You’re Doing it Wrong (Warning: Deep Thoughts and the G Word)

I’ve got a wicked case of the social media blues. The symptoms are repetitive eye-rolling, while compulsively murmuring the phrase “what the fuck” as I scroll. I let it make me cranky and that pisses me off even more. I feel like I should have perfected the “scroll on by” and let it go attitude by now. Misinformation and ignorance get applauded and all comments that aren’t lockstep cheerleading get castigated. Echo chambers are the rule. And I keep getting irritated.

Things I’ve learned on social media this month:

  • You can’t just walk your dog. You have to announce that you’re working on “loose leash walking.”
  • You can’t just play with your dog. You have to “open a play window.”
  • You can’t simply say I like my dog’s looks. You have to describe them using breed-specific jargon such that only the initiated know what you’re talking about.
  • You can’t safely and intuitively play with your dog. You need to hire a trainer to teach you how.
  • You can’t let your dog sniff the ground without announcing that you’re doing so and then listing the benefits of sniffing.
  • Feeding your dog involves understanding the nutrient differences between blue and green mussels, and posting a “story” in which your dog’s food bowl ingredients are identified with detailed information about each ingredient summarized (there had better be at least 6 different items in there or are you even trying to get it right?), and your supplier is tagged… then that account has to reshare your story and your bowl photo… like a hall of mirrors.

I’m sure there’s dogma in every community, online and off. I just happen to bump up against it the most in the dog world. Of course, we all are worrying about how others see us. Image-stagram would be a better name, and we all want the cool kids to like and follow us. Look, me included. I totally admit it: I’ve tried mimicking some of these stilted trends to see what happens. We are all self-critical and feel like the cool kids and the popular crowd are doing something right. We want to do it right too – to exude that confidence and charm.

The thing is, what I’m seeing isn’t confidence and charm. It’s a frenetic defensiveness. Every post is a production chock full of posturing – like a few dozen amped-up dogs of every breed all straining at the end of their leashes at the dog park, barking their fool heads off at each other. E-collars are the devil! Prong collars save lives! Tools are the greatest! Relationships are everything! Feed raw! Petco drama! Someone bullied me/my team/my point of view! (Look out because now I’m going to post 654239874579697346 stories about why my POV is the best!) Snuggle your fur baby! For the love of god, never snuggle and never refer to your dog as a furbaby! And so on…

I keep wondering “where the normal people at?” Where can I find simple dog-loving folk who don’t buy into fads, pseudoscience, or scare tactics? Who don’t have anything to prove? Who aren’t posturing and hollering, and don’t have an axe to grind? And once again I will offer it up: I’ve done it too. I’ve posted about my dissatisfaction with this or that (rather like I am right now), my beloved point of view on some issue, my own unique and clearly valuable take on some current fad or position.

Underneath it all, I think it’s fear of death that’s motivating this panicked vibe. All this posturing and labeling and elaborate jargon and the concomitant adherence to perceived tribal rules and mores? It’s disciple-speak – adopting a language and with it a framework to have a connection to a team or tribe, to feel a sense of belonging, of home and safety. If I adopt the same terms, framework, priorities, and values, maybe I can be one of the cool kids. Engaging in hungry discipleship sure looks like a great entry point. Belonging is powerful; it eases existential angst.

Joining the club offers up that sense of belonging and safety. In the club, you get to feel in control. The belief system isn’t conscious at all, but if it were, it would go like this: If I can feed my dog the right thing and use the right words and play (or train) with them the right way – if I can do it right, and talk about it in the right language, it’s all a fending off of death and loss. If I do it right enough, I won’t experience the pain of loss.

More experienced folks have suffered enough loss to know that none of this matters. It doesn’t matter how you describe your dog’s conformation or your dog’s play activity or your training methodology. It doesn’t even matter that much what you feed your dog (having fostered multiple starved and malnourished dogs brought me to that conclusion. Good food is great, but inadequate quality food is way superior to inadequate quantity. Mica beat cancer at age 12 and lived to 14 or so after a lifetime of shitty kibble. Berlin (a purebred GSD) made it 15 eating nothing but chicken backs her entire life. Talk about unbalanced, but 15 is amazing for a GSD. Fussing over what to feed is a uniquely human enterprise. My dogs eat shit every chance they get, quite literally… deer shit, coyote shit, each other’s shit… hell, Cinder was a connoisseur of human shit when we hiked in places where filthy humans failed to bury their shit. Worrying about what dogs eat is fine. Have at it. It isn’t bad and it isn’t wrong. But it doesn’t really matter that much. I’m sorry. I wish it did.).

The only thing that matters is being in the moment and being as connected and present as possible in the moment with the dog. Dogs don’t give a flying rats patootie about your training methodology, or how well you explained it in that IGTV video you posted. They just want a fulfilling relationship with you.

It’s all bargaining with the inevitable. It’s not until you’ve experienced enough loss and seen enough death and had enough bad things happen to good dogs (or people) that you can grasp in a flesh and blood and bone way that none of it matters that much. You need to experience that cycle of throwing every available intervention at a dog (herbs, supplements, acupuncture, cold laser, etc) and watching it die anyway, and then do that again, and then again, to understand that nothing is a panacea. No food, no supplement, no approach to care or nutrition… none of it is effective in any kind of profound or ultimate way. Sometimes you can buy some relief or some time. But all of this rigorous adherence to the dogma of whatever it is: the training, the food, the lifestyle, the tools, all of it is bargaining with death, and you’re doomed. That’s reality. That’s honest.

Once I was able to firm that up in my mind, I felt a lot freer. I’m a lot more relaxed and present now that I no longer try to get it right. And being more present allows for much more joy and much more experience of the good. I remember a big ah-ha moment was when someone told me the Dalai Lama eats hot dogs. And not Tofu pups or some all natural, organic, lovingly-raised, massaged with goat milk, pastured heritage pork. Nope. Nasty chemical-laced snouts and udders. I don’t know if that’s true but it’s literalness doesn’t matter. It was a metaphor, an invitation to deep acceptance that we’re all going to die and it’s ok. I found it really freeing.

I try to be forgiving towards those who are so afraid of death they create a dogmatic death grip on life. I suck at it, but I keep trying. I believe that how you are with your dog is how god will be with you. I ask myself who and how do I want to be with my dogs? What do I want to hear? If I were the observer, what would I want to see? Because deep down, god (however you understand and use that concept) is watching. My being with my dogs is a natural extension of my “faith.” I make my choices and try to walk the path that I can place at the feet of god. Because ultimately despite having a meager Instagram presence, mediocre book sales, and wanting all the normal things folks on social media want (fame! Followers! Money!), I can’t quite sell my soul to get there. I refuse to be beholden to a dogma about how things must be done. I hold firm to an ideology of something a whole lot more gentle, calm, committed to intimacy, joy, and a good shared life. If that firmly places me in an uncool camp, at the lunch table all alone, or worse, so be it. The dogs don’t care about that either.

photo by Cheryl Yasumura Marshall-Petricoff (Summit of Hook Mountain, 1978 or so)
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Claims, Studies, and Nonsense: Teasing it all Apart

Imagine for a moment that I want to convince you of something. I’m going to do my best. You have the obvious advantage of knowing walking into this post that it’s nonsense: ridiculous and silly.  The point isn’t the specifics; the purpose is to practice picking apart the process and the logic (or lack thereof).

Evaluate the following claim, based on the information I provide: Hearing loss in young adults is caused by brushing your teeth.

In a (pretend) study of 358 young adults who report hearing loss, 100% reported that they brushed their teeth daily. Every single one of the people in our study reported that they brushed their teeth every day, and every single one of them sustained clinically significant hearing loss before the age of 30. See? Brushing your teeth causes hearing loss.

Not convinced? I agree; that’s a very small sample size and thus our results might not be generalizable to a larger population. Let’s repeat the pilot study with a much larger sample of people under age 30 who have documented hearing loss. Let’s say 10,000 people participate in our survey. And … lo and behold, our correlation holds. 100% of these people (all of them under age 30 and have documented hearing loss) report brushing their teeth every day. It’s obvious something is going on here.

Next step – let’s suggest a mechanism. Let’s add a diagram of the ear and mouth, showing the opening of the Eustachian tube – right there in the nether regions of the mouth (well pharynx/nose but close enough)! There’s an obvious link between teeth and hearing if you look at the anatomy.

Now, if I add some science-y language about why brushing teeth creates an inflammation of the proximal end of the tube and that leads to migration of pathological particles into the middle ear and thus hearing loss, we’re looking better and better… right? Have I shoved you from NO WAY to no shit?

Don’t worry. I created a special product to solve this issue: a toothpaste formulated without the pathological particles that cause hearing loss. In a follow-up study, I give this toothpaste to 10,000 people under age 30 who do not have hearing loss and … in 3 months when we check their hearing – none have developed hearing loss at all. Proof positive that my toothpaste prevents hearing loss due to tooth brushing.

Whew.

Totally ridiculous, right?

But let’s say that you really don’t know what causes hearing loss, which is totally reasonable (anyone who posts the number 1 cause of hearing loss in young people in the comments gets a virtual smooch from Peeka!). My explanation uses multi-syllabic science words and fancy diagrams. How would you know how to separate the wheat from the chaff?

You need to ask the “converse” question. In the original correlation, we stated that of all the folks with hearing loss we surveyed, all of them brushed their teeth. We need to ask “how many people brushed their teeth and did not develop hearing loss?” (Or if you say vaccines cause seizures in dogs and then show that 100% of dogs with seizures in your study were vaccinated, you must also ask – how many vaccinated dogs did NOT have seizures?) You need to looks at ALL the folks involved, not hand pick the ones that support your claim.

To establish causation (and not simply correlation) we need to rule out ALL other possible causes. That’s not easy to do, and that’s why you have to go to school for a lot of years and study like a maniac to become a doctoral level researcher. Could the toothbrushing be correlated but irrelevant? Could something totally different be causing the hearing loss? Since it is unethical to actually cause hearing loss in an experimental setting, you’d have to devise a study that didn’t aim to do that, yet would be able to establish what causes hearing loss. One way to do this would be forensic examination of the medical records of the people under 30 with hearing loss (hint – check out their employment and or hobbies).

Let’s say instead of preventing hearing loss, I claimed that my new product cured the common cold. I made the claim that if you took my new snake oil supplement, your symptoms would be gone in 7 -10 days. You see what I’m getting at: many (but not all) maladies resolve fully on their own in time. No matter what you do for the common cold, it lasts about 7-10 days. You can ease symptoms, and maybe reduce severity but in general, no matter what you do or don’t do, most people will see a complete recovery in that amount of time. If you propose a medication or supplement gets rid of a noxious symptom, you must ask – if I did nothing, would that symptom be gone in the same amount of time? Way too often, the answer is yes.

Same with injuries – remember time is a factor. I destroyed my knee falling on an icy rock about 5 years ago. For a bunch of reasons, I never went to a doctor. I never did anything to address it. And guess what? It eventually resolved completely. I can’t even remember which knee it was, which is impressive because I couldn’t kneel, and I limped for about 18 months. Had I been told some homeopathic remedy would heal it up nicely in 12 – 18 months… well, you see the issue. Time heals.

The time factor underlines the need for a control group. If you want to demonstrate that A causes B, you need to set up a double blind placebo-controlled experiment. You have to show that the same kind of people or dogs with the same ailments do not get better in the same amount of time without the remedy, medication, or other treatment.

Would you take a “drug” (or medication, or pharmaceutical – whatever you want to call it), or give such a substance to your child, or your pet, if there was no evidence that it worked better than doing nothing? No way, right? That seems obvious and silly – there’s no way you would waste the money and effort taking any substance that is not proven to be effective and safe. I use this same yardstick for ALL substances – medications, herbs, all remedies of any kind – they have to be proven (via real science) to be more effective than doing nothing. Any claims made by marketing efforts have to be evaluated. Heck, even food – claims that one way of eating is better than another has to be evaluated as a claim before I’ll make any changes to my diet or my dogs’ diet. Why? Because there’s an enormous amount of junk science and baseless claims out there. Every time I see it, I think “brushing your teeth causes hearing loss.” It might be easy to “prove” using junk science, but that doesn’t make it factual.

Folks working to convince us of these baseless claims might be dishonest and out to separate us from our cash, or they might be innocent and clueless, or simply operating from a place of belief rather than fact. I don’t need to take away anyone’s belief system. For some folks, that’s all they have. But I am short on cash. I only buy (literally and figuratively) stuff that is proven and has some shred of decent science behind it. If you ever want to evaluate a claim with me, I’d be happy to go through my thought process with you. I might not have a clear answer, but I am happy to share how I think about evaluating claims and making these sorts of decisions.

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My Stomach Hurts

Other people have it worse.

I’m not really sick.

I shouldn’t be “histrionic.”

I shouldn’t focus on it.

When I tried to talk about it, my mom would roll her eyes or say in that tone “here it comes…” and I knew that I had lost credibility. In talking about my experiences, the physical sensations I experienced, I had somehow yet again stumbled into being someone who should not be taken seriously. I stopped bringing it up.

All the medications prescribed did not help. That too led to rolled eyes and knowing glances. My report of “I tried that and I still have the symptoms” was somehow translated into “she wants to have the pain more than she wants to get better.” I had become a “know it all” who insists “nothing works”as a badge of honor, according to people around me. So, I stopped talking about it.

Stoicism is valued in my family. When my dad was dying of cancer, my mom developed a stomach ulcer. One night it erupted, and she was taken away by ambulance. I was very young – maybe 3 or 4 at the time. Years later I asked her about it – in part because of my stomach symptoms. Did you have any symptoms before that happened, I asked her. She told me she had been in pain for about a month – kind of like heartburn, without relief. For a month or so solidly. She hadn’t gone to the doctor.

I think stoicism and ignoring our physical ailments is a tricky business. I mean, who wants to get labeled a hypochondriac? Who wants to be seen as sickly? Written off as a complainer? I value fitness and revere robust good health and aspire to project that image in all I do, all the time. I don’t see myself as ill and I understand why that sort of denial is prevalent to the point of being both normal and problematic.

Problematic, because I didn’t stop having symptoms. I just stopped trusting myself that they were serious or worth sharing with family or others close to me. I thought maybe they were right – I was making a big deal about nothing. I went to the doctor. I tried to be a good patient. I did everything that was suggested – every dietary, lifestyle, and medication regime recommended. I didn’t get better.

I tried more and more nontraditional approaches. Acupuncture (a three month course of treatment), chiropractic adjustments (a full year), herbs, supplements, turmeric, melatonin, limonene, and CBD oil. I have spent thousands of dollars – money I would make rather blow on dog food or vet bills – to try to alleviate the symptoms. None of the efforts – traditional, nontraditional, well-studied or utter bullshit – none have helped.

What are these symptoms? Jolted from sleep in pain: chest pain that radiated to my jaw and down my arms. The pain was so severe it would blot out everything else. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to be in pain like that for extended periods of time. Some nights it would last 20 minutes or so. Some nights it would last hours. Any description of the pain sounds clichéd and hyperbolic. I don’t want to share what it was like any more than you might want to read what it was like. I don’t want to relive it.

But I believe that there is a value in breaking the silence, again, as cliché as that sounds. You see, experiencing pain like that – that extreme and that traumatic – is … well… a major life event. And I believe if it happened to me, it happened to other people who have been just as overwhelmed and shamed, confused and depressed by dealing with it. It happens like an attack, out of the blue, without warning. I go to bed fine and whammo – it’s 2 am, or 3 am, or midnight, and blasted awake by blinding and terrifying pain. The pain wasn’t always pegged at intolerable, but it often was. It was overwhelming. I couldn’t do anything in those moments except breathe. In an odd way, it was a deeply spiritual experience – to be reduced to nothing. The pain obliterated all sense of “me” – all identity, all my past and future. It anchored me in the present in a way that nothing else ever has. It stripped me of all that I relied upon in daily life, every shred of my identity. It was the only reality, the only sensation, and I can’t explain it any other way. It was all encompassing. It was too intense allow room to feel or think anything else. It would come in waves but the space between waves was brief – usually less than a minute.

I tried all sorts of things to ease the pain. I swallowed lidocaine gel. I took Benadryl in an attempt to knock myself out. I tried sipping water, eating yogurt, and yes, I took pain killers. Opiates. Once, in 15 years, once, the Lortab I “borrowed” from my husband’s post-surgery bottle helped. There was that moment when I was there, in the pain up to my eyeballs, and then like a magic wand, it all just melted away and I was no longer in pain at all. And I thought “this is how people get addicted to opiates.”

The day after being up at night with a bad flare up was brutal. Not only was I exhausted from not sleeping, but I was shell-shocked from the experience of being in pain like that for hours. Depending upon what I’d done to attempt to kill the pain I was also ass-deep in a Benadryl hangover or worse. The echoes of pain and the fear of pain clung to me like a weird aura. I would stumble through the day truly mystified. How can I feel pain like that and not be dead? Something that feels like that and yet leaves no mark… it’s really confusing. I took care of my dog, parented my kid, went to work as a social worker, and did my best to be a cute and funny sex kitten for my boyfriend… all the while wondering what was wrong with me and how I could either predict, prevent, or manage it.

I got scoped. “Nothing worth taking a picture of.” I had my gall bladder checked. Ultrasound was totally clear. Heart was fine. Not having a heart attack, despite the obvious similarities. The barium swallow diagnosed GERD, but none of the typical GERD treatments reduced my symptoms at all.

When I think of people with a chronic illness, I think “that’s not me.” That couldn’t be me – I am young and strong and “fine.” I hike every day. I am functional – I get up at dawn and accomplish all manner of tasks every day. I can do 30 push ups. I can do a full, real, no-cheating pull-up. I hiked the Devil in a Day (25+ grueling miles over the gnarliest terrain in the Catskills). I can play tug with Hawkitt. But yes, I have a chronic illness.

Every time I’ve ever talked openly about my illness on social media, I’ve been offered advice. Kind, well-intentioned friends and acquaintances, ever eager to help, have been wonderful in offering suggestions for how to gain relief. I have tried every single tip or trick everyone has suggested. Trust me, I have. I wish I could say thank you, that was magic. It worked. I no longer experience symptoms. I wish that with all the fervent, passionate humility I can muster. There is nothing good in it for me to say ‘That didn’t help me. I’m so glad it helped you but it has not helped me at all.’ And honestly, I’m really tired – increasingly tired and a touch testy – about the not so subtle insinuation that maybe my lack of relief is somehow my fault, my doctor’s fault, or something else I need to address. It’s life – messy, real, and unapologetically unfair.

What is this illness? I’m still on a journey of finding out the exact topography of this land. I have GERD – gastro esophageal reflux disease. But some of my symptoms – the ones that are getting increasingly worse – are not GERD symptoms. They are not caused by GERD. They are caused by something else. But they look an awful lot like GERD – or so I thought. The way I experience dysphagia (difficulty swallowing, a typical GERD symptom) is totally un-GERD-like. And now I’m on a testing journey to discover what the cause is. My latest doctor (the 6th to treat this illness so far – it’s been 15 years, and spanned 3 counties) believes it’s a neuromuscular issue. In simple terms, it seems like my esophagus needs a pacemaker. Only no such thing exists. It hasn’t been invented yet.

Those episodes of severe pain have all but disappeared. A few years ago I tried using medical marijuana for the pain, thinking that the combination of a sedating strain with good pain relief qualities might help. It did. It was the one bright spot in all the efforts to manage this condition – I no longer feared the flare ups the way I had, because even the truly severe pain was more bearable with marijuana. And the sedation helped immensely – on a wicked bad night I would sleep in between waves of pain, sometimes dozing off for a full 3-4 minutes at a time. It was better than nothing by a long shot.

I went to a new doctor this week. She is the most recent in the parade of doctors I’ve begged for help. I fogged up my glasses, sniffling into my mask, and she gave me a tissue. “Here,” she said. “It’s soft.” I sure looked like a mental health patient, crying because I feel out of control with my own body. I wept like an idiot, telling her how I have carried the shame of feeling not good enough because I don’t understand what’s wrong with me. I’ve felt responsible for my pain, and not good enough because I can’t make it stop. And I’m scared because it’s getting worse. I can’t swallow liquids reliably. I aspirate anything I’ve tried to swallow if I lie down even 30 minutes after taking a sip of water. I’m scared, and sad, and exhausted by the effort of holding it together. The doc listened. She explained things. I asked questions. She explained more things. And I stopped crying and felt hopeful. She even offered me a hug.

My grandmother, my dad’s mom, was a chronic complainer of stomach issues. I can remember going to restaurants with her when I was a child. She would order toast and chicken – plain, no, not chicken roll, just plain roast chicken, no, no mayonnaise or anything. Just plain toasted bread and chicken. White bread. I remember being mystified as a kid, that you could do that – just ask a restaurant to make you what you wanted, without regard to the menu. I remember the look on my grandma’s face – the stress and worry about eating. There was no joy in consuming a meal, only anxiety. I don’t know what was wrong with her or why toast and chicken was the solution. But I know what it’s like to live in fear of “it” happening again. I know what it’s like to have the joy of sharing a meal overshadowed by the fear of pain. I understand how fear of symptoms can lead to severe anxiety and depression. I get it, viscerally, how agoraphobia due to fear of experiencing a flare up could develop.

I have tried really hard to NOT talk or write about this. Many times over the past decade or so I’ve considered and dismissed it. My readers want to be entertained with funny quips about Peeka and insights into nature and wildlife. This part of me is ugly or unimportant. Well, maybe so, but I’m sharing it because chronic illness is part of the picture and I can’t deny it any longer. It’s part of who I am and it’s very much part of life here no this mountain. And I’ve decided there’s no shame in that.

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Love Without Limits; Limits Without Love

This post is also published on my website.

I know, I know – that’s an awfully clickbaity title for a post about life with dogs. Sounds more like the title of a self-help book, right? I apologize. Sometimes I can’t resist.

Over the years a theme in dog training has emerged: the withholding of affection. Don’t pet, don’t smooch, don’t do couch snuggle sessions. I won’t explain or defend or critique this perspective – I’ll let the trainers who espouse this position do that. They make their point far more eloquently than I ever could. But I do think a misinterpretation or misunderstanding of this edict could lead to real problems and real unhappiness for dogs and owners, and more importantly – huge missed opportunities. So I’m here in defense of affection. (In defense of affection would make a great book title too.)

Is all affection good for all dogs and all owners under all circumstances? No, to my way of thinking, it’s not an all or nothing issue. Sometimes withholding affection is perfect and the very best relationship builder for both dog and human. I am not a human Pez dispenser of petting. I do not get begged or harassed or worn down by relentless demands for affection by anyone – dog or human. The running joke in my house is that each time we get a new dog, the first command I teach is “go away.” My affection is MY choice to give – when, where, and how. I have limits and I honor these limits because I know the price if I fail to honor them is that I’ll be angry. I’ll be pissed off at my self for getting irritated at the annoying dog I’ve created.

I am not a particularly demonstrative person. I was not the most sweet snuggly mom of a human. I was attentive and I hope I was fun. I read out loud and played games. I shared skills, learned new skills side by side with my daughter, and empowered her by allowing her to excel at things I knew nothing about – then had her teach me. But I wasn’t the snuggliest, “let’s cocoon up on the couch and watch America’s Next Top Model” Mom. I’m just not that person. I tried to be, for her, and tried to match my level of cuddle to her level of needing cuddles. I did my best to stretch across my default setting of distance to meet her need for closeness.

But I also always insisted that she not be annoying. I know, that sounds awful, but even as a toddler, she was not allowed to be annoying. Legitimate problems could be dealt with by crying and tantrums. Fine. I get it. You’re 22 months old; you get to flip out sometimes, especially in response to real problems, like your pasta sauce not tasting “purple” enough, or your Barbie not talking back to you when you asked her how old she was. But nagging? Whining? General attention-seeking annoying behavior because I’m unavailable? Nope. That just didn’t fly at my house. The kid learned quick.

My dogs learn this too. It’s a schtick for me to say I teach “go away” first. I don’t. Recall is typically first. And with new dogs I am more affectionate in the beginning. More sweet and inviting and approachable. More safe and warm and responsive. I can always cool off, once I have a trusting relationship with a dog. Once we have a rapport, I’m more likely to get compliance with my “not now” or “that’s enough.” If there’s any back talk, I typically add “You’re fine.” And I mean it. Talking to the fussy, demanding dog, my actions say: “You don’t need me. You don’t need to be petted right now. You can go do something else and be perfectly satisfied and fine. Truly. Go try it; you’ll see.”

Limits are not the antithesis of love. Limits are woven into the fabric of love. There are limits to my affection, but that doesn’t mean there are limits to my love. Love is the place where we can touch the infinite, in a heartspace that is no longer emotional but truly spiritual. Other worldly, if you will. I am besotted with my dogs, each in their own unique way. I am emotionally bound up in them and they are a part of me. I love them, but even more than love, I am connected to them in a way that is wordless and profound. We feel together. We share this life. We are knitted together in ways that are beyond emotion, beyond the I and you in I love you. They change me and become part of me. But I have limits when it comes to the nuts and bolts of daily affection.

All of this sounds like I’m advocating for the No Affection policy I opened with, but I’m not. I’m here to tell you that WITH LIMITS and boundaries, affection not only feels nice, but is a key component of bonding and a profoundly healing aspect of life with dogs. Some of this is old news – you all know that petting a dog lowers heart rate and blood pressure and can be an important part of healing from illness, injury, or trauma. You’ve all read the studies about how therapy dogs help people heal. We all know about the release of oxytocin (the “bonding hormone”) that affection stimulates in the dog’s brain. Petting a furry pal is physically health-promoting in humans and most of our furry pals seek it out in spades.

But let’s say you’re on the fence. After all, your trainer told you to withhold affection. Don’t let the dog “get over” on you. No petting. No couch time. No snuggles. Here’s what I say to that: physical affection is also key to keeping a running account balance on your dog’s physical condition. If a problem pops up, you need to know when it started. You need to know what happened and when. Especially if you have a stoic dog (hello, Malinois owners. I see you.), you might not find the gash, insect sting, tick, or tumor without placing your hands on the dog. Petting the dog is part of grooming – your hands are assessing and inspecting as you offer affection. It’s responsible dog ownership 101.

Touch can also be a strong positive reinforcer. When my dogs are physically far away from me, and they choose to return before I holler, they ALWAYS receive touch when they fly past me (usually they are zooming past me to connect with Hawkitt, who also receives them with great physicality). I didn’t utter a command and I might not bother with verbal praise, but they ALWAYS get that gentle light touch – fingertips on fur – to let them know I took note. I received them. This simple, understated, and consistent ritual is a key aspect of our relationship and one facet of why these dogs do return to me, despite the fisher in the hollow tree or the raccoon chattering at them, or the bear who just made a colossally bad decision to shimmy down the tree with 4 or 5 pointy-eared nudniks gathered to receive him at the bottom.

The other day I was petting Bindi when I went to remove a burr from her coat. Nope, not a burr: it was a yellow jacket, fixing to sting her. If I wasn’t petting her, she’d have gotten stung. Unless you have a very short-coated white dog, you will need to pet your dog regularly to know if your tick preventative is effective. Hawk has reached that age where he is developing benign skin growths. He has a couple of lipomas, skin tags, and other lumps and bumps that require monitoring. It is my job to know when/if they grow or change. I must pet him to assess them. It’s as important as any other aspect of pet care. Not petting your dog often and thoroughly is falling down on your duty as a pet owner.

Love without limits looks like codependence. But limits without love looks like tyranny. There is a middle ground. Because yes, too much affection at the wrong time is no good for anyone. Too little affection is a relationship killer. When it’s the right thing, it’s given freely and received joyously. And everyone benefits.

Tom and Tonshi
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The Sounds Of Training

Sound travels. It’s a delightfully odd phenomenon, the way sound bounces around the woods, the mountains, and especially across water. Ever suddenly hear people talking when you’re out canoeing somewhere remote, only to realize they are on the shore a significant distance away? Sound carries in weird and funky ways.

One of the new developments the pandemic has brought us here on Bramley Mountain is additional neighbors. Second homeowners who used to visit occasionally have moved in for the duration. They have a dog and children. I hear them every day – all the sounds of parenting and real life. This morning I thought I heard a different “ribbit” than usual emanating from my pond. I stopped gardening to listen in… only to realize nope, that’s not a frog, that’s a baby crying. While I really enjoyed my relative silence before they were here, I try not to begrudge them the simple pleasures of squealing, barking, yelling, air nailers, chainsaws, and the rest of it. We all bend a little and hopefully none of us break.

But if I can hear them, they can hear me. One fine summer day I sat outside on my balcony and drank a beer and treated them to my very finest rendition of Maura O’Connell’s Western Highway. At top volume. Hopefully the baby wasn’t napping at the time. I’m not a good singer, despite a lot of practice (in the car and in the shower).

Every afternoon, come hell or high water (both of which accurately describe the weather on Bramley Mountain), I take the gang out for a rousing session of play. For each dog this means something unique, something specifically tailored to the dog’s ability, my goals, and our relationship. Our play sessions have earned Hawkitt two trick titles and readied Bindi for her CGC and TKN evaluation. Brody fetches and Peeka naps. It all happens outdoors, and much of it is loud.

I’ve had to think a lot about how I sound because, for the first time, I have an audience. Ever think about that? What do you sound like to the neighbors when you’re outside training and working and playing with your dogs?

The first year or so I had Hawkitt, there was a lot of cursing. There was a lot of irritated and impatient hollering. There was a lot of NO. You see, I think I needed Hawk to comply in a certain way or at a certain rate, because I believed that would reflect upon me. I needed to be a certain type of owner and trainer. My preconceived notion of who I thought I should be was guiding my efforts and my mood. My ego dictated that we work in a particular way. It was work. There was blood, sweat, and tears. And a metric ton of F bombs.

I don’t think Hawk cared and I don’t think it impacted our relationship much because Hawkitt is Hawkitt. He is resilient to the nth degree. Wired to forgive and refocus on the task at hand (making me give him what he wants), he is both flexible and relentless. He is a fantastic role model because truly, nothing fazes him. He never gets irritable, and he never stops trying to make me throw the damn ball.  

But Bindi isn’t like Hawk. Brody isn’t like Hawk. And Peeka isn’t like any dog I’ve ever seen. I can’t only train Hawk; I have to work effectively with everyone here. And, while being demanding and unyielding worked well for Hawkitt, it didn’t make me happy. I would feel tense, frustrated, and uptight way too often, with blips of sheer elation. One day while walking the dogs, the thought became conscious and clear: I wanted to hear myself say Yes! Good dog! more often than no! It wasn’t really about them. It was about me. I didn’t like who I was, or what I sounded like. I wouldn’t want to play obedience games with me. So I rearranged what I did so I could hear myself say the words I wanted to hear and turn into a trainer whose company I enjoy.

It’s hard to describe what I’ve done differently, but I can tell you what it sounds like. If you were sitting on my neighbor’s deck, you’d hear laughter. A lot of laughter. Every now and then you’d hear oh shit! and a splash and then sorry, Hawkie! because I’d thrown a wild pitch and he had to dive into a pond to get the ball. You’d hear a wide array of commands – sit, down, around, heel, back up, cha cha (yes, cha cha, although I think the step we’re doing is more accurately a rumba), walk the plank, hop up, put it in here (the ball into the hole in the center of the snow tire rim), and so on. You’d hear a ton of barking. Hawk has a sassy mouth when he’s excited. You’d hear a loud, joyous, high-pitched YES! echoing off the mountains punctuating the session regularly. And you’d hear a ton of encouragement – more that’s right, come on, good dog, you got it! than no.

Don’t get me wrong – I still say no. I still correct mistakes or wait for what I want. Bindi has to comply even when Hawkitt is present, which seems to be downright painful for her. She races away to smooch and wonky boop her beloved Hawkie (who ignores her completely) and gets called back, the correct performance of the command must happen before she is released. Every time. Being a fun and nice Mama doesn’t stop me from training or insisting upon compliance. It just makes the process enjoyable.

If you’ve read my book you know that I’m not big on techniques and I am much more eclectic and slapdash than systematic or organized. Despite that fundamental eschewing of all methods, there are some things I can share that I do that seem to work.

  1. I monitor my own mood. If I’m getting irritable and short-tempered, I change what we’re doing.
  2. I *try* really really hard to remember that failure to comply is an indication that I haven’t been understood. It means the dog doesn’t know what I’m asking for. My dogs (all dogs) are not vindictive. They don’t fail to comply just to piss me off. It’s never personal.
  3. If I’m not getting what I want after a few reps, I need to back up a step or two. I need to teach it differently, so that the dog can understand. Repeating something that isn’t working over and over again isn’t fun for anyone. After a few repetitions without any lightbulbs lighting up, that means back up, simplify, break it down into a smaller increments, and cantilever it off something the dog is already doing reliably.
  4. Always end on a good note. Always make the last one a good one. I was taught this from a SAR trainer and I like it as a concept. It might mean more to the human than the dog, but that’s ok.

I don’t really enjoy training and I don’t do a lot of it. But I really enjoy spending time with my dogs doing fun things. I take great delight in watching them learn and grow – whether it’s Bindi growing into a confident dog, or Peeka sidle up to me and look knowingly at the balance beam or stack of wooden blocks, asking “Can I play too?” – and I know that as long as I keep offering them new experiences in safe and fun ways, they will keep growing and learning.

The bottom line it I don’t get tense or irritable anymore. It doesn’t have to be a chore and it doesn’t have to be work and it certainly doesn’t have to be serious business. As long as we’re all experiencing joy at playing together, I don’t care much at all about what actually gets accomplished. The dogs don’t have to be or do anything preconceived. Sure, they are specific breeds with specific jobs they were born to do. But their new job here with me is to have fun, build a fabulous relationship that grows ever more deep, rich and intimate, and stay out of the emergency room. The rest is gravy.

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Square Peg Round Hole

The visual is cartoonish – the futile pounding away with a big ol’ mallet and the complete refusal of both the peg and the hole to give way. It’s right up there with Sisyphus as iconic images of pointlessness. Wasted effort.

I think we all do this in one way or another when it comes to our dogs. Probably most of us also do a little pointless pounding on our partners, children, coworkers, bosses and strangers on social media. I asked Tom recently about his apparent addiction to arguing with people who will never “come around.” His answer was instructive – basically he said, “sometimes I just need to pound something.”

I’m sympathetic to that need. Pent up frustration from trying to adapt to a scary and ever-changing new normal is stressful. Social distancing has meant most of our tried and true ways of relieving stress are off limits. Finding a way to be ok with a world that is feeling increasingly not ok is … well, not ok. And smashing shit (figuratively speaking) can help vent all the tangled up emotions.

But of course I want to stick to dogs. I mean, if what I have to say if useful for other areas of your life – great. Have at it. But bear with me for a moment here and let’s talk dogs and dog training. The square-peg-round-hole in dog training is a significant source of dissatisfaction. I think it makes more dogs and owners unhappy than many other problems.

I’ve written about this in the past. It’s definitely one of my favorite topics and I readily admit I harp on it frequently and vehemently. Why? Because I think bashing away at “training” to try to make your dog into a different dog is a total failure to accept the dog as he or she is. And that’s sad. Because every moment that you don’t accept the real dog in front of you, you miss out on the deep, rich, fun, beautiful connection that THAT dog has to offer. You can bludgeon that dog into an outward appearance of some other dog – the fantasy dog in your head that you think you want – but dog’s lives are short compared to ours. One day that dog will be gone. And you’ll have missed enjoying him or her while you had the opportunity.

I’m not advocating for accepting bad behavior. I’m not suggesting that by accepting the dog you allow unwanted or dangerous behavior. But I do think that training can become an addiction.

Did you hear brakes screech? Did you spit out your drink? I hope so. I don’t think I’ve ever heard any other dog writer frame it up that way, but I believe that for some folks, some of the time, with some dogs… training becomes an unhealthy addiction. Addictions, as many of you know, are a way to plug away, square peg style, at avoiding intimacy. The effort to make the dog into something it’s not takes over. Fruitless and endless efforts are expended to no avail. The correct performance becomes the holy grail.

By focusing on changing the dog instead of accepting the dog, with all his or her flaws, foibles, funky blips and weirdnesses you move steadily away from bonding. The more you ignore reality and bash away at the square peg, the more divorced from the real dog you become. Addiction kills relationships and intimacy.  And when you get addicted to pounding a square peg into a round hole, both you and the dog suffer.

But here’s the thing: dogs have an affiliative drive. Don’t freak out because I used the D word. Keeping it super simple – dogs seek to have relationships with us humans. Ivan Balabanov, one of the more well-respected trainers out there, recently posted a meme underlining this. “Dogs are emotional beings that want to interact with you as a fellow creature…”. Dogs seek relationships. They seek intimacy. I’m going to go way out on a limb here and say they seek acceptance. When you dive into training so hard YOU need it more than the dog, intimacy and the bond itself are the victims.

Not every malinois is a going to become a PSA champion. Not every Labrador is the right fit for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Despite being the right breed, sometimes the dog is just not that into it. Not broken, ill, or defective – just meh. Willing but unenthusiastic. And not every owner has that je ne sais croi that makes dogs take notice and go the extra mile.

I think about the bad boyfriend years. One by one my friends vanished and I became more and more isolated, as I became more and more addicted to my efforts to change the bad boyfriend into a partner. I was never going to be successful. He is who he is. When a person shows you who they are, believe them, right? But I completely refused to believe him. I clung to MY vision of what he could be. My vision, divorced from reality and populated with fantasy and “if only”… did nothing but make me miserable, and keep me blind to seeing him as he really was. Had I been less addicted to fruitless square peg bashing, I could have either 1) enjoyed him as he was or 2) wasted a lot less time and effort.

With dogs, I fall solidly into the first camp – I want to enjoy the dogs that grace my home. If I focus on transforming them into something they are not and cannot be, I miss out on the relationship with them that IS possible. If I only focus on the goal, the end game, the wish, and the fantasy, I never get to live in the magical presence that the pure bond offers. I’m too busy being dissatisfied and striving.

Imagine for a moment if, instead of striving to make the dog be different, all of that energy and effort was spent trying to be with the dog. Truly, madly, deeply present with the dog, doing nothing but being present. How different would that be? How enjoyable might that be?  

So yes, Hawkie will earn another title this week (I think… lol, maybe not, if he has forgotten how to bring firewood in from the woodshed and place it on the rack). Bindi is getting closer and closer to her first couple of titles. But if they weren’t? If that exploration turned out to be a bust and she absolutely could not “perform” the way I imagined she should? No worries. I would still laugh at her wonky boop antics, bring her to play dates, walk her at the farmers’ market, and brag to Tom about what a fabulous puppy she is. Because my dogs don’t have to be any particular way, and I don’t have to live up to any particular standard of how to be their owner. We both can just be ourselves – unrepentantly ourselves. That’s the goodest way to be.

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The F Word

It happened again.

I was walking along, lost in thought (probably writing a blog post in my head) when I felt the searing stab of a sting at the base of my left thumb. “SONOFABITCH!” The words just erupted from my throat, unbidden and definitely unplanned.

A few weeks ago it had been a hornet sting. I was similarly lost in thought, when deep inside my overalls, behind my knee, I felt the sudden and unmistakable pain of a hornet or wasp sting. And again, it was “sonofoabitch” that the neighbors were treated to, at top volume.

It’s a funny notion to ponder. What words does your brain-mouth combo spout when you are too thoroughly anchored to the present tense by pain (or some other deeply riveting experience) to decide what to yell? Wouldn’t you all have expected me to bellow the F word? But nope. Sonofabitch, Sawyer (from Lost) style, is what I come up with when I don’t have time to think.

But it’s not universally appropriate. I don’t holler “sonofabitch” in every surprise situation. The other day I was picking blackberries in the western meadow. I was acutely aware that engaging in this activity could very easily place me at increased risk of a bear encounter, so my head was on a swivel. I noticed birds, near and far, the rustle of leaves, and cars on the road a mile away. But I failed to notice the biggest garter snake I’ve ever seen until I damn near stepped on it. The snake, similarly startled, I guess, approached me. That’s never happened before – that a snake (or any other wildlife, for that matter) reacted to a sudden interaction by approaching. The words that plopped out of my face and landed squarely atop this giant snake? “Whoa, buddy.”

I admit it: I did also jump backwards about 2 feet. I’m not scared of snakes. I’m scared of surprises. Especially legless ones.

That’s two different exclamations, but we’re not done yet. Just infrequently enough to be utterly jarring, the dogs will explode after something when we’re on the morning walk. One second they’re placidly strolling next to me, the next second they are breaking the sound barrier. When this happens, I am truly jolted, and so startled I need to calm down before I can even get angry. But the words that come a-tumbling, unbidden? “Shit.” Not even holy shit, or holy fucking shit, which I admit despite being satisfying would be too long to spit out. Just shit. It’s happened enough times this week for me to declare it the consistent word for that situation.

As a writer, I like words. As a studier of the human psyche, I love that words for specific experiences just “happen” without planning or thought. It’s like hornet stings and sonofabitches are preprogrammed to be linked in my brain for no particular reason. I don’t really say sonofabitch at any other time. And as a blogging resident of the western Catskills, I love that the words and the landscape, wildlife, and experiences they engender can go together.  

I read something recently where this was not the case. The writing was excellent. Masterful, finely wrought prose, elegant and writerly. Only problem was that the elegance didn’t fit the subject. It was high falutin’, city talk. It reminded me of the gorgeous boutiques and eateries that spring up all over the Cats, lovely but Brooklyn lovely. It’s an urban veneer, pretentious and urbane, spread over a plain background. Plain is good enough. Plain is real. Plain can be equally masterful, equally powerful and equally fine art, but minus all the pretension. I aspire to be plain.

I just came in from exercise time and it’s a brutally hot and humid day. Exercise is both physical and mental – the dogs have to learn and work to receive frisbee and chuckit throws. I made the mistake of asking Hawkitt for a high five and received a rather bracing wack on the back of my hand (I had actually told him to touch the chuckit launcher but he missed and smashed my hand with his enormous and sharp claws). Still no F word; I yelped “ouch!”

Guess we’ll all have to wait for Friday for the F bombs.

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Honor the dog, not the dogma

Get yours! The Honor The Dog shirt is available at an amazing price ($13.50 per shirt, plus tax and shipping) if we hit 25 orders. Big waggy tails to all of you who already ordered a few (smooch!). Let’s get to 25 and create a tiny elite army of dog honorers! We’ve got a total of 2 weeks to do it, so don’t procrastinate. Click this link to do the deed: https://www.customink.com/g/hbm0-00c9-r23s?fbclid=IwAR1g8_mcdYvHlegJ8eLofiO4GW4ifHn-TRza-c50qo6vb_Hd5ofId8J4pwI

While we’re here, need a copy of Asking A Lot? Signed copies are available. Grab your copy of the book that gave rise to this motto. $27.80 gets you a signed copy — that includes shipping. Paypal to purplemayajaya@yahoo.com or if you’re a Venmo fan, use @haliagrace on there. Let me know if you need something special – snail mail a check, or ship as a gift.

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Retiring “A Tired Dog is a Good Dog” For Good

(also posted on the new website – http://www.haliagrace.com/blog)

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times: “a tired dog is a good dog.” I’ve even said it, more times than I’d care to admit. But I’m done with it. I’m jumping ship, abandoning this tired old shibboleth in favor of a new one: “A satisfied dog is a good dog.” Or maybe even better – “A satisfied dog makes for a satisfied owner.” 

I’m not going to critique the “tired” saying. It’s not wrong or bad; it’s just insufficient. Folks that live by this adage will exercise a dog until Rover is physically tired. We’ve all seen the proud posts on social media – the dog with a tongue a mile long, and a lopsided grin. Wore him out, the poster will proudly proclaim. Gonna sleep well tonight is one all too familiar comment. Too tired to cause trouble is another. But happy? Satisfied? Maybe. For some dogs, that’s going to be sufficient, and this saying is just fine, and you may stop reading and head outside with your chuckit launcher.

Personally, I find tiring a dog out really boring. Not that everything I do is all about me, but I feel like my enjoyment and satisfaction should at least be one consideration. Not surprisingly, some dogs find being physically tired isn’t really very satisfying either. Tired isn’t the same thing as good, and a tired dog may still be fussy, whiny, fretful, restless, irritable, or just plain annoying. Rather like overtired children, being physically worn out isn’t the same as being soul-satisfied and ready to settle down. Being tired might make a dog appear to be more compliant, but just like humans, a tired dog may also have a shorter fuse, be more quick to snark, or be less inclined to perform commands.

The flip side of focusing exclusively on physical activity (burning off that excess energy – have we all heard that one a few thousand times too?) is the heavy focus on training. Make the dog work, make Jocko think, challenge the dog with training. He’ll sleep like a baby.  Yes, true, for some dogs, some of the time, but I believe a dog that hasn’t had it’s needs met doesn’t have as much to give in training. A dog that is using training to get tired is not going to learn or grow or enjoy that activity half as much as a dog that comes to a training opportunity already satisfied. That might sound odd to some trainers or owners, but bear with me here. Would you sit your 7 year old down for a social studies lesson if he or she hasn’t had breakfast? Of course not. You’d want a child to have had what s/he needs first, before you ask her to be available for learning. I feel it’s comparable with dogs – meet their needs first, before you ask them to focus, concentrate, learn, grow, and develop. Set the dog up for maximum success by making sure they are available for training. What makes a dog available? 1) the bond with you, aka your relationship, but also 2) having had their needs met.

Training only meets some needs, a dog with a more multifaceted set of needs is going to finish a rousing training session all pent up and rarin’ to go. Ask me about dogs like Hawkitt, or Iske. The more I train Hawk, the more revved up he gets. He is a special case, for sure, an extra intense example of an intense breed, but he makes the point in bold and italics. Training him winds him up. He loves it, but it’s stimulating. He isn’t tired afterwards; he’s wired.

Physical and mental exercise will definitely tire some dogs out, but simply tiring a dog out isn’t the goal – at least not for me. Revisiting what dogs are, what they love, and what makes them tick may lead to a slightly different take on how to get to the good dog in the original saying. I don’t want a tired dog, and I’m not even sure I want a “good” dog. But I’m sure I want a satisfied dog.

A satisfied dog has had his or her needs met. This is a dog that can tolerate rejection. This is a dog with a long fuse. This is a dog who, despite being a malinois (aka Velcro, pushy, needy, intense, with the potential to be in your face and up your butt 24/7/365) or worse, being Hawkitt (think malinois size XL on crack) can leave me alone and go settle down with just a facial expression as a command. A satisfied dog is profoundly relaxed and able to play with a puppy or chill out in a crate, or sleep at my feet. It’s all good. A satisfied dog isn’t annoying.

Think about the difference of being tired after a day full of unpleasant errands, and a metric ton of annoying crap to deal with. By the end of the day you’re drained and tired but not necessarily happy or relaxed. Compare that with a day that is similarly taxing, mentally and physically, but full of stuff you love. I love to hike in untrailed wilderness, finding my way by my wits and my compass. There’s plenty of walking up steep hills, and a healthy dollop of ducking and dodging branches and clambering over downed trees or up rocky ledges. It’s physical and mental. By the end of the day, I’m empty but full. You know? Compare that to heading to the gym and running on a treadmill, then lifting some weights. Afterwards, to exercise my brain, I’d do half an hour of calculus homework. Both days would tax me, both days would challenge me, and by the end of both days I’d be tired and well worked – mentally and physically. But only one would satisfy me.

Dogs have innate, instinctual needs. They vary in intensity from breed to breed, but all dogs possess some basic needs. These include running, chasing, hunting, gripping/biting, and chewing. In Asking A Lot, I talk about meeting a dog’s needs:

I come from the school of thought that all living beings learn and “perform” best when their needs are met. Don’t ask me to braid your hair or give you a ride to the mall when I’m hungry or haven’t slept. Similarly, you can’t ask a GSD puppy to be a good boy when his needs for chewing, running, etc. have not been met.

Most of the dog training books I have read stress this as well. Most authors of dog books, whether training manuals or philosophical musings, discuss basic dog needs: running/chasing and gripping/chewing. They stress the need to satisfy dogs, to provide opportunities for them to experience satiation of these predatory urges. They talk about ways to do this, such as playing fetch and tug, and doing things that simulate the hunt. My shorthand for this is “let dogs be dogs.” While much easier said than done, I have set up my life and my training (meager as it is) around finding ways to allow my dogs to be dogs, as safely as possible. My “program,” if one could call it that (one friend calls it doggie boot camp!), is that simple. I make sure my dogs are enabled to be dogs and fully express their dogness every day. They trade their agenda for mine even in the midst of practicing this “being dogs” thing we do, reliably and completely.

[…]

I assess all the ways things could go sideways and then head out the door with the swirling and bounding mass of dogflesh carrying me like a wave … and I let it happen. We go. They flow over rock walls and the steep and pitted hillside, and I let them go, enjoying their athleticism and power. Their explosive acceleration when a chipmunk sounds the air raid siren takes my breath away. The puppy’s wobbly gait shifts gears when a catalyzing scent transforms her into a canine freight train.

[W]hen the stars line up, I linger. I take the long way. I amble and daydream, letting my gaze go soft focus. I am discovering that for this pack, more time at a chipmunk hole seems to translate into even deeper peacefulness later on when I want to sit down and write. I let the dogs determine the pace of the walk on these mornings and try to hold my tongue: no yelling, no commands, no sense of time pressure. I work to keep the pack together but not necessarily moving forward. A mile walk can take an hour if we allow it to be a mile of sniffing, digging, and looking up trees.

A friend recently mentioned to me about the power of sniffing for a dog. So simple, and for so many owners so annoying. Letting a dog sniff, endlessly if they so desire, is gold to a dog. The richness and depth of canine experience of scent is hard for mere mortals to imagine. But for the dog, just sniffing – reading the pee mail – is profoundly satisfying.

Similarly play, with a well-matched canine partner, is uniquely and powerfully satisfying for dogs. For those of us that have had human children, we know that no matter how hard we might work as parents to provide a fun and enriched compendium of childhood experiences, we know that nothing can compare with unstructured and unsupervised play with a well-matched human playmate. Kids just plain need time away from adults to be kids, to fully express their kid self. Dogs, the same. They benefit from positive interactions with peers in ways that no matter what we do… we can never be that. The unbridled dogness of play is such a heart-melting joy to watch because it is so perfectly satisfying and beyond what we humans can provide. It’s like watching magic happen.

It’s this type of experience – of the unfettered dogness of sniffing, playing, racing each other (ever see one dog start to run, a pack mate joins in, the two exchange a look, and then peeewwwwww! The race is on!), listening to distant hawks and nearby songbirds, and stiffening at the too near sounds of civilization – that leads to the deep satisfaction I am talking about. Letting them go – fully, safely, in the right environment — can mean not a tired dog (although fatigue may be a byproduct) but a satisfied dog. Providing the ability for a dog to find profound joy and soul satisfaction is my goal. The by product is a peaceful home and “good” dogs.

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Having Your Cake and Eating It Too

I have a love-hate relationship with dog training. I love watching my dogs grow and learn and deepen their relationship with me or Tom. Now that COVID-19 has changed how certain titles can be evaluated, Hawkitt earned his first AKC title. Since I can earn additional ones via video… I think it’s a safe guess that he’ll be earning more. Bindi too.

I love seeing them think, struggle, put forth effort, and have “ah-ha!” moments. I love the differences between them, how Peeka loves us but hates complying, and Hawkitt loves complying and is a lot less fussy about who or what he’s complying with. Bindi has a sassy streak that is adorably naughty, but respects my authority when I whip it out. And Brody is hapless but sweet and just glows with pride when he stumbles into compliance. I would never experience any of this if I didn’t try to do some semblance of formal training with them.

But training means interacting with trainers, no matter how minimally, whether online or in person, and trainers are a breed unto themselves. Because I live in a vast dog training wasteland, hours from all but very few possible options, I check out a bunch of trainers who ply their trade online. Some are wonderful. Some are not. Most are a mixed bag, with some great insights and some whoopsies and gaffes sprinkled in amongst the gems.

One thing I’ve noticed of late is that many of these online trainers focus heavily upon puppies. Getting off on the right paw with your new puppy is important, of course, and the focus on this makes great sense. If you create a solid foundation, you set the stage for a lifetime of fun. I know I’m preaching to the choir when I say every pup needs and deserves this.

The devil is in the details, but most trainers, breeders, and veterinarians would agree that good food in appropriate quantities, safe and clean shelter, veterinary care as needed, basic training, and exposure to a wide range of stimuli would be a good place to begin. I am totally in this camp. I agree wholeheartedly – providing these elements is key. Doing so is also fun and satisfying for most puppy owners. Raising a puppy is a delightful experience that most people really enjoy.

The problem with the emphasis many trainers place on this first year of balanced nurturance and challenge is this: what about the dogs that don’t receive a decent first year? This is where I see great trainers fall face first into serious gaffes – they say “well, that doesn’t matter.” Huh? If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it 25 times: “Don’t tell me the dog’s story. It doesn’t matter.” The message, phrased many different ways, boils down to this: if you focus on the dog’s past, despite it being substandard by all accounts, you are failing the dog. You are a helicopter dogmom. You are the worst of what furmamas represent, a whining excuser of bad behavior that spoils the dog and fetishizes the sob story.

My response is – which is it? Is the first year important or not? Do we want to focus on it and create reams of text, videos, training protocols, etc., driving home the critical importance of a solid foundation in the first year? Or do we shrug and say “it doesn’t matter” when the dog that shows up for class has received none of that? Because you can’t have it both ways.

In a recent live discussion on Facebook, I asked the question “what would you expect from a dog that received NONE of what we identified as important during that first year?” The answers – offered by a group of experienced and knowledgeable dog folks – were instructive:

  • Inability to socialize with people and dogs;
  • When they shut down or turn off it’s difficult to train;
  • they will not thrive as a companion, but on survival mode;
  • They can have both physical and mental issues;
  • Physical, mental, “emotional” issues;
  • Aggressive or shy

The bottom line is this: dogs that have had a Not Good Enough first year do not respond to normal training in normal or predictable ways. In fact, they do not respond to normal stimuli in normal or predictable ways. Here’s an example, and yes, this really happened. You can all guess which dog it was. My friend was feeding cheese as a treat to a dog who was doing a beautiful sit for treats. When the cheese was gone, my friend turned away to put the wrapper in her backpack. Once her back was turned, the dog nailed the treat giver. Bit her hard. Why? Who knows. She was engaged and working for treats 2 seconds prior.

Another example? Brody snarls and lunges at me at least once every day. He has lived here for almost 3 years. He loves Tom and me. He accepts our authority. He is obedient. He has learned routines and commands, and plays fetch and other games nicely with both of us. And he loses his mind and has what I call “behavioral seizures” every day. He will charge me if I shift from daydreaming to concentrating on something. He has charged me, barking and snarling, because I juiced a lemon, opened a bottle of wine, or used a different knife than usual. If I look at my phone and do not touch it, he will bark and snarl at me. He flips out when we flush the toilet. At night, he barks like a maniac at the ceiling. He reacts to things on TV – not just doorbells or the sound of knocking, but changes in emotional level of the actors. Changes in background music. And so on. He has never bitten anyone, but his responses to normal stimuli are not remotely normal.

It was Phillippa who used the term “trauma informed care” during the live conversation and I think she nailed it. Trauma informed training speaks to the notion that training must be informed by the dog’s experiences. Pretending they don’t matter is arrogant at best, and dangerous at worst. How much of the dogs’ behaviors are “choices” or training issues, and how much are physiological or due to neurological damage? That’s always a question, but in order to answer it you need to know the dog’s history. You need all the information to determine what’s important and what isn’t.

In Asking A Lot, I address this head on:

Saying “I work with the dog in front of me” is a copout. Information is helpful. A good trainer can weed out the relevant from the irrelevant, the helicoptering furmama foolishness from the critical veterinary history. Great example of this: Brody used to poop in his crate when I crated him overnight. A trainer could employ all manner of behavioral interventions to eradicate this revolting behavior. But knowing that Brody has malrotation of the small intestine and partial situs inversus (in lay person’s terms, his guts are all fucked up) changes the expectation of how long he can hold his poop and how urgently he needs to go, and how much pain he is in at different moments when food moves through those screwy guts. Any trainer working with him deserves to have the full picture. And any trainer who discounts the full picture doesn’t deserve to work with him.

P.S. He doesn’t poop in the crate anymore. I changed feeding times and food texture. Problem solved.

The dogs I have dedicated my dog-owning life to need trauma informed care and training. Peeka and Brody were not fed regularly and landed at the shelter at almost one year of age with severe malnutrition. Peeka was 27 pounds. Think about that for a moment – the shelter was a huge IMPROVEMENT in Peeka’s life. The shelter was the first place she lived where she was fed regularly. The shelter was better than home. Chew on that for a while. Trainers, you cannot have your cake and eat it too. If that first year matters, then dogs that have been starved, beaten, or simply neglected prior to age one need to be seen for what they are. The damage needs to be acknowledged. The discomfort of being with an unpredictable, scary dog that might flip on you at any moment for any reason – knowable or utterly unknowable – is part of life with imperfect dogs. And the limits to what they can do, and to what degree they can overcome their past will vary from dog to dog. It will be a factor of innate qualities in the dog, quality of the training, and the magic of the bond. They may grow, develop, change, and mature into amazing companions… but not without trauma informed care.

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