It’s Not Broken

Our society has an unhealthy preoccupation with breaking things. We housebreak puppies, break horses, break in new shoes, and sometimes accidentally break the spirits of those who depend on us. This attitude is so deep-seated that many of us don’t even realize when we’re focusing on the negative. However, are the risks really worth the rewards? At what cost do we focus on the bad stuff in our lives?

Photo by William Stern

Our dog profile for training class asks some basic questions that help students define their goals and instructors better help the students. This profile also enables us to offer more one-on-one help to students whose dogs may not be appropriate for class due to fear or aggression issues. The information the profile gathers is pretty basic: the dog’s age and breed, response to new people or dogs, past history of bites (if any), and the owner’s goals for class.

The information gathered with this profile is very telling, however. Students are first asked what they love about their dog. This field is often left blank, or perhaps one or two small details are filled in. The following question, which asks what the student most wants their dog to learn, is not so briefly answered. In fact, this field is usually full of negatives: don’t, shouldn’t, can’t. People want to break their dogs’ bad habits, and they want it done now.

It’s easy to slip into the trap of focusing on what we don’t want. But what if we tried something new? What if, instead, we started paying attention to the positive?

Psychologists tell us that mental imagery is powerful stuff. Positive thinking can influence your sports game, your marriage, and yes, even your dog. This is because the practice of positive imagery actually stimulates the neural pathways necessary for the behavior you’re focusing on. Dancers who imagine themselves performing a move perfectly over and over again will find that move easier next time they try it. Couples who are asked to focus on two or three traits that they like about one another each day have happier marriages. And owners who focus on what they want their dog to do have better dogs.

This is what clicker training is all about, and it’s a pretty wonderful way to live your life too.

This isn’t to say that we can’t define behaviors we want to change. I don’t want my dogs barking or peeing on the floor any more than the next person. But instead of getting angry when they do these things, I define what I want them to do instead, and start focusing on that. If I want my dog to pee outside, I watch her closely so that she can’t sneak off and urinate upstairs, and reward her every time she pees outside. If I want my do to be quiet when I’m talking on the phone, I reward quiet behavior every time I take a phone call.

Focusing on the positive is liberating. There’s no longer any need to become angry about imagined slights. There’s no need to become frustrated when things don’t go your way. Focus on what you want to happen, and figure out the path to get there. Whether you’re training your dog to come when you call, your roommates to take the garbage out when they fill it up, or your body to perform a perfect golf swing, it can be done by focusing on what’s going right.

So enough with breaking things. Our dogs, friends, family, and lives are not broken. They’re just in need of some guidance.

Which positive things are you going to focus on this week?

One response to “It’s Not Broken

  1. Our society has lost the original meaning of the word broken, which perhaps may originate in our modern world from the scriptures, where we are admonished in several places to have a broken and contrite spirit–Broken here means teachable, and contrite, humble. Broken in this context does not mean beaten down and out of service.

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