Lessons from the Living Room (Suffering)

One of my colleagues recently wrote this (paraphrasing):  Attempts at dog training often fail because the owner isn’t suffering or hasn’t suffered enough.  It’s a harsh statement, yes.  Nevertheless, it’s often quite true. Complacency inspires nothing, and nothing is quite as inspiring (and reinforcing) as suffering interrupted. My colleague is spot on.  Action is often borne of agony.  We trainers know the technical term for this: Negative Reinforcement.

We hear our clients begging for it all the time.  Make my dog stop (you fill in the blank).  He’s aggressive.  He’s out of control.  He has ADHD, dominance, and stubbornness.  At some point the labels we slap on things aren’t enough to ease the pain.  We call out for help.  We’ve suffered enough and it’s time for something to happen.

I work with people whose dogs have bitten people or other dogs.  If they haven’t bitten, they’ve growled or snarled or lunged.  These are good people; many are very good people.  They love their dogs.  “He’s a good dog,” they tell me.  Their voices are soft, pleading.  They mean it.  “I love him.  I just want him to stop this.“  And then they ask me why.  Why does he act this way?  Why is this happening?  Some cry.

Suffering shines a harsh light on things.  There is the world the way we hoped it would be.  Then there is the world the way it is.  Sometimes the two match up.  More often they don’t.  The humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers called this incongruence.  We form an ideal self, a perfect life; and then we struggle to conjure it into reality.  So I listen to people who love their dogs tell me about the life they dreamt.  “I got him for my son,” they say.  Or, “I just wanted a running buddy.”  Or, “I want to pet him, and cuddle.”  They pause.  “But ….”

Incongruence.  Suffering.  The dog bites, growls, lunges.  He won’t be touched.  He is not like the last dog, the perfect dog, the one from childhood.  This dog doesn’t match up.  “I love him.”  But.  More tears.

My colleague is a trainer emeritus of sorts.  Though not yet retired, he’s taken on the title early, a plainspoken Texas Man who’s found wisdom helping folks with their dogs over the past twenty-some years.  It’s strange, though no less profound, what we can learn from people and dogs in their living rooms.  Life is suffering.  The Buddha’s First Nobel Truth is frequently misunderstood.  The literal translation of suffering (dukkha) takes us a bit further than mere discontent.  Life’s pain is the hinge of change; it is temporary and conditional.  Incongruence, for Carl Rogers, was one of the first keys to change in our lives.  The beginning, not the end.  It puts us on notice that life is not what we expected or dreamed of, but that it is nonetheless our life.  For the Buddha it’s also about contrast.  Suffering leads us to compassion.

There are steps to helping dogs who are frightened and angry as a result, the ones who bite and all the rest.  They are not all that unlike the steps we take to help our fellow humans, small steps, gentle.  We begin wherever we are and move forward as best we can, slowly at first.  There is always a helper, a trainer like me or my colleague, friends.  And yes, there are the dreams for which we still reach, or the memories of the last dog, the perfect one, the one we mourn in the face of the one we have.  The wish.  The reality.

The lessons, taught well and practiced faithfully yield results.  The pain eases and the hinge moves more freely.  Behavior changes.  The dog does stop (fill in the blank), and new behavior replaces old.  Life imagined more closely matches life at hand.  People smile.  I wish them well and eventually move on to the next dog, to the next living room.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ll stay at this as long as my senior colleague.  It’s been nearly 30 years for him now.   Perhaps like me, he is drawn by what he learns as much as by what he teaches.   Life is dukkha.  Only when it’s crushed and ground does wheat transform to flour; and before it becomes bread flour is put to flame.  The work is hard at times.  I’ve cried for clients, even with them.  The lesson is compassion.  What else is to be learned from unavoidable suffering?  Smile kindly at the client who is pleading and questioning.  She is your teacher.  Love the dog who wants to hurt you.  His suffering is teaching you to care more effectively.  It is the grist that eventually feeds us.

Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA teaches dog training in Houston, TX.  He specializes in counseling families with fearful and aggressive dogs.