Rio and I, we are more alike than I knew. Similarities appear across our species’ barrier. “You get the dog you need.” It’s a statement I have heard before, but it takes on new facets of meaning as our time together lengthens.
We have joined an obedience club, and boy do I feel out of place. This is no TAGteach environment. They say they use something called positive reinforcement, but it’s a harsher brand than the one to which I subscribe. I joined because I wanted to learn about it. I wanted to learn obedience exercises and become familiar with the way people move in the show ring – obedience, agility, rally, rally-o; it’s all new to me. It sounded like a fascinating way to further explore the depths of our relationship with our dogs. New learning motivates me strongly. I had been feeling restless, in need of a way in which to grow.
Sometimes you learn best by jumping in. Sometimes you fail and have to pick yourself back up out of the mess.
I’m sure there is a way to keep obedience lighthearted and fun, to make it a positive experience, a safe place to learn from each other and from our dogs. I’m sure there is a way to ensure that Rio enjoys the experience, that he gets lots of goodies and doesn’t get scolded or jerked around. There has to be a way because that is a part of who I am and it comes with me everywhere, inside every experience into which I venture with my pup. There is space within this structure that feels so rigid now, space for pup and I to move and learn with ease and joy.
I joined the Beginner Obedience class. I am well aware of Rio’s struggles with highly stimulating environments, in part, because they are my own struggles as well. Kavir points it out sometimes when we enter a busy restaurant. There is panic for a moment in my eyes. I try to hold it in, to pretend that it doesn’t phase me when I don’t know where to order, where to stand, but there are so many people, so much bustle. On top of all that, there are decisions to make about what I will eat and drink! Take a deep breath. Come back to your body and out of your mind. As I am able to relax and feel at ease, Rio will join me, lying down by my side to nap in trust and peace.
Over three quarters of the way through Karen Pryor Academy, I can hardly believe how fast it has gone. I have nothing but positive things to say about the program. I will be a little sad when it is over. I love the structure and the support, and I hope I can find a way to stay in touch with my classmates.
I share some reflections after the third workshop:
I see us all here casting about, trying to settle on who we are and who we will choose to be. We are making decisions about how we want to live and about what’s important to us. Laura leads us by example, being unapologetically who she is – a dog trainer, yes, but also a TAGteacher, a master costumer, a gamer, a geek. “I am an unapologetic geek,” she announced on day one. She has a story for everything, and shares uninhibitedly. As for me, I have to shape my way to unapologetic. I can’t be and act one way – afraid, always adapting my styles and comments to what I think is acceptable, caring what others will think of me – and then suddenly shift to not caring, to just being how I am. For me, it takes a conscious effort – an awareness that fades in and out.
I am on the path to shaping longer and longer stretches of awareness, longer states of flow. In the flow state there is no inner dialogue about the moment; we just do what we do, we flow with what is. When we train it happens if we let it, then we work as a true team. Rio and I have fun! We are both goofy and excitable. I laugh easily and he makes me laugh often. When we get to that state, we are a partnership – a dog-human team. We connect across language barriers, across species, with feeling, joy and love.
There is nothing more comforting than the sound of four padded feet plunk-plunking up the stairs behind me as I retreat to my den to write. Pup is always there with me. He takes his place on his cushioned bed in the corner, lets out a deep sigh, and dozes off. I know if I glance back at him he will lazily open his eyes and return my gaze. How does he know I am looking at him? Perhaps it is the cessation of my typing that cues him or the sound of my body turning and the quiet pause as I watch him. Another deep sigh issues from behind. I pause, sip tea, and listen to the rain. I treasure these moments of calm quiet with pup.
In the kitchen when I cook he lays on his blanket and regards the entire process. Every time I look at him, his eyes are wide and fixed on me. He waits for me to finish so we can play. “Every breath you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you,” Kavir jokes that this is Rio’s song as he watches us so intently and unceasingly. It makes me laugh and I sing quietly while I chop summer squash and tomatoes, peppers and green onion for stir fry.
Rio and I went to John Bryan State Park this morning to do some walking and training. Lately we have been working on developing our loose leash walking and attention exercises in more challenging environments. Woodsy trails are very challenging environments in which to keep Rio’s focus and once water is involved it becomes even more difficult. The trails at John Bryan wind through a hardwood forest down to a river wide and deep enough for Rio to swim (what joy!).
Rio rests on the wood floor by the door with his head on Dr. K’s slipper. His eyes are partly closed and his breathing is even and slow. He finally ignores the muffled voices and sounds of maintenance being done in the adjacent townhome – for the time being the creaks the house makes don’t rouse him anymore. If anything is too fast or too loud he will go from peacefully sleeping dog to fully awake – up on his toes, hackles raised, barking like he can’t catch his breath – in seconds. It still gets me. Even after three years with this creature, my blood pressure goes up just hearing him bark like that. It doesn’t help; the more worked up I get, the more he feels his anxious barking is justified.
We regard each other peacefully for the moment. I have a pouch full of treats and any time I hear a noise rise slightly above the background I say “yes” and calmly reach over to deposit a treat between his paws. It takes me back to his puppy days. I was constantly rewarding him for just lying there peacefully. It helped. The world needs more rewards for peace.
My dog changed my life, and I am grateful for it. The past few months I have been in the midst of that transition.
I left graduate school last fall. My first career of choice was failing to make me happy. I realized how little it aligned with the vision I have for myself and my future. I was living completely out of balance with my values. Of course, not everyone who is working on a Ph.D. in experimental physics is out of alignment with what they want. I’m sure my boyfriend is going to use his physics knowledge to build great things since he is always coming up with such fascinating ideas and he loves to spend time building in the lab. I admire him for these things, but for me, the passion had drained out of the physics path some time ago. I got into it for the wrong reasons and with the wrong expectations. I knew this in my heart for a long time, but it can be so hard to quit something you’ve worked so hard on – when society and almost everyone you have surrounded yourself with tells you to stick it out, it will get better. “Sure, it will be hard,” they say, “but it will be useful; it will be a good career. You will make money.” I am lucky to have had the support of the ones who are closest to me – my boyfriend and my family. My mom may be losing her memory, but she will still repeatedly tell me that I need to do whatever is best for me in my life, and that she wants me to be happy. So I got out, with their support, and the willful encouragement of that little black dog who set the whole thing in motion when he came into my life. Now I am building my life around dogs.
This is all incredibly new to me. Starting a blog is exciting and terrifying. I love to write, but releasing all those thoughts out into the world is new for me. But everyone has to start somewhere! It seems we must always start from the exact point where we are, right in this moment, the initial position.
I read an article on Khan Academy entitled: The Learning Myth: Why I’ll Never Tell My Son He’s Smart. Researchers have found that the brain gets the most benefit when we struggle with something difficult and make mistakes. Neural connections form and deepen most, not when we repeatedly perform tasks that are easy and we know we can succeed with, but when undertake something difficult wherein we have little experience and will likely make mistakes.