Slaying dragons is difficult when you ignore them…

…Or when you decide to start with the mother of all dragons!

Slaying DragonsI read an article this morning, a parable really, that addresses the common practice of talking about change, promoting it even, while running scared from the reality of it.  There’s a similar phenomenon seen in dog training where a handler says she wants her dog’s behavior to change.  This handler attends classes to promote change.  She fights traffic to get to this class after work.  She pays for this class.  While in class, she listens carefully to what her instructor says.  Then, while waiting her turn, or coming or going from the building, this handler reverts instantly to gripping the end of her leash, hanging on tight, and tolerating all of the problem behaviors she just spent an hour learning how to address.  And then she wonders why nothing ever changes.

Behavior changes slowly.  Habits are easily entrenched, but hard to fill in or reroute.  There is no magic formula.  To change behavior we all must make small changes.  Work with new “baby” behaviors patiently and consistently.  You have to nurture a future habit until it becomes fixed.  Then you’re ready to make the next change, and so on.

This is hard however.  First, you have to know where you want to go with your behavior issue, whether its your dog’s or your own.  After all, a fun trick that you once taught your dog may turn into a “zombie” problem that keeps rising from the extinguished behavior pile to haunt your obedience routine, or simply piss off guests, if you didn’t look ahead at what your long term expectations really were.  For example, I have a “rewind” trick that now rises up in finishes and other exercises from time to time–I find it funny, but it could really upset a trainer with more exacting standards.  I have another trick where my dog peeks through my legs.  I like it, but not all guests are amused and my agility instructor can’t stand it!

It is also hard because we don’t break things down and think small enough.  For example, teaching “stays.”  Each session I ask students to start teaching “stay” first by teaching the dog to resist following a treat when the handler moves their hand away from the dog.  Then, I’ll have them simply build some time into their dog’s sit: one one thousand, treat.  Then move to: one one thousand, two one thousand and treat.  Now build this up to a solid 5 seconds.  At this point, I’ll ask them to add the actual word, “stay”, but go back to counting one one thousand, the hold period that your puppy has already mastered (and not a 5 minute stay), mark and treat, then release.  Now build up to five seconds slowly before stepping away–and when you do, lower the time held.

Invariably, students ask their puppy, who just acquired the concept of sit, to stay as they walk out to the end of the leash.  Of course the puppy follows, bouncing along beside them happily–or she might wander off to sniff the puppy next to her.  The student then calls and scolds the puppy (breaking down the puppy’s nascent heel and recall) and drags him back to try again–hopefully I catch each student before this cycle gets too far!

Knowing this, I have to wonder why I still decide I’m going to make a change, like taking up meditation, or eating well, or starting this blog, and then alternate between attempting to create an award-winning site and completely ignoring my page, sometimes for years!  I should listen to myself and start small.  Baby steps.  Write an entry each week (I almost said day, but caught myself).  When this is habit, I will grow the behavior.  I’m getting better and better at expecting smaller changes from my dogs, maybe I can start expecting less of myself, and getting further in the end.

And On The Third Day…

And on the Third Day speaks to me about the partnership that can exist between a human and a dog.  The poem goes on to say that “It is a form of praying…to walk out to the very edge of your life.”  To do this, to see infinity, you must have the courage to go alone, or you had better take a good dog, one whose own stillness and inner quiet will not clutter the moment with fear or ambition or even dreams, as the company of even the best of friends will do.1154956

Dog Days

Every day I pass a house that has a German Shepherd dog tied out beneath a pine tree. The dog has shade and I see what appears to be a water bowl.  The owners take the dog in at night.  In other words, its most basic needs are met.  When I think about the limitations placed on that dog’s life, however, how his muscles and mind are atrophying from the stationary existence he is forced to live out under a tree, I want to cry–and to steal the dog.  Yet, this dog’s life is better than lives lived by many other animals and, for that matter, many people.  I believe our society’s unthinking indifference towards animals feeds our mistreatment of the weak and the powerless of all species including our own.  Small things accumulate into large problems; most things fall apart slowly, one board or brick at a time.

The German Shepherd is visible, but many dogs languish in suburban boredom, at least Monday through Friday.  A few ideas to break up the boredom without derailing your busy schedule include frozen Kongs, you can even use them for feeding main meals; wet food can be stuffed in and then frozen, while kibble can be added and then capped with peanut butter before freezing.  “Grass” feeders;  working for the food gives your dog a mental challenge.  Puzzles for dogs also challenge the dog to think as they attempt to locate treats.  Canine fitness games can give you and your dog a fun, indoor training outlet when the weather is too cold for long walks.

What are you doing to enrich the lives of the living being in your care each day?

First Things First

One night several years ago my dog lost her trail at a busy intersection.  The scent she was following had washed down the banks of the road into the ditches on either side.  As cars passed, remnants of the scent trail floated away making it extremely difficult for my dog to follow it further.  I became frustrated because I thought my dog had just stopped working.  Because I focused on the perceived misbehavior, I couldn’t see the actual problem–or what my dog had done right!  All I saw was that she had started eating grass and jumping up on bystanders instead of working.  Later, to my chagrin, I realized that these behaviors were signs of her stress, presumably stress she felt over her failure to please me.

Fortunately for both of us, a more experienced tracker instructed me to back up and re-cast her over a part of the trail where she had worked scent before, and, sure enough, she went back to work–right up to the road, where, once again, she stopped.  This time the handler suggested that I put her on lead and take her across the road.  I did and again she went back to work, quickly finding her hidden helper, much to her delight. It had been an exceptionally hard trail!

Like my dog, we all are searching for something or other.  And, like her, we work hard at it.  We tend to focus on failure and fail to see strengths, however.  We refuse to modify our plan, show flexibility, or simply laugh when things fall apart–most things in life are not life or death.  Often we fail to formulate a true goal.  Unsurprisingly, we get frustrated.  It’s hard to make it to the end of the trail if you’ve lost all scent of it and are beating yourself up, or, worse, don’t know what you’re looking for in the first place!

That night, I learned that I must stay neutral when my dog loses her way.  Provide a little help and encouragement, instead of simply criticizing failed efforts.  I don’t mean we should accept failure, just don’t punish it.  Most importantly, learn from it, and look out for small successes to reward.  One step at a time, we can all get where we wish to go.