Love

Dog so loved the world…

The fourth Sunday of Advent invites us to meditate on love, which I could not bring myself to do. Why is it so hard to write a post about Love Sunday?

Because love is so important, and big, and complicated that it’s a little bit scary. Add on the fear of looking like a silly sap, and it is difficult to write a single word.

Love is important. It is one of the things that makes life good. Lots of people focus their energies on projects like fighting for freedom, justice, and equality. But, the goal of these projects is to fix things that are broken, to remove barriers to living well. They are in the service of living well. So, we better think about what living well means. For me, a life lived well includes, focuses on, love. No pressure, when it comes to getting this right…

Love is big. How do we even start thinking about it? What should be the first word we put down on the page when we write about it? The Gospel reading for the fourth Sunday of Advent usually comes from the Book of John—”For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son…” That’s a big deal. Thinking about something that big can be paralyzing.

Love is complicated. Even if a person (say, for example, me) gathers her courage to write about this big and important thing, she still has to pick something to latch onto. What kind of thing is love? An emotion? An attitude? A relationship? A union? A responsibility? It is hard to know what kind of thing it is, let alone what it is. It seems both personal and universal. It appears to include amorphic warm fuzzies, and fierce protectivity, and deep respect. Even this incomplete list includes very different kinds of things.

A first step toward understanding this important, big, and complicated thing is to look for something close at hand, something concrete, and something that I know with certainty.

Here is a 100 percent clear and certain thing that I know about love: I love this dog, and he loves me.

black and tan German Shepherd with happy expression on his face

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.

Hope

Milo exemplifies the message of the first Sunday of Advent. He’s the most hopeful creature I’ve ever had the luck to meet.

I often wake up from a nap, face-to-face with his big nose and bright eyes, to find a ball, a tug, and a stuffy toy lined up beside me.

The message is clear, “I’ve got it all set up in case you want to play. Whatever toy you like, I have them all ready for you.”

German shepherd dog with intense and happy facial expression.

He’ll often give guests a ball and step back expectantly. If they have even a tiny smidgen of desire to play, he’s ready.

I love December—Christmas and Yule and the solstice. It is a cozy month to take stock and get ready to start again, get ready for the light.

For me, the First Sunday of Advent is about being ready for and open to good things in the coming year. It is about maintaining hope in the face of despair, which is a challenge when democracy is crumbling, and the planet’s on fire.

So, this season, in particular, I’m grateful that Milo expects, anticipates good things. He is always ready. He reminds me how to hope.

Training Tuesday: Stoopid hoomins tracking with smart dogs

Milo used to be great on corners. In competitive tracking, the dog has to follow a trail around several sharp turns. This can be tricky, especially with a fast dog, because they can shoot past a corner and lose the scent. Usually, Milo takes corners like his nose is glued to the track.

That is until the last time we went tracking when every single corner flummoxed him. He never stopped working. However, instead of smoothly walking around a corner he started zigzagging all over the place searching for the trail. Not like him at all.

My friend Liz was observing us work, and at the end of that track, she kindly asked me what on earth I was doing. Wait a minute. What was I doing? I wasn’t zigzagging. Milo was zigzagging.

Let me back up a bit. Tracking is difficult for me, even though I’m not the one doing the sniffing. It is difficult because I have to lay down the track and then remember, exactly, where it goes. This maps on to zero of my strengths. My capacity to get lost is only beat by my ability to forget landmarks.

So, I thought to myself, “Self, you need to figure a way out of this.” Hmmm.

“I know,” I thought, “I can throw a small flag a meter or so off the track at the corners. Milo keeps his head down so he won’t see it, but it is easy to see from my height.”

I marked the corners for myself. Problem solved.

Or not.

When I explained this reasoning to Liz, she looked at me out of the corner of her eye: “Your scent is all over those flags.“

D'oh

Picture this. Milo is tracking along like a pro, and he encounters a T-intersection in the scent trail: the track turns right, but I threw a flag a meter to the left.

While I’m wondering why on earth he isn’t turning right, he’s wondering what the hell is going on with the track. From his perspective the person he’s tracking suddenly split in two like some gigantic amoeba.

Instead of berating me for being confusing, Milo kept his nose to the ground, sniffing here and sniffing there, trying to figure out the conundrum I created. Have I mentioned lately that he is a good boy?

I forgot that, even though Milo and I live in the same house and spend most of our time together, we live in different worlds—scientists call these worlds umwelten, which is German for “life-world.” My umwelt is primarily full of things I can see. Milo’s is primarily full of things he can smell. This is one of the things I love about tracking: Milo’s doing something that I can hardly even imagine. He has a sniffing superpower. When we’re tracking together, we are a team, and we expand each other’s senses. Cool!

However, even though I think about the differences between human and canine senses more than a person might strictly consider reasonable, I still fell back into my human bias in favor of sight.

Note to self: When Milo is tracking think of everything with the target scent on it like it’s a flashing neon light.

Also, how lucky am I to have a friend who points out my silly mistakes and a dog who works hard even when I’m goofy? ❤ (Hint: very lucky.)

German Shepherd smelling grass

You’re never (really) finished training your dog

German Shepherd puppy wearing a graduation cap and looking at camera

My neighbours, bless their hearts, take a keen interest in Milo and my wellbeing. They see me load him into my vehicle every Sunday afternoon on our way to some sort of dog class and often ask when we’ll be finished with the training.

What they don’t know is that asking me when I’ll be finished training Milo is sort of like asking an athlete when they’ll stop needing a coach.

Milo and I will always to go school because:

  1. He and I can always improve our performance. We can get faster and more precise.
  2. I can use all the coaching I can get. In class, the instructor sees things I don’t see. Sometimes I get in a rut with my instructions and Milo starts to anticipate our next move. Sometimes I reward him a bit late or a bit early. Sometimes I don’t keep my shoulders square and that pushes him out of heel position. A good instructor catches things I miss.
  3. Obedience classes give Milo practice being around new people and new dogs in a safe, structured environment. Some people have this weird idea that a well-socialized dog runs off to play with every creature they encounter. This is wrong and dangerous. Not all people and not all dogs want strange dogs to charge forward for a meet and greet. A well-socialized dog can stay calm, happy, and attentive in a wide range of situations. This is particularly important for dogs like German Shepherds who tend to be territorial and to bond with only one or a few people. For dogs like these, socialization is not like riding a bike, it is more like playing the piano–they have to practice.

Milo and I both enjoy learning new things. I’d rather take Milo to a training class than go to a movie and Milo loves using that big brain of his.

black and tan smiling german shepherd in front of a grey sky and a grey lake.

Curious puppies want to learn all the things.

Training Tuesday: Vacations and the Hidden Curriculum​

German Shepherd puppy wearing a graduation cap and looking at cameraAs a philosophy professor (my day job) I spend a lot of time thinking about the hidden curriculum. The hidden curriculum includes things that get taught and learned, without anyone intending to teach or learn them.

For example, if I asked you to name a bunch of philosophers, you might mention Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, or Locke. It just so happens that all of these philosophers are white guys.

Sadly, it is not hard to find philosophy classes that only cover things that white guys wrote. In these classes, the explicit curriculum, which the professor intends to teach, concerns the ideas of great philosophers like Aristotle and the other guys on the list.

But we need to be careful about what the hidden curriculum is saying. It would be a shame if the students ended up learning that philosophers are white guys (which might be happening since white guys comprise the vast majority of philosophy majors).  No one intends to teach this, but most teaching and learning is not intentional.

Why am I talking about the hidden curriculum on a “Training Tuesday” post while Milo and I are on vacation?

Because there is lots of overlap between teaching people and training dogs. I kid you not, working with Milo has made me a much better professor. In this case, though, it is the other way around, thinking about teaching humans and the hidden curriculum is making me a better dog guardian.

Dogs and people are learning all the time. Just because a student doesn’t sit down to learn that philosophers are white guys in the same way that they sit down to learn that Aristotle lived between 384-322 BCE, doesn’t mean that they don’t pick up both messages. They don’t stop encoding memories at the end of each lecture.

Imagine using punitive methods to train a dog to sit. The explicit curriculum is about teaching the dog to sit when it’s told to do so. The hidden curriculum teaches the dog that mistakes are dangerous, that the handler is not a friend, and that the world is scary and capricious.

On the other hand, training the same behavior using positive methods, exemplifies a very different hidden curriculum. Dogs trained in this way learn that it is good to try new things and that working with their handler is not only safe but is more like play than like work.

Just because Milo and I are on vacation (and I forgot a bunch of our training equipment at home), it doesn’t mean that he isn’t going to learn anything on this trip. In other words, there is a hidden curriculum embedded in our relationship and Milo is learning that curriculum even when we are not formally training.

There are some things I do not want him to learn on this trip. For example, I don’t want him to learn to ignore my recall when we are on the shore of a beautiful big lake, and I don’t want him to learn to grab a hotdog when I am toasting it over the fire (you know how this one got on the list…).

There are also lots of things I do want him to learn, even though they are not in any training plan. I want him to learn that he and I can have delightful adventures together, that there are lots of happy, friendly people in the world, and that no matter what we’re doing or where we are, I’ve got his back.

Milo doesn’t stop learning just because I stop training.

black and tan German shepherd standing in clear water and holding a large stick

Milo has already learned that Lake Huron has an abundance of excellent sticks.