Thursday, April 15, 2010

My Life with Emma: The Wisdom in Emma's Discipline Part IV Leave It

My memory is clear. Early in our dog obedience class, Emma’s paws rested properly under her chin as she waited to receive permission to take a treat from our trainer. Valerie knelt on the floor in front of Emma, pointed her finger at Emma and said, “Leave it.” Just inches from her nose, the doggie treat was a great temptation for a six-month old puppy. Emma’s eyes looked intently at Valerie and then furtively my way, as if to say, “What do I do?”

The smell of the treat drifted temptingly over Emma. She couldn’t resist, pulling herself part way up to reach it. Valerie quickly reprimands her and said, “No, Emma.” And back down Emma went. The second trial succeeded as Emma waited just a few seconds before being released with Valerie’s, “Get it, Emma.” Emma instantly enjoyed her treat, a reward for respecting the boundary Valerie had set: “This isn’t for you right now.” Later, in our work together, we would expand boundary setting to include things that weren’t good for her and things or situations with people or other dogs from which she should stay away.

I’ve always been impressed with Emma’s ability to, “Leave It.” Just like her “Sit and Wait,” she responds with the promptness of a Marine. I see it as I run along our road with Emma. The scents on the roadside and in the barrow pit irresistibly draw Emma. She seeks them out with a consuming instinctual drive. Sometimes tracking scents is Emma’s way of learning about what’s going on in the neighborhood. On other occasions however, the scent may lead to road kill and if Emma chews on it, she risks the possibility of an intestinal bug which can threaten her health. When I suspect she’s involved with the remains of an animal, I quickly say, “Leave it,” and Emma, in the time it takes to process my command, turns and continues to follow me down the road. She is quite reliable the majority of the time. However, there are occasions when it’s more difficult for her to turn and walk away.

When Emma submits to temptations like chasing the cat when the cat doesn’t care to be harassed; grabbing a Frisbee before I have a chance to throw it; or chasing a car that’s passed by when she hears a barking dog inside; the command, “Leave it,” is more difficult for her to obey. She protests by continuing the behavior I’ve asked her to stop. But, I repeat the command, “Leave it,” and she eventually pulls back and sits and waits anxiously.

Observing Emma’s ability to turn and walk away from that which she should leave alone, I realize I, too, wrestle with setting healthy boundaries in my own world. If Emma were a friend with whom I could have a conversation, I know she and I would talk about how to leave the things that do not belong to me or I do not have control over. For instance, when my children were young, it was easy to be tempted to solve a problem for them whether it was in school or with a friend. Knowing when to leave them to their own resources was important to their development, but sometimes difficult to figure out.

I know some of our conversations would have easy and apparent answers. But there would also be conversations in which the answers would be more difficult to distill. We would discuss how much discipline it requires to leave an unhealthy focus on anything in our lives: whether it’s Emma obsessively biting her favorite 36” exercise ball until it pops as she rolls it mightily across the living room; or my over-focusing on writing projects and failing to go for a walk, a run, or a snowshoe with Emma and Griz. We would discuss how we know whether or not to leave the unresolved, unresolved: for Emma, perhaps a territorial doggie dispute that could cause harm without settling the issue; or for me, a disagreement in a work setting or in a relationship.

As Emma and I carry on down the road in the days ahead, I know we will continue to find the command "Leave It," a point of reference in answering the questions about the important relationships that make up our daily lives. Whether the questions over healthy boundaries are easy or difficult for us to sort out, I believe our ultimate desire is to settle in a place of peace, with ourselves and our world.

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