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.
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I am helping a friend teach her dog treibball, a game that can be a great deal of fun for many dogs, but there’s some serious training that has to come first, and this dog is a Beagle, for whom the supremely important thing is, of course, SCENT. Everything else is a far, far second to that. Yet this little dog continues to try to figure out what “mom” wants her to do.
Somewhere recently I read an online article about how often we people are frustrated by a dog that we just KNOW is being stubborn or lazy because the dog won’t do something we KNOW they have learned. Never mind that what we’ve taught them is b-o-r-I-n-g in the extreme in comparison to the scent of squirrels and rabbits, the flutter of that breeze in the trees, the sound of sirens in the distance … our senses and our instincts are so different, we never have any idea how difficult it is for our 4-legged friend to focus in the narrow way that we ask.
Which makes me that much more in awe of these creatures … that much more humbled by our responsibility toward them … that much more grateful to experience each and every unique dog that I encounter. And makes me a wee bit exhausted by the realization of how difficult it can be to truly overcome that massive sensory intake that we simply label as “distraction.” It is a challenge indeed to be more interesting than SCENT in the mind of a beagle!
We like how you are wired.
as always a very informative interesting post… love it!!
Denise, your comments towards the end of this post actually bought a tear to my eye, especially in regards to how much our dogs trust us. Yesterday at training I became very frustrated with my young border collie who was doing very poorly with attention heeling. I made the assumption that she was willfully disengaging and kept trying to get the exercise done. It took the instructor pointing out to me that she was actually frightened of the huge great leonberger training near us before I realised what the problem was. I am ashamed. I was not listening to my dog but to my own interior training schedule. The poor thing, she was trying hard but just couldn’t think straight with that huge dog there. As soon as I realised we finished the session right then and there and went and played some fun games at the other end of the park. This was such a wake-up call for me, Holly trusted me to protect her and I wasn’t paying attention. This will never happen again. Later that day we had an awesome session at a different park – my girl is amazing!
Insightful, honest, humourous and humble. Loved it, Denise.
Wow is my first reaction!……how long have you lived in Calif.? 😉 I’m thinking about PTSD stuff(wildfires, etc) and you still maintain your focus!! Phenomenal! And thank you for being so focused.
Interesting how our dogs pick up where we lack?
I had a similar experience from the other side that illuminated for me how hard it can be to shift from something that has grabbed my attention. Like you I tend to a pinpoint focus, so it is hard to keeping in mind my footwork and hand position and keeping shoulders straight at the same time. When I an paying attention to one thing the others go by the wayside.
I was attending a class held in an armory, we had a reservist who was overseeing the site while we trained. So, we were doing the exercise where the humans pair off and take turns being the dog and the handler.
During the exercise while I was being the dog and concentrating on following the handler a LOUD ALARM started sounding!
I could not focus, I knew there was no danger since the reservist did not come out and tell us to leave. It was in the building so not a car alarm, not a storm siren, I just did not know what it was and due to that I could not disregard it and focus on the handler.
If I had known what it was I could have disregarded it and probably shifted focus back to the exercise. But I was grateful for the insight into how dogs must feel at least some of the time with things that are happening that they do not understand and therefore can’t just disregard.
So, yes sympathy for the poor dog who is wondering is it safe when the alarm goes off while the handler says “It’s just a car alarm silly dog, pay attention!”
It takes a lot from them to trust us enough to override their instincts and trust us to judge what is safe. We need to have patience and sympathy for our dogs while allowing them to learn we will keep them safe, always.
“It takes a lot from them to trust us enough to override their instincts and trust us to judge what is safe.” Truer words were never spoken!
What a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I love how you take us into your mind’s eye to help us imagine seeing the world through our dog’s eyes. Meeting in the middle is a great way to put it—taking both the person’s and the dog’s needs and preferences into account. This sentence particularly popped out at me:
“We ask so much of our dogs, especially when their natural tendencies do not mesh so well with our interests.”
Do you have any thoughts on where the “tipping point” is such that we go from asking “so much” to asking “too much” of our dogs? This seems to come up so often, not only in dog sports (at what point is it best to consider switching the dog to another sport that may be a better mesh?), but in living with a dog and expecting them to “know better” when they are expressing their natural tendencies, deciding which dog is the best fit when looking for a new dog, and even deciding when to rehome a dog.
So interesting and I think I have the same lack of awareness, though not because I am hyperfocused. I can be quite the opposite but the result can be the same. as far as nearby fires are concerned…I am also SO relieved your story didn’t go where I first thought it was going (that it was YOUR house that was involved, right behind you!).
This post really struck me! I tend to “tune out” distractions when I am working on something, until my nerves take over. I used to sing for a living (in a group) and finally quit because I could not solve my stage fright. I see that stage fright re-born in the obedience ring, in me and my older dog. I am constantly looking for ways to make him more confident in the ring, hence taking precision heeling and all the follow-on courses I can. But my younger dog has been to several Show & Go meets, and looks at me like “Well, come on, I’ve got this”. He has laser focus and nothing gets in its way (so good luck when it is on something besides me). The point is that our dogs have as many variations as we do and finding the place to “meet in the middle” strikes me as our major challenge in training.