Retirement, Social Comparisons, and Theories of Intelligence

What makes for a life we enjoy? Work we enjoy? What do we need to be content and comfortable in our own skin, and in our place in the world?

I tend to come across this question on a regular basis, and from all kinds of angles. The last time I thought about it – especially the angle of work – was when I talked to a guy on Tinder. He was in his early forties, and about to retire from a finance job in NYC. He had just bought a house at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala – his retirement home. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

This was intriguing – I had never met anyone whose life plan included retiring in their forties. My own life plan entails working until I die: I LOVE what I do; I can’t see myself ever not wanting to do it. I am already living exactly the life I want to live (something he was referring to being able to do after retirement). Retirement isn’t part of my plan.

I thought about this some more, and talked about it with another friend. Interestingly, my friend agreed that having saved up enough money in order to retire would be a huge burden off their shoulders despite the fact that they, too, are passionate about their work!

This disproved my first hypothesis, i.e. that “FIRE“ing was appealing to people who didn’t particularly enjoy the work they did or had to do. My friend (not a FIRE person, btw.) wistfully considered the idea of having enough money to stop needing to work. This friend likes their work. A lot. They said they would probably continue doing the very same work they are doing right now after an imaginary financial independence-based retirement. They believe they would feel better doing the exact same thing if it did not generate an income they were dependent on. Being financially independent, they wouldn’t have to do the work they would still be doing: they wouldn’t have to worry about paying their rent, etc. I find this intriguing, given the fact that this particular friend already has about ten times the savings I do. They have health insurance, a pension plan, and they live twice as frugally as I: from my point of view, they have no reason to worry about being able to pay their rent as is. But apparently, they still worry! So … Why do they? Or maybe I should ask: why don’t I?

Two kinds of freedom

Looking back on both these conversations, I think there are two kinds of freedom that make retirement/financial independence appealing to the two people I sampled:

  1. The freedom to do whatever you want on any given day – the lack of obligation.
  2. The freedom from worrying about your future/financial security/health care etc.

One reason retirement isn’t something I actively pursue is that (1) I am already doing what I want. I experience significant personal freedom, agency, and self-efficacy on a daily basis, and I have changed the course of my life often enough to “know” that I can pretty much do whatever I want whenever I want: I’ve switched majors in college; I’ve dated guys and women; I’ve used different pronouns; I’ve lived in different countries; I’ve learned foreign languages; I’ve started two businesses; I’ve traveled …

In addition, I (2) do not worry about my future, my financial security, and my health care. Yes, I did worry about these things at some point in the past, but I haven’t in a long time. In fact, I believe I haven’t worried about these things since I started (1) doing exactly what I want!

(2) may also have to do with the way I compare myself to others. As a species, we can’t help thinking about ourselves in relation to those around us – it’s just what we do. The secret isn’t to stop comparing yourself to others altogether. The secret is in the directionality of the comparisons we make. Rachel Sherman and Keith Payne point out that there are two ways of comparing ourselves to others, and they result in two vastly different experiences of our own place on the ladder of success.

Upward versus downward comparisons

Upwards comparing means we compare ourselves to those who have more than we do. Downwards comparing means we compare ourselves to those who have less than us. People tend to have a default direction their comparisons take. I’m not sure what determines which tendency an individual ends up with – but according to Payne, it is possible to change what we default to. If you currently compare yourself to those who have more than you do, you might want to rethink your directionality: downward comparers tend to be more content and worry less than upward comparers.

My default mode of comparing is downward: several times a week – sometimes several times a day! – I realize how lucky I am. I have a big and central apartment, I have a car (which I am trying to get rid of, because who needs cars), I have a dog who I just took for fancy dental surgery to Mexico City without having to think twice, and I’m toying with the idea of hopping on a plane, and fly to the US and back for no other reason than to get a COVID vaccine. As opposed to most people in Latin America, my European Union passport grants me visa-free access to most countries in the world. A couple months ago, I applied to a postgraduate program I’d be able to pay for out of pocket if I got in and decided to accept the offer. This is not the norm. I am aware of my privilege, and I often marvel at it.

I have more than enough: if I found myself out of work tomorrow (highly unlikely), I’d have plenty of time to find something new before making rent would become an issue. I see myself as capable, versatile, adaptive, and likeable. I’m trilingual, and in my adult life, I’ve always found a way to fit in. I have no doubt that I’d find something new to do that I enjoy, even if it was something completely different from anything I have ever done. And if for some post-apocalyptic reason, all possible ways for me to make a living disappeared, I believe I’d still get by somehow. I always do. If I couldn’t sleep on someone’s couch, I’d sleep in the street. Things would be different, but I’d make do with less, and I’d be just fine.

This is the story I tell myself, anyways. It’s the story I believe, and it’s a story that has served me well. My friend might say I’m unreasonably optimistic – that I don’t see society for what it truly is: injust. Corrupt. Untrustworthy. (It’s not that I don’t see it – I do. I know the playing field isn’t level, and that the game is rigged. I just don’t dwell on it, and I still enjoy playing. Setbacks motivate me to try again, or try something else, or turn a negative experience into a great story. I have a tagulator, and a dog, and there is cheesecake in the world. What could possibly stop me?)

An incremental theory of intelligence: hard work pays off

Growing up, the messaging from my parents wasn’t that I was exceptionally intelligent. It was that I had to work exceptionally hard in order to stay at the top of my class. If I didn’t do well, obviously, it wasn’t because I was dumb but because I hadn’t worked hard enough. There was performance pressure (which did occasionally cause me anxiety) – but my ability to do well if I worked hard was never questioned. Consciously or not, my parents taught me an incremental theory of intelligence: the belief that intelligence is malleable rather than fixed, and that performance is a function of effort.

I worked hard, and stayed fairly consistently in the top third of my class. Hadn’t I worked hard, I’d probably still have made it through somehow – but I’d have dropped to the bottom third in terms of performance. I knew that then, and I know it now. My performance potential is perfectly average. So what?

Maybe that is why the person I am today believes that I am capable of understanding and learning pretty much anything if I put in the work. University felt easy because my grades were directly related to my effort. Earning a scholarship to study abroad felt well deserved because I put in a ton of effort. Writing my MA thesis was a challenge I thrived on: I wanted to do well, so I worked hard, and did well.

I’ve got an above-average education level, but I don’t believe that my genetically determined frame of potential capability is any greater than that of the average person. It’s just that due to the combination of the random privileges I was born with (my white skin, my EU citizenship), my upbringing by parents that fostered an incremental theory of intelligence, and a bit of luck every now and then, I will be able to achieve most goals I want by working hard.

Most people do not share my random privileges, which may make them equally or less successful than I am even if they, too, hold an incremental theory of intelligence. Even if their genetically determined frame of potential capability is greater than mine.

people running on a race track

From where I’m standing, being successful means that you’re probably a privileged person who worked reasonably hard, and had a bit of luck along the way. It doesn’t mean your potential is greater than average. It doesn’t mean you are the one who deserves success more than your less privileged peers. It means that you had an advantageous starting position: you started out further ahead on the race track due to your skin color, gender, citizenship, economic background etc. And when the start pistol went off, you started running, just like the people next to and behind you. Being among the first to cross the finish line makes you no better than those who started behind you on the track (if you are like me – white, and European – that would be most people.)

It’s also nothing to be ashamed of: you did work hard, after all. We can be proud of ourselves and confident in our ability to learn new things while still recognizing that being born privileged is a huge part of our success. Both these things can be true at the same time – there’s no contradiction there.

An entity theory of intelligence: intelligence is fixed

The puzzling thing is that both FIRE dude and the friend I talked to have at least some of the same privileges, and an additional one that I do not have: maleness.

Looking around at my friends – most of whom have at least a BA, and many of whom have PhDs – I find it fascinating that they do not necessarily share my optimism (realism?): they are more pessimistic about their own financial and physical safety, and they feel less in control of their own outcomes than I do. The difference in our experience doesn’t seem to be related to objective, external factors (such as income levels).

I’ve noticed that I have friends who appear to consider themselves more intelligent than the average person. I’m basing this assumption on their stories of getting top grades up until the start of college “without doing any work.” I suppose these brag stories are indicative of an entity theory of intelligence: the belief that intelligence is fixed rather than malleable; that you have a certain amount of it, and are stuck with that amount.

Some of these friends feel like imposters – as if their above-average, but finite amount of intelligence could only have taken them so far, and they’ve stumbled into a space their intelligence isn’t sufficient for dominating. Since their fixed amount of intelligence is their main asset, they are constantly in danger of being found out and exposed as a fraud who hasn’t earned their seat at the table of accomplishment.

My incremental theory of intelligence allows me to feel accomplished and capable when I succeed – it allows me to take credit for my success. It also allows me to accept failures, and approach them with a new strategy or greater effort on my next attempt. I do not attribute failure to a fundamental lack in ability, but to insufficient practice or effort. Just like the students in Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck’s study, it seems that the adults around me who hold an entity theory of mind are more likely to experience helplessness upon failing rather than adopting a positive strategy of trying again, or trying something different.

Conclusion

It seems to be easier to be content – and worry less – when you default to downwards comparisons, and hold an incremental theory of intelligence. Payne says it is entirely possible for an adult to change their direction of comparison. Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck ran successful interventions among junior high school students, causing them to adopt an incremental theory of intelligence. I certainly hope that what they have found among junior high students still holds true for adults: it’s possible to change our world view, and become more optimistic and happier as a result. Is it likely to happen? Probably not, unless you make an effort. As adults, we are pretty committed to our philosophies of life, which continue being reinforced by our confirmation bias. But as a species, we’re also incredibly adaptable – maybe change is always at our fingertips. It’s certainly worth a try!

Something to think about

+ Do you default to upwards or downwards social comparisons? Does it differ depending on context? How does your default direction of comparison make you feel?

+ Do you hold an incremental theory of intelligence or an entity theory of intelligence? Where do you think you have learned to think of yourself/the nature of intelligence in this way? How has your theory of intelligence helped or hurt you in your adult life?

+ Are you financially independent/retired? If you are – what do you like and dislike about it? If you aren’t – would you like to be financially independent/retired? Why or why not? What would you do differently if you were?

Resources mentioned in this post

(a) Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck: “Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition,” Child Development (Jan-Feb, 2007).

Sherman, Rachel – Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence

Payne, Keith – The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects The Way We Think, Live, and Die

Stress cycles

I love discovering parallels in dog and human behavior.

A few weeks ago, Game cracked a tooth. After an epic Mexican veterinary adventure involving a road trip to Mexico City, a beautiful sunset, a couple dead Moray eels, and two dental surgeries, Game is back home, and on the road to recovery.

Not feeling well – the dog angle

When Game is well, she has the sociability of a Golden Retriever. When she’s not okay, she has the sociability of a Malinois. Post surgery, she was clearly in the latter state. I can tell whether she is or isn’t well by looking at her face. There is a subtle difference in the way the muscles in her forehead are either tense or soft, and in the amount of sleep she needs. Sleep all day? Something isn’t going great, and I need to be careful when I’m out and about with her. Behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and different mental states track certain behavioral clusters. In Game’s case, not feeling well means that large groups of people (something she generally tolerates extremely well) can cause frustration. This manifests itself, among other things, in a heightened likelihood of barking, lunging, and the temptation to nip at fast-moving strangers. Her threshold for responding to stimuli in the environment plunges.

The human parallel

I sympathize: there’s a parallel in my own behavior. When I am stressed, my threshold for social reactivity (read: lashing out) is lower, too. I have the urge to bite my roommates’ heads off for something minor, feel like yelling at a stranger in the street for looking at my dog too long, want to honk at other drivers, or delete Facebook comments I don’t like, simply because I have the power to, and that’ll show ’em. I explode easily, and knowing that I explode easily stresses me more because I am, at the same time, aware that my stress response is out of proportion to the issue at hand. It’s not about whatever is right in front of me – it’s about trigger stacking on top of a heightened baseline pain level. My self-image is that of someone who is mostly easy to get along with, and always fair. In order to preserve this self-image, I’ll use most of my already depleted energy to focus on self-regulation when I’m around other people whose heads I’d like to bite off. The problem: I can’t focus on self-regulation and recover at the same time – so chances are I’ll be in an equally bad mood the next day, and the day after, and so on.

Back to the canine side of things

At the time of writing, it is 8 days post-surgery, and Game is starting to get back to normal. She’s more active, more likely to pull towards abandoned tortillas (rather than just trotting along with me miserably), and joggers and little children with the audacity to move through public spaces have regained their right to coexist with her.

Today, we went to a store to buy a shower curtain, and on the way back home, we ran into a free-roaming dog. Game was interested in greeting them, and since we were on a big open plaza, I let her off leash. For a few minutes, they ran and chased each other with abandon. I could see Game let loose, her body soften, her goofy self coming out, moving in wide circles, enjoying her laymate’s advances. After a few minutes – shorter than in her perfectly-fine Golden Retriever days – she came back; she was done. I clipped the leash back on, and we continued on home. Already, I could see a change in how she carried herself: loose muscles; a bit of a swagger, less stiffness in her walk.

Now, she’s zonked out, sleeping on the cool tiles in the kitchen – not the sleep of resignation, but the sleep of healthy exhaustion; the sleep of having exercised and having had fun, and having made friends. The sleep that comes with little leg twitches as she’s playing chase in her dream.

Stress-ors and Stre-ss

The fact that she got to play today made a difference for her: today, Game completed the stress cycle started by her toothache and temporarily exacerbated by the surgeries. Amelia and Emily Nagoski explain that we need to not only get over a stress-or (in Game’s case, the cracked tooth, the surgery, and the accompanying pain), but also through the stre-ss (our physiological response) in order to truly leave a stressful event behind us.

There are different ways of completing the stress cycle – one of them is exercise. While I don’t remember this being mentioned in Nagoski’s book, I’d venture another one is play. This would make the combination of the two – play and exercise – a powerful way of completing the stress cycle.

Completing the stress cycle isn’t about the stressor itself (the dental surgery; the pain). Rather, it refers to the physiological release of accumulated stress. (I’m assuming that in this context, “stress” means certain hormones and neurotransmitters and other stuff I wish I knew more about.) My mental image is that of a bucket that has been filled with all kinds of stress-related chemicals over the course of days, weeks, or months – and in order to complete the stress cycle, we need to do more than just turn off the dripping faucets feeding the bucket: we need to dump out the bucket!

Dumping out the bucket

Only when we dump out the bucket does our body realize that the danger has passed; we don’t have to watch our back anymore. Today’s play session emptied out the bucket of accumulated stress for Game, and took her all the way to the other side of the stress tunnel. Earlier the same day, she was already out of physical pain, but she was still in a Malinois state of sociability and tension. Without an opportunity to release the stress, she might have been stuck in the stress tunnel for a long time, her inner Golden Retriever a dog of the past.

How Game’s bucket got filled

Stress has been building up for Game for a while: we’ve been on a road trip, sleeping in different places most days, waiting for me outside new stores, spending long hours in a hot car, and taking leash walks through cities rather than off-leash nature romps. Cracking a tooth, and going to the vet not once, but twice … Lots of changes. Lots of little things that wouldn’t faze a dog like Game as long as they were encountered individually, but which, in combination, build up stress that has no outlet.

Now that the stress is gone, I bet I am going to see other changes in her behavior: I’ll see her return to her usual activity levels, want to meet new people, and cruise through crowded spaces with the swagger of a Golden.

Humans complete stress cycles, too

Grit and I playing our favorite game (pic by Isabelle Grubert).

One of my favorite ways of completing my own stress cycles is playful exercise as well: it’s roughhousing with my dogs. Watching 20-something canine kilos barrell towards you, bracing for the impact, and catching them on a bite sleeve is exhilarating. It requires coordination and concentration. It makes me feel strong. I trust, and I am being trusted. Play-fighting within the rules of the game we established is my perfect stress release: I am completely immersed in this activity. I exist in the current moment in a way I rarely do otherwise. I am moving my body and engaging my muscles in a controlled manner. And I am playing with my dog. Give me a 5-10 minutes of this, and life will be better – at least for the next couple hours. The good thing is that I can go right back for another round if needed!

Roughhousing and rolling on the floor with puppy Game (picture by Isabelle Grubert).

The good news, and the bad news

The bad news: life is stressful. Empty out your bucket, and it’s starting to fill again right away: navigating maskless crowds in supermarkets in a COVID world, being late, the Internet is down, and you’re out of coffee … It’s the little things as well as the big ones, and they just keep coming. All of these are stressors. They are conspiring to turn on the faucets that will continue spitting stress-related neurochemicals into our buckets (the stre-ss).

But there’s good news, too: once we know how to, we can empty out our buckets anytime – even when the stress-ors are still ongoing. I can pick up a bite sleeve and play with my dog until I’m out of breath, and have forgotten everything about the things that aren’t going my way. I’ll feel better, and will be able to not worry about it – until the chemicals in my stress bucket reach a certain level again, and it’s time to empty out the bucket again.

Be your dog’s advocate

Unlike us, our dog’s can’t always choose when to empty their buckets. More often than not, the activities they get to engage in are up to us rather than up to them.

Being aware of Game’s stress response is important because it helps me support her: I can set her up for success. For example, the other day, I met a friend in the crowded center, and we were going to walk up a hill. This is the kind of activity I’d usually bring Game on. Not last week: I knew that the stress of being around strangers would outweigh the benefits of moving her body on a leashed walk. I’ve also told a number of people who wanted to be introduced to her “No” over the last couple of days. Game is a dog who generally enjoys meeting new people – but not when she’s already running low on energy. She can’t speak for herself, so it’s up to me to be her advocate.

How about *your* dog?

What clusters of behavior does distress track for your dog? How do you support them when external stressors lower their threshold, and how do you help them complete the stress cycle? Also: how about yourself?

Below: an excerpt of Game’s stress-release fun, and one of our favorite road trip songs: “Lift your / head up …”

PS: Today, as I hit “publish” on this post, it’s more than 5 weeks post surgery. Game is doing great – especially since she’s finally allowed to play tug, and fetch hard balls again!


Resources mentioned in this post

Nagoski, Amelia & Emily – Burnout

Naked Feet

[Disclaimer: this is not a dog training post.]

 

I saw a woman lying in the middle of the street. She was curled up like you’d do when spooning someone. Only there was no one to spoon. 

 

The street was a freeway. I was on a bus – the first vehicle that stopped after a motorcycle ran her over. Her feet were naked. Her skirt had slipped up, revealing her lower legs and bare feet. 

 

Should I get off the bus and make sure she got to a hospital? 

 

She was facing away from us. “Dios mío,” whispered the woman sitting next to me. The sun was shining.  

 

A friend, a lawyer, once told me, “If you ever hit someone in Guatemala, run.” What if the guy on the motorcycle had received the same advice?

 

His motorcycle was parked on the side of the road. He was fine. He was making a phone call. He wasn’t going to run. And, just like that, I decided to stay on the bus. 

 

The woman in the street slowly lifted an arm. Just a for a second; then it dropped back down. It was the only movement I had seen since we stopped.

 

“She’s fine”, said the driver. “She’s moving.”

 

(I’ve seen the mouth of a sheep open and close a minute after separating the head from the body. Clearly, moving an arm doesn’t prove you are fine.)

 

And we continued on, the bus leaning into the turns so you had to hold on to your seat with two hands, blasting reggeaton.

 

Later that day, I asked a friend what would happen to the woman. She had no shoes. She certainly had no insurance.

 

“They’ll take her to the Hospitál Nacional,” said my friend. “It’s free.”

 

“Will they do a good job there?”

 

“They won’t,” he said. “If she gets there alive, and she’s badly injured, she’ll die.”

 

I thought of Peter Singer. He holds that there is no moral difference between walking past a dying person in the street, and choosing not to think of all the dying people in far away places. 

 

It’s morally outrageous to see footage of someone walk past a dying person in the street. We all believe we would stop. (We can’t know if we would. I’d have said I would stop – but I stayed on that bus.)

 

The thing is: there was no good reason to stay on the bus. If someone is lying in the middle of a freeway, and no one stops the oncoming traffic … How long until they get run over again, this time for good? I’ve seen cats and dogs on that freeway, flat like sheets of paper. There was no breakdown triangles, no traffic cones, and no one was stopping cars for this woman. I could have stopped cars for her, had I gotten off the bus.

 

I suppose Peter Singer is right. There is no moral difference: maybe we’re just as bad up close as we are at great distances.

I don’t call myself an “R+ trainer” anymore.

I used to call myself an “R+ trainer,” but haven’t used the label in a while. I’m just not happy with it anymore. It’s commonly used to describe someone who strives to only ever use positive reinforcement. That’s not true for the trainer I am today: I have stopped looking at training plans in terms of the operant conditioning quadrant they fall into. 

 

Today, I strive to be the kindest and most effective trainer I can be. When I say “most effective,” I mean that I’ll get to know the individual team in front of me. I’ll learn about their specific situation, their resources, goals, and challenges. On this basis, we’ll come up with a training plan that sets them up for success. We’ll leverage the existing dog/human relationship, and shape behavioral change with the help of ideas, tools, and interventions the owner is comfortable with. Occasionally, my recommendations include mild aversives: I’ll consider verbal corrections or brief time-outs IF I believe they will substantially speed up the training process without negatively impacting the dog, the human, or their relationship.

 

Another reason I’m not using the “R+” label for myself anymore is that it is increasingly being claimed by trainers who subscribe to a laissez-faire ideology of dog training. The laissez-faire subculture has caused two entirely new categories of pet-dog related problems to surface: on the one hand, it seems like there is an increasing number of pet dogs who suffer due to a lack of structure and clarity. A paradigmatic example of this are insecure dogs who display reactivity when being left alone with encounters they don’t know how to handle.

 

On the other hand, I see owners who suffer because they believe it’s unethical to stop their dogs from engaging in unwanted behaviors: owners who don’t leave their house anymore because their dog will bark in a crate, or who stop having visitors because they worry it will make their dog uncomfortable.

 

In the former case, it’s the dog who suffers. In the latter case, it’s the human. When I say that I strive to be the “kindest” trainer I can be, I’m talking about both ends of the leash. I want the dogs I work with to get their basic needs met. These needs include safety, food, exercise, social interaction, and mental stimulation. A baseline of these things should be available unconditionally. 

 

The laissez-faire subculture of the positive reinforcement community has embraced this fact, and taken it one step further: they seem to have forgotten that humans, too, have a right to get their basic needs met: just like in dogs, human needs include safety, food, exercise, social interaction, and mental stimulation. Sometimes, meeting them will mean leaving the dog at home. Sometimes, it’ll mean saying “No” to the dog. In any case, it means keeping the needs of both dog and human in mind, compromising when necessary, and being practical, pragmatic, and fair towards both ends of the leash.

~ ~ ~

Chrissi runs Chrissi’s Dog Training in Antigua, Guatemala. She also teaches online at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, and for the Pet Professionals Program. Her FDSA class Out and About starts on April 1st. Don’t let the title deter you: a lot of the class exercises can be done while sheltering in place, right in your own living room or back yard.

Adventures in Herding #10: Pressure.

Today, I’m going to show you not only “nice” videos, but also messy ones. Mick gets bitey, and his sheep are stressed. This, too, is a reality of herding (and life). We – professional dog trainers – tend to only show polished videos. It’s easy to make ourselves and our dogs look good in videos, pictures, and Facebook posts.

I don’t want to be that kind of trainer. I’d rather be perceived as authentic than perfect. I’m human. I’m pragmatic. I like to experiment and problem-solve, and sometimes, I get things wrong. I strive to train my dogs with kindness, and I don’t always succeed. This week, I experimented with pressure tools (a herding stick, and a paper bag) in order to protect my sheep.

~ ~ ~

I’ve been naming Mick’s flanks outside the round pen, and seem to have resolved the problem of the sheep sticking to the fence when working them inside. Mick has started to balance and hold them to me! It feels like magic.

It’s time to face our next challenge: it usually takes a minute for things to calm down. Mick starts out with force and intensity, barreling into the sheep like a cue stick shooting into the triangle of snooker balls, sending them flying all over the place.

pool-1593845_1280.jpg

I know nothing about snooker. It’s entirely possible that this metaphor makes no sense.

At a loss of where to turn in view of the mess he just made, he’ll end up chasing and gripping. He has no control over the situation that results from barreling into the sheep, and Mick is the kind of dog who struggles with a lack of control: it makes him anxious, chasey, and grippy. It takes a while until the sheep are flocking together again and calm down. When that happens, Mick will calm down as well, and start holding them nicely to me.

Susan Friedman, Unlabel Me

Once you’ve heard Susan Friedman talk about labels, you can’t just throw words like “anxious” out there. No matter how convenient it would be.

We must operationalize all the labels before we may proceed!

“Losing control”

losing control shall mean that the sheep are not sticking together like a single organism with several heads, but rather running in different directions. Think headless chickens. They are not walking or trotting, but running fast – they are fleeing from my pet predator. A single pet predator can easily control a large flock of sheep that is sticking together like a single organism, but he’s at a loss when it comes to controlling even 3 sheep who are all running into different directions. At least my pet predator is overwhelmed by that.

“Anxious”

anxious shall mean that Mick carries his tail high above his back (rather than just above his back legs. He will run (rather than trot), and he will single out a sheep, chase her down, and nip. Occasionally, he’ll start chasing one sheep, and then switch to another.

If on a lead, his tail will be high above his back, and he will pull and pant, or wiggle around my legs throwing behaviors at me while holding his head in a low, glancing up at me briefly, but not holding eye contact.

Now we may proceed.

Once the sheep move calmly and orderly, Mick will slow down, keep his teeth to himself, and lower his tail. He’ll curve around them and hold them to me. He’ll be in a thinking, working state of mind – that’s what we’re looking for in a working Border Collie.

The explosive release

It is Mick himself who causes the frantic behavior of the sheep that, in turn, makes him chase and nip. Pre-release, he’s anxious about gaining control, resulting in an explosive cue stick release. Only once the sheep have recovered from being hit by his force is he able to relax and work nicely.

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Anxious Border Collies behave like cue sticks, which results in …

 

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… unpredictable sheep running all over the place. This way lies madness!

 

We don’t want the madness. This is what we want:

 

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Confident Border Collies curve around rather than barrel into the sheep. Treated this way …

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… the sheep will behave like a single organism with multiple heads that can be pushed around while sticking together! It’s as if the sheep were trapped in one of these gigantic plastic bubble balls.  

 

This is what I’ve tried to get Mick to curve out rather than act like a cue stick:

 

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Our flawed heroine (who uses too many adjectives) believes the anxious Border Collie must be pushed and pressured onto the desired trajectory around the badass sheep. 

 

  1. insisting on a down before releasing him to the sheep (this makes things worse – it makes the release even more explosive than it would be from a standing start).
  2. Using a paper bag (inspired by the MacRae Way videos) to correct Mick for barreling in. This correction (shaking the bag) also makes things worse for Mick – it increases his anxiety rather than decreasing it.
  3. Using a herding stick to “push Mick out.” This, too, made things worse. Mick is very pressure sensitive, and me putting pressure on him with a stick pointed his way increases his anxiety. If he’s anxious, he’ll get grippy and chase.
  4. I tried all of the above in combination with using a long line to keep Mick at a distance from the sheep while I myself got closer to the sheep. (The long line idea is another trick I’ve picked up from the MacRae Way videos). The results were similar, but I had more control now than I used to when next to Mick when releasing him.
  5. No tools, and no cues, but still use a long line to keep him in one place while I get closer to the sheep. This is tricky: I need to give him space to choose a side, and then step in to push him out.

    This is tricky, but it’s working. f I step in too early or too far, Mick will change directions and barrel into the flock with full force from the other side. If I’m too slow or don’t apply enough pressure with my body, he’ll barrel into them and split them up the way he originally intended.

    It took me several tries to figure out the right timing, posture, and path to get the desired result – but I did! All of a sudden, I was getting flanks (mostly Come by ones, since that is his easier side), and things calmed down quickly: by means of taking a nice flank, Mick doesn’t split up the flock and immediately gains control of the herd. That, in turn, will give him the confidence to hold them to me rather than channel his rising anxiety into gripping and chasing. The last video in this post shows what a difference this makes.

 

Video 1:

Paper bag, and I don’t manage to correct the barreling in: a very big, bitey mess. From the release to the point where Mick is more or less able to hold the sheep to me, it takes 24 seconds.

Video 5:

Another attempt at using the paper bag. Apparently, I’m not a single trial learner! Again, Mick splits up the sheep.

Video 2:

Oh but it MUST work! I make one last paper bag attempt, and successfully correct Mick from barreling in. He is still anxious though, and it takes a while for things to calm down. The fact that I’m holding the paper bag is making things worse, not better. I’m not quite aware of this dynamic yet though.

Video 6:

I’m thinking maybe I need a more powerful tool to get this right. This whole paper back operation didn’t really go the way I wish it had. Maybe it’s just not impressive enough. What if I used a herding stick instead?

Unfortunately, the sheep aren’t in view of the camera in this video. But trust me: it was ugly. The mere presence of the stick increased Mick’s anxiety, and his anxiety increased his bitey desperation. I got the message and quickly dropped the stick – only then did he calm down.

 

Video 3:

Hrm. The paper bag wasn’t working all that well. I believed I needed to increase the pressure on Mick. I brought a broomstick into the round pen with me, and it backfired. What if the problem wasn’t a lack of pressure on Mick, but the opposite: what if I had been putting too much pressure on him? I test this theory by working without tools. What a mind-blowing difference it makes!

Video 4:

Another attempt without tools – another success! As someone who always tries to train with kindness, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to me. And yet …! Looks like we humans have just as much of a hard time generalizing knowledge from one dog sport or activity to another as our dogs.

 

~ ~ ~

What did we learn today?

Mick and I do better without tools than with tools (This makes me happy – I’d much rather train without tools anyways). I’m surprised how long it took me to realize the problem was too much pressure rather than a lack of pressure.

I am starting to understand how my body posture affects Mick’s movement. I’m learning about the pressure I exert on him while he is learning about the pressure he exerts on the sheep.

Anxious Border Collies, just like anxious people, make bad choices. Just like coercing an anxious person into doing what we want them to do, trying to guide an anxious Border Collie with pressure tools only exacerbates their anxiety. Anxiety activates the limbic system: flight or fight. Mick will fight (the sheep). People will get angry (at the person putting pressure on them, or at an innocent bystander), run and hide in their idiosyncratic ways, or they’ll vote for Norbert Hofer, Donald Trump, and Brexit. “These are the days it never rains but it pours.” (1)

The currency of power

Pressure is not a magic bullet. It’s really quite straightforward, and yet, it can be hard to remember – both when it comes to people, and when it comes to dogs. The dominant narrative of our culture (dog training-wise and societal) is that (1) power is worth striving for, and (2) pressure is the currency of power.

And that dominant narrative isn’t necessarily wrong. At least some of the time, it provides a lens through which the world (or your dog’s behavior) makes sense. That makes it attractive. It’s simple and straightforward, which makes it convincing. Just turn on the news, and all you’ll see are examples of politicians using pressure tactics to get the upper hand. Arms races, trade wars, and literal wars are fought this way. Dogs are trained on basis of the pressure narrative, and children are raised this way.

Screen Shot 2019-09-18 at 20.22.58.png

Screen shot, New York Times, September 18, 2019, 08:23PM

Just because the pressure narrative is one lens that tells one coherent story doesn’t mean it is the only lens telling the only coherent story though. Sometimes, the coherent story the pressure narrative tells is also plain wrong. But boy girl, it sure is tempting to believe – even in the face of contradictory evidence (see videos 1, 5, 2, and 6), and even for trainers who are already committed to minimizing the use of aversives.

(1) QUEEN & David Bowie, “Under Pressure”

The Death of a Chicken

I need to learn how to pluck a chicken.

Grit killed today. On our morning walk, she silently dove into the undergrowth – she often will; there are smells to be smelled and sticks to be found. I whistled, and she reappeared, carrying a chicken. The head, on a surprisingly long neck, swung back and forth with each of her joyful leaps; there was nothing to be done for the bird.

The chicken must have strayed too far from my neighbor’s house, and ended up in the forest. There had been no screams, no sounds of a scuffle. Death came fast and on silent paws. Grit carried the chicken like a pointer carries a pheasant; holding a full grip on its chest and back without breaking the skin.

We continued our walk, leaving the chicken behind a tree to pick it up later. I looked at my phone. 9AM. Good; I’d have time to drop off the dogs in my yard, head to my neighbor’s to apologize, pay for the chicken, and be back in time for my training appointment. I’d tell Juan Antonio, my neighbor, Grit had killed one of his chickens, and then I’d ask him how much he wanted for it. I was going to give him a chance to overcharge me if he was so inclined.

We had a good walk, the dogs and I. The morning sun filtered through the canopy of leaves. The forest vibrated with the sounds of insects and birds; I heard the one that sounds like a bicycle bell.

The death of the chicken didn’t upset me. I’d pluck it, and I’d feed it to the dogs. Maybe I’d have some of it myself. I have no fridge – a logistical challenge; we’d have to eat it soon. Juan Antonio raises chickens to sell the meat. The chicken was always going to die and be eaten.

Would I, under the same circumstances, have seen more than just a chicken in the past? I’m not sure. Today, in any case, it is just that: a chicken. The Trump administration is now targeting immigrants who are legally entitled to welfare programs, Pam Fessler told me on my weekday morning news podcast. What’s the death of a single chicken (always meant to be eaten) at the teeth of a dog in the light of the death of Jimmy Aldaoud (and so many others like him) at the hands of democracy? The US keep moving the mark of what large-scale cruelties are politically acceptable, and Europe is following suit.

chicken politics

I’m not scared of telling Juan Antonio that my dog killed his chicken. We’re just two people living on a mountain, doing the best we can. There was a time I’d have been scared of the conversation, scared of Juan Antonio, scared of what he might think of me, and my dog. Scared of potential consequences and implications. I might have obsessed about it for hours, days even. I might have self-righteously framed it to be his fault: why didn’t he take better care of his chickens? Out of fear, I might not have said a thing, and I’d have wondered if he knew it was me for days and weeks to come. I’d have avoided him in the street. We might not have eaten the chicken, either (how pointless a death it would be!): every second I’d have had to look at that chicken would have been one shameful second too many, reminding me of my failure (as you know, the lack of chickens killed at the teeth of your dog defines your worth as a person, your professional expertise as a dog trainer, and how deserving you are of love). The story I’d tell myself would be different, and the story I’d tell you wouldn’t exist since it would be a story too shameful to share.

The person I am today isn’t scared of individuals, or of conversations, or of dogs killing chickens. The things that move me deeply today are not fear. They are love and sadness, anxiety sometimes (about trivial things, but not chickens). The world is getting scarier – I appreciate that on a cognitive level – and I have become less fearful in spite of it, or because of it, or maybe just less fearful, period.

In a world that makes little sense, I want to be the kind of person who’ll tell you my dog killed your chicken, even if you’d never find out for lack of witnesses. The fact that my dog killed a chicken says little about me. The fact that I’m going to own it does. That may not be much, but it’s something: it also means I’m seeing the mark that gets moved, and I know that I’m part of the problem – as are you, and you, and you too – unless … we find a way to pay for that chicken. I don’t know how to do that, but maybe tomorrow, I will. For now, I’ll keep training dogs and telling you stories like this one, because those are two things I know how to do.

The Dog Who’d Take Praise Over Food

Mick, Mr. Border Collie, is having me think about language, and comfort levels, and biddability. He came to me at age 2, after having lived with a traditional herding trainer. His native language of relating to people is different from the way I usually relate to my dogs. He’s been studying my language and is getting better and better at it – much like someone who’s learning a new language as an adult.

At the same time, I’ve been learning Mick’s language, and I’ve discovered a number of interesting things: when Mick first got here, he didn’t know it was okay to take food from a person’s hand – not only was it permitted, it was encouraged to do so! However, he had a very strong concept of verbal strokes. A stroke is a unit of social recognition: if I smile at you when passing you in the street, that’s a stroke. If you respond by saying “Good morning!”, that’s another stroke. Back to Mick, who greatly appreciates verbal strokes. When I talk to him in a soft voice – and that has been true from the day I first met him – he’ll respond by wagging gently. If he’s tense, I’ll see his body relax. The tucked tail will come out, the closed, hard mouth will open slightly, the tension in his ears will fade; piercing looks will turn into soft eyes.

While Mick didn’t know what to do with the treat I was holding out, he knew very well what praise meant. His body language showed that he greatly appreciated receiving it. Even out on a walk, when I’d call him, he’d soon come, and not take the treat – but he’d start wagging upon hearing my voice. And his recall got better – my praise was indeed reinforcing.

Is the effectiveness of praise as a reinforcer purely due to what we call “will to please” and consider an inherent trait? How much of it is environmental rather than hereditary? Could it be that the Border Collie’s upbringing has given him an appreciation of verbal strokes that is more widely generalized than what we typically see in R+ raised dogs?

 

border collie malinois personality

Mick & Grit

Let’s take a look at Grit. She has been with me since puppyhood. Grit has a strong will to please, too. For the purpose of this discussion, let’s define will to please or biddability as the willingness to work for the acknowledgement of one’s efforts alone – for praise, pets, or other non-tangible paychecks. Grit will do things I ask her to even when she’s exhausted; she’ll do the same thing 20 times in a row, and she’ll try as hard the 20st time as the first one. She’ll come when I call her even when she’s too hot to eat or isn’t interested in my treats. She does things because I ask her to – even if I don’t pay well – and doesn’t question my wishes.

Grit’s biddability is tied to me as a person. She wouldn’t work for just anyone 20 times in a row. In fact, she wouldn’t work for anyone else at all, unless that person first built a relationship with her. Grit is short-fused (like most dogs in her lines), she’s hot-headed and intense. But never has she growled at me or said NO to something she knew how to do. Grit makes me feel special because it is clear that her will to please is tied to me as a person.

Mick is like Grit – but then again, he also isn’t. Mick, even though we are only just building our relationship, will come when I call him in difficult situations, and be all wiggly and happy if I praise him. Mick is a soft dog: he appreciates verbal strokes, and shrinks away from loud voices, raised arms, and objects being carried. At the same time, he is – for lack of a better word – opinionated. He has growled at me more than once when asked to go into or come out of a crate or through a gate before he was ready to do so. He’s not only interested in pleasing me, but also in standing his ground. He cares what I think, yet speaks his mind.

Mick’s appreciation for verbal strokes is not tied to me as a person. In contexts he’s comfortable (herding), he will work for the praise of others, and he’ll do so confidently. He has worked for two herding trainers here in Guatemala on the first day he met them. He responded to their voice and body language beautifully. He instantaneously recognized that they spoke his jargon – the jargon of working sheep – and he engaged in a conversation with them without hesitation. He didn’t appreciate their physical pressure – but he could read it; he spoke it as fluently as he understands praise. Mick’s appreciation of strokes is a well-generalized trait. Grit’s biddability isn’t. Why is that?

Interestingly, neither Mick nor Grit are confident around strangers. Grit does well as long as I provide clear leadership around new people. Mick does well as long as he can talk sheep with new people. He’s fluent in the language of herding – no matter whether he has talked to the person sharing his jargon hundreds of times or never before. It’s fascinating to see how suspicious he’ll be of a new person visiting my house, yet how effortlessly he’ll work for a new person as soon as sheep are in the picture. The parallel to human nature is hard to miss. If you’re an introvert and a dog person, you may not know what to do if thrown into a random social gathering. You’ll be like Mick, slinking around the edges of the room, picking at the label of your beer bottle, wishing you were somewhere else. But put you into a room full of geeky dog people, and you’ll make friends in a heartbeat.

Maybe Grit simply doesn’t have her version of sheep – she doesn’t have that jargon that ties into a genetically hardwired passion of hers, and can easily be shared with others who share that passion as well. Maybe the lesson of Grit and Mick is that every dog needs her sheep. (Who would you be if you didn’t have dog geekery?)

Nature and nurture can’t be pulled apart – the two are always working hand in hand. In the end, the reason that Grit is who she is, just like the reason that Mick is who he is – and the reason I am who I am – are related to both genetics and experiences. Genetics define the frame of what is possible. Experiences decide what parts of that framework get colored in.

Would Mick’s biddability be as well generalized if he had been raised in a different kind of home? Would Grit be as selectively biddable if she had been raised in a more traditional training environment? Maybe less so? Maybe more so? Would she, like Mick, be able to talk to strangers if she had been doing instinct sports all her life? Would Mick be more dependent on a single person if he’d never met a sheep? Does biddability generalize if verbal strokes are a limited resource rather than unconditionally given? Is the very reason Grit is the incredibly biddable dog she is due to the fact that verbal strokes, and positive regard, aren’t something she has had to earn? Oh, we cannot know! But it’s fascinating to think about anyways …

Is your dog biddable? How does their biddability express itself, and what do you attribute it to? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments!

 

Chrissi runs Chrissi’s Dog Training in Antigua, Guatemala. She also teaches online at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, and for the Pet Professionals Program. Her Calling All Dogs class class (FDSA) starts today. Gold spots are sold out, but you can still join at the Silver or Bronze level!

Corrugated Metal

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?

Are you familiar with the trolley dilemma? It’s a thought experiment. You see a trolley moving towards five people tied to the train tracks. You know it will not be able to stop – and if it keeps going, it will kill the five people. There is a lever in front of you. If you pull it, the trolley will be redirected onto a sidetrack, and the five people tied to the main track will live. However, there is one person tied to the sidetrack. If you pull the lever, the trolley will kill that person.

What do you do?

I don’t have to think about this a lot to know what my answer would be: I would not pull the lever. It’s an easy decision. If I pulled the lever, I’d feel personally responsible for killing the person on the sidetrack (but I wouldn’t feel responsible for saving the five). As long as I did nothing, I’d feel like an innocent bystander watching a tragic situation unfold. I can live with that, but I do not want to be responsible for the death of an individual.

Interestingly, most people will choose to pull the lever in the thought experiment. Their criterion is to save the most people possible. Rationally, pulling the lever is the right thing to do because it meets that goal.

I’ve had many conversations about the trolley dilemma. People’s answers – and how they reach them – fascinate me. It always gives me pause when a good friend believes they would pull the lever without hesitation. From where I’m standing, pulling the lever looks a lot like getting involved in something it isn’t my place to get involved in. I wonder if whatever personality trait makes people want to pull the lever, and play God, is also behind our ethnocentricity, our fighting of wars, our self-righteous attempts to keep immigrants out of our country, or our denying of health services to those who can’t afford the insurance premium. If you pull the lever, you change the trajectory of others because of your own belief about what the path of these others should or shouldn’t look like. How is this different from building border walls to keep people from pursuing their journey? The one pulling the lever (or building the wall) always believes they are doing it for the greater good. I’m critical of all these things.

~~~

dog training, ethics, Guatemala

Body jolts can be a symptom of neurological deficits caused by distemper. I didn’t know that until a friend mentioned it the other day. Distemper is a viral disease that spreads through aerosol droplets, fluids and contaminated food and water. I had seen body jolts like the ones my friend described in one of the free-ranging neighborhood dogs. One of the dogs who hangs out in my street – the only one who isn’t in good shape. A black female. I took a video of her incessant body jolts and sent it to my vet. “Looks like distemper,” he said. “She probably needs to be put down.” My hand was already on the lever when I realized what I was doing.

I asked around, and found the owners of Black Dog. A dark red corrugated metal door in a corrugated metal house. I knocked, and a little boy opened the door. I caught a glimpse of their dirt floor patio, the rusty white pickup truck parked in the corner, and a cage with a blue parakeet. Black Dog (whose hind legs seemed wobbly) stumbled up to the door to see who was there.

“Is Black Dog yours?”, I asked the boy.
“Yes.” He was holding on to the doorframe with one hand and looking at me with bright brown eyes.
“She looks ill. I thought maybe I could take her to the vet.”
“Sure,” said Little Boy.
“Thank you! Are your mom or dad here so I can ask them as well?”
Little Boy ran into the corrugated metal house, and came back with Dad, a young man.
“Hi,” I said, “I’ve noticed Black Dog shows signs of moquillo. Distemper. It’s an infectious disease that could put the other neighborhood dogs at risk. I wondered if you’d let me take Black Dog to the vet.”
“Okay,” said the young man. “You can take her if you want. She was hit by a car … That’s why she’s not well. That’s all.”
“Okay,” I said. “If the vet says she also has distemper – would it be okay with you if he put her to sleep? In case we need to do it so she cannot spread the disease?” The Spanish word for “put to sleep” is “sacrificar.” Literally “to sacrifice.”
“Yes,” said Dad.
“Thank you. I’ll get a leash from my car, and then I’ll take her. I’ll let you know what the vet says.”
“Okay,” said Dad, and closed the corrugated metal door behind me and Black Dog. Black Dog strolled down the street, sniffing for food.

I got hot dog slices and a slip lead from my car, and followed her down the street. The sun was shining. Black dog was happy to pick up the hot dog slice I put on the street between us, and let me pull the lead over her head. Being incredibly gentle with her mouth, she took a second hot dog slice from my hand. I lured her to Bergziege, my car. Black Dog let me lift her into the crate without protesting much.

“You’re very good”, I told Black Dog on the way to the vet. “Let’s see what the doctor says.”

“We’re almost there.”

“You’re a good girl.”

“It’ll be okay. You don’t worry.”

The vet had no doubt it was distemper. The jolts and her wobbly gait were advanced neurological symptoms, he said, meaning the virus was affecting her nervous system.

He switched off the cheerful bubble fountain in the aquarium in his examination room. I lifted Black Dog up on the metal examination table and wrapped my arms around her.

“Hold her tightly,” said the vet. “You can talk to her.”

He injected a sedative, followed by a reddish liquid that would stop her heart, and finally saline solution to push the euthanasia drug to her heart. It was peaceful, and took a few minutes at most. I told Black Dog she was a Good Dog. That it was okay. In German this time: “Brav bist du. Es ist okay … Gleich ist es vorbei. So ist es gut.” Her neck went limp. I let her slide out of my arms and onto the table. The vet listened for her heartbeat. It had stopped.

I helped put her in a large black plastic bag, and paid 300 Quetzales. One of the staff members carried the bag to my car. In Guatemala, you need to take your dead animal home and bury her yourself.

“I’m sorry,” I told Black Dog in my car. “I am sorry, girl.”

The road to my neighborhood isn’t paved, and I could hear Black Dog in her bag slide back and forth in the crate every time I went through a pothole. Jhhhh-clunk. Jhhhh-clunk.

I stopped at the red corrugated metal door and knocked. The sun was shining, and the street was busy with farm workers on their way to the coffee fields.

Dad and Little Boy weren’t home. Grandmother opened. She had no teeth in her mouth and was hard to understand.

“Hi … I’m the girl who took Black Dog to the vet.”
“You already took her?”
“Yes. I am sorry … It was distemper. The vet had to put her to sleep …”
“He killed her?”
“Yes. I am sorry.”
“Well,” she started to close the door.

“Wait,” I said. “I have her in my car. We should bury her.”
“I don’t want to see her.”
“I am very sorry …”
“You killed her. YOU bury her.”
“Okay,” I said. “I will bury her. I am really sorry. It was moquillo. We had to to put her to sleep to keep the other neighborhood dogs safe.” “Sacrificar.” That word again. It seemed oddly appropriate.
There was a moment of silence.
“It’s a sin to take the life of an animal or a person,” said Grandmother. She was calm. She didn’t cry. She didn’t seem angry. She looked straight into my eyes and informed me of a fact. “It is a sin.”
“I am sorry,” I said, because really, what else was there to say?

We said goodby, and I left. Black Dog was dead, in my car, in a black plastic bag. I realized that I didn’t own a shovel.

~~~

Black Dog is now buried on the edge of the coffee field behind my house. I asked two guys working in the field to help me. “Of course”, they said. They had shovels. We made a deep hole and buried Black Dog. “One gets attached to the animals, doesn’t one?”, mused one of the guys. He was wearing a white shirt which, inexplicably, was still white after hours of field work. “Yeah,” I said. “That’s true.”

~~~

Today, I pulled the lever, and I redirected the trolley. I reached into an ecological niche, and I pulled Black Dog out of it. I don’t know whether the death of Black Dog will butterflyeffect the free ranging dog population “for the better” or “for the worse” – I don’t think it is possible for us to know.

I believe there is no “right” answer to the trolley dilemma. The dilemma isn’t about doing the right thing – it’s about knowing who you are, or who you want to be. Do you get involved in something you aren’t a part of – something you can only see from your own, limited point of view – or do you not? Do you dare disturb the universe?

I do not want to be the kind of person who pulls the lever if it means harming someone. Today, I harmed Black Dog’s family by imposing my own cultural beliefs on them. (Sure, you could say I was imposing facts, medical facts, on them rather than mere opinions, and of course I was doing it for the greater good; for all the other neighborhood dogs, for the vulnerably-aged puppies down the street, or for whatever helps me sleep at night. It’s easy to justify the dogmas of our own ethnocentrism. It wasn’t my place to disrespect Grandmother’s beliefs though.

Grandmother must think I do not understand. At all. And she would be right. I do not understand what her life with Dad, and Little Boy, and Black Dog is like behind the corrugated metal door, in the corrugated metal house, in a postcolonial society. Who is she? Who are her family? What do they love, and fear, and hope for? What do people and animals mean to her? Did they love Black Dog? I don’t know. I’d like to think that they did. I, not God, took Black Dog to die, and maybe the fact that I could go out and do this – just like that! – is part of what is wrong with the world.

The most difficult moment today – the moment I needed to hold my tears back – was not the moment I held Black Dog in my arms on the sterile metal table, and felt the life slip out of her. That moment was peaceful. I am not scared of death, and I don’t think animals are, either.

The difficult moment was when I turned away from Grandmother in the door, and towards my car. “It’s a sin to take the life of a dog or a person.”

There is a power dynamic that allowed me, the white girl with the broken Spanish, to knock on a red corrugated metal door in a little corrugated metal house with a dirt floor, and take something away from a Mayan family. And I don’t mean their dog – I mean something bigger than their dog. The moment Grandmother looked into my eyes and said: “It is a sin,” I learned that I would rather be someone who respects the beliefs of others than someone who knocks on doors in this way. I would rather allow a sick dog to continue in the population, whether that entailed watching the trolley run over five others or not. I am, of course, aware that it doesn’t need to be one or the other. Maybe one day, I’ll own the grace it takes to move in this world without stepping on things.

What We Choose to See

For the past few days, I’ve walked past a litter of street puppies in between Antigua’s bus terminal and market. It’s very busy there, loud; there’s lots of traffic.

The first time I saw the puppies, I noticed that someone had given the mom blankets, and made a makeshift cover of a plastic tarp to give her shade.

The puppies are still tiny; their eyes aren’t open yet. Today, I walked past them again, just as an elderly man was finishing making a slightly more stable and larger shelter for them. He used an old metal cart for a roof and wooden boxes as pillars, draped with the plastic tarp and additional blankets for walls. A water bowl was chained to one of the boxes.

The man had grey hair, and lots of little wrinkles in his sun-burned face. A big smile revealed an almost toothless mouth when I greeted him. “Are they yours?”, I asked, and he proudly agreed. These dogs – the mom, who was sleeping soundly, trustfully, while he built a shelter around her, and the white dog standing next to him, looking into the distance – he considers them HIS dogs. They have no collars; they probably don’t live with him, and he probably hasn’t bought or otherwise chosen them. Their paths must have intersected – he, selling things at the market; they, looking for scraps of food. The dogs, or the man, or all three of them decided to claim each other. They are his dogs now. And he is their human. The big white dog shoved his nose under the old man’s hand while we were talking.

The man pulled back one of the blankets a bit so I could peek at the puppies. “They are sleeping,” he explained. “They can’t see yet. A few more days …!”

He probably doesn’t have much, and he probably doesn’t need much. Neither do his dogs. Life at the market is loud, and colorful, and rough sometimes, and there is love in it. Days go by like this. Weeks. Months. Years. Not a lot changes.

This image – a big, white dog shoving his nose into an old man’s hand in the middle of a bustling market – is the kind of image I choose to keep in my heart forever. I’ll remember the details: the white shirt the man is wearing, with thin blue stripes, tucked into a pair of washed-out blue jeans held up by a worn leather belt. The valleys and trenches dug into his face by the years and the sun, and his open smile – the shared happiness of two strangers as he lifts the blanket to let me peek at the three puppies and the sleeping mom. He lifts it just a bit, so he can give me the gift of a look without disturbing her. The old bottle crate cart, the roof of the makeshift shelter, must have been blue once. The paint is flaking off, and the metal bars are rusty. The grey plastic tarp that makes the roof. The red fleece blanket the mom is resting on. The sounds of a bustling market. Honking. The rumbling of tuk-tuks going over cobblestone streets under a bright blue sky. People advertising fruit, and tortillas. Motorcycle engines firing. The sun. The dust. One of my favorite places in the world.

People like our greedy Austrian ex-landlord? Sure, I’ll keep him in my memories (he makes a most excellent story, and I get better at telling it every time!), but not in my heart. The room in my heart is reserved for people like the old man and his dogs, and the smile the size of his heart.

I think that’s why I meet warm, nice, generous people wherever I go, and why I genuinely like humans. We choose what to keep in our hearts, and it defines us. It makes us either more cynical and bitter the older we get, or softer and gentler.

We choose what to see when we look at a scene, too. The scene today? If you wanted to, you could see irresponsible dog ownership, I’m sure. You could see sadness, and poverty, and dirt. The fact that you could see these other things is what makes me hesitate to share my story. I don’t want you to take this good story and make it into something bad. But you know what? I do want you to see it through my eyes. So here it is; my gift to you.

The old man put his hand on his white dog’s back. “He’s the dad,” he said.

The Lady and the Doorknob.

Tonight, I’m going to tell you a story: the story of the lady and the doorknob.

My friends from Bangkok have a housekeeper. When she first arrived at their place a few years ago, they showed her around, and eventually asked her to get something from the kitchen. There was a door between the kitchen and the living room. A white wooden door, with a silver door knob. It looked just like this:

DoorKnob

She walked up to the door while my friends remained sitting. She just stood there and looked at it. Seconds passed. They felt like hours. The door wasn’t locked. All she needed to do was turn the knob.

She couldn’t open the door. She didn’t try, either. She helplessly stood in front of it until my friend got up and opened it for her.

My friends’ housekeeper grew up in Myanmar. In case you don’t know a lot about Myanmar – it is one of Thailand’s neighboring countries, and it used to be under military rule until 2016. Between 1962 and 2010, the military regime was considered one of the world’s most repressive and abusive ones. Its history is one of genocide, child labor, and censorship.

Long story short: it wasn’t a good place to live if you belonged to certain ethnic minorities. Many people fled to Thailand. The woman who now works for my friends was one of them. My friends have been her first and so far only employers – she works for them full time.

Why did the woman not know how to open the door?

I’ve met her twice. She’s nice, and a few years younger than I. In the few years that she’s been here, she has learned both Thai and English. She grew up in an indigenous community, in a place without electricity or running water. She made her way through her own country, across the border, and to Bangkok. She has learned to do the household the way my friends want her to, do the shopping, and take care of their seven dogs. She’s now making enough money to send some to her family back home every month. She seems happy to me. I like her. And, boy, do I respect her! Growing up without access to education and managing to emigrate, secure a job, learn two new languages, and adapt to a completely different way of life in an 8-million metropolis, and all of this when she was probably no older than 16 … I know few people who would be able to do this successfully. It shows tremendous resourcefulness, intelligence, and guts.

Why did the woman not know how to open the door?

My friend told this story as a funny anecdote illustrating a cultural divide. Is it funny, though? Not really – especially not when it is used to justify the inequality of opportunities on the basis of perceived differences in intelligence. Intelligence had nothing to do with the fact that the woman couldn’t open the door. She had simply never seen a doorknob. There probably were no doorknobs in the community she grew up in. Maybe there were no doors, either. I don’t know. I do know, however, that she went on to open all kinds of doors for herself – literally and figuratively. She lacked the experience of doorknobs, and she lacked the concept that the mechanics of unfamiliar doors can be figured out by trying different things. We take this concept for granted – but it’s neither innate nor obvious. It is a learned behavior based on our experience with a large variety of doors.

Why am I talking about the lady and the doorknob on a dog training blog? Because if you are a professional dog trainer, chances are you meet the lady who has never seen a doorknob on a regular basis. She’s your client who’s in over her head. You know, the full-time working single mom who got a working-line German Shepherd to keep her kids company. The first-time dog owner who bought a Border Collie on Craigslist and thought he’d be happy with a leashed walk around the block twice a day. The student who didn’t buy one, but two Pomeranian puppies from the pet store because they were cute.

As professional dog trainers, we tend to complain about the lady and the doorknob, or ridicule her. We feel self-righteous and superior. We use her story to connect to our colleagues, and we leave out the part where she crosses a border in the middle of the night, in the pouring rain, and the part where she learns not one, but two new languages, and the part where she finds work and makes a living for herself. Instead, we reduce her to someone who doesn’t know what to do with a doorknob, and say she should have stayed in Myanmar.

“He doesn’t even know how to hold a leash!”, we say. “She got a Ferrari, and she doesn’t know how to drive a Volkswagen.” “He has no connection with the dog. He has no idea what connection even means.” “When this dog is an adolescent, they’re going to rehome it. It’s probably going to end up with me.”

These are pretty horrible things to say about someone in relation to someone or something s/he cares about. I know I’ve said at least one of them myself in the past, and I’m not proud of it. It’s not okay to tell these people’s stories as if they were all about doorknobs. The stories themselves are ambiguous. We can make the protagonist a hero or a bumbling idiot, and in the dog training community, it is common to do the latter.

And it is not okay. We don’t need to tell the story so the protagonist is the hero, either. We can just keep the story to ourselves, teach the protagonists (after all, that’s what they are paying us good money for), and let their success speak for itself. Everyone who wants to can learn to turn doorknobs. Let’s not be jerks about it.