• Kerry Stack

Dog Training - The Missing Connection


"The thing I hated most about a lot of my special ed teachers growing up is that they talked to me like diabetes, dripping with too much sugar." - River Stack, age 13 and proudly autistic



I constantly rant and rave about the PAW Method of dog training. If you've been reading this blog long enough, or had a dog training session with me, you know that PAW stand for Piloting, Activity and Work. The three fundamental things you need to have in order to work through any behavioral issues you are having with your dog. You can read about the PAW method in quite a few of my posts, namely, this one, as well as this recent one. It is literally everything you need to know to effectively communicate with your dog in the most efficient way possible, without a lot of rules to memorize. You can read about some hacks I use with the dogs I work with in this link, but as Einstein so perfectly stated,


“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

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That's the beauty of the PAW Method; it's simplicity in helping you communicate with your dog. But today I was taught a very valuable lesson from a very unlikely source. A local retirement community.


Roughly once a month, Darwin Dogs holds a free pack walk at Haven at Lakewood Senior Living. The sole purpose of this pack walk is give some people who, during a time of pandemic, may have been otherwise been forgotten. A chance for a little spark of happiness. See some dogs parading around. Maybe, depending on the personalities of the dogs who show up, have a chance to watch a dog learn a new trick, or hold and cuddle a dog. The pack walk is about these seniors more so than the dogs.


During today's pack walk, I was reminded of a simple concept: what it means to communicate. During my training sessions, I frequently have to gently remind my clients what they're trying to communicate to their dogs. For example, their dog is barking, and they want the behavior to stop, so they give the dog a negative, using the gentle methods I outline here. The dog stops barking, but the owner continues giving a negative.


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The owner simply forgot what they were trying to originally communicate: stop barking. They got so fixated on the way they were communicated, they forgot about what they were communicated. That's why I always say dogs ask questions. Simply answer their question, and when they accept the answer, you're done. You don't need to "follow through" or let them know they were wrong (hint: a dog is never wrong; they just suck at being human. And they definitely don't "need to know who's the alpha". You're caught in a vicious vortex of limbo or purgatory. That's no good.

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All because you lost sight of what you were originally trying to communicate: "Can I bark."

Your dog stopped barking, so stop giving a negative.


Now that lesson hit me full force today at the retirement center. There were at least a dozen lovely residents outside waiting for us when I arrived at the pack walk, all excited to see our dogs. But my interaction with two specific people really drove some points home for me.


Now remember, the object here was to make sure that the residents had connections with the outside world. For some, that meant talking to me about various things from golf to which place has the best hibachi. For others, it was simply seeing a dog. But the most important of them all were the ones who needed to be reconnected with the here and now. To be present, and to find just a brief moment of connection with someone who can meet them on their turf, which can be scary place.


That's what happened with a lovely lady I'll call *Georgia. Georgia is a beautiful woman. She also has a difficult time remembering where she is, and from what I could see, when she is, too. She often would stop mid-sentence and say she didn't know where she was. She couldn't remember Orion's name, mere moments after I told her. Now the object of my pack walks was to connect with people who may have limited connections. I came into retirement center thinking that meant I needed to teach them about the various dogs, show the dogs doing various tricks, and letting them watch the pooch parade.


But I quickly realized I wasn't connecting with Georgia; I was merely following a playbook that didn't allow for deviations.


So when Georgia first looked right at me with the sweetest, yet lost, look on her face and told me sadly she didn't know where she was, and why was she outside, my kneejerk reaction was to correct her, and tell her precisely where she was, and to help her remember why she was there. To state my name again, Orion's name again (who she'd already forgotten) and to help her remember.


But that would've been a hollow victory, even if I could have attained it. What was the point? She would forget again, and then we would both end up frustrated as I reminded her again. I needed to fixate on the point: connecting. So I told her the truth when she asked in an exhausted, bewildered voice, "Where am I?"


"With me."


And then I took her hand, and gently placed it on Orion's soft fur. She immediately went from looking around to eyes focused directly on me, and then right down to Orion. After 20 minutes of talking, we finally proceeded to have a conversation for the very first time. Rather than trying to have a conversation on my plane of existence, about trivial things that I'm aware of, or trying to convince her of my reality, she was unable to grasp, I decided to connect with her at her place of comfort, talking about whatever tickled her fancy. Once I looked at things from her perspective, living in a state of mental vertigo, it was so much easier for me to connect with her. Who cares if I repeated the same thing 12 times? We were connecting each time. We finally developed a conversation when I asked her to give me information.


"What do you think my dog's name is?", I asked her. She replied that she wasn't sure. I asked her what she would name him. She smiled and said she would have to think about that. I asked her what the prettiest name is she'd ever heard, and she thought for a moment. I told her that the pretties name I'd ever heard was "Georgia", but that since my dog was a boy, what did she think about naming him "George?"


She finally gave me a genuine laugh for the first time.

And for the first time, she remembered his name: George. It didn't matter that my dog's name is Orion, we connected first through Orion/George, and then together. We exchanged ideas and thoughts (when I mentioned that Orion looks like a skunk, she gently chided me and dismissed the idea entirely, before finally conceding that yes, he looked like a skunk, but she thought skunks were adorable, too).





So in the end, we didn't have a conversation that I expected, or one that went by the books. But by reaching out to the reality she was living in, instead of forcing her into my reality, we were able to connect. I felt better about that conversation than I had any conversation in years. She even held "George", and said goodbye to him when we left.


Now, I'm not a therapist, nor do I hold any notion that I'm good at psychology, but I do know that everyone, dog or human, at the end of the day, just wants a connection with others. And not just anybody, but someone who cares to build a connection into communication. That connection will never look the same for everyone. Another lovely lady I met today was in an advanced stage of dementia. *Susan brought her plushie cat with her. She stroked and played with it, and fiercely guarded it. Rather than ignoring the fact that (for my reality) the behavior seemed odd, I accepted that for her reality, this was normal. And who am I to say who is right? So I asked if I could pet her cat (cautiously, a "yes"), so I petted the cat. I asked if it was litterbox trained ("oh yes, she's a good girl"). I asked if she wanted to pet my dog. She wasn't aware there were dogs there. We continued our conversation about a great many nonsensical/very important things (depending upon your reality). But did what we converse about really matter?


What mattered was the mutual respect given during each of my conversations.

Never did I use a sing-song voice to these individuals. I never plastered the fake smile of "Everything's okay" on my face.



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I talked to all of them as equals, because they are. Most of them have lived through experiences that they will never be able to share, but are still a part of their history. Of who they are. And I respect those histories, who they were, and who they are now.


So now think of some of your dog's behaviors. Thunderstorms come come to mind. We've had some doozies here in Ohio, and my phone has been ringing nonstop with concerned pet owners. And the one question they all want answered, "How do I let my dog know that the thunderstorm is nothing to be afraid of?"


Um, you don't. In your reality, a thunderstorm is nothing to be afraid of. Their perception of reality may be completely different from yours; you can't simply will your reality upon them.


As Morticia said,

"What's normal for the spider is chaos for the fly."
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So rather than trying to convince them of a reality they cannot possibly accept, at least not now, start with just trying to connect with them. When they ask you, "Where am I?", you're answer should be, "With me". And with you should always be the safest place. The place of answers, not cajoling. Of respect, not condescending "diabetes" talk, dripping with too much sugar. If someone is drowning in a sea of confusion or fear, you may not be able to take them immediately to shore right away, but you can let them know they are no longer alone, and that you know which direction to start swimming. Take their hand and lead the way. Pilot your dog.





To find out more about our pack walks, check out our events page on Facebook, as well as updates posted on our webpage here.