Updated: Oct 7, 2019
One thing I've always noticed when I'm working with families or individuals and their dogs is that the people become very frustrated very quickly. It doesn't seem to matter if they've had this dog in their life for years, or if it's a brand new pup. As soon as something starts going "wrong" (the dog doesn't listen, is too excited, or doesn't want to participate) in comes the frustration, and - as a result - the disconnect.
It didn't take long for me to pinpoint the root of the fluster I was seeing over and over again. It was the result of mental distraction. It's an over-stimulation, of sorts, and it's something we humans end up doing without even noticing we're doing it sometimes.
The ability to think one thing, and feel another while doing a third is unique to humans (at least, that's what science has found so far). But, this unique trait can really separate us from others in the animal kingdom. Animals, and dogs especially, live in the moment.
Their memory is not like ours. Their emotions are not recognized and analyzed. They know what they know. They are who they are. The day is what it is. Can you think back and consider a time in life you were so accepting of the present? Or, like me, do you analyze and think back way too much to notice the present as much as you could?
You may be surprised to realize how much of your time with your dog is actually spent...not with your dog. You may be physically near him or her, but you're distracted. In the animal world, this kind of interaction is not interaction at all.
Dogs especially are prone to seeing distraction as a negative thing, and they will act-out in order to get a "conversation" going (they're just trying to see what gets your attention exclusively on them, and honestly this is more often done through negative behavior because you are FORCED to intervene, clean up, or be involved in some way). Increased energy means increased interaction in the lives of many dogs. When they're "being good" and laying at your feet, are you paying attention? Do they get petted and words for being gentle and quiet? Not as much as they should, I'd bet.
I see so many opportunities for good behaviors to be recognized that go completely unnoticed by the family or handler, because they're distracted. It's not intentional, that much is obvious. No one wants to create a "bad dog" or to feel as though they are ignoring their pet. But, these days, distraction is so prominent, I don't think anyone is even noticing anymore that we spend more of our lives standing still instead of standing up, moving, and enjoying life like our pets show us how to.
Our world is full of distractions, and it takes a conscious decision to change the habit of involving yourself mentally or emotionally anywhere but the present moment. Because dogs live only in the present, these two mentalities can cause a serious miscommunication and disconnect between you and your pet.
During training, if you're too busy thinking about something else, a dog who doesn't comply will be very frustrating. But, that's because you're not focused on her. You're not considering the environment, her energy level, the reward base, the conditioning behind the command for compliance. And, when you're not considering these things, it's very easy to only see that your dog is not listening to you. But really, it's you who's not listening when you're distracted.
I know this situation because I've been there. I've been there so many times over my early and even my current career, I can't even count them. I may find I'm distracted with thinking about a client, a work question, another case file, upcoming puppies, or whatever else the day has brought, and the dogs are not focusing on me like they should. I could get mad at this moment, right? I could be annoyed they're not listening to me. They darn well know they should, right?
Actually, no. They shouldn't. An imbalanced leader is not a leader in the dog world. Not listening to me when I'm imbalanced is what a dog should actually do!
Instead of getting mad, I first have to stop and notice what's happening. And, over the years of doing this again and again, it's become habit now that when the leash and rewards come out and it's training time, it's just me and the dog I'm working with. Other parts of the mind need to quiet down; the show is about to play.
And when I say "other parts" of the mind, I don't just mean distraction of stressors. I mean inhibitions of all sorts. Who says can't I make silly noises and get happy with the pups? Why wouldn't I sit down on the ground, and hug and pet and adore all of them? I'll run around with them the same way I did when I was a child. I can involve myself in their world, can't I? I ask them to involve themselves in mine all day, every day. What do I give back?
These are natural things to do, and sometimes the human world (full of so much judgement and question) puts those things to the side; those joyous, loving, fulfilling things. What's stopping us from enjoying a silly moment with a pet?
Usually, it's us, my friend. Us humans. We are "too far away" to remember these simple things, sometimes. And, that is is sad...And it's worth changing!
Over time, it should be easy is to stop fixating on un-touchable issues in your mind or life, and focus on what you can do right then and there with your pup or dog. You can stop harassing yourself over anxieties and worry, and just pet your dog for a good minute or so. You may find yourself relaxing, and this will relax your dog as well. Find yourself in the moment when you're with your pet.
So, here is my challenge for you: For the next 3 days, take just 10 minutes a day and choose to do something with your pet. Just you and him. No phone, no tablet, no taking pictures, etc. Just BE. You can do this outside on a walk or in the yard or inside the house. Do your best to be physically close to your pet - lots of petting and scratches and affection. Play a game. Do something you both enjoy doing for just 10 minutes. And, if you catch yourself thinking about the past week or anything other than the moment you're in, stop yourself! Focus on the moment and what's happening. Notice your dog's funny smile, and how she twirls in circles when she's excited. Learn things together.
This is good for your dog, and for you!
This sounds or reads very easily, doesn't it? You may even be huffing out a scoff at me, because obviously this doesn't really pertain to you. And that's ok with me. I'd just like to ask that you give this challenge a real effort. Putting down the phones and tablets, turning off the music even, and just being with a dog is a genuine joy some of us have been forgetting (and good for you if you haven't forgotten!).
Your dog, in these times together, can be a comic, therapist, friend, or child. You may start to recognize different things about him or her; characteristics and habits you've missed by chance. And, I think when you start seeing all the things we miss because we're too far away mentally, you too will start to see things in a different light than before.
Being in the moment means you understand what you can control and effect, and what you cannot. This has far-reaching lessons throughout our human world and the lives we lead. And, there is no better teacher of this than the lovable canine at your side.