Life Lessons Taught By My Primitive Dog
As the human part of a service dog team, I’m supposed to be the leader here, right? I know my primitive dog friends will laugh right now. We know that when given an inch, our dogs take the whole football field, which is what inevitably turns us into trainers rather than just owners. We suddenly find ourselves diving head first into all the classes we can find, gobbling up every book on behavior, and we take on the role of teacher ourselves as we begin to understand the reasons behind what we do. Whether the goal is the highest agility title or a successful ten minute down stay when we want a piece of pizza in peace, we all become the instructors in our dogs’ lives. I knew I would be teaching a tiny baby everything about the great big world he had just been born into eight weeks prior, but what I didn’t know was how much I would learn from him.
Obviously, Chiyo has changed my life as my service dog with all the daily tasks he helps me do, but he also changed me inside. Humans have this superiority complex over the rest of Earth’s species that I just don’t understand now that I have had the honor of being Chiyo’s student. I know I’m not alone in that thought, too. So many of us like dogs more than people, and for good reason: they’re just smarter than us when it comes to the things that really matter. What was it that George Orwell wrote? “Four legs good, two legs bad.”
What would my dog do? Or what would I do with my dog, instead? When I find myself troubled, I need to get out of my own head. Focusing on my own thoughts would send me down a rabbit hole. So I took a page out of my own training book and redirected my focus. Training with Chiyo gave me a positive outlet to direct my energy to instead of sweating the small stuff, and he enjoys the time we spend working together rather than watching my eyebrows knit themselves a scarf.
You’ll Never Regret Going
To walk or not to walk? My dog isn’t the type to stand at the door and bug me to take him, but I know he’ll be ecstatic if I do. I end up getting up and out, not because I “have to”, but because I want to, and that holds me accountable. On days where I’m tired and achy, Chiyo reminds me that it helps to reconnect with nature. I find myself thanking him out loud for taking me, and there isn’t a single time I can say I’ve regretted going for that walk.
How to Deal With People
Our two species are still both self-serving animals with similar motivators. In order for a dog to comply, you must first have something it wants. This is especially true of the primitive dog— it will do what pleases it. The further up in brain complexity you go, the more you will encounter this trait. So let's take the intricate human brain, and apply our dog training techniques just the same way.
From kids in a classroom to adults at a board meeting, the “boss” has the treats and decides how to distribute them. We all work for treats. Finding what motivates people has given me insight into how to better accomplish everything from getting my husband to help clean the house to how to help my neighbor persuade her kids to get their homework done. Its also helped me shape others’ behaviors without them realizing. For instance, ignoring something unwanted rather than engaging with it. People and dogs are the same in that they will repeat what gets them attention (even negative attention)! “You catch more flies with honey...”
Treat Yo Self
That goes for ourselves too! When you find yourself out of oomph for a challenging or time-consuming task, the promise of a reward can help get you back on track. Similarly, if you want to stop a negative habit, replace it with what you do want. I found it sometimes wasn’t sufficient to teach my dog to drop everything and cease the unwanted behavior on the spot, but to teach him a desired behavior to perform in its place. Especially when the unwanted behavior was one that was already very well established. Old habits don’t have to die hard now that I know a better strategy is to implement interruption, distraction, redirection, & replacement!
Nix Negative Self Talk
Dogs don’t feel self-conscious. They're not embarrassed if one paw is slightly bigger than the other. They don’t “should” themselves with guilt over the things they didn’t do, and they’re definitely not up at three in the morning crying over that time they peed on the carpet RIGHT in front of grandma. I know Chiyo doesn’t think lowly of himself. As a Shiba, he’s got some big time self-esteem. He thinks I’m pretty great, too. I learned to see myself through Chiyo’s eyes. He doesn’t care if I’m having a bad hair day, he’s just thrilled I took him to play at the beach! He celebrates anything and everything, like every day, is the best day of his life. He doesn’t need a reason, the reason is being alive.
Forgive & Forget
You step on your dog’s foot by accident and fling a flurry of apologies to his furry face that never stopped smiling anyway. Why? Because he wasn’t ever going to get angry. He forgave you the second it happened. Contrary to that beautiful smirk that appears to be plotting your demise, he really doesn’t have ulterior motives, grudges, or past arguments ready to rehash. They can’t fathom spite, but we can’t fathom that they can’t fathom it! So the human brain does what its known for when confronted with a question mark, and fills in the blanks, often with assumptions. “He’s silently judging me, I know it”, I hear so many owners say. No, he isn’t. We should spend less time assuming, and more time learning from them.
Be Here Now
Dog birthdays are the most special kind of birthdays. They don’t get as many, so we need to celebrate twice as much. But that goes for everything. Look at your dog right now. Is he happy? I bet he’s happy doing just about anything, especially when it involves both of you together. He doesn’t know what's coming next, but that doesn’t scare him. He isn’t worried about tomorrow’s chores, and he has no deadlines to dread. He’s present. Unlike humans, dogs generally live in the now. He doesn’t know he doesn’t get as many birthdays, but he gets way more presence. And the present he would ask for is yours.
As my service dog, Chiyo has been the most eager student I could have hoped for. But even better, he turned me into that as well. We are all the students of life, and I love learning by Chiyo’s side as he also teaches me without so much as ever uttering an English word. If I hadn’t had the extraordinary privilege of having him come into my life, I know physically I would still be the helpless bedridden girl who couldn’t wash her own t-shirts, but I also would have been deprived of some of the most valuable lessons one can only learn from the purest of hearts. Chiyo is always unapologetically himself. Honest, forthcoming, and at ease in his own skin in a way that he never worries that it might not be enough for someone. He saves my life every day, in every way a person can be saved. In every sense of the word, he is my hero, and I want to be just like him.
So thanks legs, but the two of you could only get me so far. And now I have six.