Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!

Friday, November 13, 2015

You Keep Saying That Word...

Your dog sits. You go to give him a treat and he stands up to get it. You think you rewarded him for sitting.

Your dog doesn’t come when you call him. When he finally wanders over, you are angry and pop him with your hand, or shake him by the collar. You think you punished him for not coming.

You come home to find poop on the rug. You yell at, or spank the dog. You think you are punishing him for pooping in the house.

You send your dog out in the fenced yard to potty. He walks 25 feet away and pees and poops. You call him and he runs in, and you give him a treat. You think you rewarded him for pottying outside.

You walk in the room to find your puppy chewing your shoes. You yell “NO!” really loudly, and when you do, he looks up in surprise at the sound. You say nothing. You think you corrected him and he now knows not to chew your shoe.

You are walking your dog and he sees another dog, or a person. He starts to bark and whine, or growl. You shorten the leash and pet him soothingly. “It’s OK, Fido. That dog is friendly!” He keeps barking and straining at the leash, and you keep petting. You think you are comforting your dog.

You sit down to watch TV or read, and your dog barks at you, paws at you, or pesters you for attention. You stop what you are doing and respond to him by grabbing his favorite toy and throwing it for him to fetch. You think you are meeting the dog’s need for play appropriately.

You tell your dog to sit, or stay, or lie down. He gets up and walks off. You do nothing. You think “he wasn’t interested, and that’s OK.” You think it doesn’t matter that he ignored you.

You tell your dog to sit, or stay, come, or lie down. He doesn’t. You pull out a treat to entice him. You think you are rewarding the behavior itself.

You don’t want the dog on the bed, but your husband doesn’t care either way, and doesn’t make him get down when he jumps on it. You think your dog understands that it’s not OK to get on the bed.

All of these common scenarios play out in homes everywhere on a daily basis. Dogs do something, and people respond in ways they feel are appropriate. But as time passes, the dog’s behavior worsens. The owners think they are doing everything right, and cannot understand why Fido isn’t trained.

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” ~Cool Hand Luke

What people need to understand that dogs don’t just “know” how to behave the way we expect. They must be taught, the same way you were taught to tie your shoes or eat with utensils. No one would expect a 4-year-old to know how to ride a bicycle without training wheels and a helpful adult. But every day, dog owners expect their puppies and dogs to read their minds and know what is expected of them.

I think this discord results from our idea of what dogs are capable of knowing. They fit so well socially into our lives and homes that we assume they already know the rules. But the only rules they know instinctively that pertain to living with humans are the ones that bond them to us, not the ones governing proper home behavior. It’s instinctual for dogs to eat anything (or try to) that is in front of them, to chew things, to poop and pee when the need arises, to chase things that move, to bark at novel things or beings, to protect their territory, to seek out things that are fun, and avoid things that are uncomfortable. Some of these things they are born knowing how to do. Others they learn before they leave the mother dog and littermates.

If you want them to do other things instead of these, you need to show them what you want, clearly, using well-timed, appropriate rewards and corrections. You need to prevent them being able to practice the behaviors they know and love that you don’t love. The job of this education is yours. It doesn’t happen by accident.

When your dog sits, then gets up and gets a treat, he thinks that “sit” means “put your bottom down, then get up.” Is that what you meant?

When your dog ignores your call and you get mad when he finally arrives, your dog thinks that “Come!” means “Avoid the human, because she’s a little crazy.”

When your dog poops in the house and you punish him after-the-fact, your dog thinks “don’t be in the same room with a pile of poop if a human is coming. Better hide!”

When you treat your dog after he comes back in the house after a potty break, your dog learns that coming into the house is good. He doesn’t learn to only potty outside.

When you yell at the puppy who is chewing your shoes, and he looks up and you do nothing, he learns that chewing shoes is fun and paying attention to humans gets you... nothing.

When your dog is stressed or upset and vocalizing, and you pet him, he thinks, “My human must like it when I do this. I’ll do it some more!”*

When you respond to your dog’s obnoxious attempts to get your attention with talking, play, or anything else he enjoys, you teach him that he needs only to demand something, and he will get it.

When you allow your dog to ignore a command, he learns that he can ignore you.

When you produce a treat (to entice a behavior) after the dog has ignored your command, your dog learns to ignore you until he sees “the goods.”

When you allow your husband to let the dog remain on the bed, your dog learns that he can get on the bed. “Occasionally” and “sometimes” are meaningless words to dogs.

“What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.” ~Daniel Heath

Be clear. Be concise. Be a communicator. Don’t make your dog guess about behaviors that really matter. Do you know of any meaningful, lasting relationships that thrive without clear communication? I don't.

All behaviors matter. Help your dog succeed. If you won’t do it, who will?

FINAL NOTE: You, presumably, are a human being. You make mistakes. Dogs are exceedingly open to changing their ways if you want to make changes. Don't beat yourself up if every "you" in the above post actually applies to you. It doesn't have to. I am not beating you up, and you shouldn't beat you up, either. 

Now you know better, so you can do better. Take a deep breath, and get started.

*This doesn't necessarily pertain to situations in which a dog is truly in a panic, such as during a thunderstorm or fireworks. Sometimes, hands calmly on a dog can calm them. But this is rarely the case with a dog barking at people, dogs, or objects.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Having Second Thoughts

"The emotional tail wags the rational dog." ~Jon Haidt

Our brains process tens of thousands of separate thoughts per day, about 70,000, to be more precise. In the span of 1 minute, people generally have between 35 and 48 distinct thoughts.

Some of these thoughts will germinate into great ideas. Some will simply help us get through the day. Most will bounce off around our brains and fade into nothingness, never to be acted upon, or even remembered seconds later.

Most of these thoughts seem disparate and disjointed as we think them, and many of them are. It seems like we cannot control our thoughts most of the time, at least not unless we try pretty hard. But science has shown us that we can control them. Then why don’t many of us even try?

We think the way we do most often out of habit. But habits can be broken, and changed. It’s easy to fall into patterns of thought, and eventually to believe our thoughts are true, even when they may not be. Then, we surround ourselves with like-minded people, read only like-minded websites, watch like-minded TV, read like-minded books. We can change our thoughts, but most of us choose not to. It’s comfortable to be in that cocoon, thinking you are right about pretty much everything. People don’t like to have their beliefs questioned, and often get defensive when they are. Asking them to voluntarily change their thinking, to question what they’ve always known, usually gets one rebuffed--soundly.

But I want to challenge you to do just that. Because voluntarily changing how you think can change your world, and could possibly change the world. Being able to open your mind to the possibility that there could be more than one answer to some of the biggest questions of life will strain your brain, and make you smarter and more empathetic.

Critical Thinking:  the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

Here is the challenge I make to you. It’s very, very difficult to control the initial, immediate thought you have when you meet a new person, or hear of an emotional event, or experience something out of your comfort zone. That initial thought springs up unbidden, and generally mirrors past thoughts on like events or people. Those initial thoughts are very difficult to control.

But the thought that immediately follows that one? Oh, that one you can change. And you should.

Let me give you an example. You are perusing Facebook and see a story about a skinny dog that was tied outside of a shelter during the night, and was found the next morning cold and wet by the shelter staff, who took the dog in and are now caring for it.

You love animals. You are incensed by this wanton act of cruelty. Your first thought is, “How could anyone leave a dog tied up in the rain, tossed away like trash?”

If you don’t try to change your next thoughts, they will sound an awful lot like the first one. And what good does that do you? Or the dog?

Try stopping the cavalcade of negative thoughts about this situation and attempt to see it from another perspective. After you acknowledge your anger and frustration, have a different thought.

Here are some possibilities:

“At least they left him at a shelter, instead of dumping him along the side of the road.”

“Maybe they had been evicted and were at the end of their rope, and had nowhere else to turn.”

“Maybe he bit their child, and they were scared of him.”

“Maybe he is very sick, and they panicked.”

“Maybe they actually loved him very much.”

Wait, WHAT? Do you think that I think that tying a dog to a shelter fence in the rain is a good way of showing love?

I do not.

Why, then, would I ask you to even entertain that thought, ridiculous as it sounds?

Because it could actually be true. Yes. It could.

Regardless of whether it is actually true (because, let’s face it, you will likely never know much more about this situation that this story tells you), you believing it could be true does no one any harm.

That’s right. It could be true. Why not acknowledge that, instead of just jumping right to the negativity and anger at the Whole Human Race? Having some empathy for the dog’s previous owners empowers you to act differently. You can still feel sadness for the dog’s plight, and thankfulness for the shelter staff rescuing him. You can still be angry if you want to, but why not direct that anger in a positive way? Be angry that there are no low-cost veterinary clinics in your area, or that people have misconceptions about shelters and what kinds of dogs can be found there for adoption. Be angry that existing laws don’t do enough to keep animals safer. Then, do something positive with that anger.

Assuming the worst of people in every situation doesn’t improve anyone. And the media and social media serve up tons of stories designed to evoke anger, disgust, and negativity. Sure, there are some news outlets that try to counter this trend with feel-good journalism, and that’s a welcome sight. But the negative stories always outweigh the positive. Why? Because our brains are hardwired to pay more attention to the negative.

When you start to change your Second Thought, you begin to strengthen your empathy muscle. Anger can indeed drive us, but empathy can drive us to more positive change. Be angry at systems and bureaucracies and gridlock and partisanship. Heck, be angry at some individuals, if you must. But try to stretch your brain around the idea that most everyone is doing the best they can with what they have in that moment. You are free to disagree with their choices. You are free to place blame, even.

But what if you first acknowledge that you don’t have all the facts, and that, in and of itself, should stop you from continuing your initial train of thought.

I’m not telling you that you must always think the best of people. People often make crappy decisions; rotten ones, even. People act stupidly, and selfishly. I’m not telling you that positive thinking can erase all the bad in the world, because it can’t.

What I am saying is that you can hold opposing thoughts in your head about people and situations without your brain exploding. You can alter your initial perception of events and the people involved, and you should at least try. What will it hurt?

Instead of believing that bad things happen because people are evil, or stupid, or ignorant, why not blame the situation? The person who just cut you off in traffic could be a sociopath, but what is more likely is that he or she is dealing with a situation (about which you know zilch) that caused him to act that way, in that moment. Have you never driven recklessly? Does the fact that you have, even just once, make you stupid?

What if just 10% of the population tried this? What do you think would happen? Maybe the course of events might not change, but could the aftermath?

Start a trend. Change your Second Thought.

“The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.”  ~William James