Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!

Monday, December 25, 2023

The Power of Deferred Resolution

How do you sit with uncertainty?

Most people do not do it well. Our brains are wired to search for solutions to problems, and we really, really like knowing the answers. Lots of people have negative memories of school because not knowing the answers—especially in front of our classmates—resulted in failing and embarrassment. Who doesn’t have memories of an English teacher scolding us for not knowing exactly what a novelist, poet, or playwright meant in his or her work?

We seek a diagnosis when we go to the doctor. It feels shocking when the doctor confides that he or she doesn’t know what’s wrong with us, even after multiple tests. A cloud of confusion settles into our very cracks, and we, typically, assume the worst1. If this person who has studied extensively about the very sort of thing I am presenting doesn’t know what it is, what hope do I have of getting the correct treatment?

Medicine’s default state is uncertainty, but the culture of medicine has little tolerance for ambiguity. This means that doctors will conduct test after test and prescribe all sorts of treatments in an attempt to understand what malady we actually have—and they still get it wrong too often. Misdiagnoses in medicine are dismayingly common.

In part, this is because there isn’t time to languish amongst uncertainty in the medical field—lives are at stake. A few days could mean the difference between life or death in some cases. The doctors rush to find answers, and in that rush they sometimes make mistakes because they aren’t looking in the right place. (If you were a fan of the TV show “House” from a few years ago, you know what I mean. A grumpy misanthropic doctor can always figure out the weird diagnosis in time after he and his staff struggle with it for the majority of the show.)

When we are faced with uncertainty, we want answers and we want them sooner rather than later. But this can be a problem, and there may be a better way.

In his book Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, Jamie Holmes writes,

“Dwelling calmly among feelings of uncertainty will make you more likely to make a rational decision. The longer you sit with the not knowing, the more your odds of making a rational decision increase.”

Think about how you feel when presented with problems, in your work or your life, that don’t match up to what you expect or know. How much information do you seek, especially if you feel pushed for time? Do you stop asking questions when you have heard enough to make a “diagnosis”? Why?

According to Holmes, “people under time pressure seize on earlier information and ignore later cues.” This means that we could ostensibly miss the correct solution, because we are blocking out later information.

This uncertainty can be daunting, but you shouldn’t fear it. Rushing to find the “right” answer can cause more problems than it solves. Humans have a tendency towards closure, so when we are faced with a conundrum, we try to make sense of it. Holmes explains,

“This tendency {towards closure} has vast repercussions…it changes the way we evaluate an idea or consider an explanation, and it makes us less creative and more confident about a course of action even when we are wrong. Cognitive closure is a bit like shutting the windows of our open minds. When various pressures pile up, these windows don’t merely close…they slam shut, and they lock.”

In my dog training practice, I sometimes find myself puzzled by a dog’s behavior and I am unable to come up with a quick answer. When I get stuck, I know I need three things: time away from the work, a way to clear my mind from the work for a few hours, and a different puzzle that is not too difficult2 to solve. I need some time to gestate, to think about something unrelated. If I don’t have enough time to engage in an unrelated-to-dogs hobby (such as a walk in the woods alone) before I need the answer, I will seek out a crossword puzzle, a jigsaw puzzle, or even Sudoku (which I rarely play for fun) to help me try to order the world a bit differently. Studies show that when humans are faced with uncertainty, we seek closure anywhere we can find it-—and this can help us have breakthrough insights in regards to unrelated problems.3

Norman begins to hyperventilate when he sees the doctor. “Doc, I’m sure I’ve got liver disease.”

“Nonsense!” says the doctor. “You’d never know if you had liver disease. There’s no discomfort of any kind.”

“Exactly!” Says Norman. “Those are my precise symptoms!”

Training yourself to embrace uncertainty isn’t easy, but it’s a valuable skill, because we all understand that life contains a multitude of problems to solve. Rushing for closure is rarely the best way to get ourselves unstuck.

Dwell for a bit in the not knowing, and see if an answer doesn’t come.


1.   1.  Our brains are hard-wired towards negativity; this is called the “negativity bias.”

2.     If the puzzle or problem you choose is too difficult to solve, it will just frustrate you further, instead of giving you a "win." Conversely, it shouldn't be so easy that you can solve it in a minute or less. Go for medium difficulty, where your brain is engaged for a while, and you will stick with it until you solve it.

3.     You might be surprised to learn that everything is related, really.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

The Persistence Payout


Anyone who owns a dog is familiar with “the stare.” And as an evolutionary technique, it’s a damn efficient one—most people give in to it, many without even thinking. The moment your dog comes to live with you, he starts learning about you. He’s a veritable researcher, taking note of your body language, your tone of voice, your tics and fidgets. He can’t understand the vast majority of the things you say, but he learns pretty quickly that some behaviors he exhibits Always Work, some Never Work, and a few Sometimes Work in order for him to gain the resources he desires.

Some of the behaviors he learns to employ to get a resource are quite adorable, and they play into our connection and love for the dog, meeting many of our needs. These are the behaviors that Always Work in terms of the dog getting resources we dole out (food, treats, petting, playtime, access). For instance, the outdoor-focused dog who stands by the door and when you look over at him, he does this cute spin-around-and-bark-twice-thing that always makes you laugh, or at least smile, and usually talk to him in a happy voice as you run open the door to let him out.

That spin-bark is a learned behavior, consistently reinforced with rewards. It’s like a soda machine, because it always pays out. And while the barks may be slightly annoying at times, the cuteness factor of the perfectly-executed spin usually overrides any annoyance you might have with the trick.

The dog has learned that he can make you do something he likes by performing this series of behaviors in this specific context. And let me be clear: this is not necessarily a bad thing; letting the dog out has advantages, of course, and the dog who lets you know that he needs to go out to do his business is more helpful than the dog who just pees in front of the door if you haven’t noticed him standing there.

So, both human and dog benefit from this purposeful manipulation.

Of course, there are some ways in which the dog uses behaviors to manipulate his humans that are not beneficial to the humans, like barking at people to demand that they pet him, shoving gross, dirty toys or balls onto them to force a game, barking and jumping on his humans to demand food or treats. These demands are generally ones people find unpleasant (and they call us to fix). Some annoying behaviors are just annoying (barking/whining), and some can be downright dangerous (e.g. sliding between our legs as we are walking, or jumping up/putting teeth on people).

Fixing these behaviors begins with the owner agreeing to stop rewarding them: with attention, petting, food, or a door opening to the outside (many people don’t even realize that they have been inadvertently teaching the dog to continue these unruly shenanigans by responding to them). When these behaviors are rewarded, the dog learns that they either Always Work, or Sometimes Work. If we want them to stop, we have to make sure they Never Work from here on out.

(As you probably know, while this advice is 100% true, it’s not always easy for mortals to follow—because, well, people love their dogs and they mistake ever-ready indulgence for showing love.)

So what happens is this: the dog starts to learn that certain behaviors Sometimes Work.

And that is a lesson that we, in most situations, do not want pet dogs to learn. (Cue “Jaws” theme here.)

Allow me to pivot momentarily to get to the reason I decided to write this post. I am a fan of the Washington Post’s advice columnist[1] Carolyn Hax, who is a brilliant advice-giver and always makes me want to be a better human being; she understands nuances of behavior and how to tell people what they need to hear with straightforward kindness while avoiding platitudes.

She responded to a letter a few days ago and it was spot-on. A letter writer (LW) had complained about a “friend” who kept asking her to do unreciprocated favors constantly, and would get really surly (and push and push even harder) when she occasionally said no, so LW would end up hemming and hawing and finally giving in and doing them anyway, to “keep the peace.” (Yes, as I read this letter I literally screamed, “you are training her to breach your boundaries! Stop doing that! Also, she isn’t your friend.”)

Hax replied, with way more restraint than I, “you will never get ‘peace’ by encouraging persistence,” and my nucleus accumbens lit up like a Jumbotron.

We want the dog to know, definitely, which behaviors Always Work, and which behaviors Never Work.

When we refuse to reward a behavior most of the time, but occasionally give in to the dog’s barking, jumping, pawing at us or putting teeth on us, whether it is for our attention, or food, or play, or access to an area or item, we are teaching them to be more persistent in their efforts to gain that thing by using that behavior.

Basically, the dog thinks, “it won’t always work right away, but there’s a good chance that if I keep at it, it will pay off for me eventually.”

Persistence in a working dog is like a steering wheel in a vehicle—you have no “drive” without it. You want a persistent border collie herding your flock of sheep, a persistent cattle dog herding your cows, a persistent police dog chasing a suspect, a persistent hound dog following a scent. All of these dogs are bred to stay with a task and not give up if it becomes too difficult, or because they got distracted.[2]

But a pet dog with a lot of persistence who exhibits “bad” behaviors consistently can be a pet owner’s nightmare. Most people who acquire a dog will be much, much happier if he doesn’t score high on the persistence scale because that dog will just be easier to own and train and live with.

“You will never get ‘peace’ by encouraging persistence” applies so much to pet dogs that it’s uncanny.[3]

We encourage persistence in the dog when we withhold reward for a period of time before delivering it. (Yes, this works for behaviors we do like, too—but we are focusing on negative behaviors for now.)

Let’s say Boopsy is barking at you for attention while you are working on your computer. You are deep into your spreadsheets and you are able to tune her out for a while. (Last week, you were jumping up as soon as the barking started, but you’ve realized the error in that.) You ignore. The barking continues, and it starts to grate on you. You know you shouldn’t address it, because any attention from you at this point—even just a glance in her direction--will count as a reward. But it’s now driving you insane. You also know that yelling at her to stop Never Works (for you), and the only way to turn off the din is to get up and give her a toy to play with, or pick up her leash.

Whichever of these you resort to will not matter, because both send a message: bark at the human long enough, and eventually they will cave.

Conversely, if the barking for attention never works, the average, not-bred-for-persistence pet dog will give up that behavior after a few tries, and it will be Problem Solved.

(Unlike people, dogs stop doing things that never work for them. They stop much sooner if the behavior has never, ever worked than if it used to work but now does not work.)

And, next time, if you get Boopsy a bone to chew or a toy to distract her before she starts barking, when she is actually calm and is just watching you from her bed a few feet away, she learns that being calm and watching her human will pay off. Problem Solved, AND new behavior learned.

Ignoring behaviors you do not like that are designed to get your attention will stop when they do not, in fact, get your attention. But ignoring these behaviors for a period of time and then rewarding them by giving in will actually strengthen them! Whoops!

If it’s a behavior you enjoy, it doesn’t hurt the dog, and you aren’t one day going to change your mind and want to put an end to it, no problem. Strengthen away!

But if you want a behavior to stop, you never want the dog to learn that “persistence pays.”

My best advice? Figure out which behaviors are beneficial to you and the dog, and strengthen them from the beginning, purposefully; and decide which behaviors you do not enjoy that do not serve you or the dog, and make sure they never get rewarded in the first place.



[1] Do you pronounce the ‘n’ in this word? Or do you say, “colum-ist”? I think most of us say “columNist,” but…why? We don’t say “columN.”

[2] A well-bred working dog doesn’t get distracted away from the work—he lives for it. The work is the reward.

[3] “Never” isn’t really the right word here, because you can actually put persistence to your advantage with the “stay” (and other helpful) commands.


Wednesday, May 24, 2023

What Drives Your Dog?

All domestic dogs were originally bred for a purpose: to serve humans in some fashion. How dogs were domesticated itself has multiple theories, but that they were domesticated to assist us is not scientifically in question. One of the smartest things humans ever did was to start creating specific breeds of dogs to perform tasks for us.

 This handsome devil is a Beauceron, a
French breed used to guard and
herd sheep. Do you have sheep?
We needed confident guardians for flocks, temples, businesses, and homes. We needed agile farmhands to herd the livestock without injuring it over terrain we couldn’t reach; hounds to sight, scent, chase down, and tree the game (and tell us loudly where they had done so); and bird dogs to locate, flush, and retrieve the fowl we hunted (someone should have realized early on that a dog who could pluck feathers cleanly would also be very valuable). We needed ratters to keep the rodent population in check, husky-type dogs to pull our sleds, and even small dogs to be lap-sitting companions (and loud, ankle-destroying, blanket-adoring, shivering protectors).

Of course, nowadays most dogs in developed countries are not chosen as working companions but simply as pets. And many dogs bred for other purposes are actually pretty good at being our pets, because we needed dogs to be able to work, but we also wanted them for company and comfort. So we selected for working ability and pro-sociability in many breeds. Mix some of the breeds together and you get desirable (and undesirable) snippets of each breed represented.

But no matter what, your dog, mixed or purebred, comes with innate drives to perform certain behaviors. And without proper outlets to express these drives, your dog will become bored, destructive, stressed, neurotic, and potentially even dangerous.

So giving our dogs a job to do helps them in numerous ways, even if it isn’t the exact job they were bred to do (but the closer you can mimic that, the better…and, let’s face it…some of us are decidedly not working in the field of our degree, are we?). Ideally, you should never acquire a dog with innate drives that are in opposition to what you want the dog to be for you and what the dog will deal with regularly¹. It’s not fair to the dog, and it’s a huge headache for the majority of owners over time, many of whom end up giving up on the dog, or worse--relegating it to a life of frustration because it will never have its needs met.

But people often choose dogs for looks, or for familiarity, for some unconscious ideal they need the dog to meet, or because “it’s sad and needs me.” Choosing a dog is often an incredibly emotional decision and rationality rarely makes an appearance, unfortunately. This leads, at best, to owners having to step up and do right by the dog no matter how much work it is for them (and despite most people in this situation swearing up and down that they will not give up on Fido, most do have a breaking point, which is often well past the point where Fido’s behavior has been cemented), and, at worst, to poor placements where Spot ends up living life at the end of a chain or in an outdoor kennel with very little human contact or stimulation.²

Ask any reputable dog trainer what’s the worst that can happen to a dog and they will describe the latter. It’s enough to make us weep, rend our clothing, and quit the profession, truly. (For the record, we’d much rather see the dog rehomed properly than relegated to a life of nothing. If you cannot meet the dog’s needs, rehoming is the kindest option.³)

Drive is defined as the ability and propensity of a dog to exhibit a particular pattern of behaviors when faced with particular stimuli. Drives are triggered by these particular stimuli and expressed in a typical and predictable way that is associated with the particular stimulus.

Maria Orlova,
I said "drives," not "driving." He's not
taking you to the airport.

A well-bred dog will often exhibit behaviors related to its innate drives when it is just weeks old. The Border collie puppy will show the classic “stare, stalk, chase” sequence when placed near sheep. The pointer puppy will stalk and hold a point. The beagle puppy will follow a scent, ignoring distractions.

The Belgian Malinois puppy will take the pain of “puppy mouthing” to a whole new level of discomfort. (They don’t call them “Maligators” for nothing.)  

Knowing what your dog is driven by will help you train him to be a happy, well-behaved, fulfilled member of your family who could have been taught to bring you the paper from the driveway every morning, but now will never know this skill in our digital age.

So, how do you know what your dog’s drives are? Well, if you own a well-bred specimen of a purebred dog, you should be ahead of the game, as a more deeply researched dive into the breed standard will, at the very least, tell you what that breed was bred for, and how those drives should manifest.

This Chihuahua fancies
himself as a ratter. After
years of trying, he
finally caught something

(Granted, dogs are individuals. I’ve known retrievers that didn’t give a fig about carrying anything orally, much less bringing it back to you willingly and happily. I’ve met terriers who’d lie down, yawning, as they watched a squirrel dart past them, bird dogs who completely ignored anything with feathers, and hounds who rarely engaged in sniffing and wandering, even at liberty. 
But these examples are as rare as a month with only 29 days.)

But what if your beloved Mr. Wigglesworth is of, shall we say, dubious parentage? Sure, nowadays you can have him tested, but most of the tests are questionably reliable and most people don’t do them, anyway.

What is the mutt owner to do?

Here’s an idea: observe your dog. Find ways to put him in environments (safely, please!) that would allow him to choose an activity of his own accord in order to fulfill himself. (NOTE: running up and down a fence screeching at the neighbor's dog is NOT a healthy activity, so please stop allowing it.)

In your yard or familiar environments, watch how he plays with (or ignores) other dogs, how he interacts with people, especially kids, and how he engages in particular activities.

Better yet, take your pooch for a walk in the woods (and, at a separate time, in a large open field), on a long, non-retractable leash, and, within reason, let him wander and explore. How much sniffing does he engage in when no one is hurrying him along? What does he do when a squirrel torments him from a few feet away, or anything furry races off nearby? Where is his gaze? Does he look skyward often, or seem very interested in flying creatures? Maybe he enjoys dropping down to loll in the grass or dirt, or purposefully roll in some unidentifiable substance (probably goose poop or worm guts—let’s be real).

Does he scan for creature movement? Give chase? Does he stick his nose in every hole or crevice? Dig furiously? Does he pay attention to you when not being asked to? How does he react when he experiences something he is unfamiliar with? Does his reaction to an unfamiliar thing change if it is a person who appears in view, as opposed to something small scurrying about? What does your dog do if you happen to chance upon a.) a deer, b.) a small-footed man wearing an obvious toupee, c.) a young person carrying more than 2 unripe mangoes, or d.) a friendly yeti?

If you have a fenced yard, you may be inclined to just observe him when he is outside poking about, instead of leashing him to walk elsewhere. Certainly, you might be able to answer some of the above questions in this manner (well, probably not the yeti one), but unless his natural drives are very strong, he may just be happy to lounge in the sun because the environment is familiar and boring.

So dropping the both of you into unfamiliar natural territory, preferably territory teeming with all manner of sights, sounds, and smells that dogs generally react to, is more likely to make this little test an educational one for you.

Additionally, you can assess doggy drives using toys and treats and play: throw toys of varying types, or attach a string to a toy and drag it around where your dog can join in the fun; create noise and excitement with toys; hide treats in increasingly more difficult locations; start running and encourage your dog to chase you (I don’t recommend this last tip if you made the mistake of getting a Malinois puppy).

Once you have a decent idea of what your dog enjoys doing, you can create situations that allow him to express those drives safely, thereby giving him positive outlets for his energy and giving him true mental stimulation at the same time, which makes for a contented dog, and makes you An Exceptional Owner.


1. E.g. don’t choose a dog with guarding drives and then expect it to be perfectly happy with people just walking into your home without knocking, or your kids’ friends coming through doors breathlessly, completely unannounced. Effective training can help curb some of the behaviors related to the guarding drive, but training cannot override genetics.

2. Some breeds like livestock guardians were indeed created to work independently from human oversight, but that does not give owners license to neglect them.

3. This whole idea that “people who get rid of dogs are trash and unworthy of owning a dog” is an unkind fallacy that serves no one positively and productively; as with most issues in life, it is not black and white, but full of many shades of gray. Rehoming a pet that you cannot properly care for is not shameful.

4. Look, I shouldn’t have to say this, but exercise caution here. If you already know your 100+ lb dog will take off running after anything that moves, when that long leash gets taut, you can be severely injured trying to hold onto him, so be smart.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Knowing What You Don't Know

“Dying is a wild night and a new road.” ~Emily Dickinson

 Who am I to sit in this chair at this desk and write about what death is?

Well, who am I not to? Just because billions of words have already been constructed into prose sentences, lines of verse, graphic novels, plays and librettos and screenplays and choral masterpieces, and varied and spectacular similes and metaphors on the subject of death doesn’t mean I cannot write about it, too.

It’s not like I can write about it in such a way that you, the reader, would read it and suddenly truly understand death, anyway. I suppose I could lay down a lot of verbiage about somatic death, or what happens to the body when the brain dies and the heart stops. But I could not do this better than a lot of people already have. In other words, the facts about our death and decay are fairly* well understood by scientists, healthcare professionals, coroners and funeral directors, and researchers, at the very least.

But this missive about the one constant we all share, regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin, creed, gender, religious belief, sexual identity, social status, level of wealth, and I.Q. isn’t headed in the direction of facts about the science of the body becoming unalive.

What I want to explore is the nebulous, the liminal, the subjective, the profound, the parts of this “wild night” that are barely within the realm of comprehension, much less firmly on the surface of true understanding.

No matter what religion you are (or aren’t), no matter what you believe, or how firmly that belief has you in its hold, no matter how you try to wrap your brain around the subject, none of us really know what death actually entails, do we? Oh, we think we know! Some of you are very sure, in fact. Most people know that they don’t know, and are happy to not ever speak of it again, thank you very much. And then a small number of us know that we don’t know, but we very much want to discuss it because it is the one reality we all share—the most existential attribute that makes us human.

And when those of us in the last category get together and start talking, a lot of people find themselves quite uncomfortable, as if talking about death invites Death to come down with a gleaming scythe gripped in his bony hand to smite us. Better not to speak of it, for fear of inviting it.

Talking about death and dying does not invite death. Death will arrive when it is time, regardless of the nature of our conversations.

“Because I could not stop for Death--He kindly stopped for Me--/
    The carriage held but just ourselves, and Immortality.” ~Emily Dickinson


It was after midnight one warm, breezeless Spring night in 1998. In that liminal space between consciousness and deep sleep, I lay beneath the open window covered only by a thin sheet. Out of nowhere, the window blinds began to sway, pushed by air from outside, moving enough to smack the edge of the window frame a few times, which, combined with the delicious evening air suddenly flowing over my skin, was enough to rouse me. The rush of welcome air lasted about 20-30 seconds, I’d guess, and then the sultriness returned. My eyes found the cobalt numbers beside my bed: 2:17 a.m. I fell asleep.

I was about an hour into my workday the following day, chatting with a co-worker, when I asked about a former co-worker who had become a friend, Jeff, who had left our store about 3 weeks prior and was dying of AIDS in hospice not far away. “Any news?” She shook her head. Cue the day forward; I’m in the break room after lunch and she touches me on the shoulder. “He’s gone. He died last night, Frank said.” I nod somberly and she tells me the funeral information will be disseminated soon.

When I have occasion later that afternoon to ask Frank more, he tells me that Jeff went peacefully early this morning. Frank is a detail guy, so I knew he would know even more than that. “What time?”

He doesn’t skip a beat. “Time of death was recorded at 2:16 a.m. I know because my phone rang less than a minute later.”

I am a person who adores reason, who bathes in rationality, who hadn’t embraced religion or even spirituality for over a decade when Jeff died. I didn’t believe in ghosts, spirits, angels, Heaven or Hell, or anything for which no evidence existed. Though he and I shared a kinship in regards to our private lives, Jeff wasn’t a “ride-or-die” friend—we had known each other on the job for less than a year, and only at work.

But I knew, right as that time signature came from Frank’s lips, that Jeff had visited me on his way out, on his way to wherever it is he was headed. I "knew" it then, and I still "know" it now, all these years later; the knowledge mostly sits in a corner of my mind and all my other thoughts tip their hats at it from time to time and they race (or shuffle) past.

Is it explainable in rational terms? The breeze is; even “out of the blue” on a breezeless night, it is well within the realm of possibility. The timing of the breeze? Of course not. I wouldn’t deign to even try. Can it be easily dismissed as coincidence? Absolutely. Have I, someone who believes very strongly in the randomness of the world, dismissed it as coincidence? No.

“I don’t know if it is true, but it is useful.” ~Anonymous

You see, it doesn't matter what I believe, and it doesn’t matter what the real explanation is for the phenomenon that cascaded through my open window that night. I have attached a belief to it and no reason exists to dismiss that belief, despite the chances of it being a deliberate visit from the spirit of my work friend on his way out of consciousness forever being extremely slim.

It comprises part of my shelf of beliefs about death, you see. It sits there, minding its business, a small scrap in the overall file folder, a folder that grows constantly as I process more thoughts and feelings about this unknowable subject.

It’s human nature to want to know what happens to us, to our consciousness, to our non-physical being, at the moment of death, of course.

But what if an answer to this question simply cannot be found, regardless of how many words we write, conversations we have, or experiences that waft through our windows on breezeless evenings? What if we are forced to sit with uncertainty, as long as we live, regarding this question?

I’m OK with that. I hope you can be, too.



 *"We still know very little about human decay, but the growth of forensic research facilities, or ‘body farms,’ together with the availability and ever-decreasing cost of techniques such as DNA sequencing, now enables researchers to study the process in ways that were not possible just a few years ago. A better understanding of the cadaveric ecosystem – how it changes over time, and how it interacts with and alters the ecology of its wider environment – could have important applications in forensic science. It could, for example, lead to new, more accurate ways of estimating time of death, and of finding bodies that have been hidden in clandestine graves."

~Mo Costandi (The Guardian, May 2015)