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

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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Moving with (problem) dogs + identifying emotions + putting on your oxygen mask

I missed posting on my every-other-week schedule the Thursday before last. I thought I might be able to squeeze one in, but there was just too much going on to sit down and write.

The pack and I moved houses at the end of February: it was a fairly sudden & VERY fast move that left all of us reeling and out of sorts for a bit. It was a really tough few weeks with a ton of adrenaline and cortisol pumping into everyone’s system, not just from the change in routine and acclimating to a new environment, but from the constant workmen that were working on the exterior of the old house (painter and landscapers), and then having to cope with the moving company and multiple visits from the AT&T techs to setup internet service at the new place.

It was a lot.

All this BUSY might not be a huge deal for some dogs, but when you have a pack of sensitive-anxious (Shine), fearful-anxious (Stormy), and hyper-aroused-anxious (Kit) dogs, a lot of strangers, stimulation, and general disruption to the routine, well… things get a little bit sticky.

Did I mention that my dogs are anxious?

They are.

What got us through was a lot of stuff to chew on (especially stuffed bones), soft instrumental music playing in the background to create a buffer from outside noises, early morning walks, some herbal/natural calming supplements, and me doing everything I could to practice self-awareness & self-care in the midst of all the needs and anxieties of the dogs… and there was one day that those last two things saved us from a likey meltdown.

Shortly before moving day I was (still!) trying to pack, and Stormy wouldn’t stop barking because she was so upset by the landscapers in the front yard. She had already finished or disengaged from all the chew items available and we didn’t have another room that she could go into that would calm her down. All I could do was draw the blinds, spray some “Peace & Calming” essential oils in the air, put on some Tibetan singing bowls on YouTube, and take deep breaths.

Despite all that, I found myself getting legit angry about her barking. I knew there was nothing to be angry about, I knew that the barking was caused by fear, stress, and anxiety, and that she was just doing what her body told her to do given its emotional and chemical state at the time.
But.

But I was so, so on edge, so stressed by what I was dealing with in that moment, that I was becoming angry at her.

I took some time to dig deep and realized that what I was really feeling was helpless. My poor, poor dog felt like the world was coming down around her and I had already done everything I could think of to soothe her, but she was still upset AF and expressing it in a way that grated on my nerves.

I couldn’t help her, I couldn’t save her from the outside world or her own brain in that moment, and my frustration, irritation, and complete powerlessness had started to tip over into something more intense, so I did the only thing that I could think of: I took myself for a walk.*

I left the house to walk in the sunshine for about 30 minutes listening to the latest episode of Tara Brach’s podcast, and it was medicinal. I had half an hour without barking, workmen, moving boxes or obligations. It was the world’s shortest vacation, but it was what I needed, and–indirectly–it was what my dogs needed.

They didn’t need a mom who was a hair’s breath from snapping at them. They didn’t need my frustration to come seeping through my voice when I spoke to them. They didn’t need me to loose my cool because the y were expressing fear and stress the only way their little doggie selves knew how.

What they did need was a mom who knew to put on her oxygen mask first.

When I got back, things hadn’t settled in the house, but they had settled in my brain, and that was enough. I could continue doing what I could for the dogs, given the very real limitations we all faced, with a little (or a lot) more grace and empathy than I otherwise might have.

Those of us with special needs dogs know a very unique kind of frustration with them. It’s the kind of frustration where you get so upset but know that you’re upset about something that can’t be resolved in that moment. That you don’t have a way to fix things so that you feel better and your dog feels better. You know that yelling won’t help, and sometimes there aren’t enough biscuits in the world to settle your dog. When your well of resources has run dry and you have done all that you can, sometimes the only thing left to do is to take care of yourself, and that’s probably what your dog needs, anyway.


We’ve been in the new house for a little over 2 weeks now. The food bowls are in their permanent locations, the new wakeup and bedtime routines are established, and we’ve learned which houses in the neighborhood have barking dogs in their yards. We’re settling in, getting closer to fully unpacked, and enjoying the new space.

More than the space, though, I’m really enjoying and am consciously grateful for these dogs with all they bring to the table, good and bad. They are difficult, they are challenging, they are humbling, and they are my greatest teachers.

*if you’re wondering why I didn’t take the dogs for a walk with me, the answer is that t wouldn’t have a been a de-stressing experience for any of us, but that’s a post for another day.