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.

Dog Training Begins with our Eyes

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

What is your dog doing?

It’s funny. When I ask this people almost always answer the wrong question. He’s acting shy. He wants food. These are answers that come from our brain. These are answers about what we think our dog might be feeling or thinking. But the question is what is your dog doing? The answer to that question does not come from our brain. It comes from our eyes. Look. Pay attention. What is he doing?

We dog trainers (you as a trainer) are in the business of behavior. Behavior is what our dog is doing. Behavior is physical movement in time and space. Behavior is verbs. Watch. What is your dog doing?

Is he walking? Is he running? Is his chest moving? Is his tail wagging? Are his ears twitching? Is he licking his lips? Is he barking? What is happening now in this moment and in this place? These are questions for our eyes. What do we see?

I like to do this. Sit and relax in a chair or on the ground. Watch your dog. Observe without judgement. It’s more fun if he doesn’t know you are watching him. Track his movement. Take note. What is he doing? Don’t worry about good or bad. Let go of what your dog might be thinking or feeling. Notice the actions, your dog’s behavior. Try not to interrupt. Be the dispassionate observer. Jane Goodall. David Attenborough. Ethologist on safari.

It’s fascinating.

After a while go back to life-as-normal. Think of what you saw. What did your dog do? Are there some things you would like to see him do again?  Set aside right and wrong. Think of the things you’d like your dog to do more frequently. What would you ask to see again?

I suggest a short list. Maybe it’s just one action. Observe and reinforce. You can use food. Observe and reinforce. Turn it into a habit. Your dog looks at you. Reinforce. That’s one example. He sits when you walk in the door. Reinforce. That’s another example. Dogs do these things all the time. You’ve seen him do it.

Because you were watching and paying attention. That’s where training begins.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, Texas.

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.