I didn’t anticipate that getting a dog would turn my world upside down so quickly.
For as simple as these animals are they sure can teach you a lot about yourself, life and a whole lot more. I’m sure the feeling is similar when you have kids, but at this point in my life my dog is all I have to compare.
This piece is going to be a little different from the fitness wisdom or nutritional guidance we usually provide. I’m going to stray (you’ll realize this is a pun shortly) away from the norm and try to share some lessons I have learned recently.
A couple months ago I went to the Rome Humane Society with my dad to visit shelter dogs and see if there was any way we could volunteer. I have never owned a dog and only have had a grumpy old cat for as long as I can remember, so in retrospect it was destiny for me to have my heart melted and end up going home with a new best friend.
What ended up happening was exactly that – I met William, a Rottweiler mix who was brought in by animal control because his previous owner abandoned him. I was immediately drawn to him and ended up walking him around for over an hour. Needless to say…I was sold.
Trying my best to be logical about the situation, I managed to get myself to leave and take time to process whether I could actually handle owning a dog. My hours are not like a typical 9 to 5, so I had to determine if he would be all right for the hours I would not be around. I live by myself and would be the only one taking care of him so I wanted to be sure I could dedicate enough time and energy for him. Not to mention, I would also be the only one paying for his living expenses.
So naturally, I ended up back there that weekend and signed the paperwork. Before I knew it he was in my passenger seat wiggling his butt and looking out the window. I realized then that logic was completely irrelevant from the moment I met him. Immediately his name in my mind became Bill, William just seemed too fancy for my taste. Knowing what I know now, going for the simple option was much more fitting.
Recently I took time to think back on our first month together and I realized that there were a few important life lessons I learned. Reflecting on those lessons, I noticed that they were not applicable specifically to owning a dog, but useful in many other areas of life, and hopefully can help a few other people out there reading this.
Lesson #1: Be simple and straightforward when asking something of others.
I quickly learned that Bill was not the brightest dog in the world but what he lacked in intelligence, he certainly made up for with excitement. If I wanted him to lie down, he would get a huge smile and sprint around the house. If I told him to leave the cat alone, he would get a huge smile and sprint around the house. If I asked him to sit, he would touch his butt to the floor for one nanosecond then get excited and sprint around the house. I figured out that teaching him even the simplest commands was going to be an enormous task.
Over time, I started understanding that simpler was better. Bill could easily handle one-word commands instead of lengthy explanations of why he could only eat his own food and not the cat’s food or the TV remote. Better yet, when he realized what I meant and was able to do it, he was that much more excited and proud.
I believe people are much more similar to dogs than we think. I know personally I do a lot better with straightforward instructions than with complicated and detailed ones and I don’t think I’m alone in that fact. With so many things going on in our busy lives, we thrive on simple. Apple has made billions of dollars on this fact, so we should try to use a bit of their wisdom in our everyday lives. When you want another person (or your dog) to accomplish a task, try the following steps.
- Fully understand what it is that you actually want from them.
- Determine whether or not they have the capability of performing that task.
- Explain how you want them to start the task, any methods you want them to use when working on it, and exactly how you want them to finish.
- Review how the process went, and provide feedback based on how well they performed, as well as reflect on your own explanation and how clear you were.
Use these basic steps with your pets, your significant other, your kids, your employees, and anyone else you try to convey information to. Like anything else in life, you’ll find that you improve every time and will find the outcome much more in line with your goals.
Lesson #2: The Advantages of Positive Reinforcement Vs. Negative Criticism
As I mentioned before, Bill just isn’t the smartest dog on the planet. In attempting to train him the way I wanted I have found a few methods that work better than others.
The biggest problem I had when he first came home is that he would not stop eating his food as well as the cat’s food. Obviously this quickly became a problem for my cat, who was already unhappy with his new friend joining the house. I attempted to put my cat’s bowl up higher where I knew the dog couldn’t reach it, but the cat could easily hop up there and eat when he pleased. After 16 years of his bowl being in the same place, the cat could not get used to this and refused to eat when his bowl was moved.
We were right back to square one.
Naturally, I tried irrationally yelling whenever I caught the dog moving towards the cat’s food. With his level of intelligence and his lack of knowledge of the English language, this did nothing but upset him to the point where he would run and hide upstairs. Clearly this wasn’t the best option either. I had to find a new solution.
A dog owner with much more valuable experience than myself eventually hinted at the fact that he might respond better to positive encouragement when he does something I want him to do as opposed to me just yelling when he does something wrong. A short time after I began to praise and love him any time he would eat his own food, he was so happy that he just wanted to always eat. My problem now is that he just licks his empty bowl because he thinks that it makes me happy, but this is a much more manageable option and now my cat will survive a little while longer.
I hope the lesson here is clear but let’s break it down a little more simply:
Positive Praise = Positive Reaction
Negative Praise = Negative Reaction
Just like lesson #1 this is much the same when it comes to people. The outcome you get when you approach someone else with a positive attitude as opposed to an angry, negative one is going to provide a significantly different result.
Attempting to get your pet/kids/significant other/employees to change a habit is difficult enough as it is. Limiting the stress involved in trying to do such a thing is imperative for getting the outcome you are looking for. The difference is in the other person being excited to make you proud and see you happy or being afraid of upsetting you again for doing whatever they did. Positive is a much more long-lasting effect and negative will only last so long before they start repeating the same habits.
Lesson #3: Sometimes No Matter How Hard You Try, It Might Not Go Right
The biggest lesson I have learned so far with Bill is that no matter what I do, he is still going to do what he wants sometimes, and that’s OK. It is difficult to accept it when I try to tell him that he cannot attack every squirrel we see, I understand that he has been this way for his entire puppy life and it is tough for him to change.
We are much more accepting of this fact for pets than we are for people.
Bill just isn’t very good with English, so it is easier to understand when he doesn’t do as I ask. Extending this understanding to other people around us will pay off enormously in the long run. Change is hard and most people don’t like it. Sometimes we have to take a step back and understand that even if we want others to change it is possible that they have no desire to change in the first place.
Constantly attempting to foster change in others if they don’t have the same feelings is a stress that none of us need in our lives. Try to understand how the other person feels about the situation, and then evaluate if your efforts are in the right place.
It’s crazy to me how much I’ve learned about myself and life in general in the short time since I adopted this silly pooch. Take what you can from my lessons living with Bill and see how the knowledge gained can effect different situations in your own lives.