You know you’re a hopeless Firefly fan when:
You suddenly realize that your entire dog training philosophy can be summed up in quotes from your favorite canceled space western.
So here ya go, a change of pace from the usual dog training tutorial. This is probably the geekiest thing I’ve ever written (though the end does take a surprisingly deep turn that I wasn’t expecting). I regret nothing. Mild spoilers ahead.
Doggie Existentialism: What Dogs and Telepathic Genius Teenage Assassins Have in Common
“It’s just an object. It doesn’t mean what you think.”
River walks through the cargo hold of Serenity, alone. She steps on a small broken tree branch and leans down to pick it up. She smiles faintly as she examines the stick. It’s all very chill. But suddenly, the crew rushes in, yelling and freaking out. Cut back to River – uh oh! It’s not actually a stick she’s holding, it’s a gun.
A dog walks through his territory, alone. He comes across a stick and picks it up. It makes a nice satisfying crunch when he bites it. Suddenly, his family rushes in, yelling and freaking out. It’s not a stick the dog has just destroyed, it’s a Wii game controller.
A puppy explores her new home, balking when she comes across a strange surface. It feels slippery and makes a weird noise when her nails click against it. It has an awful, overpowering odor. It’s the scariest thing she has encountered in her short life. Her new owner can’t figure out why she’s so afraid of the (freshly Pine-Sol’d) tile floor.
River’s brain doesn’t work the same as everyone else’s. She experiences the world differently, which causes all kinds of conflicts and misunderstandings. She lives in close contact with the people on the ship, but she is not one of them. She is an outsider.
Your dog is basically River. Minus the telepathy (probably).
First of all, dogs literally experience the world differently. Their senses of hearing and vision are different from ours. And their primary sense, smell, is more powerful than we can comprehend.
Most importantly, dogs assign their own meanings to things. Just like River didn’t see the gun the same way the crew did, your dog doesn’t view a Wii remote or expensive shoe with the same reverence that you do.
The same is true of behavior:
- For people, leaning forward and offering your hand is a sign of friendship. But a dog may see this gesture as a threat.
- The butt-sniffing ritual at the dog park causes humans to die of embarrassment, but the dogs are just saying hello.
- The owner of the puppy afraid of tile flooring might roll his eyes, drag the pup onto the tile and tell her to “get over it. There’s nothing to be afraid of!” This might work, or it might teach the pup that her new owner can’t be trusted. When you’re working with a fearful dog, you do not decide what is scary. The dog does. Just because you think her fear is irrational doesn’t mean you get to disregard it.
Coexisting peacefully with a creature whose worldview is completely different from yours requires empathy and a willingness to ask “why?” Next time your dog does something you don’t understand or approve of, consider River. Be nice.
Float like a Leaf on the Wind, Sting Like a Tiny Plastic T-Rex (or: What Would Wash Do?)
In the middle of an epic space battle, with ships exploding all over the place, Serenity hurtling toward certain doom and the captain being a back-spaceship driver, Wash the pilot repeats a mantra to himself: “I am a leaf on the wind. Watch how I soar!” He stays laser-focused and manages to land the ship on the planet below, saving the lives of his wife and friends.
Yeah, we all know how THAT scene ended. But THAT is beside the point (the “point” lol sorry). The point is: when everything went to hell in a hand basket, Wash kept his cool and saved the day.
Wash’s personality is an example of the attitude it takes to work with dogs and not lose your gorramn mind. In addition to maintaining a level of grace under pressure that helps him save the day on a regular basis, he has a distinct aversion to taking himself too seriously:
The ship alarm blares. Wash freezes.
“Oh my God. What can it be? We’re all doomed! WHO’S FLYING THIS THING?! … Oh, right. That would be me. Back to work.”
I dunno if you’ve noticed, but living with dogs can be kind of stressful.
Whether you’re raising an agility champion or trying to fix your pet’s behavior problems, being able to stay calm and laugh at yourself can make all the difference.
These are skills you can learn and practice like any other skill. I had plenty of opportunities to practice when I was competing in agility. Agility takes a good amount of focus and calm, and an equal amount of self-deprecating humor when your teammate stops to take a dump mid-run. Or when you get lost on course and have to say “screw it” and make a graceful exit from the ring.
If (when) you get frustrated working with your dog, take a break, take a breath, and re-focus. Be a leaf on the wind.
The Journey Matters
Shepherd Book is wandering through the Eavesdown docks. Luggage in hand, he’s looking for a ride. But he doesn’t seem to have a particular destination in mind; he’s looking at the ships themselves, not their itineraries.
Kaylee notices. “You’re gonna come with us,” she says. “What you care about is ships, and mine’s the nicest!” She gets up from her perch on Serenity’s loading ramp. “How come you don’t care where you’re going?” she asks as she approaches.
Book smiles. “Because how you get there is the worthier part.”
Today, 3LostDogs.com promotes reward-based, let’s-hold-hands-and-sing-kumbaya training methods. But I wasn’t always this cuddly.
My early dog trainer education consisted of works by leaders in the traditional, compulsion-based training sphere. I became a loyal defender of pack theory and prong collars.
I’m well-practiced in the use of compulsion training to get a dog to do what I want. When it comes to achieving the end result of a dog who falls in line and doesn’t get into trouble, these methods absolutely do work.
So why did I change my approach?
Because how you get there is the worthier part.
As I learned more about modern training, I watched positively-trained dogs work with an amazing kind of enthusiasm and confidence. When I tried positive methods to train my own dogs, I watched them come to life.
This was the point at which I realized that the end goal is not all that matters. Yeah, some positive techniques, while capable of incredible results, take longer to see those results.
The journey is just as important as the destination. I’m willing to work harder if it means that the dogs will be happier. If it means that they’ll trust me. If it means that they’ll enjoy training and rehabilitation work, instead of just enduring it.
In the end, the journey is all there is. When making training decisions, always ask yourself: How does this affect my relationship with my dog? Will it make it better, or will it damage his faith in me? Your mileage may vary: I prioritized the journey and it made me change training methodologies. You may reach a different conclusion. That’s cool.
Just remember to look at the ships, not just the destinations.
The First Rule
“It ain’t all buttons and charts, little albatross.”
It’s the end of the movie Serenity. The audience is a sobbing wreck, and Mal is teaching River about the first rule of flying:
“Love. You can know all the math in the ‘verse, but take a boat in the air that you don’t love? She’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughtta fall down. Tells you she’s hurting before she keens. Makes her a home.”
If you want to teach your dog to do something (or stop doing something), good training techniques are critical. But it’s easy to get caught up in the technical stuff and miss the real live animal sitting in front of you.
Like the puppy owner neck-deep in the potty training process who finds herself tempted to return the little poop machine to the pound.
Like the agility handler so concerned about getting a clean run in his next competition that working with his dog becomes stressful, not fun.
When we get stuck in the how, we lose sight of the why. Then we get frustrated and burn out.
Sometimes you have to remind yourself of your Why – why you do this in the first place.
The first rule, of flying, of raising an obnoxious puppy into an amazing dog, of helping a fearful rescue, of training an agility champion, is love. Or if there is no love yet, as with a new dog, it’s the willingness to work for it.
For the exhausted puppy owner, that might mean taking the pup outside (where he can’t make a housetraining mistake), dressing him up in a bow tie and taking adorable pictures to post on Instagram. #lovethislittleguy #perfectpuppy
For the agility handler, it might mean taking a break from Serious Training and going on a hiking adventure with his dog.
For me, today it means writing a ridiculous article about training lessons from Firefly instead of another problem-solving tutorial.
One of the core values of good science fiction is that it lets us see ourselves more clearly. It tells important, often harsh truths about the human condition, but softens the blow by portraying them in fantastical futuristic settings. It gives us a non-threatening way to examine our lives and actions. It shows us how we can change, and become who we really want to be.
Dogs are just like science fiction. In our relationships with these fantastical beasts, we can become better versions of ourselves. Every action, from how we train a dog to heel, to how we react when raising a puppy turns out to be harder than expected, gives us a chance to clarify, practice, and perfect our values.
And when you value the First Rule, it affects everything you do:
- It makes it easier to figure out which training methods to use. You pick the “ship” that makes your journey better, like Shepherd Book did.
- It makes it easier to laugh and find joy in the process, like Wash.
- It makes it easier to empathize. Remember River. It makes it easier to ask “why is my dog doing this?” Instead of just, “how do I get my dog to stop doing this?”
If we let them, our dogs can make us better at being human. And that’s pretty shiny.