The Life-Changing Power of “Decompression Walks.”

 

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” – John Muir

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

We need this. We need moments to pause, to stand in awe of beauty, to take in a deep breath and whisper “wow” on the exhale. Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to get out, let go, and decompress.

I’d heard about the simple but profound power of walking with a dog in nature. Dr. Lore Haug routinely prescribes what she calls Long-Line-Walks in green spaces away from other dogs and people. Sarah Stremming coined the term “Decompression Walk” in her podcast, Cog-Dog Radio. It’s a walk on a long leash or off-leash in nature, allowing the dog to move freely, pause, sniff, be. I knew the concept. I even embraced it and recommended it. But, I hadn’t experienced it. Not really. Not until now.

Michael and Tim with Stella and Stewie

My husband, Tim, and I both work from home these days. And, it turns out home can be wherever we want it to be, so long as there’s a strong internet connection. So, we packed up Stella and Stewie and drove to Sedona, Arizona for the month. It turns out the internet connection isn’t so strong here after all. And, I won’t bedazzle you with stories of the mythic vortices, or the new age vibe. In fact, the rhythm and roll of the town is decidedly human, with all of our decidedly human aspirations and faults. So be it.

But none of that detracts from the place itself, nestled in the Arizona Desert but higher up where the air can cool at night, with sweeping views of bold red and green against blinding blue sky, and mile after mile of  trails – packed mud and sand and red stone trails.

I don’t know of any studies. The data is all anecdotal, stories from trainers and dog enthusiasts. Walks in the green spaces just out of town, or on the beaches further off, or on the red rocks and dust outside our door here, are life-changing for our dogs. Aggressive dogs learn to self-regulate more easily. Fearful dogs gain confidence. The unruly and misfitted find their way. The slow and the aged reclaim some youth. Is it the exercise? Certainly. Is it that freedom to move willfully without our constant tug and correction? Yes, absolutely. Is it the chance to pause and sniff – to sniff for as long as needed and longer – to sniff at every chance, every rock, every shrub, every delightful blade of tall brown grass? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I pulled a cactus needle from the tip of Stellas nose and I still have no doubt the sharp point of it was well worth the delicious scent. The power of these walks, I am convinced, is from all of this and so much more we still don’t fully understand.

Stewie and Tim on Bell Rock

Stewie is 13, maybe 14. He’s lean and muscular, a Chihuahua Cocker Spaniel design according to the DNA. He loves his walks. But his strut seems even more pronounced with the desert under his paws, scaling rocks two and three times his height, climbing mountain trails to overlooks 30-stories up.

Stella is 11. She has hip dysplasia and arthritis. We keep her on the flat and easy trails and steady her up the rocks and gentle inclines along the way. We stop when she stops. And, we take in the moment with her – the stunning views, the fresh and new scents, the feel of the warm dry air all around us.

In the evening we watch the sun set the day aside and blow in the cooler air. We all eat our fill and rest our bodies on soft furniture (or cool tile floor).  I wonder, almost every evening now, how such a simple thing can be so profound, how pausing can be so powerful, how the natural world – so essential to our being, to every living being’s existence – has slipped away. We built over it, built around it, built up our lives to forget it.

Stella

And these are the very things we need to remember, the things we need the most. A moment to decompress. A deep inhale and a quiet exhale, standing high on a rocky path still warm from the midday sun. Life, our own and others, all around us – and our dog a few feet away. She is staring at the dirt, or maybe it’s a bug, or a lizard flitting under a rock, or a scent still fresh from who knows what. She’s seen more than 4-thousand days, but none as important as this. She’s traveled a thousand miles, but not a step has been more important than the last that brought her to this place. She is, in this moment, fully dog, unfettered, un-fussed-with, allowed to be and become more of who she is.

I quietly take out my phone and snap the photo. And, I think to myself. “Wow.”

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA teaches dog training in Houston TX and Sedona AZ. He specializes in aggressive dog behavior.

Postcard from the Pandemic – Lessons from Life with Dogs

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Training our dog can sometimes feel overwhelming. Where do we start? What’s next? When can I stop worrying? (Aggressive dog behavior is, after all, potentially dangerous). How will I be able to relax and have fun with my dog again? The questions and the thoughts can get all mixed up in our heads. It can feel like too much.

And then there’s the comparing of our dogs against the other dogs we know. My dog’s not as good as theirs. Or that person’s dog behaves so much better. Or he just did this or that and his dog was fine. There’s so much self doubt and judging.

A dog business colleague posted some raw and vulnerable truth online today. It was a mix of I love my job and my job is hard and I put everything into my work and sometimes I suffer and sometimes it’s really really hard and I am strong. She posted a photo of herself. It was simple. Beautiful. Black and white. Somehow, all of those thoughts and feelings ended up right there in the picture. So too, did the elephant in the room. The world feels upside down right now. Life is crazy and sometimes scary (Covid is, after all, potentially dangerous). I read her post and looked at the photo and thought, “Yeah, I feel ya. I feel all of that.”

It’s been in my head for a while that dog training is sort of a metaphor for life in general. Our relationships with our dogs are like microcosms – simpler, easier, test runs for our relationship with one another and the world at large. That is the gift of Dogs. Are our relationships with them sometimes messy, difficult, and exhausting? Yes. All that. Is it also messy, difficult, and exhausting living with each other in the world right now? Be honest. It is. Right?

When my clients get overwhelmed (I cherish you all, by the way), my advice is almost always to take a short break. Then, focus on the small goals we’ve set. Where do we start? Here, with the dog in front of us. What’s next? The attainable tasks at hand. We set ourselves up to succeed so we can get that first sweet taste of success. And, then we keep going. When can I stop worrying? Anytime. Right now. We are doing the work. How will I be able to relax and have fun? Ah, now there’s the question. For me it’s about sitting and noticing –  noticing my dogs, noticing you, noticing the here and the now. So often we get caught up in our heads. We take in a small bit of information and we build an entire epic around it. We project ourselves into a future we don’t yet know. Or we cast ourselves back to rewrite the past. Forward and back, we end up running circles. “Relaxing” and “fun” spin off to the sides because our thoughts are moving too fast. And, I feel ya. I feel all of that.

I’m still talking about dog training here but really I’m talking about everything else, too. We’re under pressure. There’s the virus and the uncertainty and the friends and family whose fuses seem so much shorter now. And there’s the isolation – figurative and literal. And there’s the comparing. Are they handling all this better than I am? Do they have answers I don’t? Self doubt. Judging.

Stay in the metaphor if you like. Or, we can still call this “dog training advice.” Either way.

  • Set yourself up to succeed today with clear, easy, and measurable goals.
  • Small wins add up.
  • Take stock in the progress you’ve already made.
  • Look for the joy in the process.
  • Connect (with your dog – but also other people)
  • Avoid nonsense advice (especially online)
  • Be here right now.
  • Observe without judging.
  • Reinforce generously.

We are not alone. Clichés are so annoying because they are true. My clients know this: When they suffer and struggle with their dogs, they are in good company. Many others are on the path with them. And, the path is well worn with foot prints and paw prints from those who have gone before. And, here is where this microcosm of life with dogs shines a clear light on the bigger picture. We really are in this together. At some level on any given day we are all dealing with our own private shit storms – with our dogs, with family, with friends, with an invisible virus, and with a political landscape we can’t stop looking at. This isn’t a misery-loves-company essay. And, at the same time, even that cliché carries a bit of truth. If we can feel the angst, or suffering, or pain, or whatever you want to call it – then we can relate to it in others. This is how we access compassion. This is how we connect (even when we are physically distant) to others. This is how we care for others and for ourselves at the same time, by remembering we are not alone. These very personal feelings we are feeling are actually universal.

This is what I was reminded of today, looking at a stark monochrome photo of a woman under the heavy weight of her own thoughts and feelings. It’s not just you. It’s not just me. We’re feeling it together. That crushing weakness. That badass strength. All of it at the same time, right here in this moment. Pull compassion from these feelings. Set goals, add them up, and take stock. There’s joy in the process. Be kind and generous with yourself  because Reinforcement Drives Behavior.

Michael Baugh is a dog trainer in Houston TX. He specializes in aggressive dog behavior.

Anticipatory Grief: The Sadness Before Losing a Beloved Dog

 

There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear. 

–  Rudyard Kipling, The Power of a Dog

 

Michael Baugh KPA-CTP CPDT-KSA CDBC

I heard crying in the other room. There was Tim, my husband, clutching our dog Stewie. “What’s wrong,” I asked. “I don’t want him to die,” he answered. I could barely make out the words through the sobbing. “He’s growing old.” Stewie, very much alive, 13 and white-faced (but healthy), had no idea what was going on. But, I did. I knew because I’d been here before.

My late dog, Juno, was 11 1/2 when she died. The cancer started 18 months earlier. And really, that’s when the grieving started too. Mast cell. The words didn’t mean much to me at the time, but the look on my vet’s face said all I needed to know – all that I already knew. We all know. We die. Those we love die. Our dogs eventually die. The thing is we work so hard every day to forget. We distract ourselves. We keep busy. We fill the time or let it pass. It’s woven into being human, this knowing and not wanting to know. There are books about it. It’s the stuff of our best stories. Philosophy. Religion. This angst. Living and dying.

We forget until we can’t. Death just shows up, sometimes when we don’t expect it. Early. Shockingly. But it’s never really a surprise, not if we’re being honest with ourselves. Or it comes with a prelude, a diagnosis, a slowing body, more birthdays past than ahead. It’s a white-faced dog with dewy eyes looking up at our tear-wet face, with 13-years dragging behind us both. And, we know 15 is a dream – 17 is nearly impossible.

Anticipatory GrieStewief. It sounds clean and clinical.  Experiencing it, though, is something different. Mourning a living dog (or any pet, or person for that matter) can feel a bit – well – morbid. It can be messy and confusing. For me it felt isolating. The truth is I thought I was the rare one who would suffer such an odd thing upon myself. But, I was not.

Anticipatory Grief is normal. “Google it.” That’s what my friend Dr. Risë VanFleet said when I asked her about it. She’s a Psychologist and a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. I did Google it. The screen filled with heartbreaking normal. This is what we do. We mourn illnesses (our own and others’). We mourn the loss we know is coming. Dr. VanFleet says it’s normal to feel these feelings and even shed some tears. “It’s okay to say ‘this is going to be really rough.'” Normal doesn’t mean easy, though. Grief hurts. And, the hurting sometimes starts long before the loss.

Anticipatory Grief can feel different. Nearly all the articles on that Google search mentioned what I had experienced myself. Sometimes Anticipatory Grief is more intense than so-called simple grief after the death. When I lost Juno I was devastated. I sobbed. But, the feelings I had before were different. The crying came on faster and unexpectedly. I’d double over and hold on to her as if my tears and my grip could save her from the cancer. As if they could somehow slow time. I felt guilt because I imagined her death over and over. I felt shame because Juno was still alive (how could I do this to her?). Dr. VanFleet warns of a dark side to Anticipatory Grief. Feel the feelings but stay aware. There is the danger of letting our thoughts spiral into depression.

Anticipatory Grief can also be a good thing. I’m not a silver lining kind of guy. Dr. VanFleet doesn’t seem to be the Pollyanna type either. But, I had to wonder. If Anticipatory grief is so common (normal, in fact) does it serve a purpose? It turns out the answer is yes. Certainly it can prepare us for the loss. Don’t mistake that for getting it all out of your system (sorry, grief don’t work that way). Anticipatory Grief can, however, help us get ready for what life will be like without our dog. This is especially true if we are talking about a service dog or even an emotional support dog. In my case Juno was a dog I’d built a business with. She was my co-worker as much as a friend. Stewie is too.

 

“Think about what that animal has meant to you.” That’s Dr. Van Fleet’s advice. But, do it now while he’s still alive. “Don’t save it for later.” Maybe the greatest gift of Anticipatory Grief is this. Even while it’s casting us into the future of our dogs death, it’s also pulling us right back into the present moment. Because our dog is still with us. And, we are right here with him. Right now. “This is not a eulogy or an obituary. She is still alive. Under the desk, just inches away….” That’s the first line of a blog piece I wrote months before Juno died. I called it For Juno, but really it’s the best gift I ever gave myself. I was grieving a future that was yet to come. And I was so present with her, because ever moment mattered that much more. That’s the gift of this oddly intense early grief.

Risë VanFleet specializes in Animal Assisted Play Therapy®. Her dog Kirrie has been her partner in that work for the better part of 16 years. Kirrie is dying. It’s cancer. Months remain. Maybe weeks. They don’t know. In younger years Kirrie would sometimes disturb VanFleet while she was working, a simple ask for attention, a ball in her mouth and a plaintive look. “I’d say just a minute.” VanFleet tells the story like she’s told it before, like she loves telling it because Kirrie is her favorite subject. “I’d say it two or three times, putting her off, until I finally thought ‘is this the relationship I want to have?'” It was years ago but it feels like she’s asking again. Asking herself. Asking Kirrie. “Now I only say ‘just a minute once.’ Then I stop what I’m doing and spend a little time with her.”

Time. We measure it in years or months or weeks. But we tell it in moments. Moments with our dogs. This moment, the one we have now, the one we will hold on to when we can’t hold our dogs anymore. “We still have them.” Dr. VanFleet interrupts my wandering thoughts.  We do still have them. For now. Right now.

“He’s growing old.” Tim says again, one more time, more quietly. Stewie rests his head and curls his front legs in that melt-your-heart way he has about him. Tim quiets and the tears stop. I watch for a moment, these two, pressed one to the other, breathing in the same rhythm.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He and Tim live with two dogs, Stewie (13) and Stella (10). For more photos of Stella and Stewie visit www.facebook.com/michaelsdogs. To learn more about Dr. VanFleet’s work and see more photos of her dogs visit her professional facebook page.