The free-roaming dogs of Mexico

I started a Youtube channel on the free roaming dogs I encounter on my own free meanderings. Every Sunday at 5pm CT, you’ll get a little glimpse in their lives and encounters. Make sure to read the video descriptions for more information and context.

Today, I released the third episode – here are the first three to give you an example of the kind of content I’m going to feature. To stay up to date, subscribe to the channel.Feel free to videos that interest you with your friends! I love sharing “my” free-roamers with you all!

Game chooses to stay close to me so I’ll keep her safe

Video description

Game is good with dogs. She’s got excellent social skills, and she’s a confident girl. However, this is the morning after a night of fireworks that made her quite uncomfortable. She’s not up for dealing with other dogs today, and chooses to stay near me. We have a system of communication, and within our shared language, this means that she is asking me to deal with the dogs for her. So I do. All is well.

Game meets a playful free roaming puppy

Video description

Before I got the camera out, the puppy approached us, ran towards and play-bowed at Game. By the time I start filming, the roles are reversing and Game is finding out if she, too, will get to be the chaser.

We walk here a lot, but haven’t seen this puppy before. She does not behave like a typical free-roaming homed puppy. That and the fact that there is a busy street nearby is why I joke about her wanting to be my dog – that’s not a thought that usually crosses my mind. If she were either an obviously homed free-roaming puppy or this was a pedestrian area (one or both are the case for almost all – let’s say 98% – of dogs I see in Guanajuato), I would keep my distance. This is not the case for this puppy, which tempts me to interact more with her than I would with a typical free-roamer whose life I feel I shouldn’t interfere in much. I would usually offer neither food nor pets, and keep my distance, just observing.

Passing a shy free-roaming dog on leash

A typical encounter. As it turned out, the dog was in his core area – the little store likely belongs to his folks.

Happy training, observing and learning, everyone!

Lessons from driving in Guatemala

“Rutas alternas” have toll booths. They are fancy highways; the two directions separated; no potholes, little traffic, no one stops you once you’re on it. The freeways crisscrossing the country have potholes, and traffic, dead dogs, and checkpoints. They are manned by boys wearing uniforms and carrying guns: the police. You see them up ahead, and hope you won’t be pulled over. 

On the drive from Antigua to San Marcos, I am one of the unlucky ones. I stop the car. I have dark tinted windows, which is why I don’t wear my mask when driving: no one sees me breaking the law when I’m the solitary passenger of my car. So I put on the hazard lights, and pause my audiobook, and take off my headphones, and put on my mask. That new step of putting on a mask seems to take a lot of time. It feels like the police person outside must be waiting and wondering what I’m up to behind my dark windows. 

Make sure my nose is covered. Roll down the window. Smile: “¡Buen día!”

There’s two of them at my car; another team at the station waggon ahead of me, and a sole police guy at the first car in our line of three.

So far, I always got to stay in my car – even when they were looking for reasons to collect a bribe. I hand my passport, my license and registration through the window.

“Where are you from?”


“Where are you going?”

“San Marcos.”

He finds the page in my passport that holds my visa. Studies my driving license – a pink sheet of laminated paper with a picture of my 16-year old self glued into it; the same format and style as the Arian passes of my grandmother’s generation. I am always amazed when people abroad actually believe this is my driving license. I mean, it is – but it looks like something a 10-year old designed and printed in their basement. I suppose it looks too fake to actually be fake. 

He asks me to step out of the vehicle. They are going to search it, he says. I fish my flip flops out of the side console. He watches through the window as I wiggle my toes into them. 

I always drive barefoot when it’s hot. There’s a very unsexy reason for it, and it is Epidermis Bullosa Simplex. If heat combines with friction – such as the heat of a summer day and the friction of my feet against a shoe – my skin will blister. (Yes, I have tried wearing other shoes. No, there is no cure. And I am tired of your unsolicited advice.)

I get out, and smile. He sticks his head into the car, suspiciously eyeing the ginormous crate that would fit a small pony. 

“You got a dog in there?”


“What kind of dog?”

“Un pastor belga.” A Belgian shepherd.

“Uh. They’re bad dogs.”

“They are great dogs.”

“Is he bravo?” A word that means different things, depending on who uses it: it can mean aggressive and mean; or gritty and courageous.

“Yes. She’s brava.”

“Does she bite?” 

“Yes. She bites.”

He’s joined by his companion, who’s walked around the car.

“How much is that dog worth?”

I look straight into his eyes. “A lot.”

He spits out a laugh. “Is your dog worth more than I am?”

I do not laugh. “My dog’s invaluable.”

Boy #1 asks me to empty out my pant pockets, and put the contents on the driver’s seat: my wallet. The keys to my AirBnB. A poop bag.

“Is that it?”

“That’s it.”

“Are you sure?”

“I am sure.”

“But are you sure?” His eyes, inquisitively. 

“Yes, I am sure.”

“Are you really sure?”

“Pat me down if it makes you happy.”

“If it makes me happy!” He laughs, and proceeds to touch my pockets, which are, surprise, empty.

His compañero picks up my wallet, and starts nosing through it. A couple bills. A check. Debit card. He is thorough, looking into the fold in the bottom of each pocket; sliding his fingers into every little crevice. He puts it back down, then remembers the coin department, and goes through there as well. A handful quetzales and cents, and a lucky charm – a tiny glass lady bug – a friend gave me years ago. 

I do not take my eyes off of his fingers in my wallet for a second, which means keeping my back turned to the other one, who suddenly seems very intent on making smalltalk: how often do I go back to my country? How old is the dog? Are you here by yourself? Flicking a bill out of a wallet and into the sleeve of a jacket takes less than a second; I will not give him that gratification. 

Dude #1 puts down my backpack, and dude #2 stops the smalltalk. He walks around to the passenger door, and proceeds to ruffle through my backpack, and the bag of groceries on the passenger seat.

Dude #2 moves the passenger seat back and forth. “El macho alpha todavía no ha aparecido?” he asks casually. Haven’t you come across an alpha male yet? He peaks under the blanket I’ve tied around the seat because Game sleeps there sometimes, and I don’t want her to get the seat dirty.

“No. Not yet.” Sexist jokes are part of the checkpoints. Either that, or they flirt. The first time I got stopped, I ended up exchanging phone numbers with the guy.

They motion for me to open one of the back doors, revealing a large bite pillow and a tug toy, and a 15-kilo bag of Kirkland; cut open and taped shut again so the kibble won’t spill out on the drive.

“Dog toys?”


“Dog food?”


He closes the back door, and comes up front again. If I were to smuggle drugs or arms, I would hide them under the dog, I suppose, or buried deep inside a bag of kibble. (This, by the way, is the lesson I promised you in the title: if you’re smuggling something, hide it under your dog crate or bury it in kibble. No one has ever looked there on my drives.)

They really wanted to find something today. Maybe I look like a drug dealer now because I forgot to put on my baseball cap before rolling down the window. I’m letting my hair grow out, and it’s at that stage where my head looks like a topiary that stuck its finger into a power outlet. Or maybe it’s because I’m driving barefoot, and going to San Marcos. Everyone knows that San Marcos is where gringos congregate to align their chacras, heal their crystals, grow magic mushrooms and drink cocoa. (What’s the deal with the cocoa, anyways?) It’s a coincidence San Marcos is where I found a good AirBnB for the month. But I suppose I look bastante dishevelled and stoned with my bare feet, the scrub growing on my head and Game’s rainbow blanket on the passenger seat.

Guy #2 turns to me. “Usted no smoking?” 

“No.” For a second there, I thought he was asking me for a cigarette. 

“No smoking?” He pantomimes taking a deep draw from a joint.

“No fumo.” I don’t smoke, and I have the irritating habit of repeating English verbs Spanish speakers put into a Spanish-language sentence back to them in Spanish.

“No smoking?”

“No. No fumo.”

“¿Seguro que no?” Are you sure you don’t smoke?

“I’m sure. Sorry.” I shrug. 

He nods. “You can go.” His friend hands back my documents, and I get in. Time to move on. They are already flagging down their next victim.


It is interesting, this game, because it’s like improv theater: anything can happen, so you can’t be prepared. One time, somewhere between Guatemala City and Jutiapa, a police guy demanded to see my dogs’ paperwork, which, he said, shaking his head dramatically as I looked confused, I was legally obliged to carry when transporting a dog in my car. There is no such thing – the document he demanded does not exist, and we both knew it. I needed to bribe him anyways to get on with my day. The upside is that you can also bribe your way out of actual infringements, like the time I forgot both my passport AND my driving license and “bargained” my way from “I might have to deport you” down to “let me just pay you a generous ‘fine’.”

It’s hard to faze me with a cultural experience like eating tamales, learning to salsa, or being stopped at a checkpoint. There is one crucial difference between these experiences though: you choose to order a tamal or learn to dance, while the checkpoints just happen to you. That significantly lowers the degree of enjoyability of my cultural experience, which is a shame. True enjoyability requires a sense of agency. 

I just sat down and solved checkpoints (you are welcome) to make it more fun next time, both for myself and for you:

Checkpoint BINGO

(Inspired by Jane McGonigal’s book Superbetter.) 

The picture shows a 9-square BINGO board, numbered left to right. The middle square, #9, reads "FREE!" 

Images in the top line:
1 Elephant
2 Cutting board with a cut-up sausage
3 Man handing a bouquet to a woman

Images in the middle line:
4 Bag of gold coins
5 Gun
6 Dog
7 Treasure map
8 Wallet

When to play:

At any cross-country drive or border crossing in Latin America.

How to play:

1. Pick your rewards:

1A What will you win when you get BINGO (a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal row of 3 squares crossed off)? Make it something you can easily treat yourself to within 24 hours after reaching your destination – something small, but special. Example: I get cheesecake when I win a game of BINGO. 

1B What will you win if you succeed at the smuggle quest? It can either be a second round of your first reward, or something different. The same parameters apply: you’ll have to be able to treat yourself to it within 24 hours of completing your drive. As for me, I get a second slice of cheesecake!

2. Opt into the game before starting your drive by printing out the BINGO sheet, and carrying it with you in your car, along with a pen to cross off squares. The tag point is putting your equipment into your car and saying: “If I get pulled over, I get to play!”

3. Your smuggle quest: I once asked a police person what they are looking for when stopping cars. They said drugs and arms. You are going to pretend that you are on a mission of smuggling an object or illegal substance to your destination. It can be any small object – for example, a toy car – or substance – such as the small sugar envelopes you get with your coffee. Before you embark on your drive, hide the object or substance somewhere safe in your car, in your luggage, or on your body. Caveat: you may only use each hiding place once. So the more you drive, the more hiding places you will have to come up with – it’s got to be a different one each time. 

You win the smuggle quest if your object or substance is not discovered by the police or military guards at the checkpoints, i.e. they do not come across it when searching you and your car. If you win the smuggle quest, you automatically get reward #1B, and you get to cross off square 1 on your BINGO board.

The squares on your BINGO board:

Cross off whichever happens! Mentally as it is happening, and with your pen once you’re on your way again!

1 Smuggle success!

2 The police or military person makes a sexist joke. 

3 They flirt with you, ask for your number, or find a reason to touch you.

4 You bribe them.

5 If you wanted to, you could easily reach for and grab their gun. (You’ll be amazed how often this happens. It would be so easy …!)

6 You are asked to take your dog out of the car.

7 They question a real document you carry (your passport, driving license, papers for your car etc.) or ask for an imaginary document (which, obviously, you do not carry).

8 They search your wallet.

9 Congratulations, it’s your lucky day: you get this square for free just for having been pulled over!

You win reward #1A if you cross off 3 adjoining squares – horizontally, diagonally, or vertically.

Have fun! 

The town you used to live in

It is interesting how profoundly a place changes when you go from living there to just visiting. You see it through different eyes. It can never be the same again.

Last night, Game insisted we go out at 2 in the morning. I don’t think I have ever been out at 2 in the morning in Antigua. Certainly not these past 3 years that I’ve lived here. I don’t think even back in the day, over a decade ago, when I was backpacking through. I was already working remotely then, and getting early starts, before digital nomading became a thing.

I have never seen the city as peaceful as it is tonight, except in Carlos Lopez Ayerdi’s eerie pandemic pictures. Not a single soul in the street. A lone police car pulls around the corner.

Game and I walk two blocks to Parque Central. The shapes of the homeless seam the archway of 5a Avenida Norte. Everyone is covered in a blanket; most have a dog with them, nestled up close to their bodies.

The first time we walk past, nobody steers. We’re quiet. Game, no dog tags to give her away, scavenges around the benches and fountains and crane flowers on silent paws. She finds a chicken bone in one corner; a stale tortilla in another. It must have been a busy night at the park, and the cleaning crew will only come in a few hours.

Warm, soft light is draped over the Palacio de Los Capitanes like a cloak. The central fountain with its mermaids bubbles peacefully, with no one watching but me and Game.

Finishing the loop around the park, one of the dogs hears us. They start barking, and soon everyone joins in, a cacophony of barks; four-legged shadows break away from the resting human mounts. Having a dog is a universally good thing.

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.

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.

Generalization, Distractions, and Driving in Thailand

Growing up in Austria, I learned to drive on the right side of the road, and that’s where I’ve been driving for 14 years. In Thailand, people drive on the left side. Everything in the car is reversed: driver’s seat on the right, passenger seat on the left. Gearshift on the left, windshield wipers on the left, blinkers on the right. Since I’m used to driving a lot, and I’ve driven in Mexico’s crazy traffic, I didn’t think Thailand would be a big deal – I’d just rent a car and drive on the left; everything else would be just as I was used to-ish.

On my first two days of driving, I ran over the same maliciously high, razor-edged concrete curb twice. Both times, I flattened my car’s left front tire and bent the rim. Both times, there was a painfully loud noise – Skkkkreeeekkkkkkkkkkk-kkk! – pretty punishing for me to hear! Today, on my fifth day of driving, I’ll still occasionally turn on the windshield wipers instead of the blinkers. It took me three days to stop accidentally opening the passenger door when I wanted to get into the driver’s seat. This is hard, guys!

I remember learning to drive in my Dad’s Suzuki. I believe I learned fast and did well. Now this could be because I was misremembering, or because I was younger and my brain was making new neural connections much faster than now, 14 years later. Or it could be that learning something new for the first time is significantly easier than changing the meaning of a well-established cue. I bet it’s the latter.

The original driving-related cue I learned 14 years ago and have practiced on an almost daily basis is:

CAR –> get in on the right side.

The functional reward for driving on the right side of the road, using the gearshift to my right, the blinkers to my left and the windshield wipers on my right has been the fact that I got from A to B.

So driving on the right side, operating the gearshift and windshield wipers with my right and the blinker with my left hand have been reinforced thousands of times. These behaviors have been well generalized, too: they have been generalized to different contexts (country, city, highway, sunshine, rain, snow, day, night …), different locations (Europe, North & Central America), and different cars (big and small, stick shift and automatic). They have been proofed against various distractions such as someone in the passenger seat talking to me, dogs in the car, being on speaker phone, eating, listening to the news, music, audiobooks, and podcasts while driving. Through practice and thousands of functional reinforcers, the behaviors of driving on the right, changing gears with the left, operating the blinker with the left and the windshield wipers with the right have been deeply ingrained in my brain. They are on autopilot; unless I consciously pay attention, this is what my body will default to when there’s a stirring wheel in front of me.

Doing everything in reverse requires significant effort and concentration. Not only do I have to execute a new behavior, I also need to fight the strong neural connection of the old behavior. Imagine my brain looks like this. Pink is the old neural high-speed connection. It’s been well maintained, and there’s a bright street lamp every few meters. The green scribbles are the jungle of uncharted brain territory. Yellow is the new neural pathway I’m trying to cut through the jungle with a butter knife. It’s bearly visible because this is one of the first times I’m walking there, and it’s dark in the jungle and I only have a flash light.

Chrissi's Brain.JPG

Let’s compare my driving experience to my process of learning the Thai alphabet (ตัวอักษรไทย). I have no prior learning experience with these letters. I’ve made flashcards and gone through them in various locations while I was waiting for an appointment or during other kinds of empty time. Now when I stop my car at a red light, I look around and recognize the letters. Not all of them, and not all the time – but I’m getting there. Anytime I recognize a or a or something else, I get a little dopamine hit. It makes me happy, keeps me motivated. I’m surprised how easy it seems to remember the letters. Compared to the task of learning to drive on the left side of the street, I’d say I’m doing really well with the alphabet. So I assume I’m not simply too old to learn new things. The fact that I don’t have any prior learning experiences with the alphabet is serving me well. I’m writing my new language skills on a blank slate in my brain rather than in between the lines of older memories. Learning something new is easier than editing something that’s already stored in your brain, it seems.

Are you still reading? Good, because here comes the dog training angle you’ve been waiting for. It’s a lot easier to teach an entirely new cue than to change one the dog is already executing in an unwanted way.

Imagine you have taught your dog a rock-back sit. It was one of the first behaviors you’ve taught her when she was a puppy, and you’ve asked for it on an almost daily basis for the first two years of her life. Now that she’s two, you’ve discovered dog sports, and now you want a beautiful tuck sit, dogdammit! Can’t be so hard, can it? Well – it depends. Let’s assume you shaped your tuck behavior, you’re getting it consistently, and now you’re ready to put it on cue. You say “Sit,” the same thing you’ve been saying for years. For years, this cue has been followed by your dog rocking back into a sit, which you have paid for with a cookie. What’s your dog likely to do? If she knew the rock-back sit well, it’s likely that her body will just execute it as soon as you say “Sit”. The reinforcement history of the rock-back sit is much stronger than the reinforcement history of the new tuck sit. Now that your dog is thinking rock-back thoughts, she might stop offering tuck sits altogether and do her usual rock-back sits for the rest of the session, wagging her tail, looking at you expectantly, “Where’s my cookie?”

How do you avoid this? Choose an entirely new cue for the tuck sit! The movement involved in the tuck sit and in the rock-back sit are different. Different muscles are involved. It’s really two different behaviors, even though the end result is the same: a dog who sits. So rather than messing with your rock-back “Sit” cue, put your new tuck sit on an entirely new cue (how about “Tuck”?), and never give the cue for the rock-back sit again!

Let’s go back to driving in Thailand for a moment. I promise, we’ll get right back to another dog training lesson. Remember how I said I liked looking at the Thai letters when stopping at a traffic light and challenging myself to say the corresponding sound? Well, there’s even more to see. There are colorful pick-up trucks with people standing in the back. There are little street food restaurants on every corner where; the dishes are so spicey that the cooks are wearing face masks to protect their skin when bending over their outdoors stoves. Stands with fresh fruit, fried bananas, and Gai Bing for sale. There’s little shops with colorfully eclectic displays crowding the sidewalks: pots and pans and plastic buckets, cleaning utensils (all the dog training equipment I could build from these!), key chains, china, toys and scissors, pillow cases … There’s the people walking – I love watching people going about their lives in new places. And the dogs in the street, mostly lazily trotting or lying on the sidewalk, muzzle shoved under a bushy tail. It’s too hot to move or make mischief. There’s the strangely beautiful details I notice: a trash can that has fallen over, with paper, empty bottles, and instant rice containers spilling out into the street. The old woman sitting in the shade of her house, folding laundry. A little girl in a surprisingly white skirt running barefoot into a side street.

Long story short: there are distractions everywhere. Eve-ry-where! It’s hard to concentrate on driving when I’d rather turn my head to see if the brown dog is going to find something interesting among the trash. I’m trying to learn a new behavior in a new environment with lots of distractions present. Do you see where I’m getting at? No wonder I drove over the same malicious curb twice, slicing the same left front tire twice. I didn’t set myself up for success. It’s like asking a dog who has only trained indoors his entire life to learn a new behavior in the middle of a busy park he has never been to, complete with squirrel-filled trees, hot dog vendors, street musicians, and children playing soccer.

Is your dog any more likely to succeed in this environment than I am likely to successfully drive through Sam Phran? Nope, he isn’t. Getting mad at him really misses the point, too: your dog probably did the best he could, tried hard to pay attention to your wishes – but the distractions were too difficult, and the behavior you asked for was too hard.

How can you avoid the Sam Phran effect and set your dog up for success? First of all, train the new behavior in a known, distraction-free environment. Next, train outdoors – without any distractions present. Gradually increase the distractions: add a food distraction. Remove the food distraction, and add a toy distraction. Remove the toy distraction, and train somewhere you can hear and see children running in the far distance. Gradually decrease the distance. Go to a place without children playing, but with squirrel-filled trees at a distance. Gradually decrease the distance. Increase the distance again, but combine two of the distractions you have been working on separately. Once this goes well, add a thrid one, then a fourth one. Remove one or two of the distractions, but decrease the distance to the remaining ones, and so on. Learning to perform under distractions is hard work – for most dogs, it doesn’t just magically happen. Make a plan before you head out, and do a reality check in your head: is this easier than asking Chrissi to drive on the left side of the road in Sam Phran? If it is significantly easier, go for it. If it isn’t, change your plan, and set your dog up for success. Beware the Sam Phran effect!