I never had an affinity with dogs.
As a child, I was terrified of them. As a teenager, I was intrigued by and often quite taken with them. However, at no point in my journey was I ever a dog’s favourite human. They say dogs are attracted to energy, especially calm, assertive ones, where mine is high-strung, intense and somewhat restless. I imagine I must appear to calm dogs like a sighthound with a high and unsettling prey drive!
Becoming a dog owner in 2018 to our lovely first, Theodore, also meant that I had to quickly become a dog trainer. This transition came as a shock to me (as it does to most first-time dog owners) – while I knew that I would have to, at some point, train the dog, I didn’t expect the resistance. I didn’t expect the complete lack of understanding of what my dog was trying to tell me. I didn’t expect the toxicity in the dog training world (a story for another post), and most of all, I didn’t expect it to be so tough. For someone who hates repetitive, prosaic and monotonous work, I really had my work cut out for me in the form of a 800g poodle.
I’ll share the challenges I faced another day, and the many moments in which I would shut myself in a room trying to ignore the barking/defecating/screaming puppy outside my door, resenting the day I had paid so much money to bring so much mess and trouble into my pristine home. Fast forward four years and almost ten dogs later, dog training has grown on me. I have found nuances to appreciate, moments to celebrate and learnings to cultivate. Most of all, dog training really resembles the self-work I am so obsessed about putting in, so much so that I’ve caught myself thinking a few times — “I’m really coaching my dog here.”
Clarifying – expectations in dogs, desires/objectives in people
The first step in my self-work, in my conversations with people as well in dialogue with my dog will always be clarification.
In dog training, the first step to attaining the desired behaviour is to clarify what you want from the dog. No amount of leash pulling will teach a dog to sit if it doesn’t know that’s the desired outcome. Similarly, no amount of conversation will bring both parties to a result if it isn’t made clear. And no amount of self-work will take you closer to your destination if you don’t have one in mind.
Opening options – providing different ways to respond to triggers
In an odd coincidence, I started self-work with a crystal clear endpoint – what I needed was to have frameworks for processing and language for reframing certain mental loops that started whenever I hit a trigger.
Teddy is a reactive dog (as a result of poor socialization as a puppy) and he is particularly triggered by other dogs. Yes, he’s that dog that goes crazy when he sees another four-legged friend across the road. At one point, these episodes caused me so much consternation I dreaded going for walks. For these walks to come to a point where they were palatable involved us offering him different ways to respond to the trigger. Most often, we asked for him to sit and make eye contact with us instead of charging and barking when he sees another dog. It’s a work in progress, but what’s important is that we create options for ourselves to respond differently in order to avoid the same behaviour patterns recurring.
Creating contact – engaging with the dog, others, and my soul
Each time I feed the dogs, I ask for them to make eye contact with me. When they walk, I ask that they check in with me regularly. Most of all, when they meet a difficult situation (usually a packet of snacks they can’t open, thank God for Ziploc), to come to me.
All these small moments add up to a lot of contact. Contact, for me, breeds engagement. And prolonged engagement is connection. To be connected means I am in tune with my dog’s communication, be it through emotions, nonverbal cues or, yes, the occasional woof. That communication is so sacred and valued that people have created buttons to communicate with dogs via augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). The bond you reap is immensely rewarding – and it transforms the entire experience of owning a dog.
Similarly, I often ask myself how I can create contact with others and myself. When I began on my self-work journey, I found myself needing to confront the parts of myself that I had happily Marie Kondo-ed away, and while none of it was pretty, all of it was necessary. The contact resulted in a much deeper sync between what I knew I wanted and what I felt I wanted. The outcome of this synchrony was authenticity, and a self I felt most comfortable spending time with.
Confrontation – holding space for emotions
I hate confrontation.
No matter how good I get at managing it, I still dread every single one. I hate the racing heart, the hostility, the lack of trust.
Yet part of achieving mastery is confronting the tantrum.
Teddy has a temper that is as fiery as mine (would not be a stretch of imagination to say he picked it up from me) and initially, confronting his emotions resulted in absolute vexation from me.
Soon I learnt to hold space for him. I learnt to hold his leash still so he would feel my energy through it – calm in his storm, assertive in his confusion. And similarly, I have had the privilege of others in my life doing the same for me, holding me close in a torrent of emotions, asserting truths they know about me in a flurry of self-deprecating sentiments.
I feel safest with in the presence of these gems – I know that even in my ugliest moments, they will hold space for me to work through it and grow. They will hold me responsible for my words and actions (as they should) without being accusatory, harsh or self-serving. And that is honestly more than I can ask of any other human being – I hope I can be that person for my dogs, too.
Dog training is boring, and so is self-work. A lot of it is, as you may have expected, practice that leads to mastery. And a lot of it really humdrum and trivial and mundane and seems like it will never amount to anything.
Yet every single repetition bears meaning. Each successful practice bears significance. All of it adds up to a deep mastery over ourselves, our somatics, our voices/barks, our emotions.
For both Teddy and I, the fun is not in the daily work, it is in the proofing. It is us sitting for hours at Bishan Park together, trying not to bark at every four-legged friend that comes along. It is pushing boundaries and seeing how much closer we can get to a dog before it sets him off. It is figuring out why he likes this spaniel and hates that schnauzer. This exercise always brings to mind my coaching sessions, where my coach probes and walks new territory with me, discovering new flaws, new strengths, new tripping stones. And while there are bad trips, every single one of them brings the joy of discovery, and the confidence of knowing that since the tripping stone has been discovered, it can now be worked on and mastered.
Proofing, personally, is an everyday experience. So many times I have sat quietly in our boardroom wondering why I was a hairsbreadth away from losing my temper. Other times I have spent time holding my breath in a pool, trying to find clarity in why I feel such jealousy, or such disappointment. In better times, I proof myself to celebrate, without extremes, all things in moderation, even for the moments of greatest achievement. All these moments have given me much more confidence and self-knowledge – something that cannot be earned without paying the penance of time and experience.
For me, it has never been enough to have a relationship that is filled with love. In my books, it has to be cherish. Cherish, in Gary Thomas’ eponymous book – “to go out of our way to show it off, protect it, and honor it.. we want others to see and recognize and affirm the value that we see.” Whether it is my dog or myself, underlying all these different facets of self-work/dog training is a deep desire to nurture a relationship with myself/my dog that is full of cherish.
And this is why my heart is full every day.