“Are you wiling to be wrong about that?” Leonard C. Hawes, Professor at University of Utah (favorite professor, I might add) This entry is dedicated to Dr. Hawes.
We think we know everything, don’t we? Doesn’t matter the subject, but because it’s in our head we know what we know what we know what we know. And we are usually pretty confident about that, right?
And where did we learn what we know? You’ll have to answer it for yourself. We all do.
I have been quite open about the fact that I was not raised by any stretch to use positive reinforcement with people or animals. I probably did some of it naturally, but the people, the times, and the context for ‘training’ and handling dogs were very influential to my learning the principles of “Do what I said, or else.”
It was common for people to “rub a dog’s nose in it” as a house training method. We used choke chains to teach our dog’s how to walk nicely on a leash. We gave “commands.”And here were other concepts considered to be “common knowledge” that everybody seemed to ‘know.’
- Using treats to train was considered cheating.
- Luring a dog to do something also did not count.
- The most important ‘commands’ you could teach were: Heel, Sit, COME, Down, Stay.
- If you were serious, you spent an hour a day training your dog.
- Dog food is for dogs. People food is for people.
- Only feed your dog kibble to keep his teeth from rotting.
- Dogs live outside.
- Spanking, hitting, and yelling are part of training and showing the world that you have control over your dog.
- Don’t treat your dogs like children.
- Only tough ‘dog’ people can handle big, tough breeds.
Those are just a few. Where did I learn these? A list of sources include:
- Dog Owners
- Dog Enthusiasts
- Dog Training Classes I attended
- Pet Stores and Groomeries where I worked.
Something I wondered about, but wasn’t sure, and then finally concluded that I tend to over think things and, surely, if there was anything to it, someone would have told me by now was…”Do dogs feel pain the way we do?’ During my early years as a groomer, I concluded that they must not. They probably have a much higher tolerance for pain which is why they don’t seem to learn or listen when we hit them, yell at them, or push them around when we are trying to groom them. It helped me to justify a lot of treatment toward the animals left in my care that I wouldn’t even consider doing now.
Three or four major things contributed to my change in perspective.
- In the early ’90s I worked with an older woman at her grooming salon. (Ha! I’m probably older than now than she was then!) We used to enjoy condescending to the idea that PetSmart was adding grooming to their list of services. It wasn’t uncommon for us to receive a phone call that we created an acronym for – CYFI? “Can you fix it?” For us, it was about the haircut. One day she commented, “You know? When people tell me they have 20 years of experience in grooming, the only thing I can think is…”well, it depends on what you’ve been doing for 20 years.” It was a comment that stuck with me. I was just young enough to wonder what she was talking about. I wasn’t a fabulous stylist at that point, and I didn’t want to become that person that someone would say, “Well, she’s been doing the same stupid thing for 20 years! Her experience is hardly something to be proud of.”
- During roughly the same time period, I was in college. I was incredibly fortunate to have a Professor at the University of Utah who forever shaped my thinking skills. Dr. Len Hawes was/is a professor of Communication who can never be duplicated. I don’t recall the topic being discussed at the time, but (as he always does), he challenged us with some of the most difficult and profound questions, of which “Are you willing to be wrong about that?” is one that I keep in my back pocket to this day. It is so very relevant to changing outdated and sometimes abusive treatment toward animals.
This most simple question can, if willing, lead a person toward quality answers and solutions. Was I willing to be wrong about how I was treating dogs when I was grooming? Unfortunately, that wasn’t the question I was asking myself at the time. I was asking “How can I stop grooming dogs and never have to see them again?” (If that isn’t career burnout, I don’t know what is.) My answer was, “Quit that hellacious job, try to get a steady (clean) job working at the post office so that you can finish your college degree.” It’s amazing what happens when you are very specific about your goals. I earned the degree and thought I would never look back. I concluded that I was not an animal person. I felt they were poor substitutes for human company, too basic and not capable of much more than eating, playing with toys, and going to the bathroom. Which leads to conversion influence #3, Chi Chi.
- Fast forward 20 years. My widower father lived with his untrained dog in a large home. The dog was noisy and untrained to the fullest extent of the meaning. She was sweet enough, but at 83 years old and a 4-level home, he could not get this little Chihuahua mix housetrained nor was he able to keep the messes properly cleaned. *sigh When I came to visit, this exuberant little dog would bark and often urinate in front of me, on my pillows, and sometimes defecate in my room. To say I wasn’t charmed is very accurate. I was very vocal to my father about not riding in his car in my good clothes.
And then there was ‘the fall’. In short, I found my father’s health failing so quickly that I needed to move in to care for him…and her (the dog). Fast forward again and I needed to have my father moved to an assisted living facility. Even after moving in, I had no specific investment in (or attachment to) Chi Chi. However, I did have an interest in making life sane for me as I had to provide constant physical care of my father. An unhousetrained dog was simply untenable.
To my credit, somewhere in my knowledge bank, I had learned that to properly house train a dog, you had to get it out every two hours and celebrate the success–ignore the mistakes. Such is my nature to really make a project out of something if I care. I had the dog on a leash…even as I slept. I forced myself and this dog to go to the bathroom at all hours of the night and day. She would not have a chance to sneak off and get it wrong. I would know where she was at ALL times. Little did I know I was heading into the “set them up for success” philosophy.
Success! She was housetrained. At 8 years old, Chi Chi had accomplished what had never happened in all of those years. And then I needed to break the reality news to my father…”We need to find another home for Chi Chi.” My father protested some. I was practical and assertive. “Dad, It’s just a dog! It’s not even healthy to have such an unnatural attachment to an animal. She’s not a human.” Yes, these words came out of my mouth. In what must have been a Sophie’s Choice for my father, he finally relented, “But please make sure she doesn’t wind up as bait in a pitbull ring. There was a news story on TV about that in this area.” It was the first of many tears to come for me. My father had accepted that this could be the fate of his beloved dog.
For the sake of my father, I could not let this happen. I didn’t realize what I was committing to, but I was now accepting the permanent care of his dog. Note that I still did not hold any particular affection for this dog or any other. They were still unnecessary, expensive hassles as far as I was concerned. But, if I must have a dog, one thing was certain. She must be obedience trained. No exceptions. And, if there was one thing I knew, it was how to get a ‘stubborn,’ ‘spoiled,’ ‘lazy,’ dog to “heel.”
And so I went to a small pet supply store. “Do you carry choke chains?” I asked a young man. His response, I thought, was not appropriately respectful. “Yes, we carry them, but there are better ways to teach a dog how to heel now.”
A kid approximately 3/4 my age. What would he know? I was the one with years of experience. In fact, kid, you are insinuating that I don’t know what I’m doing and I really, REALLY do NOT appreciate that. Where is your boss? She is closer to my age and would understand. The ‘boy’ politely sold me the choke chain. I was not in the mood to hear of some mamsy pansy method or new, expensive gadget when I know perfectly well how to teach a dog to heel.
“Are you willing to be wrong about that?”
No, I wasn’t.
Why? I think there were several reasons:
- I was in the role of being a caretaker for my father and, as such, many decisions had to be made in a no-nonsense, decisive sort of way.
- I didn’t think dogs felt pain in the way that we do, remember?
- When it came to animals, I didn’t want to be second guessed.
- I didn’t want to spend a whole lot of time discussing a subject that ranked lower on my scale of importance than other, more competing things.
- I just didn’t care.
- There was no effective, convincing, attractive ‘thing’ that reached out and influenced me. Did I need a celebrity on TV to influence me? A romantic influence? What could have reached me at that time? I can only guess.
- I didn’t feel like learning anything new. I had too much else going on.
- Who do you trust? There are literally hundreds of dog training books on the market? Go with the classics or go with some airy fairy, ineffective book. My father and brother had purchased some and even attended lessons at PetSmart, but boiled them all down to “You need to be smarter than the dog.” (WHAT did that MEAN???! Are we not calling ourselves stupid at this point since this dog is not trained??)
I took my choke chain and vowed not to return to this know-it-all store who can’t respect a simple request for a choke chain without me having to justify and explain myself. I was annoyed.
Can you now appreciate the barriers, obstacles, and context that worked to prevent me from changing my mind about a long-held belief and why I might defend them? I can.
So what changed my mind? I would normally fight and resist giving credit to a large corporation. Credit is due. PetSmart. That’s right. I’ll admit a sellout right here and now. My father and I went to PetSmart for some supplies. Life was getting heavy and lacking levity when caring for a father alone. I needed something amusing to read. I dodged the boring “Breed” books, but found myself attracted to the brightly colored magazines at the checkout stand. A single issue magazine called “Clicker Training” featuring “Tricks” jumped out at me.
Tricks? I had been playing with tricks throughout my entire childhood. I managed a couple of basic tricks with our 3+ dogs. It was fun but exhausting. Could I learn something new? I was tired of obedience. What did this relatively inexpensive magazine have to say about tricks? I tossed it onto the checkout stand and went home to read.
I read even though, here came another convincing belief that I had somewhat overcome as a child, “Chi Chi is old. And everybody knows that an old dog cannot learn new tricks.” But, I had taught our 10-year-old Beagle at 11 years old how to shake hands, play dead, sit up pretty, and a silly game I invented. Did I still have the knack? And, the Beagle was different…I ‘cheated’ and used treats. As a child, I had always pictured myself being the grand trainer in a circus ring with poodles (and a Beagle) on a stand ready to shoot through a ring of fire upon the tap of my wand and command. There was one motivation toward learning something new anyhow. My family was convinced I had missed my calling in life…they had the confidence in me even when I thought I no longer cared.
And so I read. And I purchased a ‘clicker.’ Experiments designed to amuse both my father and I were now underway. “Load the Clicker.” Simply click the device and then treat. Hmm….really?
One thing that would be the ultimate test for me with regard to training was something that I could never figure out how to train. I could understand (even if I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to get good results) how to teach a dog to come to me, but as I had tried to train my Golden Retriever for competitive obedience, how would I train the dog to go away from me? It was one of the most exciting things to watch in a scenting competition. The handler/owner would point to a field and send the dog out. Send the dog out? How do you convince your dog to go running away from you? What trick did I need to know to teach that? Maybe I could learn(?)
“Touch” was the first experiment I tried with the clicker. This ‘trick’ basically involves presenting your hand near your dog’s face, then coordinating a click just as her nose touched my hand, followed by the delivery of a treat.
Note: I was only willing to give these experiments a try for the purpose of potentially teaching a dog a trick. Obedience was a word that became loaded with dread and, remember, I knew what I was doing in that realm, right?
Hmm…what do you know? She learned how to touch my hand. It worked. Wow. Interesting. I showed my father who was not so impressed. And then I wondered…instead of my hand. Could she touch a tea can? I was hooked. I started sitting in the kitchen experimenting with various ‘treats’ (vegetables, beef jerky…whatever the dog would eat.) I had little time in the day to play with this, but was happy the dog would cooperate. And then to my utter surprise, and I do mean surprise as in…”I JUST SAW JESUS!” that dog reached her tiny little face toward the tea can when I held it out. I clicked as she touched. Are you kidding me? Because now the wheels were turning.
What if I place the can on the floor next to me? Would she still touch it? The article said this was possible. But, weren’t they talking about a ‘smart’ breed like a German Shepherd or a Border Collie? This was a pound puppy. She can’t…unless I’m wrong about that. I didn’t suppose it could hurt to give it a try.
I am writing this story in slow motion so that you will, hopefully, appreciate blow-by-blow how I changed my mind in the most dramatic way and the effects it had on everything in my life.
So, there I sat in the kitchen. Can touch started to happen. How about…if I move this can 1″ away from me? I might have screamed or squealed for my father to get down to the kitchen right then. She MOVED. AWAY. FROM. ME. AREYOUKIDDINGME????! It was the ultimate of tricks that I could imagine at the time. The absolute ultimate! And she was happy.
Morning after morning, I met my father downstairs for breakfast but not before I insisted on…”Let’s try it!” I would see just how far I could place the can away from me and still ask her to touch it. I was beyond amazed. This was the equivalent of a child learning how to sound out letters in a word. “I figured it out!! I did it. I did it!!!”
Within 2 weeks this nuisance of a dog has transformed into some kind of idiot savant. She was precious cargo. I progressed to teaching her a few other small tricks. I was in love with the dog, a method, the idea that I had a new hobby. And then I sold the house. My father ended up in assistive care; I headed back to my condo in San Diego. The condo that absolutely and in no uncertain terms allowed pets. This had never been a problem for me before. The fewer the animals in the world, the better I thought. Not anymore.
My mind worked overtime. Ever tried to hide a dog? Let me inform you that it is not easy. I had heard the terms Service and Therapy dogs. What did this mean? What would it require? I had heard that these dogs had rights. I needed to know. And, as is typical for me, I bear down when I’m determined and dig as deep as I can possibly go. I joined online groups. I started ordering books. I searched for groups national and local.
This dog was magic and I was in love. I felt I had been left in charge of a dog that had come directly from Jesus (or something like it). Skip forward–I trained this dog and helped her to earn her Canine Good Citizen badge. Then I started experiencing adult-onset seizures. Now I am eligible for a service dog, right? What do I need to know?? Whatever it is, I need to know it FAST. The condo association was hot on my heels to force me to get rid of what I considered to be the Einstein of dogs. And I found it. I found a phone that dogs could dial for help. Immediately I ordered this expensive electronic wonder and laid out a training plan. We needed to train this and FAST.
I’ll give you an enormous tip on this–it would take a LOT longer to train this sort of task were I to rely on force, intimidation, or any amount of pain. Luring would not have been as effective either. I had to not only teach a dog to walk away from me, on cue, but I also had to teach her to now touch something very specific with her paw. Additionally? She had to apply pressure to the button. Yes, this was an eyebrow raiser for me as well. How on earth to do this?
I also needed to videotape the results and get it to the attorneys very quickly. I was racing the clock–my specialty. I work best under pressure.
And just for the sake of memories, here is Chi Chi circa 2005 dialing her phone. The result is sweetly crude looking back. There were no smart phones with video (at least not mine). I used a digital camera that had the ability to store very short films. And, nowadays, I would not rely upon using the cue over and over. I would only say the cue once. In fact, I would probably now also use a body cue (such as a fall) to prompt her to complete the task (in addition to the verbal cue).
In order to accomplish all of this, I had to be willing to be wrong about every single concept I thought I knew about animals.
And, let me repeat, videotape and get the results to the attorneys very quickly. At the time, I knew almost nothing about how to get any type of video online. Eventually, I published this video on YouTube, but in the beginning, I think I first made a webpage through my Cox Communications provider and somehow managed to create and upload video. That is exactly how crude the entire endeavor was.
Success! It worked. The attorneys were sending me threats. I had no attorney. I relied on my writing and negotiation skills to see if I could fend them off as convincingly as possible. The video was convincing. My medical reports were convincing. The law was convincing. And, so the legal team changed strategies. “Ok, you can have a dog if…” At first they sent me a contract limiting my dog’s travels to/from the car only. The more I read about rights, I rejected it. Who was I to reject an official document from a scary legal team? Indeed. I became more determined. I would send the contract back and ask, “Why would I agree to sign away rights I’m already permitted to have by law?” And then another contract would arrive with adjusted limitations. Nope.
However, finally, I decided to draft one of my own after being threatened with fines if I did not appear before our condo’s HOA meeting to justify to the members why I needed to have a service dog. Discuss my private medical information publicly or get fined? This inspired me to create a contract of my own essentially stating, “We (the Board, the attorneys, and the management company) agree never to disclose the confidentiality of Sara’s private medical matters. This topic is now closed and there will be a dog here. Period.”
I won. They signed.
But, by far, the most impactful results of willing to be wrong about something came about as my father lay in the hospital barely able to speak. He reached for my hand one day with tears that I had never seen before and he said, “I wish I had known. I would have done things differently with you. I’m so sorry.”
Well. I could have never predicted that. It made time irrelevant. He was in his 80s, but it rewound time in a way that made everything seem ageless. He managed to learn something profound in his lifetime. And so did I.
Another unexpected outcome was how much I truly came to love and appreciate this dog. She was the inspiration for my business. I never knew that so much love and intelligence was in my midst. Being willing to be wrong about what I thought I knew allowed me to be open to learning the closest thing we have to being able to actually speak to animals. We create a shared language and have actual dialogue. It is fascinating.
And what were the costs of being willing to be wrong about something? We both felt guilt of the type that makes you cry and apologize to people and animals who have crossed your path of whom you have perhaps mistreated terribly. We had to cry. And it is something I take into consideration when I seek to influence people to treat their animals better. I know I am perhaps talking to a person like myself, who, the meaner they are, they harder they will cry. Sometimes it’s easier to hold onto a notion and defend it to avoid this type of kick to the knees of your soul.
But, if you’re willing to be strong enough to be vulnerable, to be strong enough to lose face, to be wrong, to not be so sure of yourself, you’ll pass through to the other side and…wow. The view is incredible. If it helps, you can assure yourself that you can always go back. Ask anyone you know who has been on the other side if they want to go back–not even kicking or screaming. They just won’t go.
The benefits are priceless. It’s a brilliant question…is there anything that you are willing to be wrong about? Something that could potentially restore a relationship, create new ones, or even better the world somehow? All I ask is that you just keep it in mind and consider the potentials.