How a Pandemic Reintroduced me to my Dogs

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

My dog, Stella, is 10. Stewie is probably around 12. Our relationship is pretty solid. I’m a dog trainer, after all. I teach people how to build relationships with their dogs. That’s my job. But, here’s the truth. I often didn’t have time for Stella and Stewie. I’d come home from a long day with clients and crash. We’d chill together, yeah. But the day had slipped away. There was so much to do for everyone else and not enough left for them.

Stewie

Now? Well, you know. Things are different.

All of my dog training appointments are online now. I shower and get dressed (yes, really) and work here at home. My lunch breaks and coffee breaks are just downstairs. I’m guessing this isn’t all that different from your work days recently. We’re at home all day. Because, that’s the way it needs to be. Sure, it’s mind numbing at times. But oh, I keep thinking, what an opportunity this is as well.

By circumstance more than design I’m getting a whole new outlook on what my relationship with my dogs could be. Yes, I’ve discovered they bark much more than I ever imagined. And, yeah, they sleep way too much. But, I’m also discovering just how cool they are. Okay, I knew they were cool. But, their personalities! Senior dogs have such a gentle wisdom about them. I’m actually getting to know Stella and Stewie all over again. Let me share a little of what we’ve been doing.

We play. My old dogs still love to play. I know your younger ones do too. Stella especially loves playing tug and retrieving. It’s refreshing really. The time I would have normally spent driving between clients I can now use to take a breath and play. Play is like the cement that bonds social animals. I can tell you with certainty that it crosses species lines. You want to really get to know your dog? Take some time today to play with him. If you have more than one dog, sit back and watch them play with each other. It can be a beautiful dance.

We walk. What I really mean is we explore. Stella and Stewie do okay walking on leash. What we really like, though, is exploring off-leash. We walk the narrow path along the drainage creek back to the green space behind our subdivision. I’ve spent years teaching these two a strong recall. We practice it every walk. The safer option is just as good. Take your dog out to a wooded area or field on a long line. They love to wander around and sniff. It’s great physical and mental activity.

We train. We practice coming when called every walk. I mentioned that. Next week we will start teaching mat work at the front door. I’ve taught this to hundreds of client dogs. I think it’s time I take on the challenge with my own dogs. Don’t you? Haha.

Stella

We hang out. Life goes by so fast. Our dogs are puppies and then just like that we look over and they are white-faced and cloudy-eyed. Where did the time go? And, where was I all that time? Sorry I’m so late. I’m here now.

Most evenings I just get down on the floor for them. They don’t care how long it’s been or what I’m wearing or even if I’ve showered. One or the other comes in for the huddle. Usually it’s the pair, like an old married couple. They totter over and plop themselves down. And, we don’t do anything. We just share the moment and settle in.

It’s funny how many details we miss when we don’t really look. Their toes and the soft fur in between. The way their mouth curls up at the corners like they are smiling. Their eyes, heavy, when we rub their bellies. Sometimes I just watch them breath – and then notice how my breathing falls in with theirs. It’s a kind of meditation, letting the rest of the world fall away just to be present in this one moment. Stella. Stewie. Me. Nothing else.

What an opportunity. And they were right here the whole time waiting, these damned dogs. All it took was for the world to go crazy enough and grind to a stop, so that we could pause and find our sanity again – in them.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He’s currently offering online behavior consultations.

A Message to my Dog Trainer Friends

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

My dog’s have had a month’s worth of walks this week. My eyes, unfit for staring at a screen so long, are weary from webinars and online dog training consults. My treat bag, empty and freshly cleaned, is in a cupboard. Putting it there felt like an act of surrender.

We trainers are masters of behavior change. Change the environment; change the behavior. One small change (as small as a virus) can have huge effect. It’s what we teach. It can happen quickly, fast enough to be startling. It’s what we are learning.

Stay at home. They asked politely then ordered it. Then, how quickly everything stopped. Phone calls. Consults. Classes. And, we’re afraid. It would be wrong to discount that fear. There’s rent and the mortgage and the car payment and the family and employees. And this may be the biggest thing. There’s the unknown. We don’t even know how far this will go or what may be at risk.

But, here’s the other thing. It would be equally wrong to discount who we are as a community – who you are as an individual. We don’t all have the same story. But, I bet all of us trainers can tell stories about someone who told us what we can’t do. You can’t just start a business from nothing. You can’t earn that certification so fast. You can’t help that dog – make a difference to that family. You can’t change the culture of dog training. And time and time again you – you – answered with strength and determination. Watch me.

Last night I stared into the darkness hoping sleep would come. My mind was stuck on a spin cycle of thoughts. “We are all in this together” That is so cliché. (But, clichés, every one of them, are rooted in truth). How can I help? I’ll write? What will I write? There are no words (f’ing cliché). There is no way to make this all better. So many are so much more afraid than I am. Survivor’s guilt. I need to fix this. I need to sleep.

Everyone suffers.

That’s where I landed. And, that’s when sleep took me.

A friend and a trainer wrote on Facebook “Who knew chemo/cancer treatment would adequately prepare me for a pandemic in 2020? I’ve been self quarantining and social distancing for 18 months.” Suffering. It’s universal. It’s tied in with being human. We all have our stories. We’ve all been felled, face down in the dirt, spitting out blood. The business that failed. The marriage that failed. The body that failed – cancer – heart – the passing of years. The life that goes on. Better times and joy. And, the comeback story. What came to me just before sleep is an ancient truth. Suffering, life’s tragedies, the big and the small of it – that’s the common ground on which we all stand. Every one has a story. Every one of us. And we’ve all suffered. It’s in the fine print. There’s no getting out of it.

My dad grew up in the Great Depression. He was one of 7 kids. His father was a traveling salesman. When the world came to a grinding stop and no one wanted to see a salesman because no one was buying anything because no one had money (no one), my grandfather struck a deal. He went to the owner of the company and said, “We both know I’m your best salesman. Carry me through this and I’ll pay you back when it’s all over.” You can’t do that. But, he did. And as a nation we rallied as well. We built bridges and dams and tunnels and theaters, huge projects against the protests of you can’t. A few years later Germany started bombing London night after night. 32,000 people were killed. Winston Churchill vowed that the British Empire would live on and that “men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.'” The audacity.

Because that’s what we humans do. Because as universal as suffering is, so too is our capacity for compassion and immeasurable strength. All that was remarkably human about The Greatest Generation, my Dad’s generation, is equally remarkable about us as humans today. Watch us.

There are moments history by which we measure who we were against who we became. The Great Depression. The World Wars. Vietnam. 9-11. Perhaps this moment in history is one of those. In our own training community it is likely that how we teach and learn as dog trainers is already changing. Our colleagues are stepping up and standing out with fresh thinking and new ideas. I have no doubt that around the world trainers are, right now, developing new methods of teaching and new ways to train better. We are writing and collaborating (at a distance) and finding profound inspiration in these quieter stay-at-home moments. Another one of my trainer friend has identified this as a time to “start creating.” Change, sometimes painful, is the natural way of things.

In my past career in TV news I had the opportunity to meet a young man who’d been badly injured in Iraq. His vehicle ran over an IED (Improvised explosive device). He was burned over half his body including his face. Recovery from burns is indescribable suffering. He was permanently and irreparably disfigured. We interviewed him for our report and listed to him tell us about the dreams he had once had: the love of a woman, a family and holding his child, a career after service, his body, his face, days and weeks and months and years without pain, a future and old age. He spoke with that wisdom of years he had not yet lived. “But now I have to set some of those dreams aside.” He paused. “And dream new dreams.”

I began this year with a plan. My “start creating” trainer friend talked me into getting one of those hard-bound yearly planners. Goals and action points and that sort of thing. On the very first page I listed a goal of mediating every day for 20 minutes (a goal I’ve kept). Half way down the page the planner asks for reasons why this goal is important. In my messy block printing I wrote “To become more comfortable with groundlessness.” It’s a reference to the Buddhist teaching that all things are impermanent (even suffering). Change is the constant story of nature. Beginnings and endings and every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. (Closing Time by Semisonic). The more we struggle with change, the more we suffer. The more we connect with compassion for ourselves and others, the less we suffer.

It would be a mistake to underestimate how hard this might be  – the groundless uncertainty of it. But you, my dear trainer friends, were born to navigate this path. And you are not alone. And countless others have wandered deep into the unknown ahead of you, brave and scared. It would be a mistake in equal measure to underestimate you – your resilience, your lateral thinking, your creativity and force of wit. And if anyone dares to doubt you, take a breath. Feel the ground moving under you, move with it, and tell them straight up. “Just you watch.”

Michael Baugh is a dog trainer in Houston, TX. As of this writing he is staying at home until the pandemic subsides.

Video Remote Dog Behavior Help

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

I’ve actually be doing remote dog training consultations with clients for long time, mostly for dogs who are too fearful or aggressive to tolerate anyone being in their home – and sometimes for people who are outside my in-person service area. Teaching and training at a distance is nothing new for me. You could say I’ve been preparing for this age of social distancing for years.

Setting goals together. The first thing I do in any consultation is listen. More than anything I want to know what is important to you. What matters most for you and your life with your dog. Tell me what’s going on. Before our consultation you’ll have completed a questionnaire to give me some background. During the conversation online (or in person) we can fill in some gaps. I want to know what’s troubling you and your dog.

That leads us to setting concrete goals for our work together. Once we have goals jotted down we can lay out a training plan for our dog. How are we going to fix the stuff we don’t like? How are we going to teach you dog to be the best version of himself?

Dog Behavior change is rooted in training. If we want our dogs to stop doing bad stuff (dangerous stuff), we have to teach him what we want him to do instead. That’s how we change our dog’s behavior. We know what we want him to stop doing. Let’s set some new boundaries and safety measures for our life with out dog, of course.  But now what do we want him to actually do? We can make a list of things you’ve already taught him. And, let’s map out the skills he still needs to learn. That’s the heart and soul of our behavior change plan.

The mechanics and timing of dog training. The foundation of dog training is actually human learning. Whether we are in the same room or connected by a live video link, trainers are teaching their clients how to communicate with dogs. Dog training is about learning mechanical skills and good timing – what behavior are we asking the dog to do? How are we letting him know when he gets it right so he does it again? How do we time all that so it is a clear and understandable message for the dog?  We trainers teach a series of simple but crucial human skills:

  • How to position our bodies
  • Where to place or rest our hands
  • When to click
  • When to reach for the treat bag (and when not to)
  • How to deliver the food reinforcement
  • And how to cue. Yes, we teach the cue last in many cases.

The best way to teach these human skills is by demonstrating. Then we observe while our human client tries these new moves out for themselves. We can do this with clients in person, yes. And, it’s just as effective when taught using a visual link in real time with a laptop or tablet.

Watch this. Many of us are visual learners. A dog behaviorist or trainer on remote consultation will often demonstrate a skill live on the video link using his or her own dog. That can be fun. But one of the coolest parts of doing a video remote is the ability to share our screen so we can show you detailed pre-recorded video instructions in real time. Often the best way to make a lesson clear and relatable is to show how it is taught – but also how it will look when it’s done. That, in my opinion, is one of the real advantages of remote video learning. You have all the resources on my laptop right there at your fingertips.

Follow up.  Once we are done working together you’ll want to have resources you can reference days, even weeks later. No problem. We’ll record our consultation for  you and then share it for you to review at your convenience. And, we’ll send out the notes we took during our session in a comprehensive report:

  • Your goals
  • The plan agreed on together
  • And all the exercises we covered
  • Plus links to relevant videos and other resources

We’ll also stay connected every day using our exclusive online training journal.

Remote dog training and behavior consultations are full-service. They are, I daresay, as good if not better in some cases than in-person work. They are:

  • Convenient to schedule (we often do remote consults at times we would to be able to see clients in person).
  • Not limited by geography. It doesn’t matter where you live in the world.
  • Safe and distraction free.
  • Less expensive.

All that said, please don’t misunderstand me. I do like meeting people and their dogs in person. Of course I do. But more than anything, I like helping people and their dogs. I’m genuinely happy there is technology and know-how available so that you can get tha help no matter how far we are from each other.

 

 

Michael Baugh and Victoria Thibodeaux teach dog training in Houston, TX. But, through remote consultations they are able to help people and their dogs around the world.