Midwesterners like me are pretty obedient. Think of us as the golden retrievers of the country. Like most, I’ve been sheltering for a month, indulging in take out only once a week, and washing my hands raw.
But the CDC’s “don’t touch your face” instruction? Total fail. Granted, I have a new-found awareness of how often I touch my face, and how desperately important it feels to do so. But stop touching it? Not happening. I just scratched an itch under my eyebrow, while I was writing this.
The hand washing part is easy. I’m doing that so often I’m going to run out of moisturizer long before toilet paper. But every time I hear “Don’t touch your face” I want to paw my hands over my cheeks like a rebellious adolescent.
Why is one piece of advice so easy to follow, and the other so hard? We animal lovers who follow science-based training methods know the answer. It’s too bad that the CDC doesn’t. Here’s a clue: For just a moment, while you’re reading this, don’t think about red. No, really, don’t think about red.
How’s that working for you?
The bottom line is that it’s hard to teach a negative. “Don’t touch your face” is no more effective than “Don’t think about red,” or for that matter, “Stop jumping on visitors” to a dog or “Don’t bite me” to a tiger.
Trainers who understand the science of learning know to focus on what you do want an animal to do, not what you don’t. You can say “don’t jump” til you’re blue in the face, but that leaves a vast repertoire of other canine behavior that you’re not going to like. A dog obeying the cue “don’t jump” could lift his leg on your aunt’s new pant suit, sink his teeth into her thigh, or run into the kitchen and pull the Sunday roast off the counter. A tiger could avoid biting you by sinking her claws into your face, violating more CDC rules for healthy living than one could count.
Progressive, educated trainers teach dogs to “not jump up” by reinforcing them for keeping all four paws on the ground. Or trotting happily into another room when the doorbell rings. Wild animal trainers teach tigers not to bite by reinforcing them for sitting still while being examined by a veterinarian.
A discussion about animal training might feel trivial given the Alice in Wonderland world that we are living in, with the Red Queen of Covid-19 running after us shrieking OFF WITH THEIR HEADS! Thousands are dying in spite of the heroic efforts of medical professionals, blue collar workers are risking their lives to keep lucky ones like me well stocked with milk, mail, and dog food, while the rest of us are either juggling kids and endless Zoom meetings, or feeling far too big for the space we are in.
There’s a lesson here: It is in our nature to focus on the negative. “Don’t touch your face.” “Don’t jump up.” “Don’t growl at that other dog.” It is hard to avoid doing it, even though it rarely works. I’m pretty good at training a dog what I do want it to do, but I’m not perfect. Every time I hear “Don’t touch your face” I’m going to get a little better at it, because it helps me understand how unhelpful “Don’t bark, or don’t jump” is for a dog. What a great reminder to us all. Maybe we can use that to help everyone with a dog, cat, ferret, husband, child or partner who is driving us crazy because they won’t stop _______’g. (Insert dangerous/irritating/rude/amusing-but-embarrassing behavior here.)
And for us? Let the smile of a cashier or the sight of can of beans be our reminder to keep our hands to our side when we’re out in public. Good for us. There’s a treat waiting in the kitchen for us, right after we wash our hands.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Good news! Skip has improved. He’s not close to all better, but he no longer gets up on three legs. Last week we saw Dr. David Edinger, who palpated Skip in the parking lot, both of us well-masked. An Xray in the clinic, done while I waited in the car, revealed some fluid on his knee. Diagnosis was probable torn quad and adductor muscles, possible torn cruciates and tramatized knee from the tibia being whacked out of position. (I’m 99.99% sure he slammed his leg into a metal post, which pushed it back and outward. Given that he was going about 20 mph, it must have been a hell of a blow.) Dr. E was optimistic that he might be substantially better by the end of April.
He suggested moist heat 3x a day, followed by massage. Our holistic vet, Dr. Carrie Donahue, arranged an injection of B12 and arnica, and glory hallelujah his leg showed improvement after 24 hours. Dr. D is coming out this afternoon to do acupuncture and laser treatments, and later this week he’ll be seen by Dr. Day at the Veterinary Rehabilitation Center. (I can’t get into our usual walk-on-water physical therapist, Courtney Arnoldy, because the University only allows her to see medical emergencies. Of course, this is an emergency to me, but, well, you know.)
Jim took the photos below of me getting Skip started on a “moist heat” session. First I put a warm wet wash cloth on his leg, then the warmed up heating pad.
After the set up, I began reinforcing him for lying still with his head flat. I’d show you a video of that, but I asked Jim to switch to video and my %!&$* iPhone is on strike and making my life as miserable as it can manage.
Skip and I are up to about 12 seconds before he gets a treat, at which point his brain explodes and he just can’t stay still anymore. But it’s going very well, 3 sessions a day and he is actually walking on all four legs now after getting up from lying down. It’s looking like recovery is going to be weeks or a few months, instead of seven or eight. Best news ever. (Do not take that to mean I’m not still feeling oh-so-sorry for myself that our lives have been upended during a time of global upending . . . )
One more comment about the photos: Please notice that there is no straw in my hair, and I have on clean pants and a nice top. This is not my typical attire lately. I’d say I did it just for you, but actually I cleaned up because I was about to do another Come Sit Stay podcast with Kathy Sado, Chris Pachel, Marrisa Martino, Lynn Unger and Barrie Finger. You can listen anytime, it was about Adapting to Uncertain Times, and full of wisdom, compassion and some great laughs. I loved doing it, and feel like I have some new, good friends to boot.
Last, here’s my metaphor for the week: Many of our daffodils were slammed by brutally cold temperatures three nights in a row. They remind me of Skip: Bowed, but unbroken.
Today it’s sunny and warm and gorgeous outside. I’m looking forward to being outside just as soon as I hit Publish!
And you? Do you have something, even the smallest thing, to look forward to this week?
Fabulous. You nailed EXACTLY why “don’t touch your face” is so damn hard, and I don’t know why the penny didn’t drop earlier. I know from years of working with dementia patients that telling them NOT to do something, (i.e. “Don’t move) is a surefire way of making sure they’ll do it. Even someone who’s short-term memory is toast may comply with, “Stay right there”, at least for a couple of minutes while I run down the hall for something.
So we need a positive reframing here. Anybody?
And by the way, just try not to touch your face when it’s inside a volunteer-made cloth mask for 8 hours. Itch city. Bless those volunteers, and curses to those whose incompetence made them necessary.
Kathy Dunn says
Love this! As soon as I put a mask on… my nose or chin or upper lip start itching. I bend over to pick up something from the bottom shelf and my eyeglasses steam up from the air from my mask leaking out! So don’t touch your face when eyeglasses are sliding down my nose onto the mask. The battle is real! I’ve always been a “face-touched” this is torture. But telling me not to will almost guarantee I will. I’ve tried walking around with my gloved hands in my pockets but my gloves are on & shouldn’t go in the pockets. LOL! While at the nursery picking out some flowers, I see a client & her dog, I have to remind myself not to greet & pet her dog! The poor dog recognizes me & tail is wagging like crazy & the dog is being so good, even sits without being asked to receive a petting but I say praise the dog, praise the owner & encourage the owner to pet the dog for me since he’s being so good. I’m sad that I can’t pet the dog. Hopefully life will improve sooner rather than later. In the meantime, my gardens are looking better than they have in a long time.
Nada Chebib says
Great post on how asking for what you want is so much more effective than what you ‘don’t’ want (even if I forget that from time to time with family!). I also wonder if it’s hard not to touch our faces because it’s reinforcing for us humans – touching our face is reassuring or comforting, making it a harder behaviour to give up!
Your post on Skip is also timely as my dog has been limping around on 3 legs for the last 5 days. We have done a Zoom session with the vet (with the vet guiding me on how to examine her leg, we know it’s not a fracture or clot), and put her on pain meds. Normally this clears up within a matter of hours for her – but it looks like a longer term rehabilitation plan. So it was somewhat encouraging to read that Skip’s therapies are making a difference!
Love your writing – thank you
Margaret: I hear you with the dementia patient(s)! If it’s only one, and depending on the level of dementia, assigning a very safe task (“Could you please fold these five dishcloths for me?”) might work.
As for Don’t Touch Your Face and dog training, I agree with Margaret – VERY helpful comparison. There are a couple of spots on our dog walking routes where there are likely to be dog eruptions from behind the fence along the public sidewalk. It’s often a disaster on our end, but as I learn to work on consistently calling my dog’s name in a cheerful way, and giving her a treat the INSTANT she looks away from the very-exciting conflict, we’re making a bit of progress. She’s just beginning now to get in one excited bark-lunge thing, then turning to me to look and prance along the rest of the way. She is young and I’ll take it. (We’ll keep working on it, that’s a tough one for me!)
Thank you, and great news that Skip is improving!
Wow, poor Skip! That must’ve hurt like the Dickens. But also lucky Skip in that his human got right onto diagnosing and healing.
He really is a lucky boy. Sending him healing vibes.
And while I’m busy sending them I should send them to the entire world that we get over this horrid virus quickly. I do.. Unsure how much my intervention helps but there you go anyway…
Oh BTW is the novel still progressing? I think I’ve missed some posts….
Jen Gibson says
Glad to hear Skip is on the mend, but darn it! I can feel the disappointment.
Things to look forward to: that podcast, for one. I found such solace in the first one – thank you for sharing it and for sharing each other; gardening – have some seeds started and it’s so GOOD to see new things growing. At least in this uncertain world there are still some things that never change. And finally, more sunshine and the warmth that comes with it.
Take care of yourselves.
Mary Foree says
What am I looking forward to? Healing from an injured knee. I am house-training our new Westie, Lola – and I tripped over her leash, flew off the porch and landed on my collar bone and knee in the flower bed. I am SO lucky not to have broken anything! Lola is lucky because I was carrying her at the time…I managed to move her to my side, so I didn’t land on her. She weighs less than 4 pounds, so if I hadn’t moved her, she would have been a little pancake!
I just finished (for the 4th time) your Puppy Primer. I’m going to start on Family Friendly Dog Training later today. Each time we get a new puppy, your books are our go-to. Somewhere around here, we even have the one with the American Eskimo on the front! Did you know that two copies of the the American Eskimo version is on Amazon for $70.00 and $111.35? WOW!
Did your holistic vet explain why she gave Skip a b12 shot? As someone who suffers from Pernicuous Anemia (chronic b12 deficiency), I am always curious to learn more about its role in the body (dogs and humans). Sadly, vets (holistic and traditional) seem to have a better idea of how crucial it is to good health than human doctors. Ienjoy your blog!
Tracy, great question about B12. I should ask her, because I too am not as educated as I’d like to be about its role in healing. Thanks for asking…
To Mary Foree and her poor knee! Oh, so sorry, I feel your pain! I’m so glad you didn’t break anything, but still . . . Tell Lola she is a lucky girl that you reacted so quickly. Dogs make such lousy pancakes. 🙂
Jen, it makes me happy that you are looking forward to podcast #2! That’s just wonderful. And I love that you have started seeds! I don’t have any but am hungry to start some too. Of course, early for here to start anything outside, but in a month it’ll be time. I’m having a hard time not going to our local nurseries!
Keep up the good work Teddy!
Nada, your point about it being reinforcing to touch our faces is brilliant. I never thought about how comforting it is, but you are right, and we all need comfort now more than ever. I think I’ll have ‘touch my face’ sessions at home, after obsessive hand washing, on a daily basis.
So right about the discomfort of masks! I’m in awe of the workers who wear all that gear and work long hours in critical conditions. Just working under all that gear is hard enough, much less trying to save people from a disease we know little about.
Anne Johnson says
Come, Sit, Stay was excellent again. It reminded me we are all in this together and that all of us have essential jobs in one aspect or another. Kathy conveyed her frustration continues with not being able to connect in person with clients. I live alone, but so fortunate to have two dogs, two cats and two horses to keep me grounded. I do walk both dogs on forest trails with another person, safe distanced. My essential job is to maintain normal schedule/behavior for my 4 legged family. Without my ability to get out and care for them, they’d be lost. Paws crossed for a speedy recovery for Skip.
I’m thinking of that little Skip! I wish him good progress this week.
Tails Around the Ranch says
Kudos on your conditioning work with Skip. Every second he lasts is a well earned victory. Sending healing energy your way he continues to make progress.
Facetouching continues to be an issue here too- much of its origins are surrounded around the spring shed (otherwise known as dog hair floating for a spot upon which to land). Funny how it seems equally divided between my face and under the dining room table. 😉
carolyn grodinsky says
only comment is I LOVE reading your blogs! Wished you lived locally in VT!
Jill Leggio says
I have taken many mindfulness meditation classes through the years. Inevitably the directions include “when you have an an itch-watch the itch”, “see how it changes”, “does it move”, “let it be”. When I was younger, I would do as I was instructed. I hated it. After years of this, I finally decided that I’d found my limit to enlightenment and I would scratch the itch and get it out of the way of my “bliss.”
Who knew I was in training for a pandemic!
May Skip feel better soon.
Anne Duffy says
We are looking forward to getting a couple of pieces of agility equipment out in the yard. My young BCs have really been missing their agility classes and trials and house agility is for the birds, or so they say! Our daily walks have become more difficult as many have found our forested park trail in the last couple of weeks which makes social distancing more challenging. (We usually have this trail to ourselves every day) We are happy enough to share but look forward to the time when these walkers and joggers go back to work and leave the trail to us alone.
Good and healing karma being sent to Skip from me and 4 BCs.
Teresa Duren says
I so look forward to Tuesday’s for your posts! Thank you for so often making me smile or giving some gem to consider for the day or week!
Barb Stanek says
Can’t help but smile about spending all day, day after day, with my dogs. I’m deliberately building in trips that they don’t go on, so they don’t get too used to this. Sometimes, I just drive around for a half hour! Does us all good for me to get out!
Just have to tell you that while I’m not used to it yet, I love your hair! It is beautiful!!!!
Rebecca Rice says
I am a “fiddler”. I have an overwhelming tendency to want to pick things up and handle them, because I find the feel of surfaces very soothing. This was pointed out to me a by a lab tech at a company that I worked at, who pointed out that that could injure me (hidden needles, etc) or mess with a project. So when I find myself in a tempting environment, I hold my hands behind my back. That’s so much easier than trying to remember “don’t pick X up” over and over. I do it in the produce section, because I really really want to pick up the onions in order to find the best one, etc! This might help with those face touching issues, as well.
Jennifer Damon says
I have the same problem with touching my face. I’m thinking management is the key. I’ll ask my vet for a cone, size extra extra large.
(And I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Thank you!)
Nancy Kraft says
So every time I feel like touching my face I scratch my head instead. It serves two purposes. It distracts me and keeps everyone t least 6 feet away since they’re sure I have lice. ☺ Should we be saying wash your hands and pat your head?
Jennifer gave me my laugh for the day. Can you picture shoppers in the grocery store all wearing cones so they don’t touch their faces? That sounds like something out of a “Revenge of the Dogs” movie. Truly a taste of our own medicine! 😷
Alice R. says
So glad Skip is doing better, and he’s doing well accepting his treatments. It sounds as though he’s going to be a real “goes all out” kind of dog so best he learns now. The face thing – arghhhh! I’m terrible at it too, but I hope eventually it won’t drive me crazy. I’m only grocery shopping about every 3rd week, going nowhere else, and sewing masks like crazy for all the need out there. Also, snipping and trimming at my baby in preparation for doing the whole grooming thing myself (poodle mix). It’s something I’ve wanted to try, but, oh, so scary! My hairdresser is offering distance pick up on hair coloring kits, but I’ve decided to let it all grow out and see who I am under there. I’m hoping for a glorious mane like yours, Trisha, but except for my temples, it seems it may just be dingy, old, mixed dark grey. Maybe I can go for a long haired bohemian artist kind of look? We’ll see, it’s early yet. Stay safe, everybody!
Jenny Haskins says
But the answer re “touching your face with your hands” is obvious when you look at a diagram of the sensory areas of the brain.
By fat the largest portions are given to the face, mouth and hands.
I don’t know that I am permitted to post urls here, but if you Google “Body-parts-with-associated-region-in-the-motor-cortex” you should find a good diagram.
Brilliant pint Jenny H!
Lisa Naughton says
Great post, Trisha. Here’s to Skip’s continued improvement (your devotion to him is inspiring).
Sometimes I think my instincts are so much better than my knowledge/thought through planning. I’m the only one in my family that is going out at all and that only about every 10 days to pick up whatever prescription needs refilling and buy groceries. Instead of don’t touch my face I’ve been telling myself hands on the cart handle, hands in the pockets, hands clasped together, i.e. what I want my hands doing instead of touching my face. I hadn’t even realized why that was more effective than the don’t just that it was working for me and I was managing to keep my hands off my face until I got home again and scrubbed up.
Glad to hear Skip is mending. Here’s hoping it continues apace.
I actually have quite a few positive things to look forward to. In a bit I’ll have a call with a lawyer, I’m being interviewed about an issue, nothing earth shattering but it’s something different in these days when they all blur together. Early next month my Chapter of Therapy Dogs International and as many other TDI members as we can include will have a Zoom book event with Zazie Todd about Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy which is exciting. An artist who does cartoon style coloring pages produced two drawings/coloring pages of D’Artagnan for me. I need to figure out how to send copies to his previous family. I know his former person would be thrilled and her two little girls would probably enjoy coloring them and knowing they used to live with the subject. And I got one more plant in the ground this morning meaning I only have two more waiting to be planted. This morning I planted a sweet mint. Mints are the only thing that really seem to grow in that space so mint can grow there. D’Art will smell great when he comes in from sleeping in the mint patch.
I thought you were going to say that the other problem with touching your face so much is that it messes up your hand signal cues and confuses your dog, lol. That’s what often happens to me.
Melanie Hawkes says
Interesting. Trisha, do you teach your dogs ‘leave it’? As in stop scratching, licking, sniffing? Is ‘watch’ better? You’re telling him to do something else so the behaviour stops as a result.
And Come. Sit. Stay was very good again. I look forward to more of them! I will be disappointed when lockdown ends. I’m really enjoying being home with my dog.
Skip is lucky to have you. I’m sure you’re doing very well in aiding his speedy recovery.
Interesting question Melanie! One way to define “leave it” is to “back up and away from X”, so in that sense it is teaching an action. But I do sometimes say Uh uh, which DOES mean stop doing that. Clearly, one can teach a negative, but it is just a lot harder. I should have said it that way in the first place!
Louise Wholey says
My dog got slammed running with another after a stick. He ended up on 3 legs. X-rays showed no break, swelling in the knee. They said he needed CCL surgery. He is now scheduled for that. Another diagnosis would be great, but how could I get that? From a holistic vet?
Maria Montgomery says
It warms my heart to read your posts. Like many others, I feel like you are talking right to me. How did you know my hand was glued to my cheek? Thanks for being a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day.
Ha! Maria, Trisha said, as she took her hand down from her face . . . (And thank you for such a lovely comment.)