructive path of ego with a gentler, more advantageous way to change our dogs’ behavior:

Perception:  We can see multiple perspectives and hold space for the needs, wants, and emotions of others (open perspective).

Emotions: Our emotions will include care and concern for others while still allowing us to experience our own feelings about the situation. 

Attitude: We are accepting of and receptive to what is happening.  We are compassionate towards all involved, including ourselves.

Choices: Our speech and actions are considerate of and respectful to ourselves and our dogs.

Elasticity: High.  In the moment: we are open to movement and change to allow for alternative emotional responses or courses of action because we are able to take in new information.  After the event: we are able to learn from the experience without judgment of ourselves, our dogs, or others.

“Peacefulness should be the place we begin rather than the place we try to achieve”
-Dr Jerry Jessup, as quoted by Jill Bolte Taylor in Stroke of Insight

When Your Dog is Upset: Move From Compassion

In a previous post, I wrote about a truly terrible walk with Kit, my reactive Cattle Dog.  I made it through that experience emotionally unscathed because I wasn’t thinking about myself or even how his behavior looked from the outside: I was focused on my dog’s wellbeing.  More important to me at the time than my experience was that my dog made it through that walk with as little stress as possible (which was still a considerable amount) because I aimed the arrow of my actions at his emotional safety.  

The driving force behind how I responded to Kit was compassion. When we find our dog’s behavior unpleasant or undesirable but can recognize that the dog’s behavior is an expression of emotional upset such as stress, fear, or even rage, it is in everyone’s best interest to respond with compassion. 

Would you yell at a crying child? Or even a crying adult? Does yelling, scolding, or physically reprimanding do anything helpful for the dog’s emotional state which was the original cause of the behavior to begin with? The answer is of course no. All scolding or yelling does is make clear to ourselves, the upset party, and anyone who is watching that we don’t like what’s happening.  In some cases, punishment (scolding, leash jerks, or zaps with a shock collar) may stifle the expression of emotion, but it will never soothe the emotion itself.  Often, punishment actually exacerbates the dog’s level of stress, making the whole event worse for the dog this time, and subsequently trickling into added stress the next time a similar situation arises.  

Here’s how it could look if I moved from an ego space when Kit reacts (and this is embarrassingly based on my own experience†):

Perception: Closed. My dog is acting in a way I don’t want – his behavior contradicts my idea of what he should be doing when he sees [other dogs, motorcycles, skateboards, mourning doves, rabbits].  I am resistant to accepting the significance of what is happening for Kit because I am focused on how it is affecting and reflecting on me.

Emotions: Frustration (dog-directed), shame (self-directed blame: if I was a better trainer he wouldn’t do this), on a bad day: anger.

Attitude: Judging both dog and self, blame – directed at Kit (he is the cause of my suffering). 

Choices: Option A) forceful response: try to “fix” the dog’s external behavior through correction/punitive action – make the reactivity stop as a way to ameliorate my experience of the situation. Option B) avoidance response: remove self and dog from the situation as quickly as possible, self-talk is negative: expressions of shame and embarrassment, not being good enough.

Elasticity: Low. In the moment: tunnel vision of ego prevents the ability to see alternative choices that may be available, keeps emotional range narrow and negative. After the event: poor recovery, likely to cry in frustration (true story), will affect me (and therefore how I interact with Kit) for several hours or the rest of the day. I am unable to see ways to make it better next time because the issue is perceived as being with the inherent “goodness” of Kit or myself, and both of those remain the same.

I am endlessly grateful to whatever powers in the universe have shifted me away from that ego-centered space.  If that was still how I handled Kit’s reactivity, the awful walk that I wrote about would have been a thousand times worse for both of us. Fortunately for Kit and myself, I walked through the door of compassion that day when Kit was in emotional trouble (i.e. losing his shit).  Here’s how my PEACE looked:

Perception: Open. I can take in my dog’s experience and see that he is not doing well emotionally – his external behavior is a display of his current level of upset.

Emotions: Sadness, worry, frustration (situation-directed), love.

Attitude: Compassion and acceptance (of both my dog’s experience and the current situation), care and nurturing.

Choices: Protect my dog: determine and take the next right steps to support his emotional wellbeing thereby reducing his reactivity because he won’t feel as upset.

Elasticity: High. In the moment:  I have the ability to alter actions/choices based on recognizing how Kit is feeling/responding to my choices.  After the event: quick emotional recovery because I can rest in the knowledge that I did the best I could for him given the circumstances.  When I do the best I can, that means he’s doing the best he can and I am able to recognize how I could do better for him next time.

When I moved from compassion, I was soft, I was open.  I was able to take in more of reality than my own unhappiness.  I was able to affect positive change in both myself and my dog because my perception had expanded beyond myself. 

When Your Dog is Impacting Others – Move from Community

Often our frustrations with our dogs have to do with the way they naturally want to interact with others around them, both dogs and people.  Jumping on new people and charging over to other dogs when on leash are both incredibly common complaints of dog parents (especially parents of adolescent dogs!).  These behaviors are frequently the ones that people will say that their dog “shouldn’t” do because it’s “bad,” “embarrassing,” or some other reason relating to how we perceive other people judging the dog, or more accurately, judging the owner’s control over the dog.

You know what? I agree that it’s not ideal or desirable for dogs to charge up to or jump on dogs or people willy-nilly, but not because there’s some standard for dog behavior that your pup needs to live up to, not because you have a “bad” dog if they jump, or (worse!) that you “can’t control” your dog.  I believe that dogs should be taught to keep all four paws on the ground when meeting new people and maintain some semblance of cool when meeting new dogs because these good manners are for the sake and safety of those at the receiving end of your dog’s exuberance.   

You may be reading this thinking, “I don’t mind when my dog greets dogs or people with unbridled enthusiasm!  They’re just really friendly!”  Please know that even if your dog’s zeal when greeting others is friendly, even if your dog has nothing but angel-soft and innocent intentions when approaching new people or pups, it doesn’t matter.  I firmly believe that you are obligated to teach your dog calmer greeting habits regardless of how friendly they are because not everyone wants your dog to say hi.  There are likely millions of individuals–both human and canine–who are not comfortable being approached by dogs and, as a society, we should all respect that. Most of us have recognized that it’s wildly inappropriate to engage in well-intentioned but non-consensual touching of strangers (such as unknown people placing their hands on pregnant women’s bodies). In the same way, we should culturally acknowledge that just because you have a friendly dog does not mean you have the right to inflict your dog’s well-intentioned but non-consensual company on strangers.  As the saying goes, the right to swing my leash ends where the other person’s face (or dog’s muzzle) begins. 

So: whether you like your pup’s ebullient greetings or not, you are doing a service to your community, to the people and dogs around you when you coach your dog to be respectful of other individuals’ personal space bubbles.  Additionally, by walking through the door of community rather than ego when you begin that coaching you are doing a service to your dog and your own PEACE.

For our example, let’s look again at the young man with the Golden Retriever I mentioned in Part 2 of this series. This young man harshly corrected his dog for moving to greet another dog while he was standing in line at a brewery.  I noted that his leash jerk and scolding were likely the result of a reactive ego: the handler’s response to his dog was motivated by a knee-jerk urge to shift negative emotions and fault away from himself.  Obviously, I have no idea what was actually going on in that young man’s head, but I feel that I have enough experience with frustrated pet parents to make an educated guess.  Here is how I imagine his PEACE playing out: 

Perception: Closed. My dog did something that I don’t like or I judge as “bad behavior.” I only see my own judgment of the situation, how the dog’s behavior reflects on me.

Emotions: Irritation, displeasure, shame/embarrassment at lack of “control.”

Attitude: Judging, disciplinary, blaming.

Choices: Take corrective action against the dog.

Elasticity: Low.  In the moment: owner focused on good vs bad behavior, punishment causes immediate disruption to emotional connectivity between dog and person. After the event: human in a worse mood, dog more stressed; level of fallout dependant on sensitivity of dog and human grudge-holding.

Result: less fun for everyone.  

Now let’s see how things might be different with a community-minded approach where the primary goal is physical and emotional safety for all parties:

Perception: Open. My dog is about to go into another dog’s space – I don’t know if this is okay with the other dog or the dog’s person. Awareness includes the well-being of others.

Emotions: Concern (externally directed), uncertainty.

Attitude: Responsibility, compassion for own dog’s desires and other dog’s/person’s rights to space.

Choices: Interrupt the dog’s current course in a way that is minimally aversive to the dog, increase space between dogs thereby maintaining physical/emotional safety for everyone.

Elasticity: High. In the moment: able to see multiple points of view, able to expand consciousness to include the relevance of others’ experiences and adjust actions to accommodate.  After the event: connectivity between owner and dog remains same or increases due to owner’s compassionate engagement with the dog during a moment of stress. Able to ingest information about dog’s current skill set in public places and can adjust training and management accordingly.  Learn to set the dog up for success in the future.

You can see how much softer this response is, not just for the dog, but for the owner as well. Negative emotions that prompt harsh actions reduce joy and connection both inside and outside oneself.  When we choose to widen our perspective and include the value and relevance of others–even when we perceive our dog as being “at fault”–we create space for growth, constructive change, and greater connection.

When You Just Don’t Like It – Move from Relationship

There are some things that our dogs do that we just don’t like, and that’s okay.  They’re not harmful to our dogs, they’re not harmful to the community, and they’re not harmful to us.  Or, they’re not exactly harmful to us.   

We all have lists of things we don’t like that aren’t harmful to anyone.  Things like certain types of music, the feel of particular materials, certain activities or hobbies, and so on.  These are all personal preferences, and when it comes to your dog you are certainly allowed to have preferences for their behavior the same way you are allowed to have preferences for the music you listen to. 

Here are some examples of generally benign-yet-possibly-irritating dog behaviors:

Pawing at you for attention or other “demand” behaviors 
Barking in excitement before a walk (I’m looking at you, Shine)
Jumping onto certain pieces of furniture
Lying in the middle of the kitchen when you’re cooking  

These are small behaviors that don’t pose a risk to anyone’s well-being.

Except they kinda do. If they irritate you, they have an impact on you, how you feel about your dog at that moment, and likely how you respond to and provide feedback to your dog.  That means they have an impact on your relationship with your dog.

When we take these annoying behaviors personally, when ego drives our response to them, we experience emotional hardening: closing off to our dog and our own potential growth, and  (you guessed it!) less peace.  When we view those small, mostly-harmless behaviors as being relevant only in terms of how we experience them, we are forgetting or discounting the relevance of the other party: the dog.  

Do you think your dog is doing this thing just to get under your skin? Is this an intentional and willful act to upset you? Does your dog know they “shouldn’t” do this thing? 

Guess what? Your dog is just being a dog and trying to enjoy their day the best they know how given what they have previously learned about the world they live in‡. 

With that in mind, when you feel yourself getting annoyed or notice your dog doing That Thing again, if you react from ego the results of your PEACE will be harmful to your relationship with your dog.

I’ll use an example from my own life to illustrate: Shine barking (in my face) when I’m harnessing the pack up for a walk.  Here’s the ego-driven reaction to this super-benign irritant:

Perception: Closed. I hate it when Shine barks like this, I find the noise grating and it’s frustrating that she won’t just be quiet. I only have room for awareness of how her barking affects me and contradicts my idea of how she should behave. 

Emotions: Irritation, resentment, on a bad day: anger

Attitude:  Blaming the dog for my emotions: it is Shine’s fault that I feel frustrated and powerless over her behavior. Resistant to her behavior’s validity.

Choices: Take action to attempt to control the dog through correction: scolding/verbal reprimand for barking.

Elasticity: Low. In the moment: unable to see from the dog’s perspective. Again: punishment causes immediate disruption to emotional connectivity between dog and person.  After the event: start the walk in a worse mood, if Shine was scolded she is now more stressed; I am unlikely to change anything to prevent the situation from occurring again.

Now let’s look at this from a relationship-centered response:

Perception: Open. Shine is so excited for the walk that she can’t contain herself, I see her joy, but I find the noise grating.

Emotions: Conflicted: gratitude that my nearly-14-year-old dog is still thrilled by going for walks, but still annoyed by the barking.

Attitude: Acceptance of the reality of Shine’s emotions, softness to her experience as well as my own.

Choices: Either ride it out (the barking only lasts for the time it takes to get all three dogs harnessed) or engage her in a cued behavior (sit). Rewarding/feeding for Shine’s response to the cue will keep her mouth busy (chewing!).

Elasticity: High. In the moment: able to remain open to my dog’s joy while still allowing space for my own experience, able to adjust my response so as not to damage her happiness. After the event:  The walk begins with gratitude (mine) and joy (hers); I am in a state of mind to think about whether I want to seek a way of preventing the barking in the future or accept it without needing to change.

This is a no-brainer, right?  Do we choose frustration, grumpiness, and blame, or gratitude, joy, and acceptance?

…and it is a choice. 

Between Stimulus and Response 

One of my favorite quotes is this well-known gem by Viktor E. Frankel: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

When our dogs do anything that hits us as aversive we have a choice about how we respond.  It doesn’t always feel like it. So, so often our responses are more like knee-jerk reactions (no different than a reactive dog too close to a trigger), but when we are able to find that space after the stimulus but before we react, we can choose to respond from a place of compassion, community, or relationship.

Our egos and their attachments to how we think our dogs should behave cover us in rigid shells that crack easily, that we are constantly trying to repair with harsh corrections and justifying judgments.  These shells keep us tight and small and closed: unable to take in more or to reach out past their walls.  These shells are barriers to greater connection with our dogs, to clearer communication, softer interactions, and deeper understanding.  

When we let the shell of ego fall away, we can discover that we never needed it to begin with.  We don’t need it to protect ourselves from feeling the sharp edges of blame, judgment, resentment, and shame when our dogs behave in ways we don’t like because ego is what causes those feelings.  Ego is what prevents us from walking soft paths, seeing through clear eyes, and accepting what is.  

When ego falls away from our interactions and relationships with our dogs we become unresisting and receptive–not vulnerable to greater suffering, but open and welcoming to what lies outside ourselves.  As our awareness expands we learn to compassionately hold space for not just our own experience but the experiences of our dogs and others around us.  In that space we can find growth, freedom, and peace.

*I personally prefer the phrase “pet parent” and I am aware that others prefer the terms “caregiver” or “guardian.” Many of us feel these are more accurate descriptors of our relationship with our dogs than “owner,” but here I believe the term “dog owner” carries the right flavor for the sentiment. 

†This is a conglomeration of many, many, many moments of reactivity that I’ve experienced with Kit over the last three and a half years.  I am happy to report that I (to memory) never scolded or punished Kit for reacting to dogs or fast-moving-people-on-wheels, but at one point I did try to control his reactivity to mourning doves through what I thought of at the time as a low-level “aversive interrupter”–which I believed at the time was not based on emotional upset.  I used a quick jerk on his leash (attached to a harness) to interrupt the behavior.  That was an ill-thought-out and short-lived experiment in using low-level punishment and it made both Kit and me more unhappy.  It was also the act of a desperate and overwhelmed dog mom.  I have 20/20 hindsight here.

More often than not, specifically with his dog reactivity, my behavioral response to a reactive episode (or the threat of a reactive episode) was to high-tail it away, mentally muttering to myself such gems as “fuckfuckfuckfuck” which I can translate to: this isn’t what I want, I should be a better trainer, this isn’t the dog I wanted, I hate being that guy in the neighborhood, everyone must think I’m an idiot with no control over my dog, I have no control over my dog.

‡I’m not going to go into a whole treatise on unintentionally or intermittently reinforced behaviors that set both pups and pup parents up for stress and frustration, but the concept is relevant here and worth exploring for your and your dog’s sake. 

Uncategorized

Pause

This isn’t my usual sort of blog post.
This isn’t professional.
This is true.
This is not meant to be a pity-party for me, it’s to shine a light on the feeling of being overwhelmed by the needs of those we care for.


I am crying at the kitchen table.  

………

5:30am, wake up, no alarm needed – this is sleeping in on my day off.

Start the day letting Stormy out of Kit’s crate.  To avoid diapering her, she slept in the crate with Kit’s bedding covered with a washable (FOR THE PLANET) potty pad.  She bunched up the pad at the front of the crate and soaked through his blankets.

Laundry day, it is. 

Gather up soiled bedding, take to the garage. Put the kettle on and turn up the space heater.

Fix my first cup of tea. 

Since Stormy wet the bedding so thoroughly I do not feel pressured to take them out immediately.  

Shine and Kit are in the kitchen-slash-living room with me and Stormy curls up on my bed.

Write in my journal.  Take my meds with my second and third cups of tea.  Think about the day. Write down a to-do list. Aim to make it focused on self-care, include things that are easy and when completed will prove that I am actively caring for myself.

Brush teeth AM & PM
Litter box
Shower
Make soup
Dog walk
Clean kitchen
Yard time
Critter med/food prep
Read
Tidy Bedroom
Meditate

………

Time to take the dogs out.  Stormy gets up from my bed, there is a wet spot under her.

Fuck.

It was laundry day, anyway. 

Gather up more soiled bedding, take to garage. 

Take the dogs out, everyone potties (Kit poops twice.  What did he eat? Did he raid the litter box overnight?).

Back inside, place a washable (FOR THE PLANET) diaper on Stormy. Make more tea; switch to decaf.

Put on a podcast: an interview with an author who wrote a book I just finished on the benefits of dismantling the mental, emotional, and societal cages women are in.  A book on how we owe it to ourselves, our families, and the world at large to live our lives on our own terms, for ourselves.   

Switch laundry. Prepare to prepare dogs’ and cat’s breakfast. 

Go to garage, grab the last three baggies of last week’s food & med prep; gather bowls.

Host: The heart is there, but you took me at such a fast clip through so much in such an artful… Maybe I’m just talking to you writer to writer right now, just the art and craft in this book is breathtaking.

Author: Thank you. I really wanted it to read like the cheetah running. I wanted the experience of reading it to feel as wild as the wild I was trying to describe. I wanted the actual medium to be the message.

Shine, in a regular dog dish: 
Pre-prepared baggie of food and meds
Add: water, spoon of canned food, liquid glucosamine supplement, cooked white rice

Stormy, in an “easy” slow feeder:
Pre-prepared baggie of food and meds – remove meds for incontinence as we are switching to a new prescription that will hopefully work better; place aside, wonder what to do with the old prescription
Add: water, spoon of canned food, liquid glucosamine supplement

Kit, in a “hard” slow feeder:
Pre-prepared baggie of food and meds
Add: water, spoon of canned food, liquid glucosamine supplement, stress-support probiotic powder.

Alfie, in a normal cat dish:
Big scoop pre-prepared re-hydrated cat food
Small scoop canned food 
Mix pre-prepared meds (stored separately) into canned food

Place bowls down in order: 
Shine
Stormy
Alfie (in office)
Kit

Kit finishes first.  Always.

Author: I think that one of these poison roots that were planted beneath women is this idea that if we do what is best for us, that if we do what we need to do, that we want to do, our people will be hurt. We have accepted this lie that what we need and what our people need is mutually exclusive. 

Clean off the kitchen table and gather supplies for the weekly med and meal prep for the dogs and cat:
Plastic bin of meds and supplements 
Bag containing 42 ziplock bags (used & reused, FOR THE PLANET) – 1 bag per meal per dog for one week
Two kinds of kibble
Three kinds of raw, human-grade, dehydrated dog food

Begin prepping meds.

Shine, per meal-baggie:
Phosphorus binder (for kidneys) – 1tsp
Renal support supplement – 2 capsules, opened and emptied of their contents
New $100 herbs to hopefully alleviate her recent drive to eat dirt (both from the yard and from houseplants) – ½ tsp

Stormy, separated into AM and PM baggies:
AM & PM mail-order Rx for heart condition – ⅓ tablet
PM – New estrogen Rx to control incontinence – 1 tablet

Kit, separated into AM and PM baggies:
AM – Prozac – 1 20mg capsule
AM – Gabapentin – 2 100mg capsules 
PM – Gabapentin – 1 100mg capsule (titrating off from 300mg AM & PM)
AM – Calming herbal supplement – 3 tabl-fuck.

I have run out of Kit’s supplement.

Go to phone, pause podcast.  Open Amazon app to order supplement from possibly dubious seller.

Currently unavailable

Fuck.

Check other sources, find it for $20 more than I usually pay.

FUCK.

Call vet, order 45 tablets for almost $30 -this will last for 9 days.

Order bottle of 300 tablets for $95 and hope that they will arrive before I run out of the stopgap script from the vet.

Think about how I’m bleeding money.

Unpause podcast.

Author: If you need any proof that we’ve been poisoned by misogyny over and over again, all you have to do is think about the fact that the epitome of womanhood, the ultimate compliment we can receive is, “You’re selfless.” What horse shit is that? The way that you can achieve womanhood…

Host:  It’s complete horse shit.

Author: The way that you can achieve womanhood is to not have a self. 

Finish Kit’s meds.

AM – Calming herbal supplement – 3 tablets (three bags worth)
PM Calming herbal supplement – 2 tablets (three bags worth)

Separate bags that either do or do not have everything Kit needs to remain stable.

Pause podcast. Check Stormy’s diaper, there’s evidence of a very small dribble, but I’m calling it clean enough to put back on her later.  Take the dogs out for a potty break. Everyone tinkles, Kit poops again and I tell myself that it’s probably fine.  Go back inside, put Stormy’s diaper back on.

Unpause podcast.

Author:  But when you offer yourself freedom, you offer freedom to all of your people, and I don’t know what else there is to do as a parent.

Move onto food:

Shine:
½ cup chicken & rice kibble
Partial scoop dehydrated veggie mix
Partal scoop dehydratFUCK

I have run out of Shine’s chicken-based dehydrated food.

Pause podcast, open app for preferred (cheapest yet reputable) dehydrated food retailer, find out that it’s out of stock.

Check Amazon, it’s more than I want to spend

Go back to preferred seller and see what other formulas might be acceptable, also look at price of smaller box.

Fret.

Decide to hold off in hopes that preferred retailer is in stock soon. Set reminder on phone to check preferred retailer on Monday.

Unpause podcast.

Author: And that’s what I think we’re figuring out. That it turns out that angry, heartbroken women are not broken. Angry, heartbroken women are just some of the only people who are responding appropriately to a broken world.

Host: They’re paying attention.

Top off Shine’s food with Kit’s turkey-based dehydrated food.
Add: CBD/CBG tincture – 3 drops

Place baggies in cardboard box labeled SHINE.

Stormy:
1 not-quite full cup of chicken & rice kibble
Partial scoop of dehydrated veggie mix
Partial scoop of dehydrated turkey mix
Add: CBD/CBG tincture – 3 drops

Place baggies in cardboard box labeled STORMY

Kit: 
½ cup of turkey & millet kibble
Partial scoop of dehydrated veggie mix
Partial scoop of dehydrated turkey mix
Add: CBD tincture – 8 drops

Host: Do you know what I mean? And when we’re just living okay, people think that boundaries are a wall or a moat around our heart. But they’re not. That’s why I love this drawbridge metaphor. Because to me, good boundaries are a drawbridge to self-respect. That we can only get about being okay, not just professing it, but actually being okay, when we’ve got a really good drawbridge operator in ourselves.

Place baggies WITHOUT all the meds at the bottom of the cardboard box labeled KIT.  Place a piece of paper (part of the billing statement from my health insurance – my premium is going up this month – fuck) on top, place baggies WITH all the meds on top.

Switch laundry.  

Start cat meds:

ALFIE – placed into each compartment of an AM/PM pill caddy:
Herbal renal support supplement – ½ tablet
Different renal support supplement – 1 tablet
Thyroid Rx – ⅛ tablet
Crush together with the back of a knife, add:
⅛ tsp Phosphorus Binder (for kidneys)

Clean up kitchen table: Alfie’s pill caddy to kitchen counter by the tea, place bin of med bottles back on top of fridge, remaining food back into garage, put empty bottles in recycling (FOR THE PLANET), wipe down table, shake out placements and reposition. 

Prepare breakfast for self. 

Host: Is Honey there?

Author: Oh gosh, Honey’s there. I’m so sorry. How could I forget Honey? Honey’s always there. Yes.

Host: Geez, for all you dog lovers. Okay, last question. What’s something you are deeply grateful for right now?

Food is cooked, podcast ends. Set a new cup of tea aside to steep.

Sit down, begin to eat. 

Notice that Stormy is licking the place on the couch where she has been laying.  Walk over, she gets up. Notice her diaper sagging. 

FUCK.  

She has soaked it through.  The blanket that covers the couch is wet, the cushion underneath it is wet.

FUCK.

Put new washable (FOR THE PLANET) diaper on Stormy. Gather up the new laundry, take it to the garage. Switch laundry. Notice that the upstairs neighbors with whom I share the garage and washer/dryer have a small basket of laundry placed off to the side waiting to be washed.  

Feel guilty about using the washer and dryer for so long this morning. Think about how this won’t be an issue soon.  The landlady is going to sell the current shared set. I need to buy my own stackable washer and dryer. Soon. 

Fuck.

Being thinking about the cost of a new washer and dryer. Think about having to decide whether to buy used or new. Think about logistics of how to get a used set to the house without inconveniencing friends who have trucks. Wonder if buying new, despite higher cost, would be the better choice due to delivery and warranties.

Decide to continue avoiding thinking about this. 

Fix now-steeped cup of tea, sit back down to finish breakfast. 

Begin eating again.

Stormy approaches the table, starts to playfully rub her rump against the table leg.  This shakes the table.

The tea sloshes, spilling onto the placemat and the table.

I am crying at the kitchen table.

………

The podcast: Unlocking Us hosted by Brené Brown.
Episode: Glennon Doyle and Brené on Untamed. March 24 2020.  
Produced by Cadence13. 

https://brenebrown.com/podcast/glennon-doyle-brene-on-untamed/

Uncategorized

On Bad Walks and Love

I had several other things that I thought I was going to write about for this week’s blog post: more stuff on ego, some really interesting stuff I’ve been thinking about on frustration vs anticipation, and then a whole thing about plateaus in reactivity work that I’m really excited about.

But something got in the way: it was my walk on Tuesday.

One of the recent changes to my life is that I gifted myself with hiring a housekeeper to come twice a month to clean: I’m literally buying myself time by having someone else do my chores while I take the dogs out of the house for the time that she’s here. We try to find local hikes that are low-traffic for me & Kit (who, in case you’re just tuning in, is better-than-before but still WILDLY reactive to other dogs) and easy enough for 13 year old Shine and her functional-but-still-arthritic joints to manage. Because Stormy, my 10 year old, just had dental surgery on Monday, she needed to stay home, to have a fairly quiet morning while I took Kit and Shine out on a morning adventure.

We went to the park around 7:30 in the morning. Kit and I normally walk this park closer to 10:30 or 11 when most people are already done with their morning dog walks, but we figured it was early enough to be not too busy, and the trail has plenty of little offshoots if we needed more distance from other dogs.

Everything started off really well, Kit was in top form, and I don’t mean that in a snarky, sarcastic way: he was rocking it. We were able to work around the first dogs we saw, and he was playing the game like a champ. Honestly, he was much more interested in me and the game of “look-treats; look-at-mom-treats; look-treats” than he was interested in the dogs; my heart was swelling with pride in him and how far he’s come. Even when we passed by a group of women with a small (off leash!) dog, I was able to carry him past without incident.


Quick note: one of the things that Kit and I have worked on over the last few years is him letting me know when he needs to be picked up and carried. Unlike many dogs who find physical restraint incredibly stressful and aversive, when Kit is overwhelmed it has a decompressing effect on him. This is something I intend to write more about separately because it’s so cool and interesting. We have a fantastic system worked out where if I give him a cue like “touch” or “sit” but he is in too high a state of arousal to perform the behavior, he can place his front paws on me and I will pick him up because that’s the support he needs right then. If I think he’s getting a little stressed I can ask him, “Do you need an assist?” and if he does, he will place his front paws on me and I will pick him up and carry him; if he doesn’t hell look back at me and keep walking. Sometimes he asks me to pick him up without any cue or conversation before hand, he’s upset, and he knows he has the power to ask for what he needs. It’s a really lovely system, and I don’t know where we’d be without it. When I’m carrying him, I can feel his body going from rigid to slack in my arms as we walk along, and that’s when I know he’s ready to go back down: when all 30 pounds of him become deadweight instead of tense muscle. Again, I totally recognize how awesome this dialog between us is, and I’m excited to write more about it at a later date.


Back to the walk: Kit was doing really well. I had my treat bag pretty well loaded with two packets of cream cheese and a baggie full of my usual trail mix of cheese, hot dogs, and Happy Howie’s. It was a nice morning, cool, but with the promise of heat later on.

Anyway, it was really good. We would see dogs, and either work Kit where we were or I could move the kids away from the main trail far enough that I could work Kit and not have him anywhere near a point of reaction. Shine, who is a fearful girl, would also get treats for being in proximity with people and dogs, but her distance of concern is MUCH shorter, and she doesn’t hold onto stress the same way Kit does. So, Kit would get worked, Shine would get a cookie or two dropped on the ground for her. It was good. I was genuinely impressed by how well Kit was keeping it together, the choices he was making, and all those other wonderful things that dog reactive dog parents love to see from their kids.

As the morning crept along, we started seeing more and more dogs on the trail with their people, many of them off leash. Unfortunately, I had thought about what foot traffic was going to be like at 7:30 when we started, but not what foot traffic was going to be like as it got closer to 8:30 and then 9. That’s when people take their dogs for walks.

That’s when people with friendly dogs take their dogs for walks.

…and it felt like they were all heading on to the trail as we started getting closer to the end of the walk. Our first real problem happened when we were about two thirds through and a young woman on her cell phone was passing by with a white Pit mix. I think it probably would have been fine if that dog didn’t care about us, but that dog looked at us. It wasn’t threatening or even close to it, but the direct eye contact and pricked-forward ears were too much for my boy and Kit went over his edge into shrieking barks, lunging, and full amygdala overload. Nothing existed for him but that dog until we were able to get more distance from them, both spatially and temporally.

It wasn’t just that dog though. It was the fact that we had already passed several dogs. Trigger stacking is a real thing. If you’re not familiar with it (or choose not to watch the helpful video behind the link) the basic idea is that the stress-producing things that happen during our days pile up and compound. You don’t just spill your coffee, then stub your toe, then get cut off in traffic, and not have all of it affect how you react to the next stressor that pops up in an hour or so. We all, cross-species and individually, have different levels of ability to let things roll off, to not carry stressors or triggers with us through our hours and days. For humans, while chemicals still play a role, it’s a lot about how much we ruminate on the events and disturbances that have occurred. For dogs, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume it’s primarily chemical.*

Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that get released into the system don’t just disappear when the event itself has ended, they stick around and have a residual effect on how the stressed individual reacts to things moving forward. When you have triggers stacking up, one after the other, without sufficient time between events for the chemicals to dissipate sufficiently to bring the dog back to baseline, you see arousal levels rise and rise and rise.

If that first dog we saw put Kit at a 4–because even though he didn’t display textbook reactivity, it was still a stressor–the next dog pushed him up to a 5. The one after that to a 6. You get it? Even though he was totally handling himself, there’s only so much he can take. Finally, that adorable Pittie pushed him over his limit, where he began barking like a maniac and was unable to cognitively engage in our training game.

I want to stop here and again acknowledge it was my own poor foresight that had us on the trail at a prime hour. I thought about the low traffic when we started, but not where things would be as we came back, and of course coming back means arriving at a trail head, the busiest part of the trail, after already experiencing all the stressors and stimuli of the whole walk.
That last half an hour of what should have been a much shorter walk, or I should say what could have been, consisted primarily of me jogging towards and then hiding in the bushes, either holding Kit or trying to keep his brain engaged, dodging poison oak, as well as trying to keep Kit out of it so I wouldn’t contract it from his coat when I had to pick him up.

He had a few over-the-edge moments that were, as far as I could see, unpreventable, and I was trying HARD to keep those moments to a minimum. At one point I literally climbed through scrubby bushes carrying Kit, and nearly dragging Shine to get away from an elderly woman with a cast on her leg and an off leash terrier. I was dropping treat crumbs on the ground for Shine while talking soothingly to Kit hoping this woman would pass quickly. She saw us in the bushes, and–of course!–stopped to ask if we needed help, when all I needed her to do was keep going.

At one point, a gentleman who we had passed previously on the loop stopped as I was hiding behind trees to try to talk to me about my dogs. His dog, a Cattle Dog mix, also off leash, was not helping the situation. I asked him to please just keep moving past us, or at least I hope that’s what I said.

In these meltdown moments he was no longer able to work and we weren’t able to get far enough away from the dogs to be able to keep him in a cognitive or functional state. All we could do was hope people walked fast and that their dogs were both on leash and uninterested in us.

I’m not sure I’m really clearly articulating just how horrible this was for me and Kit. When we were probably a quarter mile from the end we were stuck hanging out maybe 30-40′ off the trail just waiting for dog after dog to pass. I was running low on treats and he was up so high he wasn’t fully engaged anyway. At one point we thought the coast was clear and I started back up towards the trail and all of a sudden there was a woman with a stroller and a retriever just a few yards away. Kit lost it again and we had to turn back into our hiding spot. At some point I even lost the first packet of cream cheese that I opened up.**

This probably reads like the overly dramatic comedy version of what most reactive dog parents deal with all the time. It’s funny because it’s true.

One of the saving graces of the situation is that we had no real options, so there was no internal struggle. All we could do was keep dancing this dance: on the trail, off the trail, on the trail, off the trail. I accepted the moment we were in.

There was one option that only occurred to me in dark jest during one of our extended rest stops in the bushes: just stay on the trail and keep going. Let Kit blow up to get to the car sooner.

…And I did want to get back to the car. More than anything, I just wanted this horrible horrible walk to be over. I wanted to get back to my car which is clearly labeled by the large magnets stuck to the doors to belong to a dog trainer. So anyone who saw me and my dogs would know exactly who not to call for help with their own problematic pups. Insert face-palm emoji here.


I’ve been listening to a lot of Tara Brach, a wonderful Buddhist meditation teacher lately. Anyone familiar with her knows that she talks at great length and with great insight about compassion. Compassion for oneself and compassion for others. I think that was what inspired me to, at one moment as we were crouched in the bushes, to whisper to kit, over and over again, I love you, I love you.

I think it was the most important thing I did during that whole walk.

Because I love him.

I’m hiding in the bushes, dropping packets of cream cheese, dodging poison oak, and and bending so much of my life around his needs.

Because I love him.

I’m not dragging him out on the trail to pass other dogs, just to get over it with, because I love him. Because I don’t want him to experience all the upset that’s so obvious when we’re too close to another dog.

I want him to live as calm and peaceful a life as possible, and that means going out of my way to protect him from the things that cause him so much distress that he will turn into a screaming demon.

In my last post, I talked about the shame that I so often feel when Kit reacts. But I didn’t feel that at all on Tuesday: I felt concern and care and compassion. I just wanted him to feel okay.

Yes, I was frustrated that things went so south at the end of what started off as a beautiful and successful walk, but I wasn’t frustrated at Kit, and I wasn’t frustrated at myself. I had moments of frustration at the people who stopped to talk with us, although I know that they were just showing compassion for us in their own way: wanting to make sure we were okay, trying to see if there was anything we needed that they could help us with. If they had ever had reactive dogs, they would have known what I needed was the exact opposite of what they chose to do, but I can’t fault them for never having a dog like Kit. I wasn’t angry with them. I certainly wasn’t blaming them for my dog’s behavior.

But I also wasn’t blaming my dog for my dog’s behavior.

It’s just behavior.

It’s the result of neurons firing & chemicals releasing as a response to an external stimulus.

I am not mad at my dog for his brain.

I love my dog for his brain.

I love my dog.

I love my dog.

And I say to my dog: I love you. I love you. I love you.

Even when it’s hard.

And especially when it’s hard.


We got back to the car eventually.

Sitting on a bench not too far from us was the gentleman with the Cattle Dog mix who had tried to talk to me earlier. I put Shine and Kit in the car and then went down to chat with him. I started off by apologizing if I came off as snappy earlier, and he said he just wanted to see if my dog was so excited because he was friendly and wanted to say hello. I laughed and let him know that that wasn’t the case, that that Kit was not friendly. I explained that I normally take this trail at a different time, that I was not anticipating quite so many dogs. We chatted for a few moments, he told me about his daughter, who is a groomer, which explained why his mostly-white dog had large dyed orange stripes on her coat that were reminiscent of a tiger. He said she had entered a contest. We said our goodbyes, I excused myself back to my car, and I drove home.


Back at home, the housekeeper was just finishing up. She told me that Stormy hadn’t barked at her at all, and while she wouldn’t take treats from her hand, Stormy would eat the ones that she tossed on the floor. Not barking and eating treats is a success in our book.

Kit and Shine drank water, cooled off on the clean floor, and took long naps after they settled down from the excitement of the morning. I showered and settled in for my day of desk work, and was surprised by how calm I felt after so much difficulty and upset on our walk.

While I wasn’t protected from unpleasant emotions on our walk, I was protected from destructive emotional aftershocks and thought cycles because–I think–blame and shame never entered the story. There was concern, fear, distress, and frustration, but I wasn’t throwing the fault of all those feelings on Kit, myself, or the dog walkers we passed. I focused my heart and my actions on the most important thing: shielding Kit from what upsets him, and by protecting him, I protected myself.

* I highly doubt that Kit spends much time thinking about those two retrievers who bark at him from behind their fence hours after we’ve already passed the house. Just a guess, though.

**My apologies to the person who found it later and probably silently condemned the thoughtless person who dropped it on the trail.

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The Role of Ego in Dog Training (Part 2)

As I said in my last post on this topic: ego has no role in dog training. Unfortunately, ego frequently appears, sometimes subtly and under the guise of something else; other times ego screams its presence from the rooftops. To be the best trainers, handlers, and dog parents we can be (not to mention the best human beings) it is our duty to root out ego and excise it from our interactions with our dogs*.

For clarity’s sake please note that I’m not talking about the Freudian ego which–in that line of psychology–is an essential part of the psyche.  Here I’m referring to the Buhddist idea of ego: the individual’s idea or construct of self: the self we think we are, which at its core is illusion.

This ego is self-important, self-absorbed, and fragile. Ego is the root of many of the “shoulds” in our lives and the driving force of much of our unhappiness. Ego (along with its cruel twin, attachment) creates a false narrative that our self-constructed view of the world (ourselves included) is right.  This narrative propagates the sentiment that things should be the way we want or expect them to be, and anything other than–that contradicts–our “should be” version of reality is wrong, bad, or undesirable. Ego frequently creates blame, judgment, and shame, often turned on our dogs, but sometimes turned back onto ourselves.   When ego exists in training or handling our dogs, it shows up in our self-absorbed motivations and reactions.

Manifestations of Ego: Proactive and Reactive

The most odious and obvious version of ego in dog training is seen in folks who insist on being the “alpha” (which is just the contemporary version of the old fashioned and ugly term “master”). These are the people who pride themselves on being in charge, on dictating their dogs’ every move. An old neighbor of mine was like this: she kept her dogs marching in step beside her on walks, never allowing them  to sniff or explore, leashes short and attached to pinch collars. She loved her dogs, but her need for visible control over them was more clear to me than her affection. These owners, trainers, and handlers often do not hesitate to use pain and fear to get the behavioral results they want, because the most important thing is the result they want. This is the proactive ego:

This ego says: I present my control over my dog to the world as an object lesson on my construct of importance, power, and worth.

A more subtle manifestation of ego can be seen in the person who does not require full-time compliance but “corrects” or otherwise punishes their dog for doing something (typically normal and predictable dog behavior) that falls outside their perception of “appropriate” behavior. I saw this recently when a young man harshly jerked back on the leash and scolded his adolescent Golden Retriever for attempting to say hello to another dog in a public space. The dog went outside of the young man’s unconscious (and uncommunicated!) list of what he felt was appropriate or tolerable public behavior, and the dog was punished. This is the reactive ego aiming away from the self: the internal upset caused by the conflict between desire and reality is shifted away from the self.  The handler’s negative emotions are discharged onto the dog.

This ego says: my dog’s misbehavior contradicts my construct of appropriate or good; I will take action to show the dog they are wrong for this.

Reactive ego can also point its arrows inward: the person who experiences feelings of failure or shame when they perceive their dog’s behavior as being outside what they think it “should” be. I personally have experienced this more times than I can count when Kit, my 30 pounds of fury, completely loses his marbles over some trigger or other and spikes into an explosion of reactivity. 

I’m a professional, my dog shouldn’t be like this, his behavior is supposed to be different, and because I am responsible for his behavior, I am failing as both a dog mom and trainer. 

Do you see how completely self-absorbed that thinking is? While in this example I’m not reacting with any response that is directly injurious or aversive to my dog, the foundation of the sentiment is about what I want and who I think I should be.

This ego says: my dog’s misbehavior is a reflection of my own failings.

Again: when ego exists in training or handling our dogs, it shows up in our self-absorbed motivations and reactions.

Wanting a Trained Dog Doesn’t Make You a Bad Person

Here’s the thing: in so, so many cases, there’s a really valid reason out there to want our dogs’ behavior to match our idea of “good” or “correct” responses to situations. There are very good reasons not to want a dog to leap forward to greet another dog, react to environmental triggers, or even to want your dog to walk at heel, but when the primary motivation to curtail undesired responses is rooted in ego, the training process becomes soiled with judgment, attachment, pressure, and impatience.

If our motivation for wanting a dog to sit quietly next to us in public is because it’s “correct” or makes us look good, there is automatic judgment on anything else the dog does. Our ego response to anything outside the realm of “correct” will cause dissatisfaction/suffering in us and our feedback to the dog will be tainted by that unhappiness. Woah. Uncomfortable truth, much?

But what if our motivation is different? What if we want our dog to sit quietly next to us for the safety and comfort of our dog, other dogs, and the people around us? How will that motivation change how we respond to that joyful leap to meet another pup? Are we worried about ourselves and our constructs of good and bad? Or are we concerned with the wellbeing of our dog and others?

What is the opposite of an ego-driven motivation?

In part three of this series, we will explore motivations rooted in compassion, community, and relationship, and how moving from these spaces is better for humans and dogs, alike.

*and everyone else, including ourselves, forever. 

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She must have been abused.

If you have an anxious or fearful dog, or even one who displays explosive reactivity or aggression, there’s a good chance that someone, maybe even yourself, has asked if your dog was abused. Frequently this assumed past of physical violence, neglect, trauma, or general mistreatment is practically insisted upon by well intentioned souls, even when there is no known history of such– outside of the “proof” of the dog’s behavior.

I get that a lot about both my girls, but especially about Stormy.

Stormy is almost certainly part or mostly greyhound, the rest could be some kind of Shepherd. She’s tan, she’s got a lovely pointy sighthound nose, long legs, a deep & narrow chest, and she is an utter delight. She is also very, very fearful.

Stormy was brought into the shelter where I worked in Chico when she was about 10 weeks old, along with the rest of her litter. We sent the litter to our best puppy foster, a woman named Kathy who had redesigned her entire backyard to be appropriate for rearing foster puppies. She called me two days after taking this group home and said, “Lindsey, there’s one I can’t touch.” Stormy was backing away from the (very savvy) foster mom and growling at her. After discussion, we decided to move Stormy to a different foster home where she could live with another, more confident, adult dog rather than just her siblings. That seemed like it would work, but unfortunately after just a couple days she escaped through a small hole at the bottom of that second foster’s backyard fence and got herself lost in the wilderness of a park during a major, pipe-freezing cold snap. We all thought that she was gone at that point, but both her first and second fosters made an effort to keep walking the trails looking for her. To everyone’s surprise, she turned up and was brought back to the shelter. That was when I took her home.

Stormy immediately bonded with my other two dogs, Kisa, then 6, and Shine, who was about 3. They made a lovely pack together and enjoyed exploring the backyard, wrestling, and doing all the normal doggy things. But like her other fosters before me, Stormy wouldn’t let me touch her. She seemed happy and comfortable in the home with the dogs, but was still very fearful of human contact and interaction. I could not walk towards her, even indirectly, without her running in the opposite direction. Just being in the same space as me was hard for her, and numerous times I wondered if I was doing her a disservice not to have her euthanized because of the constant upset and fear she seemed to live with.

Like many fearful dogs, she avoided feeling “trapped” at all costs – she was much less anxious around me outdoors where she could easily flee than in the house. When the dogs were out in the backyard, in order to bring Stormy inside I would have to call everyone into the kitchen, toss a bunch of treats on the floor, and then go around from the opposite side to close the back door while everyone was eating the cookies, or else she would run out into the safety of the trees and bushes.

We made some progress over the months of fostering before I officially “failed” and adopted her, but it was very very slow. I remember one day when she was standing beside the arm of the couch where I was sitting and she allowed me to scratch the side of her neck while I wasn’t facing or looking at her; I felt incredible joy and gratitude for that moment. Small mercies.

Stormy finally bonded with me over the long and arduous drive from Chico to Vista (12 hours in the car with 3 dogs = no fun, though my ex got the worst of it: he was in the U-haul with 4 cats in carriers). It’s possible that her sudden increased comfort with me after the move was due to “stress bonding such as one sees in rabbits, or because once we got down here I was simply more familiar than the rest of the world, and more familiar = safer (“the evil you know,” etc). Whatever the case, she warmed up to me, but new people were still The Worst and she would at times blow her anal glands when I had friends come over.*

Stormy & Shine, circa 2016

People who do not know her history assume that Stormy was abused. Because of her anxiety and fear around unfamiliar individuals, the way she spooks when people make sudden moves, and her sensitivity to environments and sounds, everyone wants to see her as the victim of some kind of mistreatment or trauma; I do not believe this is the case. As I said, we got her with her whole litter at 10 weeks old: they had all had the same upbringing, Stormy was just more fearful than the rest of them. Did the stress of being lost in the wods for a few days have an impact on her, too? Most likely, but let’s not forget that she was already growling and fleeing from humans prior to that event.

Generally speaking, people want to view dogs as blank slates when they are born: that “it’s all in how you raise them,” and that “it’s not the dog, it’s the owner”. We want dogs to be inherently “good”. But what is “good” for a dog? It’s no easier to discuss inherent goodness for dogs than it is for people, because like our canine family members we are born with baggage.

Science has shown over and over and over again that none of us, dog nor human, is a blank slate. We already know that genetic factors play a very significant role in the development of a dogs temperament and how they move through the world. If you aren’t already familiar with Belyaev’s silver fox experiment I’d strongly suggest doing some reading. It’s fascinating. (Sidebar: I was just reminded of the role of genetics in human personalities again listening to this episode of the wonderful podcast, Hidden Brain.)

There are plenty of factors other than trauma and DNA and that can cause behavioral changes. Lack of proper socialization as a puppy is the best known. An little known one that is both sad and interesting is that stress experienced by a mother can affect her babies. Another is that a dog may associate an unpleasant event with something that was present at the time, even if that particular stimulus didn’t cause it–this is in fact how shock-collar rattlesnake avoidance training works… that is, when it doesn’t cause dogs to become aggressive to snake-shaped things or fearful of other stuff present at the moment of the shock.

I recently had the opportunity to assist and do a bit of teaching at a birthday party for a litter of 13 puppies who had all just turned one year old. The human who helped deliver mama-Shadow’s exceptional number of puppies took incredible notes during the whelping process including the time of each puppies birth, and therefore birth order. The yearlings that I met included some very confident and outgoing dogs as well as a few much more fearful, anxious, and timid ones… and the spectrum of most to least confident paralleled first to last born, almost exactly.

Assuming that this birth order thing is in fact a case of causation causing correlation rather than coincidence, I still wouldn’t be able to tell you why that was the case. There are probably articles out there, you’re welcome to look them up and get me some answers, about why birth order of puppies has an effect on temperament. It might have to do with placement in the womb, nutrients getting to the puppies in utero, or access to the best milk once they are out of the womb and nursing.

Whatever case, I’m guessing that Stormy was probably the last puppy out from her litter. It’s a guess, but I think it’s a safer assumption to explain her increased fearfulness compared to her littlermates than that she experienced some kind of trauma, abuse or in-utero stress that the other four puppies didn’t.

Was she abused? Not by a person, not likely. Maybe she was mistreated by fate, to have been handed the short straw and the life with more stress, anxiety, and fear than the average dog. She doesn’t like meeting new people, going for car rides, taking walks outside of familiar spots, and the booms from Camp Pendleton, thunderclaps, or dreaded 4th of July fireworks send her info a panic. There’s some much about her life that’s difficult, but did she really draw the short straw? It was because of her problematic behavior and unstable temperament that she landed in my home, with my pack, bringing joy, snuggles and laughter along with the moments of fear.

I have no regrets about taking Stormy home as a foster, despite the number of times in the beginning of our life together that I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing by keeping her alive: I could see how hard it was just to be her, but that was over 10 years ago.

She is now super cuddly with me and (eventually) with visitors to my home. She demands butt scratches in a way very similar to this, and while she still doesn’t know the “sit” cue (which is another post entirely) she is an integral part of the pack, quirks and all. No matter the reasons that she is who she is, I am grateful for her and the weird twists of fate, DNA, chemicals, and circumstances that make her who she is and that brought her into my life.

*Liz and Athena – thank you for being the incredible & stink-tolerant souls you are. Love and miss you both. ❤

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What’s in your toolbox? (part 2)

Last month (remember my intention to post every other week? HA!) I wrote about using the basic tools you and your dog already have at your disposal, this week I want to discuss specialty tools – the things we teach our dogs that we never would have taught if we didn’t need to.

Some dogs get get through life easy-peasy with the basics they learn in a group class while others have more, greater or just different needs. The people who live with these dogs are often the ones who call professional trainers to help: they can’t figure out how cope with particular challenging scenarios with their dog. Sometimes the answer is as simple as creating a new and functional cue to circumvent the issue completely.

Here are a few real life examples:

Bear, a puppy I worked with a few months ago who would regularly growl if one of his family members tried to move him off the couch with physical prompting (a nudge, gentle push, etc). While he had more generalized handling sensitivities that we dealt with, for this particular situation we taught him an “off” cue, which meant, “get yourself off the couch and onto the floor”. It worked beautifully.

Lilly the Goldendoodle who played keep-away when it was time to go for a walk needed to learn a “get dressed” cue that prompted her to voluntarily place her face and head through her harness.

Tomlin and Winston, canine brothers-from-another-mother who would rush the front door and explode with barks when visitors arrived. For them we worked on a stationing cue: where they would “go to [their] couch!” when prompted verbally, or, with the eventual goal of being cued by the doorbell.

…but obviously this post finds its foundation with Kit. Necessity is the mother of invention, and Kit necessitated me training a bunch of stuff that I’d never needed before. Here are a few:

  • “Back it up” to reverse him out of my personal space bubble, especially when tying my shoes (this is almost certainly followed by a sit-stay).
  • “Easy” to slow his pace down on walks, not to reduce leash tension but to anchor him back into his body when he would get hyper-aroused.
  • “Couch” to station him on a piece of furniture & keep him out of the way (and from giving Shine dirty looks) when I’m preparing the dogs’ meals.

These are clearly solution oriented cues: used to address specific problems or scenarios. None of these are taught in your standard group training class, but as you can see they are wildly practical.

How how do you know if there’s a specialty cue out there to help you resolve one of your doggy dilemmas?

It’s worth noting that cue-based training is not typically effective on it’s own for addressing behavior concerns that involve a dog’s emotions. By that I mean if the dog is doing something you find undesirable because she is scared, anxious, or otherwise upset, you will (as in the case of Bear mentioned above) almost certainly need to develop a behavior modification plan that focuses on the dog’s emotional state, not just the external expression of it. A specialty cue may be a support, but it is almost never the solution.

Let’s try a quick visualization exercise: think about the issue you’re having–again, try to think about one that does not center on an emotional reaction–now back up, what is the scenario, your mind set, the dog’s location, yourlocation, maybe even your intention immediately before the problem occurs? Is there something you can think of that you could ask the dog to do, in this moment before the dog does That Thing that would prevent it from happening?

Let’s break down some of the above examples:

Kit’s Back it Up

The scene: Human is about to bend down to put on/tie laces of shoes
Dog’s undesirable response: Leaping forward to lick human’s face
Solution: PRIOR TO bending down, dog is prompted to back up away from the person, sit, and stay

Bear’s Off

The scene: Human wants to move the dog off the couch (to sit down, adjust position, etc)
Dog’s undesirable response: Growling when dog feels hand pressure applied to body
Solution: PRIOR TO attempting to move physically, dog is verbally prompted to jump off the couch

Lilly’s Get Dressed

The scene: Human moves towards dog, harness in hand to put harness on the dog
Dog’s undesirable response: Moving away from the human & harness
Solution: PRIOR TO attempting to walking towards the dog, the human prompts the dog to place her head through the harness

You see how it works? The real key is the “PRIOR TO” part – we’re not looking for a fix once the dog has started doing That Thing, we want to know what we can do to avoid that behavior completely.

Of course, it’s important to note that all of these specialty tools have to be honed PRIOR TO (there it is again!) actually using them in the situation. To go back to our tool box analogy, you wouldn’t try to use a saw that hadn’t been searrated yet or a drill bit that was blunt on the end: you need to have your tools fully formed before putting them to work.

So, what’s in your dog’s toolbox? Probably a sit and a down–our hammer and screwdriver–but is there an empty slot where some specialty tool needs to go? Maybe it’s a chainsaw, maybe it’s bolt cutters, or perhaps a pipe wrench. There’s no end to the cues and tricks you can dream up to find creative solutions to suit your and your dog’s needs, but the responsibility to discover that missing tool, to train it, and then, ( most importantly!) to remember to use it, is in your hands.

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What’s in your toolbox? (part 1)

At some point in your life you probably bought your first tool, probably a hammer or a screwdriver. It was likely shortly after you moved out of your parents’ home and you realized you needed a tool to perform a particular task: put a nail in the wall, put together some DIY assembly furniture, something simple that you needed a simple tool to complete. Depending on your needs, over the years you more likely than not have assembled a whole tool box with a variety of tools for all your different needs. Some you may use frequently, others only rarely, but on those occasions you are so so glad to have that specialized tool (for me it’s the specialty drill bits for ceramic and tile).

When we first bring home a dog, if they don’t already know “sit”, that’s likely the first thing we teach them. That’s our hammer: the most basic tool in our training toolbox. We can use sit in a whole mess of different ways that create behaviors or behavior chains that we like or use it to stop other behaviors that we don’t. It’s simple, it’s useful, and easy to teach, but just as it’s highly unlikely that you’ll go through life only needing a hammer, you gotta add more tools to your dog’s repertoire.

In group training classes most dogs are taught to respond to sit, down, stay, come, leave-it, and maybe one or two other things. The thing that isn’t always taught is how and when to use them. Some applications are obvious (dog loose on the street? use your recall!) but so so often we don’t use the tools that we have spent so much time and energy crafting at the times that they could be really useful.

I regularly tell a story in my group classes about Kisa, my first dog, and how she reminded my why cue-based training is really really valuable. The super short version is that I was able to use her “stay” to keep her from getting mud all over a carpet. It was a lightbulb moment for me because I really hadn’t used a ton of her training in real life scenarios up to that point. Some, yes, but never in a way that I really saw what the outcome of the situation would have been if I didn’t have a particular behavior on cue. That moment to me really solidified why most “regular” dog owners (as opposed to dog sport & activity people) should really train their dogs – it’s not for the sake of having a dog who has been through multiple training classes, it’s to give the dog and the person the hammer, screwdriver, drill, wrench, and staple gun that they’ll need to get through life together peacefully.

Here are a short list of common cue-tools, and how we can use them. This is SO SO far from an exhaustive list, but it’s a start to get your brain going so that when you’re doing life with your dog, you remember to reach into your toolbox and use the tools that you have invested in… don’t let them rust!

Name recognition (to the dog: “Make eye contact with me”):

  • To ensure you have your dog’s attention prior to giving another cue
  • To orient your dog towards you when on a walk (rather than pulling the leash)
  • To provide a quick, easy to reinforce behavior when your dog is frustrated

Sit (to the dog: “Put your put on the ground, duration optional”)

  • Preemptively to curtail jumping during greeting
  • To create a pause before entering exiting doorways
  • To create momentary stillness on the scale at the vet’s office

Stay (to the dog: “hold your current position”)

  • To maintain a sit or a down while you open the front door
  • To keep your dog in place while you walk away from your sandwich for a moment
  • To keep a Malamute with huge and muddy paws outside while you grab a towel for her feet
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Finding Balance

A dear friend who also self-described as my “favorite troublemaker” recently wanted to hear my thoughts on “balanced training.” I thought that was a little bit hilarious because she knows perfectly well how I feel about punishment-based training, generally speaking (and yes, I know that so-called balanced training isn’t just based on punishment, but it does feature consistently and/or often). But in light of some recent conversations and internal philosophical musings, I’ve decided to expound my views. This post is far from the be-all-end-all of my thoughts on balanced training or punishment in general, but it’s a start. If there are particular parts of this you, dear reader, would like to discuss, I am happy to engage in a respectful, compassionate dialogue. If you just want to hear more about what I think, I can certainly elaborate on anything, too.


When I started learning how to train dogs at the East Bay SPCA in Oakland back in the early aughts, I was trained not only how to use a clicker and deliver treats at the appropriate time, but also how to use a choke chain. We didn’t actually put them on the dogs, we placed them on a chain link fence so we could practice “pop corrections” without actually inflicting pain or discomfort on a real dog. I never in fact used a choke chain while I worked there, but it was part of my education because I was told that I needed to learn how to use all the tools. All the tools. This was at a time when shock and so-called “e collars” were not nearly as popular or prevalent in the training world, at least not for pet dogs. The philosophy that that we worked under, at that shelter, at that time, was, we use what works for the dog.

There was one dog from my time there who seemed to be fairly uncontrollable–a large fluffy German Shepard mix named Pellinore. After trying standard treat-based training methods the decision was made by leadership to try a pinch collar on him to reduce his jumpy/mouthy behaviors to the point where he would be considered “adoptable”. He wore that for a very brief period of time before he was transitioned to a head collar, but the fact remained that we, the training staff at an animal shelter, placed a dog on a punishment device intentionally.

In hindsight I feel that the reason a pinch collar was chosen and utilized was because the skill level and education of the handlers and decision makers, myself included, was not nearly where it should have been to create a force-free plan for this dog at that time. Everyone was doing the best they could with what they had, and no one had any ill intent. The dog certainly was not irreparably harmed (to my knowledge) by the use of this tool, and he ended up in a wonderful home with a family who loved him very much and renamed him “Wookie”. From my perspective now, with well over a decade of education and hands-on experience behind me, it wasn’t the right choice to use that pinch collar, but it was something that probably would have been used by a “balanced trainer”. Now I think we could have done him better.

Folks who call themselves balanced trainers, to the best of my understanding, are trainers who utilize a combination of punishment techniques as well as reinforcements. Things that fall into the punishment category include corrections with choke, pinch, slip, or similar collars, verbal reprimands, and/or shocks from electronic collars. Those aversives, used to reduce undesirable behaviors are “balanced” by the use of various reinforcers such as treats, praise, play, access to toys, and so on, which are used to increase the likelihood of desired behaviors.

The deep dark dirty secret of behavior and behaviorism is that punishment works. There have been studies upon studies upon studies on all kinds of species, including human children, that show that punishing behaviors through use of applying aversive stimuli is an effective method for behavioral change, and often a fairly fast one (though it should be noted that speed of efficacy is typically based on severity of the aversive; i.e. level of pain or fear [of pain] inflicted). There are of course caveats to this – you can google “punishment doesn’t work” and read a plethora of articles on the ineffectiveness of punishment in dog training, criminal justice systems, classrooms, and so on. That said, there are also plenty of other studies as well as endless anecdotal reports from dog owners, professional trainers, not to mention the sales data for electronic collars and invisible fences that speak otherwise.

Let’s take it as a fact that some types and applications of punishment do in fact work to train a dog to do or not do a variety of things. If this is the case, why on earth are so many dog trainers and behaviorists opposed to using effective methods, even just sometimes?

In short, because there’s a better way.

Let’s say you have two options in front of you to modify your dog’s external behavior (what he is doing with his body):

One option is shorter in duration, but would certainly cause your dog stress, fear, discomfort and/or pain, and would very likely do nothing at all to modify his internal processes (emotional responses, state of physiological stress) for the better; it may even make it worse. There is little time, effort, or energy lost for the person.

The other option is slower, requires significant accommodation for the dog, but is most certainly not going to cause pain, and if any stress or fear elicited it is minimal to the point of not causing a pronounced behavioral (external) response. The aim of this option is to specifically change the dog’s internal processes to reduce unpleasant emotions and maintain physiological stasis while achieving the desired behavioral result. It requires more time, patience, energy, and commitment from the human.

Both these methods work, but the big difference to me isn’t simply how they work, but who they are working for. Option one (punishment, obvi) works for the human. There’s no major impact on the person’s life, they don’t have to change much at all, and they will see (external) results in a reasonable period of time. It should however be pretty damn obvious that this method is basically crap for the dog, as it becomes up to them to learn what’s desired of them, or else.

For people who do not recognize (or care?) that dogs experience emotions, including fear, joy, frustration, and anxiety as well as experience stress and all it’s physiological consequences in ways shockingly similar to humans, for those people I can see how they justify the use of positive punishment* methods in fairly pedestrian situations: jumping on guests, barking at delivery personnel, pulling towards other dogs on leash, and so on. And I can also see “balanced” trainers feeling okay with using punishment knowing that they would still be doling out the praise and/or treats for tasks accomplished well.

But let’s look at option two:

Option two has little negative impact on the dog, but requires comparatively quite a bit from the human. The responsibility for behavioral change is in the hands of the person to make sure that the dog is set up to learn without stress (which, for the record inhibits learning – you can Google that one yourself). In many cases this method requires huge shifts in how we live and work with our dogs, and therefor requires the pet parent to be willing to make sacrifices for the sake of their dog’s well-being.

That’s asking a lot, but I don’t think it’s asking too much. If you think that sounds like too much, let’s read the descriptions of the two options again, but replace the word “dog” with “child”.

One option is shorter in duration, but would certainly cause your child stress, fear, discomfort and/or pain, and would very likely do nothing at all to modify his or her internal processes (emotional responses, state of physiological stress) for the better; it may even make it worse. There is little time, effort, or energy lost for the parent.
The other option is slower, requires significant accommodation for the child, but is most certainly not going to cause pain, and if any stress or fear elicited it is minimal to the point of not causing a pronounced behavioral (external) response. The aim of this option is to specifically change the child’s internal processes to reduce unpleasant emotions and maintain physiological stasis. It requires more time, patience, energy,, and commitment from the parent
.

Suddenly seems a little more obvious which method to choose, doesn’t it?

No, dogs are not children, but there are a lot of clear parallels, the most relevant being: adult humans are responsible for looking out for both children and dogs’ mental, physical and emotional well being and best interests as they cannot sufficiently advocate or care for themselves.

For the most part, people now agree that you can raise children without hitting or yelling at them, but for some reason, a large number of folks still think you “need” pain or fear to train dogs. That’s just one of the many falsehoods that trainers who emphasize punishment in their protocols are holding on to: it justifies their methods. In addition to the “punishment = good” (or at least “useful” or “necessary”) half for the story, there are also misconceptions spread about what positive reinforcement training is, allows for, and both how and why it works.**

The claim is made by many self described balanced trainers that positive reinforcement (R+) or force-free dog trainers believe in “never saying ‘no'” or let problematic behaviors go ignored without interruption. This is far from actuate. Most, if not all, R+ trainer use some methods of punishment, some of the time, because technically just turning your back on a jumping dog can be a punishment, or using a head collar for an anti-pulling walking device.

For the most part, well educated and skilled R+ trainers follow what’s known as The Humane Hierarchy when working to resolve training or behavior concerns. The Humane Hierarchy is A Big Deal, and it’s awesome. It is a road map to addressing issues by starting with the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA) methods, and as one method is exhausted, then move on to the next least intrusive/minimally aversive method. The Hierarchy places the animals’ well-being front and center because, again, they can’t advocate for themselves, so we have to take their welfare not only into account, but make it the most relevant thing in a training plan, right up there with efficacy.

You can see from looking at the graphic below that use of positive punishment (adding an aversive consequence) is on the list of options, but as a last resort. That means, if you’ve tried and exhaused everything else and your options are now re-homing/euthanizing the dog or using a punishment based method, maybe it’s worth trying.

The problem arises with the phrase “tried everything else”, because most of the time “everything else” hasn’t been tried, or at least has not been correctly/sufficiently/appropriately to say that method is exhausted.

Most balanced trainers do not follow the Humane Hierarchy roadmap or operate under the guidelines of LIMA. Maybe there are some who do, but when LIMA & the HH are in place, you almost never get to the point to need positive punishment because all those other methods work, and work well. The use of positive punishment is reserved for seriously extenuating circumstances, not because it’s easier for the human to press a button or jerk a leash than modify their own behavior, because, again, we are our dogs’ only advocates: it is our responsibility to care for them: physically, mentally, emotionally. They can’t do that for themselves.

The Humane Hierarchy places methodology on a scale to be balanced against the animal’s emotional and physical well-being, which gets the most weight, always.†

There will be times that circumstances are extenuating, or certain methods not accessible. For example: if we have a dog who continues to escape his yard, scaling over even a 7′ solid wooden fence, and the possible repercussions of those escapes include getting hit by a car or killing a neighbor’s cat, would it be okay to put in an invisible fence? What are the other options? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the dog is receiving age-appropriate exercise and enrichment, a tie out or runner have been tried in the past but the dog has managed to get dangerously tangled, and it is unrealistic for the dog to be attended/babysat every time he’s in the yard†† for what would likely be the duration of the learning process, which removes most of the training options. If it boiled down to getting rid of the dog or using an invisible fence, which would you choose?

Is it better for the dog to be sent to a shelter (to potentially be euthanized for untreatable escape behavior) or placed with another family who will still have to deal with this problem (it’s not like changing homes will make the fence jumping behavior magically go away), or for him to stay with the family that knows him and loves him, but to experience the discomfort/pain of an electric shock as many times as it takes for him to learn the boundaries of his yard? Knowing that invisible fences are not guarantees and many dogs push through the shock to get to the outside world, is it worth trying?

In this case, IF we have made it though all those other options on the Hierarchy and eliminated them as either “tried correctly and completely” or “not available”, then I say, give the invisible fence a shot.

After saying that I still maintain that I am a force-free and R+ trainer, because this is the only option left on the scale that balances against the dog’s physical and emotional well-being as training with a shock collar in my opinion is in this case preferable to death.

You see what I did there? I’m still advocating for the dog’s welfare.

This is an extreme hypothetical case, but not too unrealistic. It is one of the rare, rare times when all other options have truly been exhausted in one way or another and we’re left at that last turn-off on the Hierarchy map before we hit the dead end.

Most training and behavior concerns don’t have to go all the way to that last turn off. A well educated and proficient R+ trainer can get satisfactory resolution out of nearly every issue prior to hitting that positive punishment turn-off, and we choose to do so because it’s fairest to the dog. It might take more work, commitment, and ownership of the issue from the person, but you know who’s job it is to care for that animal? The person.

Let’s sing it from the rooftops: we are our dogs’ advocates. With that fact clear as a bell, we are doing a disservice to our voiceless animals to cause stress, pain, or fear when there is another option available, and that other option is, with only very rare exceptions, always available.

So, balanced training?

I’m happy balancing the dog’s very real needs with an effective training plan, and so far use of positive punishment hasn’t needed to come into the conversation.



*Positive here does NOT mean “good” it means that the punishment is added, as in: when the dog behaves undesirably, an aversive consequence (shock, pinch, etc) is added/applied: Dog barks + electric shock = less barking. For more on the terminology of operant conditioning, check this info-graphic out.

**I want to make clear here that I do not believe that the trainers who espouse these views are inherently bad people or intentionally spreading untruths. I think, that similar to my history at the East Bay SPCA way back when (they have changed since then!), they are truly doing what the think is best given the tools and education they have.

†I would love, more than anything to reclaim the term “balanced training” to mean that all training methods used are placed on this scale – that any trainer who calls themselves “balanced” is implying that they are weighing everything they chose to do against what’s best for and fair to the dog. Not gonna happen, but a girl can dream!

†† If you’re having a hard time imagining why it would be impossible or unrealistic to stay out with the dog every time he needs to use the yard, imagine a single parent with one or more kids under the age of 10. The dog can not reasonably command 100% of that person’s attention every time he needs to potty.