Last week I enjoyed speaking at the Lakefly Writer’s Conference in Oshkosh, WI. After accepting the invitation, I pondered for awhile about a topic, and somewhere, out of the recesses of my mind, came the question of what my two professional loves have in common. Here’s a short summary of some of the ways that I think training and writing can inform each other:
COMMITMENT. Raise your hand if you have said you absolutely are going to finish teaching your dog not to ________ (fill in the blank). Or to _______? We all have a list of things we want to do, should do, promise to do “when we have time,” right?
Writing is famous for the same phenomenon. “Someday I’m going to start that novel I’ve been thinking about” is such a frequently uttered phrase that it’s become a bit of a joke. The fact is that none of those things, whether related to dogs or writing–or writing about dogs–are going to happen if we don’t decide that we are committed to them. The derivation of “decide” is to “cut out,” to remove choices until one is left with just one. And that’s just what we have to do: Decide what is really important to and commit to it. Or let it go. Myself, I’ve been putting off teaching Maggie to exercise on her new Fitbone. After writing the talk, I decided to just Do It, and we had a super fun session yesterday with it.
DESENSITIZING & CLASSICAL CONDITIONING We all know how valuable classical conditioning is when working with canine behavior, but what could it possibly have to do with writing? Here’s a story to illustrate: When I got a contract from Random House to write The Other End of the Leash I was thrilled. The book proposal had gone “to auction,” which meant that publishers were bidding against each other on my book–a writer’s dream come true.
But then, I had to sit down and write the book, and I was terrified. So much so that for the first few days I sat frozen at the computer, unable to write a thing. Luckily, I had years of dog training behind me, and decided to use the principles of desensitizing and counter classical conditioning to help me out. I asked “what amount of writing is ‘under threshold”, or brief enough to feel do-able? The answer was five minutes–committing to writing for 5 minutes wasn’t scary enough to stop me. Whew, yes, I could write for 5 minutes. So that’s all I did the next day. Day Two I scheduled ten minutes, and made myself stop even though I wasn’t sure I wanted to. On Day Three I had decided to write for 20 minutes, but at minute 19 I was so deep into what I was doing that couldn’t bear to stop and wrote for a couple of hours.
I also conditioned myself to work on my book, and only my book, on the computer in my study. No checking email, no nothing except writing the book. I have a laptop that I bring back and forth from office to house, and that’s what I used to do all my work that didn’t relate to writing. I did the same thing for For the Love of a Dog, and The Education of Will. It was literally Pavlovian–I’d press the soft, round button on the back of my Apple display, hear the xxx of the computer booting up, and settle down into writing mode.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING It certainly is in dog training, and not just in the sense of reinforcing a behavior immediately after its occurrence. But there’s more to timing than that. Dogs can’t learn if they are over aroused, whether too scared or too excited to think. (Neither can we–try learning a new computer software program after just hearing you’d won the lottery.) No one can learn well when they are tired, or laser focused on something else. For example, I would never ask Maggie or Willie to learn a new trick if they are in “sheep herding gear,” or ask Tootsie to sit/stay when I get the bowls out for the dog’s dinner. At that point she has pretty much disconnected from most of her brain, and it would be crazy to ask her to concentrate.
And most of us can’t write anytime, either. We have a time in which we are most productive, as Dan Pink writes about in his fascinating book, When. (It’s way more interesting than you might think. I loved this book!) Although some people can write any time of day, most of us are more likely to get something done either in the morning or the late afternoon. Chronobiologists (yes, that’s a thing) talk about larks (morning) and owls (evening/night), and what Dan Pink calls Third Birds (middle of the day). By the way, apparently men are more often owls, and women larks, but this is just in general and isn’t predictive of any one person. Because I’m a lark, I set aside the hours of 8 AM to 12 noon to write.
It was fun thinking about how dog training informs writing. I’d love to hear how one facet of your life has been enhanced by what you’ve learned training your dogs. Or vice versa. I’m all ears. (Okay, eyes.)
MEANWHILE, back at the farm: Seven inches of rain in the last week? And more to come tonight. Thank heavens I’ve taught the dogs to stand up on a step and have their paws toweled off, and that they’ll jump into the bathtub for a rinse off. Our yard is now described as the “mudmare”.
Here’s Maggie on her Fitbone. (She’d only had one session on it, and I just asked her on a whim to step up on it–no treats, and me juggling my iPad to get a photo. Such a good girl!)
The best part of spring this week is the lambs. They are flourishing, and we love savoring their black, white and tan colors contrasting with the green grass.