I am going to tell you a story. It’s a sad and embarrassing story, but I’m going to tell it anyway. If you know me well you won’t be surprised by what I’m going to say, and those of you who don’t know me will wonder if it might be better to keep it that way.
This story is me. It is the kind of thing that happens fairly regularly.
Last week I took Lyra out for training in my front yard. I planned to focus on a series of personal play skills that we have recently discovered, along with working on her left pivot in heeling. I was thinking about these things as I walked out my front door.
I smelled smoke. I remember smelling it right away because it was strong. There was also a visible haze in the air; it bothered my eyes.
I began training Lyra and things went well for a couple of minutes, until she started to show signs of distraction and discomfort, at which time I released her from work to deal with her environmental issue. I knew exactly why she was staring into the distance – she was riveted by the sound of sirens. Lots of them really. I decided to stop formal training until she let me know she was ready to work again.
I waited with Lyra for about thirty seconds before I made the connection between the information that my senses had already taken in and the conclusion that a normal brain would have drawn. The sky was hazy. The smell of smoke was strong. There were sirens screaming close by.
There was a fire.
Fire is especially dangerous when you live in a semi rural area. 99% of people would have realized the second they stepped outside their door that something was wrong, but I did not register these things because my brain is not wired like the 99%. I am in the 1% who can smell smoke, see haze in the air, and hear sirens, and yet not process that information because I am thinking about something else.
The fire was taken care of quickly on a neighboring street. There was no catastrophe.
What stays with me now is not the fire as much as my inability to process the data that my eyes, ears and nose all registered. My entire life I’ve dealt with this challenge. When I consider some of the situations I’ve been in, it’s rather a miracle that I’m alive and more or less intact.
I am a “Focused” human. A neighbor’s house is on fire and I have wasted five minutes training my dog, because I don’t have enough environmental awareness to connect the data points that most people process automatically. If I had seen the fire, I’m quite sure I would have reacted instantly, but the more subtle cues that should add up to the same conclusion don’t add up for me.
My dog, however, was very aware that something was wrong, and she wasn’t much up to working at a time like that.
When I train, I find Lyra’s environmental awareness frustrating. I am on one end of the spectrum – I have laser focus, and she is on the other – she sees every butterfly that moves, hears every squirrel that chatters and smells every scent on the breeze. Her default is wide angle and I’m stuck on zoom. Neither of us can switch gears without a tremendous amount of conscious effort.
On the positive side, my intense focus allows me to see tiny details that others will miss. If I am interested in something, I will process it very well. Show me people or dogs and I’m riveted – connections between actions, behaviors and reactions are natural and automatically registered and processed in my brain. I don’t miss too much.
On the other hand, my lack of environmental awareness makes it extremely hard for me to pay attention to simple things that simply exist – I do not register places, things and changing conditions that do not interest me. And….it’s dangerous. This is certainly not the first time I’ve been in a situation where others have asked after the fact, “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?” I’ve had a lifetime of “what were you thinking?!” events. If I had lived in caveman days, I would have caught a rabbit – and then sat down to eat it in the sabre tooth tiger’s mating grounds.
I find paying attention to generic stuff stressful and the littlest thing will distract me from my efforts. Thankfully, I have people who love me anyway and a career that benefits from my odd wiring.
People, dogs, emotions and reactions – these things register. Environments and objects – not at all.
As I processed my abnormal reaction to the fire, I understood on a visceral level what it must feel like for the dog when we ask them to completely change their natural wiring to accomodate our interests.
It must take a lot of trust for an environmentally sensitive dog like Lyra to work with the degree of focus that I require. She has to put aside her natural desire to process all sensory data from the environment and give me 100%. It has renewed my belief that I need to move slowly and with patience and understanding. Yes, she can give me the five or ten minutes that I ask in the obedience ring but it will never come naturally to her. It takes a lot of effort, concentration and trust, and I appreciate her effort.
We ask so much of our dogs, especially when their natural tendencies do not mesh so well with our interests.
Today I resolved to be extra patient with my young dog. She tries her best to meet my needs, and we’ll have to find a way to meet in the middle. I need to focus on helping her train and compete in a manner that meets my goals while respecting her need to know what is happening around her. I have a pretty good idea of the route, but putting it into practice….well; that will require intense focus on my part.
Fortunately, that’s the part I’m good at.