My Guru Has Fur

A couple of years ago, I (along with millions of other American women) read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. In it, she describes how she unraveled during the process of leaving her husband and seemingly perfect life.  She tried a number of ways to get herself back on track, one of which was working with a guru.

I thought, “Hmm. I wonder what it would be like to have a guru.” Not a Jonestown-type guru, mind you, but more like a Mr. Miyagi (Wax on. Wax off.) guru. Then my dog, Reggie, came into the room. He yawned, circled exactly three times around a spot of sunlight on the floor and flopped down to take a nap. Ahh, Daniel-san, you have no need to find a guru. You already have one.

In no particular order, here are a few things I’ve learned from observing my guru:

Wax on. Wax off. I had to learn that patience is something that has to be learned.  When I first got Reggie he would paw at me if he didn’t get a treat fast enough for his liking. He’d get visibly frustrated and ratchet up the attention-getting. I had to wait him out. Wait for him to be quiet so as not to reinforce the bad behavior. If I gave in, I had to start from square one. Sometimes it would take 10 or 15 minutes. Doesn’t sound like a long time? Listening to a dog bark for that long, without pause, is like nails on a chalkboard, like Fran Drescher’s voice, like the mermaid in Splash. You get the picture. But it worked. He now gets excited for his treat but sits quietly. And I can hear myself think.

Sometimes progress comes in baby steps. Reggie used to be very afraid of other dogs. If one came too close, he’d growl immediately.  I consulted with a trainer and read books about how to help him move past his fear. It’s a s-l-0-w process. It was a huge victory when he was able to sniff another dog for 5 seconds without growling.  Now he can meet other dogs without incident about 75% of the time. From this I also learned:

Aggression comes from fear. Think about it.

Are you still concerned about what people think? It’s not my goal in life to disregard what others think. I value certain people’s opinions. But not everyone needs to be at the same level. Reggie’s aforementioned dislike of other dogs was a big problem in my apartment building, particularly with his archnemisis, Oscar, a wire fox terrier. I would get so embarrassed when Reggie lunged and barked and growled. I could barely hold the leash. I spend a lot of time apologizing, concerned my neighbors would think I was a bad person and have an equally bad dog. That would make me get frustrated with Reggie and yell. The right thing would have been quickly, quietly, gently moving him out of sight of the other dog and refocusing his attention on me. My concern needs to be where it is valued most.

Unconditional love is conditional. Many people say they got their pet because they give unconditional love. Perhaps in the sense that your pet doesn’t think less of you if your deodorant isn’t working that day or if you decide against all that is good and right and buy a mid-life crisis Corvette . But – and I realize this may be an unpopular thing to say – do you really want to be loved unconditionally? No matter what you do? No matter how impatient, how stubborn, how ignorant, how frustrated, how short-tempered you may be? I don’t want to be complacent. I want to earn it. (Sap alert! Sap alert!) When my dog looks at me, I want to know that I’m trying to improve every day – give back everything he’s given to me.

Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen. My dog doesn’t worry about things he can’t control. Heck, he doesn’t worry about anything except staring at the floor while I’m cooking. Just in case.

Intelligence is relative. I read about a bloodhound (the best nose in the business) who tracked a lost child in a national park over 3 days. The child had wandered 12 miles in the opposite direction across streams and dense brush.  I think it goes without saying that there is no way Reggie would do that; he’d come across an abandoned campsite and start eating the leftover hot dogs. But I have watched him sniff a seemingly bare spot on the sidewalk for whole minutes at a time. He is gathering and processing information I have no way of ever understanding.

Ask for what you want. I don’t know if it’s texting and tweeting or email at work or our sound-bite culture, but at some point we stopped considering how readers would receive our communication. It seems to center around the writer’s convenience and the reader, well, too bad for him if he doesn’t understand. Dogs do not operate by this rule. Let’s say my dog is wiggling himself under a car, butt up in the air, to get to a box of half-eaten chicken wings (last night). If I say, “Leave it,” there is a good chance he will listen to me. But, as more likely is the case, I say something such as, “Stop that come here what are you doing leave that alone its gross.” Whose fault is it if he eats the wings?

Never miss a chance to shut up, to paraphrase Will Rogers. Sometimes we talk too much for our own good. And when we talk we’re not really paying attention, now are we?  When working with dogs language can be a hinderance. For that reason in general, trainers will teach a dog a behavior before they apply a word to it. For a little while I worked with a deaf dog. She learned all of her basic commands through hand signals. Because there wasn’t as much extraneous chatter, the dog wasn’t the only one who was more focused.

Don’t hold a grudge. While it’s true that it may have seemed like Reggie was angry at me for going away when he followed me into the bathroom, looked me in the eye and peed on the floor, I’m told by behaviorists and trainers that dogs and cats do not have the capacity for retribution. Really.

Past experience is not necessarily an indicator of future performance. Tensing up because I’m assuming that Reggie is going to growl and bark at another dog because he did yesterday doesn’t give him the opportunity to  to improve, to show what he’s learned.  That leads me to:

Live in the moment. There is no other way to be.



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