Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Training Philosophy

I've been thinking about training philosophies a great deal lately, and I've decided that - contrary to the current political correctness trends - training philosophy is really, really important. But I'm not talking about whether you're R+ or P+ or balanced or whatever kids are calling the different techniques these days. I'm talking about your personal philosophy of training.

If you chose to pursue dog training as a hobby, you're going to want to have a personal philosophy because it's going to help you make choices that you can live with. Eventually, you're going to have a trainer tell you to do something that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Or you'll watch someone do something to their dog that makes you uncomfortable, but hey - they're a good trainer and their dog is well-behaved so maybe it's not so bad. And then you try the technique and maybe it works or maybe it doesn't, but on you're way home you have the sneaking suspicion that you've done a Bad Thing and are maybe a Bad Person. Knowing your own priorities and how a skill or training technique fits into those priorities can give you guidance when you find yourself presented with a difficult training decision - and trust me, you'll run into those. Having a personal training philosophy will help you sleep at night.

I'm sure it's no shock to anyone who has met me or followed the blog that my highest priority is that my dogs are I are having fun together. When it comes to showing, I also want the high scores. Having these two philosophies means that I'm not going to take a dog into the ring who doesn't know the exercises. And because I have placed my dog's happiness above high scores, I'm also not going to employ a training technique that might improve our scores at the cost of my dog's enjoyment. Or take my dog into the ring if he doesn't want to be there.

Take Jai, for example. He and I have a lot of fun working and playing together. He knows all the exercises for level one rally in WCRL - and level two, for that matter. If I took him to a show, he's probably wouldn't have a complete meltdown; we've done a bunch of work on not being crazy in public. And because I've over-trained everything, it's likely that we'd manage to pull off some decent score. But I am 100% absolutely certain that Jai would hate the trail atmosphere. It would be too much stimulation, and he would get overwhelmed. So because I've made my dog's attitude a priority, he won't be showing anytime soon. Also because I've made his attitude a priority, we're going to work on making that environment less scary for him. I think there's a good chance that Jai could learn to have fun at dog shows, and I'd like to have him there if I can. So that's where our training is headed next.

I feel pretty strongly that my dogs' lives are too short for them to spend any more time unhappy than they have to. Certainly other people have different personal philosophies, though, and I don't consider myself so perfect that I believe their philosophies are wrong. (Well, mostly anyway. Obviously some people are wrong.) Most of the time, they're just different. Some people want good behavior, some people want perfect behavior, some want to pack as much adventure into their dogs' lives as possible, and some just want a dog to come home to and maybe walk around the block with them. As long as your philosophy doesn't interfere with mine and doesn't involve abusing your dogs, you can go ahead and do whatever you like. However, I think it's important to have a personal philosophy when it comes to dog training because knowing your own values will help ensure that you act according to them and still manage to achieve your goals.

So, what does your personal dog training philosophy look like?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Littlest Bulldog's Big Adventure

My dad, my brother, and I had planned a canoe trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in September. Since we would be paddling instead of hiking, I thought this would be a good opportunity to take a dog that can't walk long distances. There's only one of those in my house, so the Littlest Bulldog got a Big Adventure of his very own.

I like to have a good idea that I'm not making a huge mistake when I take a dog on a trip where we can't easily turn around and go home, so I recruited my friends Vera and Earl to help teach me to teach Cannon to ride in a canoe. I shouldn't have worried though. I tossed Cannon's mat into the canoe, he jumped in and said, "Oh, hey, here's my mat, I'll just hang out here." It was the easiest bit of "hard" training I've done in a long time. It sure is nice when the dogs decide to make me look smart.

Little bulldog, big canoe, no worries.
When it can time to actually go on our trip however, one adverse coincidence after another lined up and got in our way. At the last minute, my dad and I decide to cancel the BWCA trip and stay at Flour Lake campground instead. Flour Lake Campground is literally less than a mile south of the BWCA, but I haven't been campground camping in about a decade and a half, so it was almost entirely new territory for me.

There was a picnic table.

There were stores.

There were s'mores.

It was amazing.

Knowing that I wasn't going to have to carry my stuff everywhere, I brought a few extra books.
Knowing he wasn't going to have to carry his stuff everywhere, my dad brought the Taj Mahal.

One of the fun parts about suddenly being stranded on a desert island - or in the middle of the woods - with someone is that you get a new perspective on them. I learned a lot about the Littlest Bulldog on this trip. For example, when I adopted Cannon, he couldn't even walk a mile due to breathing trouble and general out-of-shaped-ness. On this trip, I learned that he can now walk six and a half miles! After which point he will not walk a step further and needs to be carried, thankyouverymuch.

One of those moments when I'm really glad I don't know what my dog is thinking.
Guessing is bad enough.

I learned that when confronted with an over abundance of food, Cannon will bury his goodies and then run back for more. I also learned why I should not let him bury things in the fire pit.

And I learned that while feeding Cannon marshmallows is entertaining, feeding Cannon toasted marshmallows means that I will be picking marshmallow twig dirt out of my sleeping bag later.

"My face is stuck to itself! Oh, noes! How will I eat more things if my face is stuck to itself?!?"

All in all, though, I think Cannon enjoyed himself. We hiked, and we canoed, and he got to have three people (and their food) all to himself. It was a Most Excellent Adventure for a Very Little Bulldog.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

What Unemployment Taught Me About Forgiveness

In spring of this year, funding was cut to the Brain Sciences Center, and on June 15, 2014, I got cut along with it.

And we're okay. We've had to tighten our belts a bit, and the savings account has taken a hit, but the mortgage and the bills are still getting paid, the dogs and the people aren't missing any meals, and nothing horrifying has happened. Truth be told, leaving the BSC was probably for the best: I went to nursing school to take care of people, not stare at spreadsheets, and the lack of human interaction was starting to wear on me. I have a new job lined up to begin in November working in hospice care - something I've wanted to return to ever since I got my first taste of the field in college. It even pays better. We're okay. We're going to be okay. I know this.

But knowing and feeling are not always the same thing.

The loss of a job is considered a major life event, and now I know first hand why that is so. In spite of the relatively trauma-less nature of my unemployment, I still sometimes feel that I have failed. I thought I would retire at the VA, and I've lost that. Am I still a nurse if I'm not working as one? Am I a bad nurse (just as I've always thought in those secret, dark moments), and everyone can see that, and that's why it took me so long to find a job? The are people and animals who rely on me, how could I have allowed this to happen? (Even though I know there is nothing I could have done to stop it! I know this.)

And so I have gotten in the habit of waking each morning with forgiveness. I was raised to believe that forgiveness was something you had or did not have. You asked people or God for forgiveness, and they gave it or they did not, and the matter was closed. I have come to find, though, that forgiveness is an active noun, like "struggle" or "love." It bears constant repetition. It is not something I have or do not have; it is something I practice. So I wake in the morning and acknowledge my guilt and pain, no matter that I know it is wrong to feel guilty about something I was powerless to change, and then I give myself absolution.

And then I get out of bed.

It's not perfect. Sometimes I have to remind myself throughout the day that it is okay to have flaws. As I have practiced forgiveness, I have gotten better at it, and it becomes easier to let go of what I feel and embrace what I know: that I am good, and strong, and brave, and that this, too, shall pass. And there will be wonderful moments in the future that would not have been possible if I had not become unemployed.

When I first started rolling this blog post around in my head a few months ago, this was as far as I had planned to take it (well, okay, I was going to relate it back to dogs because that's what I do). But with the recent suicides of Robin Williams and Sophia Yin, and as a survivor of depression* myself, I feel that I need to touch on that topic as well. I started graduate school in June (June was a rather intense month), and I'm currently working on a paper about Major Depressive Disorder. At the heart of the paper is the question, "What do we do?" It's fine to be aware of depression and pass around emergency numbers and all that, but what do we do? when confronted with the suffering of others? How do we help when we suspect someone is depressed?


Ask them how they are doing. Let them know you care. Don't ask once - ask a million times, and a million times that, until you are certain they are okay. Depression is a disease of mountains and gorges, and what may be truly well one day may start sliding down the mountain the next. And when the person with depression cries, "I don't know how you can help!" be ready with your awareness and phone numbers - but more likely, be ready to simply sit and be present. We who are depressed are terribly afraid that we will scare people away if they are allowed to see who we feel we are. I believe that many people shy away from those with depression because they do not understand how to help, and they do not see how much just being present, leaning into our pain instead of away, is a great and incredible gift. I don't need anyone to fight my battles or tell me it will be alright - I just need someone to hand me a goddamn stick, and make sure I don't fall off a cliff.

I think that one of the reasons pets are of such comfort to people who are grieving or depressed is that leaning into the pain of others comes naturally to them. At any given moment, I have a six-heartbeat care team literally within arms' reach ready to be with me. Ready to get out of the house with me or make me laugh or simply be still with me. Present. I don't have to worry about them leaving me because I am too imperfect or stupid or hurt or simply too much. They don't need to do anything but be themselves.

Be kind. Everyone is fighting a great battle that you know nothing about. That you will know nothing about, unless you are willing to ask and be present for the answer.

Photo by Sarah T.

*I realize that this post is a little more painful than my usual content, and I just want to mention because I don't want you to worry: I really am okay. What I'm currently feeling isn't anything beyond the normal grief that comes with losing a job. I keep pretty close tabs on myself, and I'm not afraid to use my crisis plan and support network if I need to. I have depression. It does not have me. I'm gonna be alright. But I'm grateful to you for asking.