Perhaps you’ve seen Amy Cuddy’s viral TED talk about Presence, or read her inspiring book Presence: Bringing your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges? While I was re-reading the book this morning I was reminded of Ranger, a large dog I worked with years ago who was agoraphobic and refused to leave the house. The owner and I tried everything I could imagine to help the dog, including a vast range of classical and operant conditioning sessions, every leash/collar system on the market, to western and eastern medicine. Nothing seemed to be working, and in desperation I recalled reading an old psychology study that improved people’s moods by having them smile, no matter how they felt when first asked.
Well, we’re all mammals I thought, so if it works on people, maybe it could work on Ranger. Noticing that Ranger’s tail was clamped to his hindquarters, we began to train him to lift up his tail on cue in hopes of lifting up his internal emotions. It took awhile, I suspect in part because most dogs aren’t aware of where their tail is in space. In addition, Ranger wasn’t uh, the smartest dog in the class. But we managed it, and darn if it didn’t work. It took awhile, but eventually the owner would ask her dog to Flag your Tail!, the feathered plume would rise, and they’d stride out the door together. Of course, once the tail cue was solid, we first asked Ranger to walk only one step out the door, then two, then three… but soon enough that turned into the dog being comfortable leaving the house, going in the car and visiting the vet.
I thought of Ranger this morning when reading the section in Presence about a trainer of Icelandic horses who used the concept to turn “just a trail horse” into a show champion who pranced proudly around the ring. I also recalled Karen Pryor talking about a conformation show dog who she clicker trained to walk around the ring with the kind of “presence” that is sought by judges.
Three things come to mind here, related to us and our dogs:
First, I wonder why we don’t use this technique more often to change a dog’s internal affect. The science behind the power of posture in humans is overwhelming. As Dr. Cuddy (a social psychologist at Harvard Business School) and a multitude of others have shown, simply moving one’s body into what Cuddy calls “high power postures” increases a sense of confidence and calm, makes people more articulate, thoughtful and compassionate, and decreases their levels of cortisol. Sitting slumped with your hands clasped around your chest can depress you, while sitting up straight, arms and legs taking up space, does the opposite. Cuddy relates this to the concept of “presence,” or the ability to be your “true self,” to being confident but not arrogant, assertive but not aggressive, and unencumbered by the kind of negative mental talk that plagues most of us like a bad song that won’t shut up inside of our heads.
Although I know of no research on the effect of body posture on emotion and behavior in dogs, there is good reason to believe it is equally effective. The emotional brains of dogs and people are wired in similar ways, and there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest it’s a worthwhile. The way I’ve used this most often is to teach dogs a play bow and use it when they begin to look stressed. It’s hard to be nervous when you’re feeling playful, and I’ve taught dozens of dogs to play bow as a way of calming themselves and dispersing nervous energy. I tried it first with Willie, when he was at his worst phase of being aggressive to unfamiliar dogs, and now he often does it himself, I presume as a form of emotional regulation. It’s especially effective in dog-dog encounters, because it affects not just the bower, but any dog who views it. Just this morning I realized I hadn’t thought of it with Maggie, who still needs work when she sees an approaching dog out of a sheepdog context. Time to get to work; she knows the rudiments of a bow, so it won’t take long to teach her to use it in a variety of contexts.
I’ve done less “change your tail position” training, but I think it could be extremely effective in certain kinds of dogs. Dogs whose tails are clamped surely would feel more relaxed if their tail itself was more relaxed. Dogs who approach others on their tip toes with head and tail high could be taught to lower their tails and dampen their oft-times excessive energy. Granted, it takes more work to teach a dog to change his or her tail position than to teach a play bow, but there’s a clicker sitting in your pocket or on your counter just begging to give it a try.
Second, beyond the act of training body posture to instill a positive emotion in a dog, can we use the term “presence” (or a lack of it) to describe our dogs? I would argue yes, absolutely. Surely we know dogs who have the exact same qualities that we think of in a human with presence: Dogs who project calm confidence, who other dogs are attracted to, but rarely, if ever, get into fights with. I had a dog like that, Cool Hand Luke. I wrote about him in The Other End of the Leash and For the Love of a Dog (and who was Willie’s uncle by the way). Everyone loved Luke, dogs and people alike. Luke was an intact male who not only was never in a fight, he worked with dog-dog aggressive dogs and invariably they ended up like best buddies in a “guys-on-a-road-trip” movie. I realize that some will argue attributing “presence” to dogs is being anthropomorphic, but I’m going to take a page from Frans de Waal’s extensive writings, and argue that being in “anthropodenial” is just as bad as being “anthropocentric.” Just because a human has a particular trait doesn’t mean an animal can’t. Given the highly social nature of dogs, and our similar neurobiology, it makes little sense to imagine that dogs don’t have personalities that grants some of them what we would call presence. What about you? Have you known a dog with what you’d call “presence”? Or the opposite? I used to call dogs with the opposite of presence ” “Richard Nixon dogs,” because they projected unease and nervousness, but also appeared to desperately want to be in control.
Third, what about the effect of our presence, or lack of it, on dogs? I’ve always wondered what it was about people who dogs are instinctively drawn to. We all know them, the people who dogs chose to go sit beside and not want to leave. I’ve noticed that these often aren’t the people who coo and make a big fuss of the dog (although that gets lots of points with many dogs). Often these canine magnets are relatively quiet, but people I’d describe as “comfortable in their own skin.” Does that mean that our dogs will be more comfortable around us if we practice a Wonder Woman” power pose for two minutes each morning? Food for thought. I’d love to hear yours.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Hot. Humid. Ugh. Maggie and I worked sheep this morning before seven AM, and even then I kept it short for the sake of Maggie and the sheep. (Okay, for me too.) But much of the weekend was gorgeous, with lower temps and humidity. Willie, Maggie and Tootsie joined us and slept overnight in the tent camp Saturday night, and we all woke up to the most glorious of sunrises. Jim took this photo while he was building a fire to make me hot water for tea. Yeah, I lay in bed while he did all that. Have I mentioned how lucky I am?
The Day Lily garden is extravagant, that’s the only word I can think of that fits all the colors in the 50 day lilies we planted three years ago from White Flower Farm. Here’s one whose blooms are at least six inches across.
One more thing: Willie just turned 10. Oh my, hard to believe. Seems like just yesterday….