New episode! This is the first time I experimented with recording a conversation in the same room rather than over Zoom. I don’t have professional audio equipment, so we recorded a single audio track, hunched over Andrés’ little table, crumbs of mota and my laptop. The sound quality isn’t perfect – but it worked well enough!
I’ve been living with three Mexicans, and on this episode, I talk to one of my housemates: Andrés Ortega. We chat about the trials and tribulations of living with strangers, cultural differences, the colors and facets of Guanajuato City, and what we have learned from each other. Get ready for laughter, city stories, lots of mutual appreciation, and a rant about pocket-less pants!
I’m really glad I found this house, and the three wonderful people already living in it. You guys are awesome! Game has been enjoying it here as well. She’s loving the leftovers that are being saved for her (especialls the month Ivan used to cook way too much), and every time tortillas go bad, or Andrés buys an entire roast chicken. Game has also received two toys from Moi. One of them, the yellow sheep, is still alive and being well loved. It is her new favorite, and even went on a road trip with us.
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Moi opened the door to his room to Game and I when we first moved in. We were invited to take over his bed – even Game! – and hang out, watching movies. We both felt comfortable and at ease right away. I’m thankful for Moi’s intuition and perceptiveness about making me feel at home!
I am grateful to have met my three housemates, having learned new modismos and gotten to know Los Simuladores. I couldn’t have found better people to share a house with. I appreciated sharing my imperfect pizza experiment with you all, having lots of coffee breaks with Andrés, sharing lunch tortas with Moi, lounging on the kitchen furniture with my dog at my feet and new friends by my side. And Ivan! Thank you for lending me your car, and introducing me to your inflables and their casa. (Ivan runs what probably is a not-entirely-legal bouncy house rental business. He also forges data for the government, but the bouncy house business is way cooler and more fun.)
I’m the lucky one. I don’t believe in God, but if I did, I would thank them for my time here, and for the freedom I rediscovered. And for something I thought everyone did, but am realizing may not be as common as I used to think: I see beauty around me all the time. I meet amazing people. (I, too, see the shadows, but also: so much good stuff!)
There’s something else I learned from Moisés that I didn’t mention on this podcast, but have to share with you because it’s brilliant! If you have raw eggs that aren’t fresh, and you aren’t sure they are still good, there’s an easy way to find out: fill a pot with water. Put the egg into it. If it sinks to the bottom of the pot, it’s still good. If it floats, it’s bad.
The other trick I learned: if you’re making coffee in a drip coffee machine (we are making a lot of coffee!), you don’t have to put entirely new coffee into the machine for every new can of coffee! You can just add a spoon or two of coffee to the used coffee already in the filter, add water, and you’ll end up with coffee just as tasty as the previous round … And you’ll be using up less coffee overall! (This is going to save me a lot of money going forwards, since I drink LOADS of coffee.) Up until now, I used to empty out and refill my filter every single time!
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You all, whether you’re reading this or not – I’m going to tell you in person again anyway: thank you for the conversations, the movie nights, water-refill and bouncy-house-recovering trips. Thank you for cotorrear-ing about dogs and the world, girlfriends and human beings, and anything from our personal challenges to family history.
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I’ll be leaving because I want to live in the middle of nowhere again, not in a place surrounded by highways. But if I could bring Moisés, Andrés and Ivan (just pack up the entire house), I totally would.
A friend (who already knows quite a bit!) recently asked me where to learn more about dog training – and I started putting this list together. It’s not complete (there are so many great resources out there!), and the order is random: I just went in the order I thought of things. There is no deeper meaning or ranking to it. I have not read every single post, listened to every single podcast episode, or seen every single video on the Youtube channels recommended (except for my own content). However, if a resource is mentioned in this post, it is because it has caught my attention, and I have seen/read/listened to and enjoyed at least some of its content. My list is not restricted to any particular training philosophy.
Kikopup (Emily Larlham) This one (if you’d rather listen to Peter’s and my podcast on Youtube than on a podcast platform) Free Ranging Dogs (will be filled with free weekly content starting August 14)
If you have your own recommendations for FREE resources, leave them in the comments! I’ll remove advertising and recommendations for paid content. Apart from that – go ahead and share away! Add a link, what type of resource it is, and why you are recommending it!
Chrissi and Peter introduce themselves, their dogs, and share about their businesses, lives and backgrounds. Special appearance by the one and only Hotel Azul! Plus tips for getting rid of flees, and fun facts about ants. Seriously – whatever your question, this podcast probably has the answer. It’s like an episodes of The Simpsons. Or an Ärzte song: there’s one for every occasion.
My friend Peter and I started – drumroll – a podcast! Here is my very first (short and sweet) episode. Like, share, review and subscribe, as they like to say! Supposedly, this is particularly useful on Apple Podcasts because it does voodoo with the rankings. In any case, we’ll take any R+ on any platform, so keep it coming!
New episodes will be released every second Tuesday. If I’ve got time, I’ll write a blog post about them – if not, you’ll find them under the new “Podcast” page in the menu, or in the podcast player of your choice! I’m aiming for bi-monthly episodes … Maybe one day, there will be more, but at the moment (and since editing takes up A LOT of my spare time), that’s what you get!
I’m really grateful to Peter for joining me on this new adventure (you are awesome, Peter!), and really excited about this project. As the benevolent dictator, I get to rant about anything I want on the episodes I do by myself (evil laugh), and this, my friends, makes me happy. May our listener enjoy (or suffer through it, but bear with me)!
I’m also proud of myself: it’s going to be an exercise in anti-perfectionism since I’m planning to not perfectly polish or heavily script any of it. You’ll get the real me (and the real Peter, and our real dogs) – sometimes thoughtful, sometimes funny (the European kind), sometimes melancholic, sometimes dark. Flawed, beautiful, awkward, brave and vulnerable, and occasionally brilliant (aren’t we all?).
For now, I’m leaving you with the Mary Oliver poem that inspired the title.
The Summer Day
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean— the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down— who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? —Mary Oliver
Indeed, I know how to pay attention, how to fall down, get back up, and be wild (oh, so very wild) and soft as well. And if it were up to me, I’d be strolling through fields all day. With dogs, and barefoot. (Preferably on a fall day. Summers are too hot.)
There are three things we’ve seen FDSA students struggle with over and over again – even advanced students and excellent trainers! We’ll call them the 3 Ts: Timing, Tautology, and Treat Placement. This post gives you an overview. If you’re going to delve further into marker training for precision behaviors, the 3 Ts are something you want to print out and tape to your fridge!
The marker cue needs to happen before you deliver the primary reinforcer.
Example: click – pause for a split second – treat.
You want a single marker cue before the primary reinforcer.
Example: “Get it” is my marker cue for tossing a treat for the dog to chase.
“Get it!” – pause for a split second – toss treat.
Do not add a click before or after your verbal marker! “Get it” itself is your marker – and it’s the only one you need.
Treat (or toy etc) placement
This is a subcategory of timing related to location specific marker cues (LSMs). If you use location specific marker cues (i.e. you want a different marker cues to indicate different modes of treat or toy delivery), you MUST say your marker cue before reaching into your treat pouch or moving your toy. “Otherwise,” to quote Shade Whitesel, who says it better than I ever could, “you are just teaching the dog that 5 different marker cues all mean the same thing: look at the hand to see where and what you will get.”
Whether the 3 Ts are obvious or not in any exercise or class you are working on; whether they are being addressed directly or lingering in the background: they will always be by your side. Keeping an eye on them will make you a better trainer, and take your dog’s understanding of what you are trying to teach them to the next level!
I know a beautiful black Standard Poodle named Gidget. She’s 2.5 years old, and lives with a wonderful human who’s ready to do pretty much anything for her: Brandy.
Gidget is an anxious dog. Not when she’s home with fellow Poodle Kona, or practicing cooperative care behaviors with Brandy in her house. Not even when she’s in her familiar car crate. These are safe spaces for her. She gets to be herself. At least, she doesn’t seem anxious in these contexts – we can’t ask her because she doesn’t speak human.
She does, however, get anxious in new places. And even in certain familiar ones. Gidget is a perfectly normal Poodle in that she has certain things she really enjoys, such as going on hikes and making dog friends on the trails. What’s hardest for her is not the hike itself. Nor is it being in her safe space in the car. It’s the transition between the two: making the seemingly HUGE effort to get out of the car, and get to the trail head.
We all know that control over your own outcomes is a primary reinforcer1, don’t we? Choices are great? So Brandy and I decided to give Gidget more control over her choice of exiting the car crate in the first place. We started with a treat test: can you take treats in the car? If so, great! If not – no pressure. You can stay in the car. If Gidget could eat, Brandy would release her from the car. Next, we’d use the 123 walking game in combination with a start button behavior. This way – we thought – we could let Gidget choose whether or not she wanted to walk from the car to the trail head or venture into other new environments, or whether she’d rather get back in the car.
In my experience as a dog trainer, dogs tend to opt in more and enjoy themselves more the more agency they are given. I hoped that Gidget would feel this way, too!
A detour: what is the 123 game?
The 123 game is one of Leslie McDevitt’s CU (Control Unleashed) pattern games. It’s based on the assumption that familiar patterns help us navigate familiar and unfamiliar environments. The basic version of the 123 game is very simple: the point is not for the pattern to be complex, but for it to help both human and dog to implement it quickly and even in distracting environments. Here’s how it goes:
Count your steps as you are walking forward: one – two – three. Feed a treat from your hand at three. Count out loud again as you keep walking: one – two – three. Feed a treat at three, and so on. In the basic version of the game, the treat always happens at 3, and the dog doesn’t have to do anything – you count as you walk, and they eat every three steps. It’s predictable, and it can be incredibly helpful to get a dog from one end of a training building to the other, from your car to the agility field, or simply across the street. Both the predictability and the eating help the dog and give them something other than the environment to focus on. You, as the human, also have clear and easy instructions about what to do (as opposed to what not to do: “Don’t pull on the leash, don’t tell your dog to heel,” etc.).
Another detour: what is a start button?
A start button behavior is any behavior the dog has learned to use as a cue for the human to do something, or for the human to ask the dog to do something. We use start buttons a lot in cooperative care and voluntary sharing – but really, there is no end to their application. Common start buttons include visual targets (looking at something or someone; making eye contact) and tactile targets (for example a chin rest on a hand or object, or stepping and staying on a platform).
Rather than feeding each treat from her hand, Brandy put the treat on the ground, next to her shoe, anytime she got to 3. Like in the basic version of the game, you will be walking and counting your steps, and your dog will eat at 3. However, the difference is that now, you’ll stop at 3, then put down the treat and wait for your dog to eat. And you will only start moving/counting again if the dog offers a start button behavior: if they look up at you. This turns the 123 game into requested approach training (RAT).
The video below shows Gidget learning the start button version of the 123 game in her yard. Notice how Brandy waits for Gidget to make eye contact before she starts counting again! The taking and eating of the treat interrupts the behavior of paying attention to Brandy, giving Gidget an opportunity to offer eye contact again once she’s ready – or not if she’s done.
What is requested approach training?
Requested approach training (RAT) is Leslie’s term for CU games that empower the dog to direct how close they will get to something, or how close something will get to them.
In the RAT version of the 123 game, you’ll stay put as long as your dog sniffs the ground or looks around rather than up at you. This is what we did with Gidget once she had learned the game at home, and we took it out into the world: it was up to her if she wanted to go further from the car. If she did, she’d look up at Brandy after eating, which was Brandy’s cue to walk and count three more steps. If Gidget didn’t look up within 5 seconds, Brandy would turn around, and they would return to the car: Gidget got to go back into her safe space. No need to venture out into the big and scary world unless you want to!
Windows of opportunity
Windows of opportunity to offer a certain behavior – such as 5 seconds for Gidget to make eye contact after eating – serve an important purpose in this kind of training: if you just waited your dog out indefinitely, sooner or later, they would look up at you. So even though you wouldn’t be actively “making them” move ahead, it would not be a real choice. It is only a real choice when the dog can opt out easily. A clearly defined window of opportunity is one way for the dog to opt out. (Another one is not taking the treat on the ground.)
How we imagined the training would go
Once Gidget knew the game, we took it to a quiet, low distraction parking lot. I imagined that after a little practice, Gidget would happily cue Brandy to take her all the way to the trailhead on the other side. After all, we already knew that Gidget loved the car, and loved the hike – it was just the space in between that wasn’t her favorite place in the world.
How it actually went
I (because of the kind of human I am, the fact that I knew Brandy would do a great job, and my own love of patterns) like to imagine things working out beautifully – but that’s not what happened for Gidget.
The video below shows Gidget’s first 123 session in the real world. You may want to watch the second attempt (where I didn’t add freeze frames) more than once to notice both lip licks! You can also use the gear wheel in the bottom right corner of the Youtube video to slow the clip down to half its original speed – it’ll help you notice subtle body language details.
It took approximately 10 sessions to get Gidget comfortable with three to four 123 reps before she asked to return to the car. The video below shows a BIG difference from that first attempt! But you can see that it is still hard for her: rather than looking right up at Brandy after eating, as she did in her yard, it takes her 4-5 seconds (the entire window of opportunity) to offer the respective next start button. At this stage, we plateaued for a while.
Plateauing means we need to change something. So we did!
Treat scatters in 123
We integrated a treat scatter into the 123 RAT game to help Gidget calm down on the way out into The Big World: when Gidget scanned (insecurity) or sniffed (if there isn’t anything worth sniffing, this is often a displacement behavior) for more than 5 seconds without offering eye contact, we integrated a treat scatter (as suggested by my wonderful colleagues Leslie McDevitt and Jennie Murphy) anytime Gidget wasn’t able to offer her start button behavior (eye contact) after eating the previous “3” treat. She could usually eat the scatter, and it relaxed her nicely. A lot of the time, she’d be immediately able to offer her start button behavior after finishing her scatter. Post scatter, we gave her a second 5-second window to offer eye contact. If she didn’t, Brandy and Gidget would return to the car.
Below is Gidget’s very first rep with scatters – and she nails it! She makes it up to SEVEN 123s with the help of scatters (Brandy’s scatter cue is, “Find it!”).
The very next time they went out to do scatter 123s in Gidget’s first training environment (if I remember correctly), she met the goal Brandy had set for her: ten 123s without asking to go back to the car! Success in environment #1! Gidget only needed ONE scatter during these ten 123 reps, even though it was a windy (noisy!) day!
When we went to a second environment, the same initial challenges presented themselves, and Gidget’s body language and her trouble taking treats showed us that she wasn’t ready to choose to walk away from the car. The second place Brandy tried was also relatively calm – but there was more traffic.
When opting out and then released to go back to the car and hop back in her crate, Gidget’s body language would change: she’d shed the tension; her tail went up. She looked relieved.
The video below is from the first 123 field trip to environment #2. Notice that Gidget can’t eat the treat Brandy puts down at 00:05. This is her opting out. Brandy reads her well, and takes her back to the car right away.
Hikes – yay or nay?
We knew that Gidget really enjoyed her hikes. She had a great time exploring nature trails with Brandy and her Poodle sister Kona, sniffing all the things, looking for critters … Gidget genuinely likes hiking, and her body language shows it! The video below shows clips of Brandy playing hide and seek with Gidget, taking turns praising and rewarding auto check-ins, and a recall – it’s a video Brandy took for my Out and About class at FDSA and allowed me to share here. Look at her tail carriage, the happy face, how she runs with a bounce in her step, and how proudly she carries her tail! This is a Poodle who’s having a blast on her hike, and lots of fun with Brandy – not a Poodle who’d rather be sitting in a crate in a car!
Leadership versus Choice
After seeing just how much Gidget struggled in environment #2 (more than I would have liked to see after our work in environment #1), I asked myself: what happens when Brandy takes the lead and doesn’t ask Gidget whether she would like to go further towards the trail (and away from the car)? I had been operating under a “choice is best” paradigm, and this was a good reminder that dog training is a study of one. Just because choice is best for some or even most dogs doesn’t automatically make it the right approach for Gidget. Only Gidget can tell us what is the right approach for Gidget! I asked Brandy to show me what walking away from the car in environment #2 looked like if she clearly took the lead:
Not being given a choice – like Brandy used to do pre-123 – ended up working better for Gidget than being asked to voluntarily opt in. She just couldn’t easily opt into leaving a safe space voluntarily, even if on the other side of leaving this space, something great – such as a hike – awaited. Notice the lack of scanning the environment, and Gidget’s higher (more confident) tail carriage in the video above! It’s hard to believe that this is the same place as in the first 123 video in environment #2!
This brings up a number of interesting questions and observations:
Some dogs, in some circumstances, do better with clear leadership than with choice. Some dogs have a really hard time choosing to do something – even if that something is fun.
Transitions are hard. For some dogs, transitioning out of a designated safe space is the hardest thing they are expected to do on a regular basis.
Should we still go with a choice-based approach, and never take the lead? Should a dog like Gidget … just live her life at home, in her house and yard, and skip all hikes unless she voluntarily opts in?
Should we medicate dogs like Gidget? (Gidget already is on medication for generalized anxiety. How should we define that “the meds are working” though? Are they working if the dog is able to follow your lead and have a good time? Or are they working only once the dog is able to opt in voluntarily?)
These questions don’t have clear-cut answers. In the end, we are making dogs live in a world designed by and for humans. And it is going to be the human who ends up making all of the above choices for their dog. Different humans will make different choices, and that’s okay: we all love our dogs, and do our best to give them a good life. It’s just that our definitions of a good life, and how we weigh factors such as getting exercise outdoors, freedom to choose etc. is different for every one of us. One dog owner may think that hiking matters more than freedom of choice, and vice versa, and neither one would be wrong: there simply is no objective answer, no matter how much we wish there was.
Let’s think about humans!
I know humans like Gidget. If you’re a human like Gidget, you might struggle to take the first step in a conversation or the planning of an event, even if that first step would eventually lead to an enjoyable activity. Or maybe you struggle to leave your safe space, and can’t quite put your finger on the reason why. Maybe you beat yourself up about it (which doesn’t help anyone, but is an easy go-to that distracts from the actual issue at hand).
The thing is: Gidget isn’t wrong – she’s very much right about the world. It is indeed scary and unpredictable. It’s just that most animals – including most humans and most dogs – are really good at pretending it isn’t. Objectively speaking though, just because nothing bad happened yesterday doesn’t mean nothing bad will happen today. That’s a fact – it’s not just paranoia. And just like Gidget, there are humans who know that the world is a scary and unpredictable, overwhelming place to inhabit. The majority of us pretending that everything is fine isn’t helping if you happen to be someone who can’t pretend. If anything, it makes things worse.
However, it is certainly easier to exist in the world if we can make ourselves feel safe. It’s an ability I treasure. Anxiety sucks, and given a choice, I’ll trade it for the illusion of safety every time. No questions asked. (But then again, that’s just me. And we’re all different.)
Let’s ask the questions that have come up for me in the course of following Gidget and Brandy’s journey – but let’s ask them about humans (like Gidget) this time. Maybe they will be easier to answer for our own species than for dogs. Maybe we can tap into a shared human experience, and find some answers.
Some humans, in some circumstances, do better with clear leadership than with choice. Some humans have a really hard time choosing to do something – even if that something is fun.
If we take “performing the task satisfactorily” as a measuring stick, some humans will perform better with clear leadership than with choice. They have a hard time doing something fun if the bridge between the status quo and the potentially fun goal involves a decision to step out of a safe space. Yes – this is certainly true, even if not universally so. I’d venture it is true for most children in some situations, and for some adults in most situations.
An example from my childhood
As a child, I used to be scared of making phone calls. Even phone calls to set up a playdate with my best friend. I loved playdates with my best friend, but I knew her parents would answer the phone, which meant I would have to remember the script one is supposed to follow when talking to someone’s parents on the phone. The whole situation was stressful. When I’m stressed, I’m bad at remembering scripts. I kept asking my parents to make these phone calls for me instead. But the rules were clear, no matter how much I pleaded: I had to call myself, or there would be no play date.
I remember the feeling vividly, even today. Especially my mom: if I explore my feelings around this topic, even now, there is a part of me that feels hurt and let down because she didn’t offer to make the call for me. Which is interesting given how many years have passed! Back in the day, I would usually try to bargain and beg, but end up making the call myself. It would always be highly stressful. It wasn’t something that got easier over time – it just kept being hard. Day after day, week after week, year after year. I don’t know why it was equally hard every time. After all, I kept practicing the script of talking to someone’s parents, and I kept successfully setting up playdates. The motivation of seeing my friend outweighed my fear of the call: I’d make the call (the behavior was stable because it kept getting reinforced), but I’d always feel bad about it (it didn’t get counterconditioned).
Today, I’m not afraid of making phone calls. The adult I am is not a human like Gidget – quite the opposite. I’m an adult who seeks out places and experiences others might consider dangerous. I like climbing abandoned buildings, and I sometimes dream of being a war journalist. I’m also an adult whose favorite dogs are dogs like Gidget. I like working with them, thinking about them, learning from them, and earning their trust.
But unless I’m expecting a client to call, I don’t answer my phone. Even if I know the number – unless I’ve scheduled a phone date with you. I prefer making calls to answering them. And I very much prefer written or in-person communication to phone calls overall. If you are someone I talk to on the phone every once in a while, know that you’re an exception, and very important to me.
If I had a child, I probably wouldn’t force them to make that call – I’d give them the option, maybe try and encourage them to give it a try sometime. But if they really wanted the playdate, and really didn’t want to talk on the phone, I’d do it for them. Why? Two reasons. One, I don’t want them to hold a grudge against me 30 years after the fact. And two, I don’t think the reason I’m not afraid of making phone calls anymore is the fact that I had to practice making them as a child. I can’t be sure because human minds work in mysterious ways – but I believe the reason is simply that I grew up to be a confident adult, and would have either way. I don’t think having to make phone calls as a child had any benefits for me.
Here, listening to my opt-out (making the phone call for me) would have been a better approach. I suspect the actual playdate was always too far away in time in order for me to get counterconditioned (change my feelings about phone calls) about setting it up in the first place. We keep pretending that humans are able to learn from reinforcers that are far removed in time – but truly, are we? I’m not so sure.
Another childhood example
When I was a kid, my mom would often visit her relatives on weekends. My dad would prefer to stay home. Both wanted me to be with them and share their weekend. And the choice was mine: did I want to go see the big family, or do fun things with dad? I remember it felt torturous. I’m sure my parents weren’t aware of it. They were doing the best they could, and probably trying to increase my agency (like Brandy and I tried with Gidget and the 123 game). But boy, weekends were hard!
One, I enjoyed both doing things with my dad, and visiting my mom’s family. I don’t think any of the two was intrinsically preferable to me. Two, for Chrissi, the child, it wasn’t a choice between two activities – it was a choice between who to make happy. Choosing to stay with my dad would make my mom unhappy, and choosing to go with her would make my dad unhappy. My job, my raison d’être, was to make both of them happy, which was both impossible and felt like a failure on my part.
Sometimes I picked my mom, but asked her to stop the car a few hundred meters from the house, got out, and walked back home to stay with my dad after all. Other times I picked her on the condition that we would leave by a certain time so I’d still have time with my dad in the afternoon – maybe I could make both of them happy! I’d enjoy the day, but always keep an eye on the clock, and then I’d remind her of our agreement … and she would generally ignore it. For whatever reason, I ended up trusting her word again the next time. And the next time after. I remember this whole part of my childhood, even though it consisted of weekend experiences I genuinely liked (time with dad; time with mom’s family), first and foremost as stressful.
In this second case, what would have been the best way to handle things? I probably benefited from both kinds of experiences – family time and dad time. If my parents had agreed on a schedule and just stuck to it, not fought about it, and shared that schedule with me rather than letting me pick one, life would have been a lot easier.
Let’s go back to dogs for a minute!
How does this compare to Gidget, the Poodle, and dog training in general? I’ve seen dogs who try so hard to please their person, independent of what they actually want themselves (hint: a lot of the time, these dogs are Border Collies). This is one reason windows of time are important.
I don’t think Gidget felt this kind of pressure: she isn’t the kind of dog who’s extremely prone to feeling this way, and Brandy did a great job making sure Gidget never felt “wrong” when she chose to go back to the car.
Still, in a way, both childhood examples apply to Gidget: IF Gidget is going to go on hikes, she’ll benefit from clear leadership as opposed to choice: today, we’re going on a hike. Tomorrow, you’ll stay home (a safe and fun place, too). Brandy will make it for her, and take the lead (Brandy will make the phone call for Gidget, so to speak).
Transitions are hard. For some humans, transitioning out of a designated safe space is the hardest thing they are expected to do on a regular basis.
I know kids as well as adults this is true for. Some (all?) kids benefit from a heads up: “In 5-10 minutes, we’re going to head home! Just letting you know so you can wrap up the game you are playing.” (My friend, the one I mentioned earlier and who, maybe thanks to all the phone calls I made back in the day, is still my friend 3 decades later, does this for her kids today, and I LOVE it!)
It’s also true for some adults. It’s not the case for me, so I’ll have to do some guessing here. I know people who are often late because they struggle with leaving place A in order to get to place B in time. Maybe as long as it is early, the anxiety about the outside world outweighs the social obligation of leaving now in order to get to place B in time. Once you look at the clock and see that the time of the meeting in place B has already arrived, the social obligation outweighs the anxiety, and you do leave place A. Which will make you late. If the person who has been waiting for you at place B was on time, they may be grumpy by the time you get there – which makes it even less likely that you’ll leave earlier the next time. Being greeted by grumpiness or judgyness is a punisher. It’s a vicious circle.
I’m not sure what would lessen this kind of struggle for adult humans. In kids, maybe we should minimize their decision time (1 minute of stress a day is better than 15 minutes of stress a day?), and give them a heads-up for transitions that will be made for them (“we’ll leave in 10 minutes”)? Maybe adults benefit from establishing routines that make it easier to do A, B, C? Tag points? Therapy? Turning outings into rituals on a regular schedule rather than spontaneous events? I don’t know. I know what I would try myself: therapy, meds, and gamification. But that’s just me, and things that have helped me with other, totally different struggles. If I were a human like Gidget, neither one of these might appeal or make sense to me.
Should we still go with a choice-based approach, and never take the lead? Should a human like Gidget …live their life at home, in their house and yard, and skip all hikes/outings/cocktail parties/agility group classes if they never opt in?
Let’s take another look at dogs first.
I’d venture it varies from dog to dog. Dogs who get a lot of enrichment at home and have a big yard, their human is home all day and plays nosework games and trains and plays at home – maybe that’s where they are happiest. Get a vet who’ll do home visits, and you’re covered on that basis, too. Life is free(er) of stress, but still enriching.
If your yard is not quite as big, and/or your dog truly enjoys activities that are only available outside of it (such as hiking for Gidget) – maybe a choice-based approach simply isn’t the one to go with. Do what works for your dog, not what works for most dogs, or what is currently in vogue in the dog training communities you are a part of.
And what about humans? Very difficult to say! As for adults who enjoy meeting friends, but can’t leave their house … again, it depends. If they live with a big happy family or with friends or partners, maybe they don’t need to leave, or can live perfectly happily while only rarely leaving. I have my doubts – but maybe they are unfounded.
For adults who live alone, this looks like a major life quality issue to me. If you crave social interactions (or mountain biking, or agility classes), but are finding it impossible to leave your house, this is a problem. Maybe one option would be to have friends come pick you up at previously agreed times/days. Again, I think it depends on the individual if this reduces or increases stress though: what if the agreed-upon day happens to be a bad day, but you can’t get yourself to cancel because that, too, would require interacting with people, which feels impossible sometimes? You need people you trust, but what if your anxiety doesn’t allow you to trust anyone?
Should we medicate people like Gidget?
I have opinions – but that’s all they are: opinions, not facts. I say, yes, if whatever you are experiencing on a medium to long term basis is seriously affecting your quality of life – go get therapy, and get meds on board! There is a whole menu of medications that decrease social anxiety, depression, and generalized anxiety, which are probably some of the root causes of transition struggles and decision paralysis. For humans, I’d say that if you feel like Gidget in the first 123 video in environment #2 more days than not, it may be time to get help. There is an endless supply of shitty things happening in the world around us. It’s easy to externalize the way we feel that way. But if you feel this way on a consistent basis (however rational it may be to be affected by the shitty things going on! Yes, it’s rational, but that is not the point!), the cause is something inside of you – not something outside of you. Something outside of you is always going to be bad. As in, something outside of you is always going to be bad: if it’s not the Coronavirus, it’s Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If it’s not that, it’s the rapid decline of US democracy into orderly fascism. If it’s not that, it’s climate change. You can’t wait out the bad things, because they never stop. Something outside of you is always going to be bad. Here’s the good news though:
I really don’t think medication and therapy should be last resorts – for dogs4 or humans. I’m on medication, and it has significantly improved my life quality. I’ve also been in therapy, which has improved my understanding of myself and the people around me. I’ve also seen therapists who, I felt, had no idea what they were doing – you need to find the right person for you, just like the right medication. If the first person or medication you try doesn’t help – there are others out there that might do the trick! The menu is large. You just have to take the first step.
Knowing that the first step is the hardest, if you know me and struggle with this – by all means, reach out! I’d be happy to hear from you and happy to talk through it on an entirely non-medical, personal-experience-based basis (maybe even on the phone). I can also just listen. Or hold up your end of the conversation too, if that’s what you prefer. It’s okay to need people. It’s okay for life to be hard. It’s okay if you’re not fine, you all. And if you are not a human like Gidget? Look out for your friends who are! Give yourself and them the same grace and compassion you have for dogs like Gidget.
(3) A meme from Pinterest that has been showing up on all kinds of social media platforms.
(4) Check out this post by my FDSA colleage Jennifer Summerfield for a veterinary take on the topic: “Behavior Medication: First-Line Therapy or Last Resort?” Dr. Jenn’s blog, November 14, 2016.
PS: Thank you, Brandy and Gidget, for exploring the 123 game with me, for hanging in there throughout windy, cold and rainy days, and for allowing me to share your videos! You are wonderful, and I feel lucky and grateful to have met you both!
I’ve been writing this post for about three months. WordPress tells me I’ve revised it 59 times. I’m still trying to figure out what losing Puzzle means. It feels like a metaphor for … something. But as my life continues, that meaning constantly changes. So for now, I will just write about Puzzle. Not about Puzzle, the metaphor of loss – about Puzzle, the puppy I loved.
~ ~ ~
In reality, the Puzzle Week lasted longer than just a week. Puzzle stayed 8 or 9 days with me. And after that, I kept going back almost every day. I’d walk past her, her mom and her littermates’ house, call “Pupupupupup!”, which would bring them all out into the alley. Puzzle would walk with Game and I while the others stayed back. Sometimes, I’d pick her up and let her hang out at my house for a few hours, and then drop her off again. She’d sleep on my lap while I worked, or chew up flip flops on the living room floor.
All in all, our relationship lasted about five weeks, and we saw each other, I suspect, every day except for about 3 or 4 of these days.
When I entered the part-time-puppy-relationship – that is, when I asked her people to let her stay with me for a week – I already knew our time together had an expiration date. It wasn’t the right time for me to add another dog. Her family might place her with someone else at any point.
I knew that I could share 24-7 hours of quality time and then return a puppy because I’ve fostered dogs in the past, and I’ve rehomed my own dogs when it was the right choice for us. I usually do so calmly and pragmatically, and with little or no tears. I trust my gut. Sometimes, you need to let someone go.
~ ~ ~
It took me two or three days to love her. I don’t use that word lightly in general. I do not love all dogs who stay with me. I haven’t even loved all of the dogs I have owned, or shared a house with. Yes, I’ve been fond of all my dogs. I’ve even “loved” all my dogs in that throwaway comment sense of “Love you, see you later” as you walk out the door, your mind somewhere else. But I have not loved all of them in the way I’m using the word here. In the words of Mark Dotey: “this way to the mountain”:
Maybe I loved Puzzle because of the way she curled up with her back pressed against my neck every night, ever since the moment she convinced me she was not going to sleep on the balcony. She slept through the night, always making contact. Her body was warm, and I could feel her breathing. It was easy for me to fall asleep next to her. (Usually, with a new animal – human or otherwise – in my bed, it takes a while until I sleep peacefully next to them. The smell of someone other than myself – their coat, their soap, their sweat, their skin – these details keep me up at night until they become familiar. It takes a conscious decision to let them become so, and several nights to adjust.
When I let Puzzle sleep in my lap while working on my laptop, she did the same thing: she’d curl up, and I’d feel her rise and fall slowly, breathing, sleeping, snoothing, trusting. Sometimes, she snored a little. Ever so gently. The warmth of her little body. The not-entirely-but-still-quite softness of her short brindle fur. The nose, always a little drier than Game’s. The floppy ears between my fingers. And just like that, I loved her. It was easy. It was this way to the mountain. And I let myself love her. Just like that.
~ ~ ~
Love’s always also cerebral. All emotions are, to a certain point. My prefrontal cortex is pretty good at monitoring what’s going on. As long as it’s in charge, love isn’t scary either. It only gets scary when other parts of the brain take the driver’s seat. Early on, I can still take an exit if I want to. Eventually, there are no more exits – but until that moment – and I see that moment coming for a long time; it’s like a warning sign I’m approaching: “Last gas station.” Until then, I can take an exit pretty much anytime. Knowing that gives me confidence and it makes me brave, and able to open up to people.
I did not care about exits with Puzzle. For the time she was here, I was all in, and that was clear from the moment she first curled up with her back against my neck.
~ ~ ~
Loving a dog is paradoxical. When you choose to not take any of the exits, you already know it will end in sadness. It’s part of the reality of loving a being with a lower life expectancy than your own. The moment you allow that puppy to tumble into your arms, you are saying, “I accept that I will lose you. I know I am going to grieve you, and I will love you anyways.”
I’m finding this pretty remarkable, mostly because I have never allowed myself to feel this way about any animal (human or otherwise) this quickly. I’ve definitely got that foreboding joy thing going on that stops me in my tracks when I approach the last gas station sign: this far, but no further. You’re allowed to “love,” but not to love. You get some of the joy, but not all of the joy, because all of the joy isn’t worth the sadness. You’ll grieve more deeply if you love more deeply, Chrissi, and if you don’t want to grieve deeply, it’s better not to love deeply. You know deep grief. You know it’s an abyss that is f*cking hard to not jump into once you’re at its edge, so you better stay away from the edge altogether. It’s the smart thing to do. It’s how you survive.
I’m not saying I haven’t let myself love people in that way – I have. But never this quickly. It usually takes months for me to get to that sign, and by that point, I’ll know if it will be worth it. (At least by now, at 36 years of age, I hope that I know, at least some of the time.)
I’m almost always aware of the landscape I am traveling through (and how far I’ve gotten on that road; the abundance or lack of exits and gas stations) on a meta level as I let new people or other animals into my life. It’s a trade-off: do you want the safety of not fully loving and never fully grieving, or do you want the joy of fully loving and the devastation of fully grieving? I simply didn’t care when it came to Puzzle. I didn’t analyze, get scared, run away, or keep her at arm’s length. I just loved her without giving it a second thought, and it was easy, and it was good.
I’m not even sure there ever was a time I loved a dog in that way and this fast – but if there was, it was when I was 8 or 10, and that dog’s name was Waldi. Maybe the moment something in my brain decided to protect myself from loving dogs that way again – maybe, actually, from loving anyone in that way – was when I eavesdropped on my grandmother telling my mother that Waldi had died. They were not going to tell me, and that was the biggest betrayal I had experienced in my young life. Maybe I never loved Waldi in that way to begin with. Maybe at that age, you’re not capable of loving in that way yet. Maybe I just used him as something to project my feelings onto (I wrote him letters every day). I don’t know – I don’t trust childhood memories, including my own.
The first time I loved a person like that was MANY years (and two relationships) later. It was E, and the reason I loved her like that was that I didn’t see it coming. I missed the last gas station sign because I didn’t realize I was on that kind of road. E was a woman, and I didn’t yet know I could fall in love with women as well. E came with an abyss, and I didn’t let her go gracefully or remember her fondly.
~ ~ ~
I gave Puzzle back, as promised. More than a week had passed. I had taken all the videos I was planning to take for my CU instructor certification and for my puppy leash skills blog post. It was time. I thanked her people, and got permission to visit from the friendly Señor with the mustache who looked like he was someone’s favorite uncle.
I knew I would miss her, but it was okay. She’d be nearby. I’d visit. Indeed, I ended up visiting her every day. It’s the thing (I thought, smiling to myself on my way up her callejón) that I do. It’s the wanting-to-see-the-animal-or-human-you-love every day. It’s who I am. Loyalty. Stability. Trust. I’ll be there. Always. I’ll be your person, and I want you to be mine. That’s what love means to me. I had thought our relationship would pretty much end when I returned Puzzle (that was before I loved her). It didn’t. And the reason it didn’t was because I loved her this way to the mountain.
Days passed. I kept visiting. I was talking with someone about a home for her – one that she’d be a great fit for. Nothing was sure yet, but life was good. Puzzle wasn’t living with me, but she was in my life, and she was bringing me joy every day. I was her person.
~ ~ ~
One day, she was gone. I came back the next day, and the day after. She never did. I talked to her people – they hadn’t seen her, and they hadn’t placed her. I kept going back for more than two weeks, hoping, against all reason, she’d come tumbling down the stairs.
I’ll never know what happened to her. If I took an educated guess, she is most likely dead. I’m familiar with the mortality rate of free-roaming puppies: it’s 81% before they reach reproductive age.1 There were 5 puppies to begin with, which means that 4.05 of them would die before they were, say, about 6 months old. They’re a couple months old now, and there’s one left.
I’m familiar with the causes of the disappearance of puppies, too. 63% are being directly or indirectly influenced by humans. I know the numbers because I researched them for my presentation at the 2022 Lemonade Conference.
Every single person I’ve shared Puzzle’s disappearance with has told me to imagine someone stole her and gave her a great life. That’s probably the first comforting thought that comes to mind, and my friends want to comfort me. Maybe that’s what happend. Maybe it isn’t. In the former scenario, she’s still alive (which is great). But I’m not liking this scenario. It says something about people that I don’t want to be true. (You don’t just steal someone’s puppy, for fuck’s sake! You go up to the house, and ask if they are selling or giving the puppy away. We’re in Mexico, so the answer will probably be yes. If you were the kind of person who would actually end up giving the puppy a great life, I hope you’d ask first.) So I can’t even say I prefer this scenario to any of the others because it says something terrible about people, and I do not find it comforting.
~ ~ ~
Would I do it again? Sure, with Puzzle. She was special for me because I let her, and that made all the difference. I can live with the fact that I’ll never know what happened to her, and it doesn’t diminish the good times we had. (Which is surprising.) I remember Puzzle fondly, not sadly. I remember her in the way a good thing you needed to let go makes you equal parts sad and happy. It was sad, but okay to let her go. And it was great while it lasted.
The luckiest people in the world are the ones who have something the loss of which will break their heart. The bravest people are the ones who know that joy and loss are two sides of the same coin, and who are willing to dive in anyways. Maybe I’m becoming that person. I’d like to think so.
After a little more than a week, I knew it was time to take Puzzle back home. I had agreed with her family to “borrow” her for a week. I took one last video – the one where Puzzle is rolling around on the floor with Game and the tennis ball – and then took her home. My neighbor was happy to see me, and smiled, seeing how much joy he had given me by lending me one of the puppies for a bit. He gave me permission to visit or spend time with Puzzle anytime.
Since Puzzle and her family live just around the corner, Game and I would walk past her and see her a lot, even after she didn’t live with us anymore. So much happy (on the puppies’ part anyways!)
We quickly got into the habit of taking her on the shorter one of our loops – just up Cerro del Cuarto and back home. Whenever I wanted to go on a longer hike, I avoided the callejon with the puppies so Puzzle wouldn’t be tempted to follow us.
Puzzle’s first hike
However, one day, she did anyways – and I decided to just bring her along. I had gotten into the habit of bringing her leash and collar, just in case, so she’d be fine walking along the car street with us, too: for the first time, Game and I were going to take her to the trails! It was a great little hike, and our little friend, who had never experienced the trails before, had a blast. Here’s a few impressions from her first field trip to the creek, with some narration about my thoughts about introducing puppies to new kinds of environments/surfaces:
Puzzle’s first field trip to the trails and the creek:
Is there anything better than watching a puppy explore a new space?
Wanna have more off-leash fun with your own dog? Join Chrissi’s April class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy: Out and About. Registration is open now, and class starts on April 1st. We’re sold out at the Gold level, but there are still Silver and Bronze spots available! Come join us – it’s going to be fun!
I generally have a few toys out – if I haven’t, Game will turn my shoes into toys.
Resource guarding incident #1: toys
On day #1 or #2 of the Puzzle week, I observed a resource guarding moment in Puzzle: she was guarding a toy from Game. In such a young puppy (supposedly 8 weeks; maybe a little bit younger), this is a red flag behavior for me. I happened to catch it on video. Let’s look:
… and analyze! Btw, I’m pretty sure what’s running in the background is a recording of Jennifer Summerfield‘s excellent webinar on behavioral medication for dogs.
01:02 Puzzle, who hasn’t played with toys before, shows interest in the Hucker as soon as Game leaves it alone to go for the red ball on a rope. Okay – nothing wrong with this. (Stimulus enhancement causes her interest.)
01:17 Now Puzzle has the Hucker, but Game and I are interacting with the other toy, which makes that one more enticing.
01:37 Game has dropped the ball, and Puzzle comes over to take a closer look at it. (Stimulus enhancement!)
01:44 “Okay,” says Game, “Let’s see what you’re up to, little puppy!”
01:48 Game likes tugging with other dogs, so when Puzzle takes the rope, she picks up the ball …
01:49/50 It’s not entirely clear what is happening from this angle. Puzzle certainly stiffens and stares at Game, and Game lets go of the ball. (Is it because of Puzzle’s stiffening/stare, or was she going to do it anyways? We can’t know for sure.)
01:51 Game decides to get the Hucker instead – it’s currently not being used by Puzzle, so why not pick it up (and maybe bring it over to me)?
01:51/52 The moment Puzzle realizes Game is going for the Hucker, she lunges at her.
01:55/56 Game is unsure of how to handle the situation – she’s a puppy, after all. In her world, puppies have more leeway than adult dogs. You can see her do a lip lick (my interpretation: dilemma/self-consciousness/self-soothing).
02:01 Game stays calm and relaxed and gives Puzzle time to calm down as well.
02:03/04 Another lip lick. Puzzle is still feeling a bit guardy.
02:20 Game yawns … she’s not entirely sure how to handle the situation. Yawns can be like looking at your cellphone in order to let someone else in an elevator know that you’re neither creepy nor particularly interested in standing close to them.
Game is not afraid of Puzzle. If Puzzle were an adult, she would not put up with resource guarding – but she’s a puppy, and in Game’s world, that is different.
Because I know Game and can read her well, I keep filming rather than intervening. I knew nothing bad would happen despite their size difference. (This post is NOT a recommendation of how to handle resource guarding among the dogs in your own household!)
02:24 Enough time has passed, and Puzzle is now on the other side of the crate door. Game picks up the Hucker again to go about her day. (Good girl, Game! You’re awesome.)
Let’s pull out one detail I find particularly interesting in this video: Puzzle’s mixed feelings about the situation she’s getting herself into. Puzzle is experimenting with the resource guarding behavior rather than doing it out of habit. Let’s watch a stretch in slow motion:
Watch the slow-motion video a second time, and then go back to the first (real time) video. Can you make out all the body language details from the slow-mo video in real time?
How do behaviors like resource guarding develop?
We know that most behaviors have heritable components – heritability being the differences of a trait within the individuals of a population that depends on genetics. So we have both a genetic component and an environmental component that will determine the final behavioral phenotype (the individual’s observable behavior).
Let’s assume (for argument’s sake, not because this is necessarily the case) that Puzzle has never tried resource guarding before. But she’s got a combination of genes that inspire her to give it a try – even though she doesn’t exactly know what she’s doing. There’s an environmental trigger (Game wanting the Hucker Puzzle had before) that pushes Puzzle into the behavior.
Several things can happen at this point, depending on the other dog’s reaction:
If the other dog gives up the toy, the guarding behavior will be reinforced (that’s the operant, environmental part of the equation: behaviors that are being reinforced will happen more frequently in the future).
If the behavior doesn’t work (it has no meaningful consequences), it may be tried again in the future – maybe slightly differently, maybe in somewhat different circumstances.
Or it may not be tried again in the future; maybe it was just a haphazard one-time attempt: the behavior extinguishes.
If the behavior is punished by the other dog (if Game reprimanded Puzzle), it should decrease or disappear in the future.
Puzzle is very young, so at the point that I took this video, I’d have predicted that she’d need several extinction or punishment experiences before the synapses necessary to keep the behavior in her repertoire would be pruned.
You can see how fast learning happens in real time in this very video: the first hard stare Puzzle gives Game at 01:49 (first, original speed video)/00:09 (second, slow-motion video) works: Puzzle’s hard stare is being negatively reinforced by means of Game moving away. Puzzle quickly tries the hard stare again at 01:59 (first video at original speed)/03:02 (second, slow-motion video)! When it doesn’t work, she escalates to snapping. (If this had been reinforced more than just once before before, we’d call it an extinction burst.)
Resource guarding incident #2: Chrissi
Apart from this moment with the toy, there was only one other resource guarding incident Puzzle displayed (which surprised me; after this one reaction, I expected her to be quite guardy in general). The second incident happened also on the first or second day Puzzle stayed with us. She was curled up on my lap while I was working on my laptop. Game came over to see what was up, and Puzzle snapped at her. Again, Game stayed perfectly calm. (“Eyeroll. Puppies.” Also, Game rocks!)
For me as a dog trainer who has seen owners struggle with resource guarding, both these behaviors are red flags when they show up in young puppies. I thought to myself, “Good thing I’m not going to keep Puzzle.” But – and here’s the really interesting thing! – after these two incidents, NO more resource guarding happened the entire time Puzzle stayed with us, or afterwards, when I had returned her to her family, but picked her up to let her spend a few hours at my place several times a week. I conclude that my initial assessment (resource guarding in young puppies is usually a bad sign for multi-dog households) was not the case for Puzzle.
If I were to anthropomorphize (okay, let’s stop kidding ourselves; this is me full-on anthropomorphizing): as soon as Puzzle learned that she could trust Game, she had no reason to guard resources from her – neither me nor toys nor food.
What a can of worms! How can we even operationalize “trust”?
Let’s start by operationalizing a behavior that is not trust-based (because that’s easier to define): Resource guarding is a behavior resulting from the belief that if you share something, you will lose something. (In the case of dogs, the thing they are unwilling to share is the same things they are expecting to lose. In humans, the thing they are unwilling to share could be a secret, and the thing they are afraid of losing could be a connection (a friendship, a marriage, a fight).
Trust, then, is the belief that sharing something will not result in its loss. Trusting behavior results from the belief that sharing something (a toy, food, a secret) will not result in a loss (of toys, food, or connections).
A dog who lets no one near their food is resource guarding. So is the human who leaves out the fact that they have kids or are divorced on their Tinder profile. Only once trust has been built (either systematically or organically) can the food or facts be shared.
To work or not to work on resource guarding
If I had planned to keep Puzzle, I would have prioritized resource guarding and systematically worked on it. Since I was not going to keep her, I didn’t worry about it, and worked on other behaviors I wanted to video instead. The fascinating thing: the resource guarding completely disappeared all by itself. Except for the two instances on days #1 or #2, there was no more guarding – ever. Puzzle’s confidence around and trust in Game grew (anthropomorphizing again, I know). In the video below – which is from the last full day she stayed with us – Game steals her tennis ball, and it’s all good anyways. (I’m not saying you shouldn’t work on resource guarding with your own puppy. You absolutely should! I’m just sharing the Puzzle Week story.) After a week with Game and I, Puzzle had become a relaxed house dog who was able to roll around the floor, mostly peed outside, slept through the night, and shared toys with Game.
Resource guarding in free-roaming dogs
Maybe a slight tendency to guard is a selective advantage for free-roaming dogs such as Puzzle and her parents. I’m saying this because I’ve seen it in several free-roamers-turned-pets-as-adults I’ve worked with as a trainer in Guatemala, and because I’ve seen it in free-roamers I’ve observed in the streets. Not in all of them – but definitely in a larger percentage than I’d expect to see in the pet dog population.
Here’s an example of an adolescent Husky mix displaying resource guarding behavior over food:
Wheee, that was a novel! Two more Puzzle posts to come (unless I think of more). Until then: happy training, y’all!
For more dog training tips and videos, join Chrissi’s April class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy: Out and About. Registration is open now, and class starts on April 1st. We’re sold out at the Gold level, but there are still Silver and Bronze spots available! Come join us – it’s going to be fun!