Just after Thanksgiving last year, we lost our dog of 13 years to a heart tumor. It was a painful couple of weeks, but a small sacrifice for the many years of service he provided us. At that time, I intended to write about lessons I had learned from my dog, but with the holiday distraction, that intent never materialized. Then a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I welcomed a 1-year-old German Shepherd into our home. He was basically well-trained and house broken, but had a couple unaddressed issues that we needed to quickly get under control– he is no small lap dog and still a puppy!
Dog training has fascinated me over the last several years. I enjoy watching Cesar Millan’s show, The Dog Whisperer, and have read his book as well. If you have ever seen his show, you may be aware that one of his mantras is that it is as important to train the human as it is the dog. Dogs derive a great deal of their energy and disposition from their humans. In that sense, a dog can act as a barometer of the emotional mindset of the people in their life. It is both a fascinating and sometimes scary insight.
So last weekend we enlisted the services of a dog trainer for a couple hours work, primarily to address walking (not pulling!) and handling the volatile energy level of an adolescent dog. I was quickly reminded that some of the issues with the dog’s state of mind could be addressed if I would only change my state of mind. I was impressed as I watched the trainer whip the dog into a playful frenzy and then within 30 seconds, have the dog lying calmly on the floor. I became aware that in my attempt to be forceful, I was also projecting excitable energy, sending the dog mixed messages. And in trying to keep the dog from pulling, I was essentially getting into a tug-of-war contest I was not going to win.
With a few adjustments in how I communicate with the dog, but also with my own state of mind and energy level, this past week has been a reversal of the first couple of weeks. The dog walks right beside me, calm for the better part of the walk. Not only does the dog respond better to a few verbal commands, but I have much more confidence in my ability to bring his energy level down when it gets quickly elevated. And I am now freer to play with the dog at home without fear that I have just unleashed a whirlwind of chaos.
Yet returning to Cesar Millan’s philosophy, all this is not as much about our new dog as it is gaining insight into my own state of mind. Keeping a dog calm at home requires me to remain calm. Over the last week, I have been aware of how many times I face the choice of whether to let some little incident send me fuming or whether to calmly address the issue and move on. Calmly, yet assertively, communicating my wishes works much better than raising my voice and yelling the command. (By the way, this works on humans as well.) There is a living, breathing (and panting and slobbering) barometer in the room that is giving me constant feedback.
While we two-legged creatures may not be quite as dialed in to the energy levels of each other as dogs are, it does make me wonder if I can apply this understanding to my human interactions. What energy level am I bringing into my conversations? What emotions do I think I am hiding, but actually projecting through my non-verbal cues? Am I fully present in these interactions? Having just finished my annual reflective exercise of the Fruit of the Spirit, it is much easier to “vibe” love, joy, peace, and patience when my mindset is already in that state. Perhaps we give ourselves far too much credit for being able to contrive these virtues when our spirit is flustered and fuming.
The training continues.