What Dog Training Taught me About Life (so far)

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

I’m just going to put this out there. Life is hard right now. Don’t get me wrong. Life is also beautiful and there’s a lot of joy to be had. Yes, that is true and cause for gratitude. And also – right now a lot of folks are suffering. We are in a pandemic that seems relentless. Natural disasters sometimes seem unnaturally frequent and intense. We are divided and at each other’s throats over just about everything and anything (including the pandemic and natural disasters). I won’t even mention politics. Because really do I have to? Even when the day-to-day seems to be humming along there is an undercurrent of suffering. Some have gone so far as to identify it an epidemic of despair. 

I am not immune and I doubt you are either. And I don’t have all the answers, that’s for sure. But, maybe I have one or two answers worthy of your consideration. They are things I’ve learned from working with my favorite teachers: dogs.

Call in help. Just about everyone reading this at one point called me for help with their dog. All of us need to remember that wisdom now. When shit gets hard in life – when the despair seems too heavy to carry – when the irritability and sadness seem overwhelming – call in help. No, don’t call your dog trainer (I’m not qualified). Call in family, friends, clergy, mental health professionals. We are social creatures (we share that with dogs, too). We are not built to work this stuff out alone. And we don’t have to. Rally the team around you. And for real, if life feels hard like it’s never felt hard before – call 911. They can help.

Break things down. We all do this when we are working with our dogs (remember the term “splitting?). Big problems are made up of small parts. When we look at them as a whole they can feel like indomitable monsters. Don’t do that. Look at the smaller parts. Choose one. Begin there.

Expect change. This is the constant nature of all things: Change. Yes, things sometimes change for the worse. Just as often, they change for the better. Expect it. Use it. Our actions influence change as well. None of this is permanent. Knowing that leads to hope and hope leads to, well, more change. It’s the stuff of life.

Play. Dogs do it. Play is healing balm for all social creatures. It inspires laughter, conversation, and  interconnectedness. My neighbors and I will very likely never vote for the same political candidate. But, it is equally doubtful we will ever miss our weekend game night either. Give it a try. Or at least give it some thought.

When in doubt lead with kindness. I work with aggressive dogs. That means many of them want to bite me. And yet, I’ve only actually been bitten a handful of times. Why? Kindness works. Make no mistake. Kindness is not weakness. It’s smart and it’s strong. I use the word lead with intention. Kindness is our first move and it’s also how we lead. I mentioned calling in help. Why not call with help, too? Take the lead. Call a friend or family member with a little morsel of kindness. Send your veteriarian a thank you card (they are working their butts off). When you ask someone “how ya doin’?” make eye contact. Stay present. Listen. Be kind. Smile at a stranger. Kindness is just about the only thing we can give away and still lose nothing. In fact, we usually get some extra in return.

It’s hard. I know (really, I know). Be kind. Hell no! Right? (Sigh). Wrong. How many times this year, this month, or this week have we all felt like – I don’t know what I can do to help. It’s too much? The answer is right there: Kindness. We’ve got that. We can do kindness. And, kindness always helps. Always.

Just ask your dogs. They can’t tell you, but they’ve been trying to show you for years.

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA lives in the same challenging moment in history as you. He teaches dog training in Houston, TX.