July 4 festivities with Gilly and Tito – and a little rant about training for confidence and joy vs. training for fear and neuroses

Well, July 2nd. But you know.

Gilly loves fireworks. And parades, and huge drum corps, and fuggedabout bagpipes: he’s going to sing along. Loudly.

This is not magic, and it’s not ‘just his personality’ (well, the bagpipe thing probably is).

It’s because I trained him, from early life, by creating a positive experience of crowds and noise and strange events for him. Really, he usually doesn’t care much about what the main event is, because to him, the main event isn’t the lights in the sky or the marching people, it’s the festive energy of the crowd, the fried dough, the other dogs, the new smells: it’s a party for his nose and brain, and sometimes for his stomach.

Mainly, I made this positive association by making sure he went into new experiences after some good exercise so he was a bit tired-out, and by always remaining calm and relaxed and being visibly curious about new things (rather than worried about them) myself. And of course, he has leash-training so he’s safe walking around in mayhem, and always under control. He doesn’t drag me, or jump on people, or try to take off: he and I move around as one unit, and we both enjoy it. I trust him, he trusts me. Because of training, not magic.

Like all dogs, Gilly looks to me (and to a lesser degree, to the other people and dogs around), to see how he’s supposed to react to something. If I’m calm, and there’s a lot of happy energy and laughter, he follows that lead. If I’m neurotic and unhappy and loud and weird and histrionic and acting like something is wrong and he’s going to be VERY UPSET ANY SECOND BECAUSE THIS IS BAAAAD, VERY BAAAAD, AND DOGS HATE THUNDER!!!! OR WHATEVER!!!!! OR – OHMYGOD WHAT WAS THAT NOISE!?!?!?!?! – well then, he’ll be miserable. Because I told him to be, pretty much: with my own behavior and emotional state, I told him something is wrong and he should be afraid.

If something just randomly startles him, I have two choices: I can a) remain calm and help him come to terms with it so it won’t be scary next time,  or b) convey to him that SOMETHING VERY BAD JUST HAPPENED!!!!!!!  and he should be  VERY UPSET!!!!!! and OHMYGODAREYOUOKAAAYYYY??????? followed by lots of weird, confusing energy and messages which all boil down to a clear, clear signal that whatever the hell just happened, it was bad and next time it happens the human’s expectation is that the dog should freak out.

It seems like ‘conventional wisdom’ (in the press, from most dog owners, even from otherwise responsible shelters) is a message of avoidance and hysteria that guarantees that second reaction and consequence. That human and canine reaction then gets reinforced over and over again, so the negative association gets as deeply entrenched as a positive or neutral association could have in its place.

I started taking Gilly to parades and barbeques and fireworks displays and for hikes in thunderstorms as a pup, and have continued to expose him to all sorts of fun and out of the ordinary experiences – because new things can either be fun or terrifying for him, and I vote for fun.

I also exposed him to buses and air brakes and elevators and spiral staircases and electric wheelchairs; to a multitude of other dogs and people and skateboards and bikes and every other thing I could think of which might potentially be alarming or weird.

We went to obedience school starting when he was a pup (for socialization as much as for specific training), and I keep his leash manners perfect. To me, that’s safety-101: if I want to be able to walk him in town, around cars, I need to be able to rely on him to listen and to keep in heel position. If I can call him right to heel even when he’s off-leash in the woods, I also have good ability to protect him if something weird comes at him: more than once we’ve come across a bear or a snake or a skunk or porcupine while out in the woods – I call Gilly to heel and we pass on by without incident.  We also run into aggressive/untrained/badly socialized/unsupervised dogs on various trails from time to time: the dog charges or threatens him, I call him to heel and/or get to him first (usually we meet in the middle), my body language conveys to the other dog that Gilly is mine and that’s the end of any discussion about it, the threatening dog backs down and we pass on by without incident. His socialization with other dogs also means that his own body language often diffuses situations like this before it even gets ugly: he knows just what to do to set other dogs at ease.

I taught him all sorts of weird, funny tricks and games which we do for sport when we’re snowed-in or just bored, he worked a Saturday shift for a while in our friend’s dog-toy store as a young dog so he’d be exposed to all sorts of people and dogs and weird town things (he’s lived in the country all his life, pretty much, so making sure he got town-exposure was important), we walk daily, on leash in town and off leash in the woods.

In part, I’ve been super-conscientious about doing all of this extra-exposure training in addition to the basics of leash training and adequate exercise because Gilly’s nature is to be a nervous, tightly-wound dog.  I wanted him to build confidence as a puppy and to hang onto it as an adult, so that life could be more joyous for him and he could be safer in more situations. But I also do it because it’s fun for us both, it’s a bonding thing we do together, and the higher his skill level in the more situations, the more I can have him with me, which is where I want him whenever possible.

I’ve also been able to do this level of training because I make conscious choices about dog-raising and being a good guardian. For me, this includes things like only having one dog at a time so I can a) invest a lot of training and time and total consistency, b) afford quality vet care and food, and c) develop a very deep bond so that much of this communication between us happens below the level of consciousness – and what doesn’t I have the time and focus and energy to give him out loud and in consistent action.

I figure I need to do exactly as much as I can do really right. For me, that’s one dog.

That’s not everyone’s choice, and many people pull off great socialization and training and care for multiple dogs, but the ones who do have more money than I do, and generally are able to take on twice as much work (or three times, or four times – however many dogs they have). They also tend to want a different kind of relationship with their dogs than I want with my one dog. And that’s fine, as long as the dogs are happy and healthy and well-adjusted and cared for properly. Since I want just one dog, that means I have the additional responsibility of making sure my single pooch gets a lot of time with other dogs and has a core group of other dogs in his ‘family’ – they are pack animals, and they need that.

More often than the good care of packs, though, I see people with houses full of dogs just presume the dogs will take care of each other – and those houses are run by those dogs, none of whom get adequate training or exercise and most of whom develop behavior problems as a result.

Then those behavior problems circumscribe the dogs’ lives (ie: the dogs are never allowed out of their house or yard because they can’t be walked on a leash or trusted with other dogs or won’t come when they’re called or whatever) – and the behavior worsens.

As dogs are continually left without guidance or boundaries or clear expectations and someone they can trust, and as they are increasingly reacted to with overwhelm and helplessness, the absence of clear, consistent leadership escalates the dogs’ anxiety – and their behavior worsens.

And then, the cherry on top:  even the best-intentioned people start screwing over other dogs by disseminating bad information which inexperienced dog owners believe, and the cycle perpetuates.

Next thing you know, among many other things, every July 4 season, articles start popping up all over the place saying “YOUR DOG’S GOING TO FREAK OUT ABOUT FIREWORKS!!!! ONLY BAD PEOPLE LET THEIR DOGS OUT OF THEIR KENNELS!!!! KEEP YOUR DOG INSIDE!!! HIDE YOUR DOGS IN THE BASEMENT AND WAIT FOR THEM TO FREAK OUT!!!!!!! EXPECT BAD THINGS!!! DRUG YOUR DOG!!!!!!”  And yep, “drug your dog” is everywhere in the press. I’ll leave you to figure out who finances those articles.

Look, it might be more convenient to dose your dog unconscious instead of doing the continuous work of earning their trust by giving them lifelong and appropriate training and exposure to all sorts of noises and crowds and new things. But a dog is not an ottoman. It’s not something you can put your feet on when you feel like it and ignore the rest of the time – not without major consequences to the dog (and maybe anyone else the dog interacts with, including you). It’s a lifelong relationship with a living being who requires a major investment of care and time and proactive thoughtfulness and training and support.

Not human-therapy-style: dog-style. Which means: it’s not about you and your needs. It’s not about processing feeeeeeeelings, it’s about showing up for useful actions. It’s about being clear and calm for your dog.

The hidden benefit? What’s good for your dog is also good for you.

Personally, I find that the daily work of training and exposure does not feel like work at all: it’s fun, and a source of joy, it’s quality-time with the pooch, it’s often hilarious and moving and profound.

Sometimes I make mistakes: I get it into my head that Gilly’s going to (fill in the blank), and then he does – because he does what I expect him to do, for better or for worse, so if my expectation is negative, he fulfills it obligingly and I have to pause, rewind, clear the memory, and start over with a positive and clear expectation of the good behavior I want for and from him*.

*Please don’t misinterpret that as magical thinking or some creative visualization ‘we create reality’ nonsense. Or as ‘dogs are blank slates with no personalities of their own.’ Neither thing is true. Very simply, dogs (and, arguably, people – especially kids) don’t pay much attention to what you say, they pay attention to what you do, and to non-verbal cues. If you are a neurotic mess saying ‘everything’s fine,’ it’s meaningless. What the dog ‘gets’ is the neurotic mess, which makes them nervous, which creates good conditions for bad behavior. If you can learn to be calm, so can your dog. Even if your dog is adopted late, formerly abused, etc. – in fact, in those cases, my experience is that they thrive even more visibly with clear, calm leadership in which they can have total confidence.

That mutual learning process fascinates me, and is different with every dog. I like showing up for that, and figuring out with each dog what it is that they need from me in order to feel calm, confident, happy, joyous, curious, engaged, and well.

I do believe there are a handful of dogs who truly have an inner-ear construction that makes therm unusually vulnerable to barometric pressure changes, and possibly to loud noises (I’m thinking of one of my Mom’s Aussies who used to put herself in the bathtub and barf her way through thunderstorms, poor girl).

But I also think that is exceedingly rare, and far more often, they’re responding to our neuroses. Our fear and reactivity. Our projections onto them about how they are going to behave.

And every year around this time I get irritated by the commitment with which people seem to train their dogs into fear and problems they don’t need to have, because it seems easier than doing the real work of responsible ownership. It’s not easier. It creates difficult problems, and bypasses all the glee and pleasure involved in a good, healthy relationship with a well-cared-for dog. It locates the center of the relationship with the dog in stress and avoidance, rather than mutual delight and shared experience. It’s more work and misery, in the end, than good training, good exercise, and fun adventures ever could be.

Dogs hear better than we do, so obviously they need more distance from loud noise than we do in order to be comfortable.

It also takes time to develop the degree of mutual trust and consistency and reliability I have with Gilly:  he’s ten this summer, so we’ve been doing this stuff for ten years. But that’s how we got to the guy sitting next to us at the fireworks saying: “I’ve never seen such a well-trained, good dog in my life. That’s really impressive.” And that’s how we got to me answering: “We’ve done a lot of training. And, I’m also just lucky to know him.”

Given the opportunity to have lots and lots of good training and exposure and positive experience, what fireworks means to Gilly is this:

Me: Hey poochelah. Want to go on a special date? A Very Important Dog date?

Gilly: Will there be a long walk and interesting smells and new stuff to look at and maybe some steak involved?

Me: Hell yeah.

Gilly: Let’s go!

And then we walked a couple of miles (after already having had a good walk that day – and a cannonball swim!) so that when he got to the crowd he had already worked off any surplus energy that could have translated into nervousness. We met many dogs along the way, and he got thoroughly trounced and loved by a bonkers Beagle who thought Gilly was MAGIC and had to communicate this by performing an elaborate choreography of racing in circles and tap-dancing on his head, a couple of desperately beautiful Rottie-mix puppies who agreed except that they weren’t coordinated enough yet to tap-dance so instead they did a lot of squealing and falling over, several mellow and dignified Labs, Lab-mixes and an elegant Dachshund who all nodded and greeted and sniffed politely.

We cruised the crowd several times, and were attacked at varying speeds by several small children – a thing that used to be Gilly’s worst nightmare, since they do everything wrong for a nervous dog. One particularly hyper kid he dodged a couple of times (reasonably, I had to as well), but then I started the kid talking, stopped him running at Gilly, and in seconds the whole thing had settled down into the child standing calmly next to Gilly and patting his back softly. A couple of kids approached as beautifully as the best dog trainer, which was a lovely thing to see: someone taught them how to meet a dog on dog-terms, making both kids and dogs safer. And Gilly let all of them pat him – a thing he doesn’t like all that much from strangers, but will tolerate when he’s feeling calm and secure.

We stood in line in front of a magic kitchen-on-wheels where a steak and cheese sub suddenly appeared: we shared the sub on a nice grassy patch. We ate ice cubes while watching little kids ride a kiddy-train. We met many very nice dogs. We got a glo-necklace, so that everyone who passed by him said “Oh what a cute dog! He’s glowing!” – a blast of positive regard from nearly every passing stranger.

When the fireworks started, as usual, the fireworks themselves were much less interesting to him than the cheering and clapping of the crowd of people. After a little bit, he splayed out flat on his side and asked me to scratch his chest, practically dozing: working the crowd and the steak & cheese was the main event for Gilly, the fireworks were just the closing ceremony.

And then we walked home, tired and relaxed and happy, with an even deeper bond than we had the day before, not as deep as it will be tomorrow, and with total confidence in each other.

Not by magic.

By love.

Which is an action, not a feeling.


9 responses to “July 4 festivities with Gilly and Tito – and a little rant about training for confidence and joy vs. training for fear and neuroses

  1. What was that about clapping wildly for you? Brava, brava! Yes. I’m with you all the way. Wonderful piece of writing about something that’s not necessarily easily articulated. It’s not easy to do what you’ve done. It’s so damned worth it.

  2. It really is worth it. There’s so much mutual pleasure in the daily practice of love-as-action-and-responsibility. And there’s so much setting-up-to-fail that people do to their dogs.

    Gilly has all his quirks and peculiarities and tastes and preferences and things he doesn’t like, and he’s not perfectly behaved all the time, and I have made so many mistakes with him and had so many days when I failed to show up for him in the clear, simple, calm way he needed or been impatient or frustrated or wrapped up in my own garbage or fears.

    But the beauty of dogs is that they forgive, and they look for the good stuff, and every single day I get a new chance to get it right.

    He’s taught me so much, too, that getting it right gets easier and easier. And I suppose that goes in both directions!

  3. Awww. Gilly love.

    I think there’s a larger societal thing going on with FEAR in general. There is so much “OH MY GOD AREN’T YOU AFRAID OF ______?” these days. So much nervous nannying of things and people and events. It’s crazy-making and it’s definitely extended to our pets.

    I am reminded somewhat tangentially of this: http://kfmonkey.blogspot.com/2006/08/wait-arent-you-scared.html

    The money quote being:

    “Maybe it’s just, I cast my eyes back on the last century …

    FDR: Oh, I’m sorry, was wiping out our entire Pacific fleet supposed to intimidate us? We have nothing to fear but fear itself, and right now we’re coming to kick your ass with brand new destroyers riveted by waitresses. How’s that going to feel?

    CHURCHILL: Yeah, you keep bombing us. We’ll be in the pub, flipping you off. I’m slapping Rolls-Royce engines into untested flying coffins to knock you out of the skies, and then I’m sending angry Welshmen to burn your country from the Rhine to the Polish border.

    US. NOW: BE AFRAID!! Oh God, the Brown Bad people could strike any moment! They could strike … NOW!! AHHHH. Okay, how about .. NOW!! AAGAGAHAHAHHAG! Quick, do whatever we tell you, and believe whatever we tell you, or YOU WILL BE KILLED BY BROWN PEOPLE!! PUT DOWN THAT SIPPY CUP!!

    … and I’m just a little tired of being on the wrong side of that historical arc.”

  4. That’s awesome, Jill, thanks for the link – more relevant than even in ’06, too. Just the other day I started feeling all rage-y out of the blue, so I paused for a second to try to figure out why: it dawned on me that in the prior however many hours, between the radio, the internet, and the headlines in check-out aisles, I had been told more times than I could possibly count that I am supposed to BE AFRAID! BE VERY AFRAID! Of death, of war, of terrorism, of fat, of skinniness, of cancer, of choosing the wrong school/job/mate, of love, of no-love, of on and on and on. And all of a sudden it felt like I was just living inside a fear-factory, and it pissed me off to no end.

    And yeah, the pet industry is working it, too.

    Shock Doctrine, anyone?

  5. As is usual for me, I wrote hundreds of words on this subject, then realized I can sum it up in three: “no big deal.”

    I swear, these are the most valuable words I have in working with a dog wired for jumpiness. No big deal, Gilly.

    But there’s not much profit in that for the fear-mongers.

  6. You have done an amazing job with Gilly! Your relationship with him is the gold standard for which all dog owners should aim. Luckily for us, Siena had excellent training before we adopted her, and she is very tolerant of our inexperience. Clear and consistent reinforcement cannot be stressed enough with dogs. I wish people were as straightforward!

  7. I-Chant, thanks, and about the straightforwardness – right!?

    For all the glories of language, it’s one hell of a tool for obscuring as well as enlightening.

  8. Addendum:

    Why I am not a professional dog trainer (aside from not really wanting to professionalize my relationship or time spent with them): because most people do not want to do the right thing by their dogs anywhere near as much as they want to project their own stuff onto their dogs and then wail about how hard it all is and then offer their dogs the “comfort” they themselves want. Which screws the dogs. And irritates me. And being confronted about this, no matter how gently, is not something people want to pay for; they want to be reassured that projecting their own neuroses onto their dogs is not only fair, but LOVE.


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