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?