Friday, February 19, 2010

My Life with Emma: The Wisdom in Emma's Discipline Part III - Here

This morning Emma, Griz, and I headed out for a brisk run. The thermometer read 18 degrees. Emma flew down the driveway after Griz and just as quickly he headed for the nearest snow bank in order to escape Emma’s intense terrier style play. It’s the dance that begins our journey down the road.

The traffic on our county road has increased over the years. So, when a car or truck approaches, I shout out, “Here, Emma, here Griz.” They usually trot toward me, turn, sit, and wait while the vehicle passes by. But sometimes Emma heads off down the side of the road on the trail of a scent. When this happens it’s difficult for Emma to comply. Something more powerful is calling her attention. But I insist that she comply and order returns to our small traveling pack.

I fondly remember teaching Emma to come, to respond to the command “here.” At six months I signed Emma up for doggie obedience school with a local instructor, Valerie, who was known for her intuitive understanding of dogs. The night we learned to ask our dogs to come to us, Valerie directed us to walk with our dogs all the while asking that they keep their eyes on us: mirroring our movements, turning when we turned, stopping when we stopped, and moving out when we began again. If they did not, a little pull on the leash and the command of “here” would right the ship.

However, because Boston’s like Emma are known for their independence and distractibility, Valerie insisted that Emma and I also work with a clicker, a small device you squeeze, making the sound of a cricket, something akin to a small party favor I remember having as a child. Training with a clicker, clicking it the instant the dog responds correctly to your command, makes dogs like Emma pay better attention to the trainer instead of their own ideas about what to worry about or what to do next.

Now I not only had a leash, a dog, a clicker, and a treat to manage in my hands, I also had a sequence of tasks I had to order in my head correctly so I could lead Emma through them. Walk ahead, turn and click (the instant Emma complied correctly), treat; walk to the left, turn and click, treat; walk to the right, turn and click, treat; and so on. I fumbled, I lost the sequence and I miscued Emma enough times to erase any learning curve we may have begun to climb. With leashes, clickers, treats, dog at my feet, I felt irritated that I had begun this new project in which my sense of discomfort, clumsiness, and embarrassment weren’t exactly the feelings I’d anticipated when I’d dreamt of a cuddly, unconditional new companion.

As the sound of clickers, dog tags, and an occasionally growl and bark carried on until eight o’clock. I submitted to the task at hand, steeling myself to let go of the disquiet inside. It was as though Valerie had also said to me and the other owners, “Here, pay attention to me, pay attention to the task at hand.” Valerie’s direction contained my discomfort. In doing so I worked toward the same disciplined attention I was asking of Emma and it was there I found order and a quieting of my unease.

It occurred to me that this call to be present, whatever it is that contains and demands our attention, provides rich ground for growth. For example, choosing to be present within the demands and constraints of parenthood or life’s work or relationship requires that we face our comfort and discomfort, our competence and incompetence. If we respond to the call, we are offered the opportunity to grow and over time we discover in ourselves the responsible parent, the competent worker, or the committed partner in relationship.

Despite my discomfort and Emma’s distractibility and independence that night at doggie obedience school, we worked to respond to Valerie’s command of, “Here, pay attention.” And in doing so, Emma and I found the beginning of a reliable “here” in our growing list of training commands.
As Emma, Griz, and I made our way back to the ranch this morning, I called out to Emma, "Here!" pointing to the right side of the road. We were climbing a small rise where it's difficult to see oncoming traffic so I switch from the left side of the road to the right where there's better visibility. We do this every time as we return home and as soon as I say, "Here," Emma knows that she needs to switch sides of the road. Griz also follows suit dutifully moving to join us as we take on the rise.
If Emma could talk I think she would agree with me that we are grateful that one night in doggie obedience school Valerie insisted that we both pay attention and respond successfully to the simple command of "here," for we are now one happy and cooperative traveling pack on the open road.

A postscript: Valerie Appell passed away this past December after losing her battle with cancer. In addition to her career as a nurse, she was active in fostering the therapy dog program, Heeling Friends. After leaving Steamboat in 2007 she continued to work with hospitals and schools nurturing healing
relationships between dogs and people in need.

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