Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Enduring the Erosion

The breeze slides off the lake, slips nimbly up and over the ragged, red clay bank, and swirls in eddies around my bare feet. It shimmies past the perspiring skin on my arms and legs just enough to keep me from retreating to the air-conditioned camper. The water is mostly still today, only occasionally ruffled by a pleasure boat. I am fully ensconced in the shade of several young white oak trees, trees whose leaves capture (but fail to hold) the edges of the breeze caressing us all.

Many thoughts have been breezily swirling in my brain since we arrived to this quiet cove yesterday, though I fully admit to pushing some of them away so that I might remain fully present. I don’t push them away because they are unpleasant or difficult (though some are); I simply, right now, want to focus on, well, a tree.

What has captured my pen today is one singular oak to my right, the same age as her sisters (I’m guessing 25-50 years old, which is, in oak years, practically newborn*). She is the victim of unfortunate circumstance, an event probably created by drought, likely in the last 3 years.

The earth simply could not hold her where she planted herself, on a promontory too close to the water’s edge, and erosion beneath took its toll eventually, causing her to now be tilted precariously towards the water at a 45 degree angle. Her branches are in full summer outleaf and her trunk remains stubbornly sturdy; the top edge of her root ball has feathered away, though, and the exposed roots show minimal, but concerning, damage.

I have no idea how long she will persevere in this this inalterable state, and I find myself wondering how she will cope with this predicament, how much further she will fall over time, and how much time she has left, knowing full well only two things: she will never ponder these thoughts, and now, I will never not ponder them.**

Perhaps she will compensate for being off-balance by sprouting new branches on her skyward side, strengthening the ones already there, or curving her trunk, to act as ballast.

Perhaps she will call out to her brethren and sound an alarm, and they will come to her aid, as trees do--sending nutrients through the mycelium to boost her and hold her steady against the wind and water and the ravages of time.

Perhaps she will be able to hold herself in this altered state for many years, and perhaps not. She has no idea how long the remaining dirt under her will last, and she may not be able to compensate being fully waterlogged at the base once it gives way.

And then there’s the question of what will happen if roots, trunk, and branches become partly or mostly permanently submerged. White oaks are hardy, sure, but they are not suited for under-the-waterline stasis like a bald cypress, swamp tupelo, or even a willow. She could live for years more--even if she slips below the waterline. But she will likely not thrive in that state and would certainly not reach full age and mass.

Her roots hold fast to the remaining bank for now, and she continues to hold fast to her white-oakness; what other choice does she have, really?

It makes me think about how we humans cope with change, how we adjust ourselves when things interrupt our growth and/or purposely or unconsciously try to drag us down.

The tree doesn’t need to “think on her feet.” She holds this new line as only she can: with blinding slowness and complete neutrality, with steady composure, without dread. It will take months, nay, years for her to make adjustments to trunk or branches, and they will be so incremental that they would hardly be noticed with the naked eye. The challenge she faces is not one where quick thinking matters; she will adjust, but with no haste.

Meanwhile, life/the Universe flings all manner of feces at us daily: we lose jobs, our spouses divorce us or we divorce them, partnerships dissolve, our beloved soul friends move away physically or drift away emotionally (the latter, of course, being even more painful), our pets face trauma and illness and we must face their mortality, and our loved ones face illness, adversity, and death. Our hearts break, capsizing upon themselves in white-hot agony, and we are stripped bare by the futility of circumstance. Our existence can be thrown into chaos with one phone call, one unnoticed red light, one instant of distraction, even one stumble off the curb. Change is the only permanence in our lives, and often, we are not ready to face it, let alone cope with it in healthy ways. It’s funny: humans have adjusted and adapted over centuries to all manner of newness and strangeness, and persevered. But we crave consistency and sameness, routine and ritual, nonetheless.

And there is nothing wrong with this craving. Wanting consistency, desiring ritual, and needing routine have helped us adapt, actually: stability is nothing to sneeze at. We are creatures of habit.

But the Universe doesn’t really care about that, does it? We know that Life Happens--and storybook endings rarely do. We know, intellectually, that bad things happen to good people and vice-versa, that adversity doesn’t discriminate, and that life is actually rarely fair. So that means we realize that change will come and it may often be unwelcome, but we must cope. What other choice do we have?

And, unlike this young tree facing adversity, we often need to adjust to change very quickly, even though what we’d really like is More Time to learn how to cope with the inevitable erosion of what we are used to. Our heads understand what is needed, but our vulnerable hearts are slow to catch up (and often too swift to declare they will never embrace vulnerability again). The tree, lacking a breakable heart, has nothing but time to adjust, but we are rarely afforded that luxury.

As we feel our feet being ripped from underneath us, find ourselves tipping toward the water as the earth sloughs away, we realize that we can change nothing about the circumstance but ourselves: we can compensate for being off-balance by sprouting new branches on our skyward surface, strengthening the ones already there, or curving our trunks, to act as ballast. We can reach out to our brethren for aid, and open ourselves/be receptive to the nutrients they provide us.

We can experience change (and the knowing that it will always be watching us from just outside our awareness, peeking through a crack in the curtains, waiting to pop over for a “quick chat” just when we have settled ourselves into a cozy  nap in the familiar) by activating the stalwartness we, like the tree, already possess.

The leaning tree cannot control the erosion, nor can she adapt quickly to adversity, change, or distressing situations. But she copes, regardless. And we learn, sometimes against our wishes, that we can cope, provide ourselves ballast, and thrive over time despite adversity, discomfort, and even heartbreaking pain.

What other choice do we have?


*The common folklore is that oak trees grow for 100 years, live for 100, and die for 100.

**Will I think about this tree constantly? Of course not. But will I think of her regularly? Yes, because I think about trees a lot anyway, and this one in particular has captured me on this day--and forever.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Let Yourself Shatter

“On this bald hill the new year hones its edge.
Faceless and pale as china
the round sky goes on minding its business.
Your absence is inconspicuous, nobody can tell what I lack.” ~Sylvia Plath


If you have been alive long enough to have experienced the end of a serious relationship, the death of a friend or loved one, or have shared your life with animals for any length of time, you have known loss and you have tasted the bitter nectar of grief. It’s an intense, heavy emotion that, when it hits, often sideswipes us with its raw power.

It’s quite likely that your first experience of death was indeed the death of a beloved pet from your childhood—an event you probably recall with incredible clarity, even now, and, being human, you also remember the heart-rending pain you felt afterward (for some people, the pain is so giant that they refuse to own pets ever again). If you are like me, you still grieve at least one of your long-lost dogs—very possibly as acutely as if it just happened. The loss of a pet can be more traumatic than the grief we feel after the death of family or friends, partially because our culture makes intense grief surrounding pet loss just not socially acceptable, and partly because pets are some of our most intimate, most unconditional relationships. Those of us who share our lives with pets often experience grief multiple times over our lifetimes because pets live such transitory lives compared to ours.

Grief makes most people uncomfortable. They don’t like experiencing it, and they feel helpless when they encounter it in others. It’s incredibly awkward to be involved in some basic daily task in public and see someone who is actively grieving: we don’t know whether to ignore, try to help, or overtly avoid them. As someone who has broken down in public several times, tears streaming down my face as I sobbed uncontrollably and collapsed in the coffee aisle, suppressing the urge to wail, I have seen the looks of those nearby as I considered that I probably should “get myself together” and “not make a scene.” That’s some powerful cultural conditioning and I actively began to fight against it when my mother died suddenly in 2019.

I grew up believing that grief was a private thing, a linear thing, something to be “gotten over,” something intimate (not discussed outside the circle or after the funeral), something slightly shameful, even. This is what author Miriam Greenspan calls “emotion phobia”: a culture-wide fear of the raw power of emotion and its expression. It was drilled into most of us in childhood, sadly, though shaming, ignoring, or the threat of punishment. “Even if we were not humiliated, punished, neglected, or whipped into shape for having ordinary human feelings, by the time we are adults, we are expected to restrict their free flow…we have been taught that emotions are not appropriate except in the context of intimate relationship,” Greenspan writes in her book Healing Through the Dark Emotions.

Everyone feels awkward that you aren’t yourself anymore, so they try to buck you up with platitudes. But you don’t want to be bucked up! Your heart is broken and you just want it reassembled—but there is no way out of this black maw except through it. You cannot drown your grief, or eat/sex/drug it away, or pretend it doesn’t exist, because it is a living part of you. Stop worrying about what others, especially strangers, think--or if they feel uncomfortable. Feel your grief; reach down inside you and grip it and hold it still for as long as it takes; it writhes and bleats and it burns, even, but you must own it—completely.

And here’s a recommendation that will free you: stop saying “I’m sorry” when grief washes over you randomly and you break down! Never apologize for having feelings, especially these powerful ones that make us so human and that we have all felt at some time or another. Death and non-death loss are part of life, like it or not, and embracing your pain is the only way to find your way out of it.


“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o’erwrought heart and bids it break.” ~Shakespeare


Grief is not linear; it is not “five stages” that everyone needs to follow in a certain order, and it is not shameful; it is sloppy and jagged and you will not feel large enough to contain it sometimes.

Sorrow and regret and anger run in a malevolent pack, barreling towards you, threatening to mow you over and leave you a pile of dust that could blow away on the slightest breeze. Let them! You will likely disintegrate, but only temporarily.

Author Glennon Doyle writes, “Grief shatters. If you let yourself shatter and then you put yourself back together, piece by piece, you wake up one day and realize that you have been completely reassembled. You are whole again, and strong, but you are suddenly a new shape, a new size…”

It’s been said that we do not “move on” from loss. We only move forward. The pain will indeed ease over time, but it never truly departs. Sometimes it takes up residence on the periphery of your consciousness, and other times, it comes in and sits down at the table and demands to be noticed. This is all a normal part of the healing process, which is messy and can feel unsettling.

But it does get better. Don’t be embarrassed or afraid to seek help: support groups, talking with understanding friends, practicing keening, being in nature, caring for pets and children, volunteering, exercising, eating healthfully, meditation and gratitude practices are all ways that others have healed.

You will heal, too.

"Grief is a house
where the chairs
have forgotten how to hold us
the mirrors how to reflect us
the walls how to contain us

grief is a house that disappears
each time someone knocks at the door
or rings the bell
a house that blows into the air
at the slightest gust
that buries itself deep in the ground
while everyone is sleeping

grief is a house where no one can protect you
where the younger sister
will grow older than the older one
where the doors
no longer let you in
or out.”

Jandy Nelson



Monday, July 12, 2021

Going Gray

The older I get, the more gray I become.

I’m not talking about my hair. Everyone gets gray as they age. My father’s hair was completely gray by 40. Mine would be salt-and-pepper if I let it grow, but I’ve been shaving it for years because I enjoy not having to mess with my hair and I enjoy that it is less expensive, easier to maintain, and keeps my temperature lower (menopausal hot flashes are not fun, kids). I do love gray hair on others, though, and I would have zero issue with the color now.

But this isn’t about hair.

I’m talking about my worldview. And when I mention a “gray worldview,” I’m not talking about a dismal, dreary, “it’s a gray day outside” perspective, or a “gloom and doom” perspective.  I’m not despairing. I’m not unhappy.

You see, I’m not a pessimist. I’m an optimist with experience.

For me, adopting a gray worldview means being able to see the world in many shades of gray, and less in absolutes, less in pure “black and white.” It means realizing that though I may not be the brightest, or smartest, or most educated, I am nevertheless striving every day to be a critical thinker who is constantly trying to see the world past my own perception.

This isn’t easy. At all. It takes work and it can be uncomfortable work. No one likes to realize that a lot of what they think could be, well, wrong. Or misguided. We must consistently and urgently challenge ourselves to think in different ways because it is impossible to grow without doing so.

And we like routine. We like thinking the same stuff all the time. We like not being challenged mentally and emotionally, especially when it comes to our core beliefs. Many people enjoy stagnation because it is like putting on a favorite pair of jeans or the softest t-shirt you own: it’s comfortable, and easy. Westerners, by and large, enjoy ease—especially ease of thought.

Think about it: when’s the last time you started a conversation, on purpose, with someone who has opposing religious, political, or social issue beliefs than you do? I’ll bet it has been a long time, if ever. When is the last time you chose a book to read that challenged your beliefs?

It’s time that we purposely push ourselves to walk in unfamiliar, and even uncomfortable, territory when our physical safety is not at risk. We need to not just have the uncomfortable conversations, but start them. And I’m not talking about social media, which is often a terrible place to have deep conversations about any topic, much less a topic that will create discomfort.

No, these conversations are best held in person, either one-on-one, or in small groups. They are best held when our bellies are full, we are sober, and we are well rested. They are best held when we cannot escape easily, cannot defer our answers, cannot deflect.

We need to be prepared to not know the answers, but to figure them out as we go. We need to learn to sit with discomfort, look it in the face, and not shy away.

We need to be prepared to say to the others in the conversation, “That is not a perspective I have ever considered, and now I have some thinking to do. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.”

Harli Marten
We need to be prepared to feel dumb. To feel small. To feel the hot flush of embarrassment, even, because we have put ourselves “out there” and been corrected, ideally gently. (Embarrassment is always survivable.)

Our conversation companions may not play fairly, but we can. They may shout, but we can speak normally and thoughtfully, regardless. They may get angry and try to leave, but we can stay, take deep breaths, and continue on.**

Does this feel too frightening? See below for how you can prepare.

Many issues surround us daily that require critical thought and the adoption of a gray worldview. Black and white thought will not solve our problems. For most of us, the world’s problems are not even in our capacity to solve, but when we speak of them or put energy into trying to understand them, we must try to do so in ways that will aid in the solutions. Why? None of us can solve world hunger, or the healthcare crisis, or climate change, the inefficiency of government, or the problems of white supremacy, racism, and sexism by ourselves. You and your friends talking about them in your backyard on a sunny day will not solve them, either. So why does it matter how you discuss them? What is wrong about bitching and complaining about the problems we all have in common that are well beyond our capacity to solve?

It matters because it is far too easy to have unfiltered opinions, to vent, to cast aspersions on the evildoers, to marinate in the frustrations of the world. Our brains are wired towards negativity and we get careening down that fast track and have no desire to put on the brakes. And we need to do the work to put thoughtfulness out into the world, uncomfortable as it may be, difficult as it may be to see the good in situations that frustrate—even pain—us. Doing so stretches us, not to a breaking point, but to a growing point. There can be no growth without stress and we should care what energy (for lack of a better word) we thrust into the universe from our heads. We should want to have all the information before deciding what we believe about important issues, and we should want to be able to change what we believe when, and if, more information comes to light to challenge our beliefs.

Otherwise, we are simply stagnating, and that doesn’t help anyone.

If the thought of engaging people you know and care about on difficult issues fills you with dread, I have outlined an exercise below that can serve as a handy “warm-up” to in-person discussions. What have you got to lose? Feel free to try it once or a few times, then post a comment about your experience.

If this sounds scary, you can prepare yourself beforehand by simply seeking out books or other sources extolling beliefs and attitudes with which you disagree, and exploring them while alone. Practice hearing, watching, or reading the info and just listening instead of objecting. Try putting yourself in the speaker’s shoes and trying to understand why they believe the way they do. Even if you fail at understanding their point of view fully, you have stretched your abilities to withstand concepts with which you disagree.

Then put the book down and go for a walk outside (shoot for 20 minutes, uninterrupted). I suggest a familiar place, so you can think about what you just read or watched instead of having to think about where you need to turn or worrying about getting lost. Leave your phone and headphones behind. Let your thoughts flow through your head without trying to dam them up or divert them away. Just let them come. If you are feeling angry or frustrated by what you consumed, ask yourself why. If you are confused, then allow yourself to be confused as your feet move you through the space; the rhythm of walking on a path is often a balm for soothing confusion.

I often talk to myself, out loud, as I take these “debriefing” walks. It helps me to hear myself asking questions, even if I cannot answer them right then. If I’m especially perturbed by the content I just explored, the first few moments as I process angrily probably look super weird to my neighbors. But I’m too old to care.

Are you a runner? You may be inclined to process by going for a run instead of a walk. Try to squelch that impulse and just walk instead. Walking after such a mental (and often emotional) exercise is actually better than running, because running will raise your heart rate and your breathing and will, in itself, become a diversion. And this outing is NOT about diversion. It is about processing while moving in a calibrated way. Movement dissipates stress, and all you need right now is to reset slightly while not avoiding the discomfort of thought. You will find that your swirling thoughts will settle themselves as your feet push you forward. The rhythm of your movement will begin to have an impact on the rhythm of your thoughts, and you will feel the discomfort melting.

You will likely return from your walk without having adopted the view of the speaker or writer you imbibed 20 minutes earlier. No problem! Adopting their viewpoint was NOT the purpose of exposing yourself to that POV, or the walk afterward. However, if, once you arrive back home, you are still “fired up” and even more entrenched in your prior beliefs, then you still have a few questions to answer. It’s fine to put them aside for a bit if you need to attend to other pursuits, but allow make yourself return to them later.

(It’s unlikely that one reading/video followed by one 30-minute walk would change your worldview completely. If it does, so be it—you probably already had your doubts and that’s fine. My point is that you should not consider this exercise a failure, regardless of what you end up believing as you remove your walking shoes.)

Ask yourself questions in the continuing days, too. Don’t push them away. They are an important part of coming back into your comfort zone slowly.

Now, when the opportunity for a potentially uncomfortable conversation in person arises, you will be less likely to avoid it, and you may very well feel confident enough to start it. This is a huge step in personal growth and you should be very proud of yourself.

*This does not apply if you are in any true physical danger. You must advocate for your physical safety (remember, discomfort is not the same as physical danger, though it will often manifest in our physical bodies). Do not have these conversations with someone who has physically, verbally, or emotionally abused you or threatens to become violent (talk to a therapist instead). 

Monday, November 11, 2019

Are You a Control Freak?

If you have an untrained puppy or dog at home, you need to become one.

The more variables you can control in a situation, the more successful you and your puppy/dog will be.

Laissez-faire might be good for market stability somewhere, but it doesn’t work for raising a dog to be a well-behaved member of your family. Dogs and puppies, when left to their own devices, by and large will not make the choices you want them to make.*

Taking control of your relationship is necessary, humane, and happiness-inducing. It may produce whining, moaning, tantrums, and avoidance. But once you buck up and stop whining, moaning, throwing tantrums, and avoiding the responsibility, you will be on the path to greatness with your canine companion. 😊

Thanks for laughing at my joke. In truth, your dog may whine about and avoid your attempts to control, especially if he has had too much freedom until now. (This is why I always recommend starting with more structure when the dog enters your life and gradually granting more freedom when he has earned it. Are you finally listening?)

For example: If you haven’t previously crate-trained him, and you begin the process, it may not be pretty. It may be noisy. He may tap into your emotions and fiddle with your sappy, bleeding heart. This can be difficult to endure, but it is indeed endurable—for both of you.**  My article The Crate is Great can help your reluctant dog enjoy his space.

If you stop allowing him on furniture where he was allowed previously, you might experience some pushback. It won’t be easy to keep him off. It won’t be a cinch to get him to leave the couch or bed once he has snuck up on it. But if it is what he needs, you will calmly persevere.***

Until your puppy or dog is trained, you need to be able to control where he goes, when he goes there, and what he does when there. We use structure to get that control, and it allows us to set the dog up for success. Once he has mastered some fundamentals, we can relinquish some control because he is capable of making better decisions. The more he learns and becomes proficient at, the less control we need to exert over him.

"Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it." ~George Bernard Shaw

How can you use structure to gain control? Let’s talk about tools that can help you.

First, control freedom inside the home, to prevent accidents and destruction.

Use a crate. Use tethering. Use gates. Use a dragline. The pros all do it. Copy us.

Tethering helps with supervision
GATES—use baby gates to set boundaries and control the dog’s access to rooms or areas where he should remain, or stay out of. Walk-through gates are easiest to use. NOTE: smart dogs can learn to scale baby gates or push them over. Use them only when you are home until you know if he will try; crates tend to be safer containment areas, but exceptions do occur.

Next, control interactions with the dog and humans.

What does this look like? If you imagined it to be yelling at the dog to stop doing X, or physically “showing him who is boss” by hitting, shoving his nose in his waste, or body-slamming him, forget that crap. It’s counterproductive and we know better now.

Speak in your normal voice. Stand up straight unless you are inviting the dog into your space for a snuggle. Teach one-word commands and stick to them; dogs don’t understand long paragraphs. Be consistent and clear—the dog’s comprehension of our strange world depends on clarity and consistency.

In many household situations, you don’t even need commands. Dogs are excellent at paying attention to the things that matter to them. They are reading us all the time and learn quickly what certain gestures, ways of moving, and events mean. It doesn’t take but a few repetitions for the dog to learn that the sound of keys means you are about to walk out the door; the sound of the can lid popping, the refrigerator opening, or the microwave dinging signals food being prepared; even the sound of the toilet flushing signals something to the dog.

With a bit of practice, you holding his food bowl means sit, and eventually lie down and wait. You moving toward him means back up, please, or move aside. You pointing at a nearby bed means “go there and remain until I release you.” You patting your leg means “walk right here with me.”

Teaching the dog to do these things takes a bit of practice, but it's not difficult, and it makes sense to the dog.

Learning to wait at doors is crucial
It can take several forms, but the leadership protocol I’ve been using for years that works very well is having the dog perform a command before he is given something of value to him. This way, he sees that the things he wants and enjoys are rewards for his behavior towards you or other humans. Before you put down his food bowl, or open the door to let him into the yard, or put his leash on, or allow him on the furniture, or give him affection, you should have him sit, or lie down, or stay, or come to you, or even perform a trick occasionally. You can use any command or behavior the dog knows. I like to make the sit the default command for all “life rewards,” and then as the dog learns more commands, I “raise the bar” and ask him for harder things for the rewards he finds more valuable, like food.

Another way to control the interactions is to make sure you aren’t rewarding pushy behaviors like darting out of the crate, shoving a toy on you for play, banging into you when playing, putting teeth on you when playing, refusing to move out of your way or get off furniture when told, or grabbing food in any context. Don’t allow the dog to do these things and make him getting the things he wants contingent on his calm choices like sitting, lying down, coming happily when called, and ceding space to you.

Next, control your dog’s freedom outdoors.

Use securely fenced yards, leashes, boundary training, recall training, and pack-relevance training to teach your dog that you are worth being paid attention to, even in the exciting outdoors. Freedom needs to be earned. Far too many people make assumptions about what their puppy or dog will or won’t do outdoors in unsecured places. Don’t make assumptions. Dogs are good until the day that they are not. The only thing that gets you solid off-leash reliability is repetitive training with valuable rewards for compliance and eventually, well-timed corrections for non-compliance.

You must make coming to you, staying near you, and keeping you in sight more rewarding for the dog than dashing off, running away, playing with other dogs, chasing cars or prey, or doing whatever feels good in the moment. And dogs are all about what feels good in the moment!

Until your dog has had enough training to show that he understands what is expected, especially in the face of distractions, he cannot be trusted off-leash in unsecured environments. Period. There’s a razor-thin line between safety and sadness.

Most young puppies don’t have the confidence to stray far from us, so people tend to get cocky and complacent when they acquire a pup at 7-8 weeks and it follows them everywhere, even outside. Up until about 16-18 weeks, most puppies don’t want to be far from us. But as they reach 16-18 weeks, they start to gain more confidence and want to see the world. If you have good recall training on board before that happens, excellent! Now it will be put to the test as you practice EVERYWHERE, ON LEASH, for the next several months.

You may want your puppy or dog to have off-leash freedom before he is ready, but what he needs is a lot of preparation. You don’t get to choose what he needs and your wants do not override his needs.

No matter how friendly your dog actually
is, he should never be allowed to charge
up to people on the street
If your dog runs up to people and/or dogs when he is off-leash, and you cannot prevent this, or at the very least call him back with one command, he should not be off-leash. This is rude and someone is going to get hurt. Leashed dogs do NOT appreciate being approached by off-leash dogs, and neither do their owners. Many of these owners are trying to work on leash skills and your cries of "it's OK, he's friendly!" are as helpful as a screen door on a submarine. You are allowing YOUR wants to mess up the training others are trying to accomplish--training you neglected to do. Leash your dog. Plus, it's the law, for good reason.

If your puppy or dog is the clingy type, you may have tried a few scenarios where he was allowed freedom and he never strayed far from you, or came back easily. You might have even done this multiple times, and have concluded that “he would never run away.” Believing this is folly and folly can lead to heartbreak in seconds. Even the “Velcro” dog needs lots of recall training because these dogs tend to be a bit anxious and when the chips are down, if they panic and bolt, it won’t always be in your direction. Also, do you know what your dog will do if a deer, snake, or bear appears in the woods when you are hiking with him off-leash? If you cannot answer that definitively, he isn’t ready to be off-leash.

What about taking your dog to the dog park?

This subject is long enough for a completely separate post, but I want to take a stab at it here because dog parks have become so ubiquitous. You probably aren't going to like what I have to say, but please bear with me here.

Dog parks are chock full of uncontrollable variables, which by now should be a red flag to you. Dogs must be off-leash in these parks for their own safety. So, strike 1 against the untrained dog: he is basically uncontrollable once that leash is off. Strike 2 is that not only is he uncontrollable, but he is in "Disney World for dogs who love other dogs": a place of unbridled hedonism where humans have very little authority. Playing with other dogs is highly rewarding to most pet dogs², and when the things your dog loves come with no supervisional strings attached, you become less relevant to the dog.

The fact that your dog seems to be super happy during your trips to the dog park and comes home super tired are irrelevant because you are teaching your dog that the BEST THING is barely attached to you. This lesson is not lost on your dog. He learns through proper structure and training that rewards are contingent on behaviors--a necessary lesson--and then every day, or twice a week, or however often you cart him to the park, he learns that there are exceptions to this rule. How many other exceptions might there be? Do you want him to test this theory? I don't. And you shouldn't, either.

"A tired dog is a good dog" is pretty much true, but how your dog gets tired matters. And if you like him tired because it means you don't have to do much with him, then you need to ask yourself why you have a dog. Seriously.

Is the dog park meeting your dogs needs? You may think the answer is yes, but when you look at the dogs actual needs, can you answer the question the same way?

This article explains why I am leery of dog parks. I wrote it long enough ago that it doesn't even touch on the idea of how your dog gets tired matters, but the short version of that is this: allowing your dog to tire himself physically in an activity uncontrolled by humans means he isn't getting much mental stimulation (if any) at the dog park, and while some learning is taking place (he is learning how to interact with other dogs), some of this learning could actually be detrimental. He could be learning how to bully other dogs, for instance. How would you control that? It's something to think about.

Remember: you don’t get to choose what your dog needs, and your wants do not override his needs.

The more variables you can control in a situation, the more successful you and your puppy/dog will be.

This “Mailey’s Maxim” applies even to public situations where your dog will be on a leash, such as public parks, restaurants, your kid’s soccer practice, stores that allow dogs, hiking trails, and fairs/festivals.

All of these environments come with something we haven’t yet touched on: largely uncontrollable variables like people, other dogs (both on and off-leash), and distractions of both the exciting kind (“someone just dropped a hotdog!”) and the frightening kind (traffic, large crowds, loud noises).

Put dogs in environments with fewer distractions until they are trained and have shown that they can handle themselves well. Use these environments to train them and prepare them for more distracting environments later. Add distractions incrementally to inoculate them for real-world situations. Quit on a positive note (earlier than you wanted to) and come back to it after hours or even a day or more. Use rewards that are commensurate with the level of difficulty and use corrections properly.

Before taking your dog in public, ask yourself: How many variables in this potential environment will I be able to control? If the answer is less than half, few, or none, rethink your need to take your untrained or partially-trained dog. If he must go, how can you set him up for success?

The more training he has, the more environments he can handle well. Good socialization is about preparing your dog for the types of environments he is likely to encounter in his lifetime, which include people, other animals, traffic, noises, hotdogs falling on the ground unexpectedly, and the like.

Let me give you some examples:

When you take a walk in your neighborhood, you will generally have more control over variables than when you take your dog to the local park or the fairgrounds for a festival. Why? You know the area, and so does your dog. You are more comfortable, and therefore will not trigger the dog’s anxieties. Is dog trained to walk nicely on leash? That definitely helps. You probably know neighbors and what dogs they have, how many kids you are likely to see, traffic and noise.

Is your neighborhood teeming with uncontrollable variables like off-leash dogs and lots of kids playing? Go at a quieter time of day or night if you can.

When you take your dog in the car to a place that allows dogs to come inside, you are still able to control some of the variables, like where the dog rides in the car (restrain in a crate or harness, please), and where you go in the store itself. If it’s a store you know, and your dog has been before, your chances are better.

But it could present several variables beyond your control, such as the Marauders, other dogs who are not so well-behaved, and chances for you to become distracted.

Practice inside a pet supply
store can be risky because
of marauders.
There are people who cannot see a dog in a store, even in a place where dogs commonly go, without making a gigantic fuss, following the dog and human around, touching without consent (from owner or dog), invading you and your dog’s space, and basically acting like they’ve never seen a dog before. I call them the Marauders and I do my best to avoid them because they scare my dogs and that puts me on edge. They are the main reason I don’t take my personal dogs into many dog-friendly stores anymore—half the time, these people work there!

Sometimes Marauders have dogs with them, and sometimes not. Sometimes, other people’s dogs in the store are the Marauders, who strain at the end of their retractable leashes trying to get to my dogs to play (or something more sinister) and their hapless owners are half an aisle away, distracted, or clueless.

Both of the above are uncontrollable variables that untrained, partially-trained, or anxious/fearful dogs should not be exposed to if at all possible. Marauders can screw up your dog’s confidence, or cause him great anxiety, or set him back, or all of these.

What about taking your leashed dog for a group hike, or to a festival in the park?

How many of variables in those environments do you think you can control? Has your dog shown anxiety, aggression, or unpredictability around large crowds of people and/or dogs? Then he is not ready!

Even the dog who loves everyone and everything is at risk of being overwhelmed and backsliding as the potential for lots of people in not-a-lot-of-space increases. Marauders abound, and even your super-friendly dog has limits. Don’t push it. Protect your dog from uncontrollable variables for which he has not been prepared until you can train him to tolerate or enjoy those situations.

How long will this take? It depends on several factors, including your dog’s innate temperament, his age, his breed (to some extent), how long you have had him, whether or not he sees you as a leader, his current habits, what he already knows, his distractability, the training tools you use, and your access to training opportunities and your willingness to put in the time.

In short, assume months and even years in some situations—not hours and days. Put the work in and get professional help if you need it. The payout is priceless, and you will both be enriched by the process.

The better trained your dog is, the less of a control freak you need to be.


*Do exceptions exist? Sure. Some dogs are just easier to raise than others. Some people have never used a crate and swear they haven’t ever used any other structural devices and ended up with a fine dog. It is certainly possible, but is it probable? No. Those people are the exceptions, not the rule.

**Some dogs cannot abide being in a crate when their humans are gone. They can easily escape, or will attempt to, and can injure themselves in the process, which we do not want. In some cases, they can be desensitized to the crate and learn to tolerate it, and in other cases, this doesn’t work and an alternative method of containment must be used.

***Whether or not dogs are allowed on your furniture is a personal choice on some level. If you don’t want them up there, don’t allow it from the get-go. They will adapt just fine. If you want them to be able to get on the furniture, that’s fine too, as long as they know the rules: they need to be invited, for the most part, and when they are told to remove themselves from the furniture, they do so without complaint, and quickly. If they cannot, they should not be allowed up. Stopping access to furniture is one way to curtail freedom and may or may not be a necessary part of your dog learning better behavior in your home.

² There are plenty of dogs who do not like dog parks. The reasons can be that they don't like playing with strange dogs, they don't like large groups of dogs, they are uncomfortable with the energy of the park, they prefer the company of dogs they know or humans, they have been injured or scared in dog parks, and more. If your dog doesn't like dog parks and doesn't have fun there, stop going. You are definitely not meeting his needs, and you could be messing him up.

Not sure if he is having fun at the park? Consult a reputable trainer to assess this.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Law of (Un)Intended Benefits

Everyone has heard of unintended consequences. You perform an action for a particular purpose, but you gain something that you did not expect, and possibly do not want. For example, recently in the news was a story about a Texas woman who put a large sticker on her car disparaging the President. The wording on the sticker was quite profane. A sheriff noticed it, took a photo, and posted it on Facebook, where it went viral. Due to the notoriety of the viral photo, the owner of the car was soon being sought by the police…but not for the sticker. It turns out that she had a standing warrant for her arrest on different (non-violent) charges, and now that she was in the spotlight, she was soon taken into custody for that warrant.

The sticker in question, profanity redacted.
She wanted to draw attention to herself with the sticker, I’m sure. But I doubt she wanted that particular type of attention. That is an example of unintended consequences.

Pet owners experience the Law of Unintended Consequences quite a bit, mostly because pet training is something the average owner only takes partly seriously, but the pets take quite literally. You give your dog a bite of food from your fork when he barks at you during dinner. You think, “Just this once won’t hurt.” But “just this once” is not a concept dogs understand—at all. And unless you never, ever repeat your error, the dog will bark at you and expect the food at every meal for quite a while before he gives up. The chances are pretty good that you, or someone with whom you live, will give the dog a bite from the table (or will reward him in some other way for barking during a meal) at some point before he stops trying. That 2nd time will seal the deal for the dog, and now you have an obnoxious behavior that you created and have to fix (humanely, please—it’s not his fault you made a mistake).

The flip side of the Law of Unintended Consequences is that it works in positive ways, too. The unintended consequence can often be beneficial to the recipient in ways they never expected.

Let’s take the “heel” command, for example. “Heel” is a command that tells the dog where to walk in relation to you, on or off leash. It typically requires the dog to be on  the handler’s left side, with his shoulder even with the handler’s knee, and the leash must be loose. It’s a useful command for a number of reasons, one of which is that it eliminates pulling on leash because a dog cannot be heeling and pulling simultaneously.

NOTE: pulling on a tight leash is natural and normal for most dogs. Additionally, humans often make the problem worse by rewarding it! Heeling is not natural or normal to dogs, so it must be taught. Teaching a solid heel is not the only way to control pulling on leash, but it is an incredibly effective way.

But “heel” has a lot of unintended* benefits. In addition to stopping the pulling, it:

  • Teaches the dog to allow the handler to be in control during the walk; human in control = safety
  • Teaches the dog to withstand frustration (walking in a line at a human’s pace is boring for most dogs)
  • Teaches the human better leash handling skills so as not to confuse the dog
  • Delivers mental stimulation, which many dogs lack, because it takes a lot of mental energy to perform at first, and requires the dog to think
  • Amplifies the bond between dog and handler; and, most importantly,
  • Teaches the dog to pay better attention to the handler during an activity where most dogs want to pay attention to everything BUT the handler

A dog at heel is safer around cars
Think about it: during a typical walk, how much of your dog’s attention is focused on you? Zero? That sounds about right. There’s so much to see and do and explore! The dog has very little need to pay attention to his handler, who is basically a dead weight at the other end of the leash.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if your dog paid more attention to you than anything else when you asked him to? It would solve pretty much every problem that leashes create (pulling, barking, lunging, dragging, tripping you, eating trash on the path, going after other dogs, etc.). The dog would get more walks, which would benefit you both. Both of you would enjoy your walks. Believe it or not, all of this is still true even if, after the dog is trained to heel, you don’t even use the heel command for most of the walk!

In short, teaching a solid heel teaches your dog to pay more attention to you. That’s its actual purpose. The unintended benefits are better leash manners, no more pulling/dragging/tripping/etc, and happier walks. But the fact that the dog now pays more attention to you when on walks supplies even more benefits. It deepens your bond. It improves the recall (“come”) command. It prevents accidents. It improves the dog’s (and your) confidence. Controlled walks are also less annoying to people you might pass on the street, and a dog in a nice heel helps onlookers who might be nervous around dogs to relax. (Yes, there are plenty of people who are afraid of dogs, even your sweet one. They deserve to walk down the street, or work in their yards, and not worry that they'll be molested by dogs walking their people.)

Heel may seem like a lot of work to get your dog to walk nicely on leash, and indeed there are other ways of creating a loose leash without it. But most of those ways will not give you the attention that “heel” does. And when you look at all the (un)intended benefits of this command, it makes it infinitely more appealing and worth your time.

Now, at this point, you may be saying, “but I don’t care if my dog pays attention to me on a walk. I want him to enjoy the walk!”

A good "heel" would have prevented this tragedy
Well, of course! Sniffing and exploring and engaging with the environment are all part of the pleasure of walks, and they should be allowed. But they should be allowed on your terms, not the dog’s. When the dog gets to decide where to go and how fast to get there, your arm gets ripped out of the socket and it’s no fun to walk the dog. And if your dog has negative reactions to stimuli such as squirrels, cats, or other dogs on a walk, teaching him to attend to you when he spots a distraction not only solves your problem but lowers his stress faster.

Do you really want to be a human sled? No? Then teach the dog to allow you to control the walk, and his reward will be lots of time to explore and sniff. Arms stay the same length, and everyone wins.

The same is true of the “stay” command.

I read somewhere recently that a training outfit did a survey of dog training clients to ask them what commands they used most often at home. The training outfit was trying to decide what commands were most important to include in their training classes, given the short time frame. They were a bit surprised to learn that “stay,” one of the mainstay commands they’d been teaching forever, didn’t make the top 6. According to those polled, “stay” was not a command many pet owners used at home regularly.

I admit that I was as surprised by this result as they were. I’ve been training people to train their dogs for over 2 decades, and “stay” is part of my top 6. Its usefulness is blindingly apparent to me and many of my seasoned colleagues. Perhaps the dog owners who answered the poll found it difficult to teach. Perhaps they thought it was boring or unnecessarily stressful for the dogs. Maybe they thought it was fine that their dogs were always stuck to them like needy shadows, and constantly underfoot (there are definitely people who inexplicably enjoy this annoying trait in their dogs and would feel hurt if their dogs stopped doing it.) Maybe there was a different command that worked better than “stay.” Or perhaps they simply didn’t understand all the benefits of the “stay” command. I’ll never know, because I was not involved in that poll and I didn’t get to ask any questions about it.

But I remember wondering for a few seconds after reading those results if I was putting too much emphasis on the “stay” command in my own classes and lessons. I teach it in my Basic classes, and we really put it to the test in my Intermediate classes, introducing serious, “real-world distractions” in different environments. Was it a waste of time? Were my students even going to use it?

Luckily, it only took me a few seconds to answer my own questions. Students may wonder why they need to teach "stay," but once you begin to implement the command, its usefulness is obvious.

“Stay” tells the dog to remain in one position until released by his handler. It’s pretty precise. And while there are several ways to teach it, it is designed to be the “parking brake” for a dog.

In their natural state, dogs like to move, to rove, to cover ground, to explore. Sure, they relax, stop moving, and even sleep on their own, but they rarely do so consciously when they would rather be doing something else.

“Stay” requires the dog to stop and hold a position, regardless of time, distractions, or where the handler goes. The point is to park the dog, which is often a necessity. But it has some unintended benefits, as well.

  • It teaches frustration tolerance.
  • It teaches relaxation.
  • It teaches attention to the handler over other stimuli.
  • It teaches that the handler is consistent, and will return, which helps with separation distress.
  • But most importantly, since it is not a natural thing for a human-centric dog to do (dogs are hardwired to follow us around, and they generally get rewarded for this), it requires a decent amount of mental strain to perform. It can even be a bit stressful, depending on the distractions or the distance.
It's a simultaneous stay and heel!
Since some stress is required for a being to learn, the stress of being told to “park it” near distractions and when the handler moves away helps teach the dog to cope in a world full of distraction and potential danger. It teaches discipline to a task that dogs do not purposefully perform in their untrained state.

The benefits of “stay” are numerous. I hope that the training outfit who ran the poll figured out that they just needed to explain these benefits better to their students, rather than move away from teaching “stay” at all.

These are just two of many examples of commands or exercises we teach that have multiple benefits to dogs and owners.

We trainers explain lots of things to our clients. Due to time constraints and other factors, we rarely have time to go as deeply into explanation as I did in this post, so I hope it has helped you to understand why you should listen to your trainer, first off, and how to find the value in training exercises you might be inclined to put aside when training class has ended.

If your dog improved because of the exercises, then he needs you to continue doing them. And here’s some other great news: he wasn’t the only one in your relationship who was improved.

*In reality, dog trainers are completely aware of the benefits I've listed here, and, for us, they are intended. But dog owners may be blind to the added benefits. So the term I really should be using is "unanticipated-by-the-end-user benefits." But that doesn't roll off the tongue, does it?

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Clarity and Contentment

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were visiting friends who have been married for over 2 decades. While one never really knows all the ins-and-outs of another couple’s relationship, my wife and I consider these two, who we have known for most of their relationship, to be in a solid partnership, and well-matched. As occasionally happens with companions who spend time together, we just happened to be visiting on a night where things seemed a bit “off” between our friends. We had a nice meal and a few drinks, but there was a mild tension in the air that all of us sensed. After dinner, we settled into some conversation, but it wasn’t long before my wife and I found ourselves the unwitting participants in a spat. We weren’t sure whether it would be best to say our goodbyes and leave them to their argument, or stay and make sure things remained civil. Our discomfort went mostly unnoticed by our hosts, who began to argue in earnest. Eventually we did make a retreat, and no blood was shed that night. In fact, the fight was actually over before we left—and we got to witness a main reason why communication is the glue of relationships.

This is true no matter what species we are communicating with.

No worthwhile relationship in which humans engage—friends, lovers, spouses, parent/child, boss/employee, teacher/student—exists without bumps and problems. People who have been together for long periods of time have made their partnerships work not because of an absence of problems, but because of an understanding of how to solve them. They stay together not because everything is hunky-dory all the time, but because when problems arise, they willingly deal with them, and find solutions. Just like dogs who are engaged in problem solving become more adept at it with practice, humans who refuse to shrink from their problems, and instead do the uncomfortable work of fixing (or at least exposing them), tend to have deeper, more lasting relationships.

A dog trainer I highly respect said the following once (I’m paraphrasing): “Look, I get the allure of ‘all positive’ training. I wish I could train a dog without using anything but praise and treats and play. That would be lovely! But I cannot—because the dog isn’t getting all the information he needs to be successful, and I know it. I am not setting him up to succeed if I am purposefully leaving out the uncomfortable bits.”

All relationships have stumbling blocks and problems and stressors, but the way to keep the relationship humming is not to avoid the problems or pretend they do not exist, but to address them, break them down, and scatter them out in finer granules so that they may dissipate more easily. Clarity fixes so many issues. No relationship worthy of having can exist in a communication vacuum. Just as dogs require clarity to succeed, our relationships do, too. 

Humans and dogs want to avoid conflict, but it’s not always possible. So we need to figure out ways to meet it head on and not shrink from it. Good dog trainers study and practice how to provide negative information in ways that will not scare the dog or cause him to give up completely. We can figure out how to accomplish this with the humans we care about, too. 

Every partnership has its stress points. These can vary over time, as we age and grow, or they can burrow in and remain constant, regardless of how the outside world changes around them. Some of us are so attached to our triggers that we just carry them from relationship to relationship like an old piece of luggage we can’t bear to give away.

Dogs engage in natural behaviors that we find unacceptable. In most of these cases, we can train alternative behaviors, or we can stop the dog from engaging in natural behaviors. The main reason to do the latter is for the dog's safety, or the safety of the humans around the dog. For example: resource guarding is a completely natural behavior to most dogs. It is normal for them to be selfish with resources, and sometimes, they feel the need to lash out at humans or other pets if they feel like those resources are being misappropriated. But they don't understand that their "protection" is often misplaced, and that it is rarely needed. They don't understand naturally that those resources aren't really theirs to begin with, either. (A balanced approach to training can alleviate this problem, and it needs to be alleviated because it gets people, especially children, seriously injured. Dogs lose their lives over it, too. It's serious, it rarely gets better without intervention, and it poses a danger. It must be addressed.) Furthermore, resource guarding creates stress for the dog--stress that can be avoided.

Dogs also have milder natural behaviors that "work" fine for them and are not unsafe, but often annoy us: excessive licking (of us or themselves); whining, some types of barking, endless noisemaking with their toys, following us everywhere, digging random holes, and needing to take 20 minutes to find the perfect pooping spot (and then another 5 to find the direction to face while doing their business). Often, these behaviors can be ignored. If these behaviors annoy us sufficiently, we will look for ways to eradicate them safely and humanely. If we are successful, both the human(s) and the dog win.

If we are not successful, we must learn to live with these behaviors.

Similarly, there are always going to be “tics and fidgets” that irk you about your partners and friends. These are actions that your partner does that serve him or her in some way (meaning: they are not a problem to that person), but only serve to annoy you. Some of these are best ignored. If they are not dangerous or damaging to the relationship, you are probably going to be less frustrated by them if you just let them go. If you can’t do this, then the problem must be squarely owned and you must find a way to bring it up and air your frustrations. You may be successful doing so (e.g., your hubby or friend acknowledges that his nail biting habit could be seen as unhygienic, and you’d rather not witness it, so he changes his behavior to not do it in front of you), which will bring you peace, and the relationship thrives.

Sometimes, though, you will not be successful in changing the other person’s behavior. Then what? Can you ignore it? What will the end result be if you cannot? Will things eventually come to a head and boil over? This might actually be a good thing that will help you in the end. Airing grievances and exposing them to light does a couple of things. It communicates to the other person that someone is unhappy with his behavior, which allows him or her to make changes (“when we know better, we can do better”). It also can serve to put things in a different perspective for both parties, and this can help diminish some hurt feelings because when we fixate on problems, they grow in importance in our minds. Once we voice them, and especially if the other person acknowledges that we are frustrated, the problems lose some heft. This is what happened with our friends after dinner.

In my relationship with my dog, I cannot expect that it will be “all positive.” I need to be able to give my dog feedback, and some of that will be about things he does that I do not like. There is nothing wrong with doing this, even if the dog experiences some temporary discomfort, even stress, while receiving the information—especially if it is a dangerous or potentially dangerous behavior, and he is given instructions on how to make it disappear and not return in the future. The dog cannot understand how to behave unless he has experienced some negative consequences to his actions and been given appropriate ways to deal with those bumps.

It doesn’t seem rational, then, when we are talking about people, to avoid having uncomfortable conversations, to kick the problematic can down the road forever, if we can solve them by rolling up our sleeves, bracing for discomfort, and pushing through it--kindly and fairly.

(Now, sometimes the relationship is just not worth it, and you may make the decision to cut and run instead of buckling down. I’m not talking about those types of relationships, or toxic ones. For those, you must take care of yourself first.)

If you feel unequipped for how to do this uncomfortable work in a valuable relationship, or know that the other party may be unable to do the work (or even hear about it), I recommend professional help. Often, we are so close to our problems that we cannot see them clearly, and a professional is not as emotionally attached as we are. (You should feel no more ashamed of seeking professional help in dealing with relationship problems than you would seeking professional help in dealing with an appliance that ceased to run correctly, or seeking a pro to teach you how to play better tennis, ballroom dance, or help you train your dog. Having an unbiased observer can, in and of itself, help immensely in many ways--and a therapist or counselor is more than just an unbiased observer.)

Before my wife and I were about to leave, our friends had a breakthrough. They were able to have it because they didn’t shy away from the discomfort. They both listened. They acknowledged fault. And they acknowledged gratitude, too, which is a very necessary part of ending an argument. As it turns out, there were misunderstandings on both ends. Clarity prevailed, though. The specks of what remained of their argument, exposed to the air, simply blew away.