I have joked from time to time that most of my interventions in therapy come, with few small changes, directly from the lessons I learned in Puppy Training 101 with Lucy. Now I’m not strictly a behaviorist, and of course there are all sorts of other interesting subtleties about therapy I learned in graduate school. But human behavior and relationships, at their core, are informed by the same principles that guide dog training. I find myself coming back to these basic points:
Intent, or, Why Are You Doing That?
In the beginning, I took Lucy to puppy training because I thought she was out of control. I couldn’t pick her up—and she was a bright-eyed, golden ball of fluff, just begging to be cuddled—without her digging her little needle puppy teeth into whatever body part of mine she could reach. My hands, arms, and ankles were scabbed with tiny punctures. I was despondent: Weren’t retrievers supposed to be friendly? My dog was vicious! She never stopped biting! I didn’t have a dog; I had a piranha in a puppy’s clothing.
My trainer Mel reframed my understanding of Lucy’s “aggressive” intent right away. “She’s a retriever,” Mel said. “Her strongest instinct is to have something in her mouth, and she doesn’t know better yet how to tell what does and doesn’t belong in there.” Mel advised me to always have a toy to cram in Lucy’s mouth when I wanted to handle her which, thus occupied, I could do without harm.
When Lucy’s puppy teeth fell out and she gained some adult sense, she stopped reflexively chomping on whatever was nearest. And I learned that, in my distress about her biting, I had made attributions about her behavior that had more to do with my being upset than her actual doggy intentions.
We do that with people, too. We often interpret another’s intent in terms colored by how we feel about that person’s behavior: That hurt my feelings, so they were trying to be mean to me. They are late for lunch, so they clearly don’t care about me. In therapy, I try to help people separate their emotional reaction from their understanding of intent; to recognize that something that feels like “aggression” might just be “being a retriever.” Knowing that someone else might have different intent than we surmise can help us figure out ways of interacting with them that aren’t painful.
Specificity, or, I Know Exactly What You Want
After a the first two weeks of puppy class, I was smug. Lucy seemed to be the star. She was the first puppy to sit consistently, every time I asked her. I did it in class, turning to Lucy, looking her in her bright little eye, and sternly saying “Sit!” Lucy planted her furry little butt on the ground, and everybody clapped. Mel asked if she could use Lucy to demonstrate, and I proudly handed over the leash. Mel turned to Lucy, and the class watched in silence. “Purple!” Mel commanded, and Lucy sat. Everyone laughed.
Mel handed the leash back to me and explained, “Sometimes we think they understand us, but all she really understands right now is that when someone turns to her and says a word, she is supposed to sit down. You will have to do more work to be sure she understands ‘sit’ means ‘sit’ and ‘down’ or ‘leave it’ or ‘heel’ mean something else. We can’t always be sure about the extent of a dog’s understanding unless we find ways to test it and make sure it is specific.”
Again, the same is true for people. We assume that someone else knows what we expect from them because, most of the time, their behavior seems to indicate they understand. Then when someone makes a mistake, or does something unexpected, we get annoyed: Why did they screw up? Don’t they care anymore?
It helps to take time to make sure we’re on the same page when we negotiate tasks, decisions, or even life plans with another person. We can’t take the appearance of congruence (“if we’re living together that means we’ll get married”) to mean that all parties have the same understanding. We need to articulate the difference between “sit” and “purple” with each other, and not let mute behavior be the only guarantor of mutual understanding.
Do you have people in your life (or dogs, for that matter) that you feel out of sync with at times? I encourage you to try an experiment today: Pick a time to purposefully interact with them in Puppy Class 101 style. Keep an open mind about intent, for example, and let yourself separate your emotional reaction to something a person did from the reasons that person did it. That doesn’t mean you can’t feel annoyed, or surprised, or happy, or sad about something that happens. But it might be interesting to discover what the intent of the other person really was—were they being aggressive, or a retriever?
Here’s a chance to experiment with specificity, and if you trust this other person you might check in about their intent: “Hey, when you grunted at me this morning I wondered if I had annoyed you in some way, and I felt bad” you might venture. The other person might say “Yes, I am sick of all the cupboard doors in the kitchen being left open, and I wanted to make you feel like the inconsiderate jerk you are.” (This person would benefit from reading this article and meditating on intent.) Or the other person might say, “Sorry. I’m just not a morning person. I promise I’m more congenial after a cup of coffee—please don’t take it personally.” (This person gets a cookie!)
Tomorrow I’ll have Lucy and Mel guest-star in another post about positive reinforcement vs. punishment, or how we learn the things we learn, and what makes them stick. But for now, this post has gotten a little long, and someone was looking at me with sad-dog eyes until I asked, “Walk?” Got to go; Lucy’s waiting for me by the front door….
Thanks to Mel Bussey for allowing me to use her classes as real-life examples for this post. For more detailed information about actual dog behavior and training, please visit Mel’s excellent website.