The trouble with goals: From dissertations to dogs

Big goals freak me out. They give me stress. They seem impossible. They are paralyzing.

However, I want to make progress with Milo in the sport of Schutzhund and to do this I need some big goals. Eek.

I’ve encountered this dilemma before.

I spent six years in graduate school. Much of year five involved staring at my computer screen and freaking out because I was sure that I didn’t know enough and wasn’t good enough to jump over the last hurdle between me and my doctorate: writing my dissertation. A dissertation is a 200 or 300-page original research paper. Staring at the first paragraph I typed on what would be page one, made the last paragraph on page 200 seem impossibly far away.

I was a scholarship student, and I was broke. When my funding ran out, I would not be able to pay rent, I would lose my student visa, and I’d have to leave the country. So, you know, no pressure.

My dissertation supervisor gave me a gift. He said that the last word on page 200 was the last word he would read and so ‘it would behoove me to finish before then.’ This gave my task a concrete endpoint.

With nothing to do but think and write, and facing the looming specter of homelessness, I did some math. I knew I could write three pages in a day and I knew I was ‘only allowed’ to write 200 pages.

200 pages divided by 3 pages/ day meant that I could write my dissertation in 67 days. If I worked five days/ week, I could finish my dissertation in 14 weeks. My deadline was 16 weeks away. That was tight but doable. My plan included weekends off, which meant that if I got sick or hit a dead end, I had a bit of leeway.

Once I had a plan that I was confident was doable, my writing problems melted away. I just followed my plan.

On every weekday I drank coffee, went to the office, edited yesterday’s three pages and wrote that day’s three pages. Some days I was done by noon and some days it took me until midnight, but when my three pages were written, I could go home and relax, knowing that I was on target with my plan. Writing became fun because it no longer seemed like I was working on an impossible task.

From dissertations to dogs

Spring is here, and it is time to set summer training goals. This year I would like to earn tracking and obedience titles in Schutzhund. Here’s the trouble, those titles feel like my dissertation—so freakishly big and intimidating as to be paralyzing.

I need the equivalent of my three pages a day but for dog training. In short, I need a plan.

Here’s how the plan-making will work:

  1. Make a list what Milo and I need to do to have a good shot at these titles.
  2. See if that list is manageable as part of a happy life for both of us. My work is more demanding now than it has ever been before, and if all goes well, a puppy will be joining our pack in the late summer so I might need to back off a bit.
  3. If the list is not manageable then I’ll revise our desired outcomes.
  4. If the list is manageable, turn it into a plan.
  5. Execute the plan.

In addition to relieving performance pressure, there is another benefit arising from having a plan: Success means carrying out the plan, not getting the title. What if the day of the trial Milo gets up and eats a bee, or I get sick? Or we have a bad day? If the goal is following the plan rather than achieving the outcome, then success is something that I have more control over.

I always roll my eyes when I hear someone say, ‘it’s all about the journey.’ But, with Milo it is. He’s not interested in getting titles; he’s interested in what we do together every day. Focusing on the plan lets me concentrate on his happiness and well-being, and it makes the journey less stressful and more fun for us both.

Stay tuned for a draft plan.

2019 Canine Science Symposium

grey fabric with a cartoon image of the golden gate bridge over blue water and yellow sand with a black outline of a dog in the middle of the frame. the words 'Canine Science Symposium 2019' are printed across the bottom of the image.I’m sitting in the San Francisco airport on my way home after a great weekend at the Canine Science Symposium.

This event drew a crowd of people who had as much dog hair on their clothes as I did and who were happy to talk about dogs for as long as I was. The 200 participants, hailing from across the US and Canada, all have great compassion for the dogs in our lives—this is a powerful common denominator uniting a group of people.

Here are a few of the things I learned:

Clive Wynne delivered an alternative analysis of the research papers claiming that canine behavioral tests are not predictive or useful. Wynne’s lesson is that we must pay attention to the statistical analyses in research papers and double check that they are asking the questions that we think they are asking. My take away is that we should keep an open mind about these tests and while they are not perfect, they can still be useful.

Kelsea Brown’s and Monique Udell’s lectures emphasized that when it comes to assessing canine behavior and temperament, context matters. This context includes things like the relationship between the dog and its handler and the position of the handler. While I bet every dog trainer in the room already knew this, there are two significant reasons for providing scientific confirmation for things that many people already know.

  • First, some people have a serious bias in favor of scientific over practical knowledge, and if those people include lawmakers and policymakers, it is useful to be able to give them the sort of confirmation that will work for them.
  • Second, this research can have an impact on how shelter workers assess dogs. Shelter workers are the unsung heroes of the dog world. I would never ask them to do an additional job unless I was confident that it was necessary. So, further confirmation from researchers about context lets shelter staff and volunteers know that it worth their while to assess dogs in a variety of ways.

I also learned a ton of practical information about nose work training from Nathan Hall. There is too much detail to share here, but lordy, the combination of chemistry, dog noses, and physical techniques was cool!

Aaaand, I got to have a drink with Denise Fenzi, where I learned that I could keep my cool even when I have serious fangirl feelings.

fehr, fenzi and wynne

From left to right Clive Wynne, me, and Denise Fenzi. I think I look a bit drunk in this picture, but I assure you I’m not. It’s just that I am really happy!

Joy

Joy is an accomplishment.

It seems like a mean joke that the Third Sunday of Advent, Joy Sunday, comes at the darkest time of the year. It should be Despair Sunday, Desolation Sunday, Despondency Sunday. Joy? On the longest night of the year, I am generally short on joy.

Unless, Joy Sunday symbolizes not what comes easiest, but what we need most. Highlighting a need, though, can be cruel without also providing some guidance about how to fulfill it. How do I get me some Joy?

Milo meets this need of mine both directly and metaphorically.

Joy is more than an 11 on the happiness meter. It is a way of being in the world. Milo is joyful. He inhabits his world in a way that invites and radiates happiness. He expects and offers unconditional love. His universe is comprised of toys and snacks, frolicking friends, learning new things, cuddles, and comfy spots to nap. Things happen between breakfast and playtime, but it is breakfast and playtime that get most of his attention. Milo has his demons, but he is quick to respond to good things around him. His cup overfloweth.

In a sense, he is built for Joy. His temperament includes really high drives for food and prey and those drives have very low thresholds. That means that he loves to eat, and loves to chase and will do either at the drop of a hat. Put that together with his abundant energy, and you have a dog that interacts exuberantly with his world.

But, his temperament also means that he is easily frustrated and could have made him a big, mean, cranky dog. It didn’t because he learned that his environment is safe and predictable, which gives him a degree of agency and control of the world around him.

I meet his needs for food and exercise, for companionship and affection, for mental stimulation and learning. He is set up for joy both by his disposition and his environment.

So, how do I get Joy? First, I spend time with this big goofy guy. ❤

snow puppy

Then, I eat well and exercise, develop relationships with my fellow creatures, and indulge my curiosity and exercise my creativity. Those things do more than make me happy, they open me to happiness.

Peace

Life with Milo has not always been peaceful. For a long time, he divided up the world into prey and not-prey. If something moved, it was prey and needed to be ‘neutralized.’  Our walks followed complicated routes that avoided bikes, dogs, and big men. It was exhausting.

I learned that peace requires work.

I had to learn about German Shepherds, develop a relationship of mutual respect with Milo, and give him a job to do and some fair, consistent rules to follow. All of that, plus some time to grow up, made for a much better life.

The second sunday of Advent is all about peace: “The wolf will live with the lamb; the leopard will lie down with the young goat. The calf and the lion will graze together, and a little child will lead them.”  But just one verse earlier there is a whole lot of talk about truth, justice, and integrity. They go hand-in-hand with peace. Peace is something you have to work for.

orange and white tabby cat and black and tan German shepherd dog sleeping side by side on a quilt


OK, so here we have the wolf and the leopard snoozing together. It’s not quite biblical, but there is a whole lot of peace going on.

Obedience titles, trust, and the good life for dogs and their people

One of the fabulous side effects of passing an obedience test that includes stringent temperament and traffic elements is that I feel much calmer and more confident taking Milo out and about in the world. st jacobs

Milo and my market booth would sell advice on how to be Very Good.

The mantra among many of my dog friends (that is the people who train and handle dogs) is “trust your dog.” This rule applies most concretely during tracking and scent work because we are counting on our dogs to smell things that we can’t smell. There is little choice but to trust your dog. However, the rule also applies more generally to how we interact with our working canine companions.

At first, the “trust your dog” rule seemed to conflict with my own rule of thumb for dogs and humans, and even tools and institutions: “Trust is earned.”

But, these two rules go hand in hand. The rule is not “trust someone else’s dog.” It’s “trust your dog.”  A dog who is your partner. A corollary of  “trust your dog” is “trust the training you and your dog did together.” When you’re prepared for a dog trial, you focus on doing your part of the exercises and count on your dog to do what he’s practiced in training.

When Milo earned his BH this month, I learned about another aspect of this rule. The judge put Milo through a traffic test that I thought was pretty strenuous.  At one point we had to walk through a crowd that was denser than Times Square on New Year’s Eve. In the midst of this crowd the judge reached over Milo and gave me a push, and then, in that situation, I put Milo through a set of obedience exercises. That is some serious pressure. Milo did great. I was elated and, tellingly, surprised.

Milo exceeded my expectations, and this test taught me that I can trust him, and expect him, to keep an even keel in a wide range of situations. This has improved the quality of life that we share.

This weekend we went with friends to the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market. It’s a huge market—lots of people, vendors yelling above the crowd, food stalls and the attendant smells all over the place. Not only did Milo handle it like a pro—happily curious and pleased with all the people telling him that he was handsome—I had a good time too. Life is better when you know you can trust your dog.

Milo earned his BH :)

His email signature line now looks like this:

Milo Fehr BH, RN, CGN, SPOT

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I’m grinning here because the judge just encouraged Milo and me to continue in the sport.

He has titles from the German Shepherd Schutzhund Club of Canada, the Canadian Kennel Club, and the United Kennel Club.

I’m grateful to all the people and dogs who helped Milo and me along the way. Milo and I extend huge thanks to Cheryl Bishop, Heidi Grasswick, Jess Parent, and Liz Parent all of whom generously shared their skill, time, support, and expertise with Milo and me.

Thanks also to the London Schutzhund Club for running a well-organized trial, and for providing a kind, supportive, and sportsman-like environment.

Finally, it was an honor for Milo to earn this title under Judge Raino Fluegge, who was compassionate enough to remind me to breathe.

I was most proud of Milo’s performance in the Down out of Motion with Recall and the Test in Traffic.

In the Down out of Motion with Recall, he and I both performed at a level that reflected our best practice sessions. By this time in the routine I had worked through some of my nerves, and so Milo settled into his normal self. His heeling was attentive, and his recall was fast and sure.

It might seem weird to be proud of the Test in Traffic. But, three years ago I would never have dreamt of even trying such a thing, and yesterday Milo pulled it off with style. He kept his cool and attended to me while walking past a car, bike, jogger, other dogs, and a crowd of whistling, waving, clapping people. He performed basic obedience in a dense, jostling crowd, even after someone pushed me. Finally, he maintained a sharp, alert sit when I tied him out and left him alone while other people walked their dogs past him.

Milo and I have lots of work on but for now, I’m focusing on what went well. That, and the fact that he earned the title.

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This trial left me enthused about the sport and fiercely proud of Milo.

Finally, Milo and I are taking a shot at our BH obedience title

quizzicalgsdOne of my goals for this summer was to join the German Shepherd Schutzhund Club of Canada and enter an obedience trial with Milo. The plan was to take a shot at our BH (Begleithunde)–the first obedience title a dog can earn in the sport of Schutzhund.

The weather is mild here in Southern Ontario, which means, in my mind at least, that October still counts as summer. So, if the good Lord’s willing and the snow don’t fly, Milo and I will meet our goal this weekend.

Saturday, at the London Schutzhund Club, we’ll be strutting our stuff at our first Schutzhund trial. Eek.

 

German shepherd dog, lying on its tummy on the grass in front of a woman wearing blue jeans and a coop full of chickens

I might be a chicken, but I’m not afraid to train Milo beside the chicken yard.

 

Milo and I’ve been working toward this for what seems like ever. But, I’m incredibly nervous about trials, and so I only entered this one at the very last minute. Milo has lots of courage, but me? I’m a bit of a chicken.

I keep saying to my self, “Self, don’t panic.” After all, if it goes poorly, Milo and I will still have met our goal, and we’ll both have gained trial experience. There’s no punishment, we’ll try just try again later. And if it goes well, we might just end up with a title.

I’m trying to focus on letting Milo shine. He’s my good boy.

Wish us luck!

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