[Disclaimer: This is not a dog training post. And it’s a story of the past – a story of pre-COVID-19 times.]
I don’t know how long she had been walking next to me. I’d been speeding up, inadvertently, as I always do when I sense her behind me. She always catches up though. She politely kept her distance until I was ready for her. Half a meter between us – the distance a stranger will keep from you on a busy pedestrian street. The kind of street I was walking on when I finally noticed her: la Avenida 20 de Noviembre in the historical center of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. It’s a street filled with restaurants, bars, cafés, bakeries and souvenir shops, musicians, street vendors, and benches. And people – so many people! Give people an entire street, and they will take it over, like a river of humans, vibrant, humming in constant conversation. An Ed Sheeran song wafts through the open doors of an Italian restaurant, soon getting indistinguishable from the sounds of life in the street. A Shepherd dog is eating a taco someone dropped on the sidewalk.
She is walking closer to me now – the distance of a good friend. Drifting right, away from her, is no use. Soon, our arms will touch every couple of steps. Accidentally, an unknowing observer might think. Giving me goosebumps. Her arms are suntanned; her skin is warm, warm like her hazel eyes. She’s shorter than me. Her hair is sun bleached and curly and wild. She’s an outdoors kind of person. I breathe in and out.
And out. She’s still here. Inconspicuous, yet inescapable. Another block, and she’ll put her sun-tanned arm around my shoulders. It’s a comforting gesture. I feel her hand on the soft skin above my hip. Her touch is gentle and warm. It’s the touch of someone I’ve known long and well.
She’s never been mean to me. She’s loyal, like Churchill’s dog. “I promised you I’d be back.” Her eyes are soft. “I’ll be back anytime you are ready.”
I didn’t know I’d be ready today. I thought I had time –.
I listen to her – I don’t feel like talking. There’s nothing to say. Our hips are touching every second step now. We’re walking close to each other, falling into lockstep.
I breathe in.
And out. I have to keep walking. I can’t stop when she’s with me. If I stop, I’ll be hers.
“You’re alone,” she says gently. “You’ll always be alone.”
I keep walking in silence.
“The people you meet and connect with …”
“Yes?” She always gets me eventually, leaving an unfinished sentence hanging in the air until I can’t bear it.
“They are temporary, those people. They’re not yours.”
“You go places. You meet people. You make that social shit look easy. And in the end of the day, you go home alone. You fall asleep alone. You wake up alone. Noone will make you tea when you’re sick. You’re fundamentally alone, my friend.”
“Don’t worry. I’m right here. I always am. It’ll be dark, and I’ll hold you. I’ll gently kiss your forehead. I’ll smell of sunshine, sand, and wind-dried sweat. You’ll curl up under your blanket, all alone and so fucking exhausted. I’ll wrap myself around you, and you’ll cry. I’ll gently stroke your hair, and you – you just sleep. Sleep, my friend. I’ll be right here when you wake up.”
She’s soft-spoken, as always. We know each other well, and she – she means no harm, she says, and as always, I almost believe her. “I’m holding space for us,” she reassures me. “I’m holding space for you, and then I’ll fill it up until you drown.”
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.
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.
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.
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 ก or a ษ 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!