I have recently started an advanced obedience course with Sunshine. The name is a complete misnomer since Sunshine is not in any way at an advanced level. Sunshine will sit when I ask him to …. If he wants to. He will come when I call … if there isn’t anything more interesting on offer. That is, unless I have treats. Then it is another story altogether! Suddenly he’s heeling and going to his bed and doing a little jig on command. This is how I am being taught to train my dog – every time he does something I like I praise him effusively and give him a treat. The idea is that you teach your dog with the treats so that he has a positive response to doing what you want him to do. Eventually you can wean him off the treats.
Its called training with positive reinforcement. Most of the places you go to train your dog follow this method. Gone are the choke collars and ensuring always that you dominate your dog so that he knows you are the alpha. Dogs are not required to fear you in order to be disciplined and well-behaved. You develop a relationship with your dog where obedience is achieved because the dog knows that he will enjoy the results. He will be praised and you will be happy and the relationship will develop into a trusting and loving bond.
Of course, it doesn’t always go smoothly and sometimes a sharp “no” or a time-out is required – I have seen improvements though. I can now see that he knows several of the commands even if he doesn’t follow them all the time. He looks at me a little sheepishly as he continues to stand when I have asked him to sit. He knows what I want him to do he just doesn’t do it all the time. I know that this relationship will take a lot of work to develop into one where Sunshine trusts me completely. I will likely need to take this “advanced” course several times before we are both completely comfortable with what we each expect of the other. But that is OK, I am willing to put in the time and the effort to raise a happy well-adjusted dog.
I wonder sometimes what my life would be like today if I had been trained using the positive reinforcement method. Especially in my junior school days, the teaching philosophy seemed to be rooted in exacting obedience through fear and shaming. We were expected to act in a certain way and if we didn’t we would be punished. There was not very much corporal punishment (although there was some) but most of it was in the form of shaming bad behavior. This school was also a religious school and was virtually the only contact I had with organized religion. This teaching I received about God and religion poisoned my spiritual life for years to come. Thankfully, as an adult I was able to find a loving and life-giving Christian community that was able to help reform my ideas about God and my relationship with the Divine.
Now I am tasked with inviting children into a relationship with God. I want so much to be able to create a space where we can engage with the Sacred Story and Sacred Rituals that is safe and positive. I would like to offer to our children a church that they can make their own – a space and a time that they can call “home”. I have taken up the Children and Youth Ministry Challenge. Who’d like to join me?
One of the things I love about my new home in Hudson is that I have a large park with fields of wild flowers and meandering forest paths right across the street. This means that I no longer have to maneuver a large, often wet, dog in and out of the car in order to get him somewhere he can run around. It is a large area but in comparison with some of the popular places to bring your dog on the West Island it is comparatively quiet. We may see a couple of other people and dogs on our walks but most of the time it is just Sunshine and me.
The other week I discovered a wonderful labyrinth made with stones on one of the paths and was enchanted. I had walked the labyrinth before but I had never made it a part of my daily spiritual discipline. Now I have been able to do so. For the last several weeks, almost everyday I finish my walk with Sunshine at the labyrinth. As I begin, I always say a prayer where I consciously commit to following God’s path for me that day. Then, as I continue through the labyrinth I reflect on the way the labyrinth can be a metaphor for our lives. We do not go always in a straight line and when we think we a nearing the center we get pulled out again. I also reflect on the difference between a labyrinth and a maze. In a labyrinth there is no intention to confuse you, there are no dead-ends like in a maze. Once you are on the path you continue until you get to the center and then you retrace your steps to get out again. Metaphors, by definition, are always like and unlike what they are being compared with. The labyrinth is like our life journey in many ways but also unlike it. Our paths often don’t seem as well delineated as the ones on a labyrinth and there are often dead-ends and more or less scenic detours that take us places we did not expect to go. So, I continue to pray that my way would remain clear and that I would recognize the paths that I need to take for today. When I get to the center, I take a moment to look around at where I came from. I breathe and imagine myself nestled in the bosom of God with the whole universe revolving around us. This gives me energy and I always walk faster, more purposefully on my way out of the labyrinthe – ready to start my day!
Of course, Sunshine does not walk the labyrinth with me. In fact, he seems to find the labyrinth quite stressful. He does not seem to understand why I walk back and forth along the path when I could simply step across the stones and get to the center much quicker. He gets quite agitated and runs around me barking. Now that we have done it so many times he knows the drill. He still looks at me funny but is not quite so agitated. I am convinced though, that this is one of my behaviours that he finds the most odd but that’s OK since I can be completely baffled by his behaviours too!
I am at the center of the universe…
The labyrinth on a rainy day.
Sunshine showing the quickest way to the center!
All of my life I have been a “cat person.” I grew up with cats and I have had cats almost all of my adult life when suddenly about a year ago, I felt an incredible need to get a dog. And not just any dog…. a big dog. In the end, I got a St Bernard – a large, cuddly, drooling, gentle, stubborn, playful, lazy St Bernard. His name is Sunshine and he has brought countless rays of Sunshine into my life.
One of the ways that he has brought sunshine into my life is by making me get outdoors and experience actual sunshine – or rain – or sleet – you name it. You can’t live peaceably with a big dog unless you go out and exercise him appropriately. This has meant that I go on long daily walks with only my dog and my brain and I let both run freely when I can.
In this blog, I am inviting you to come along for some of our walks. Through text and video, I will share some of my musings on life and love through the lens of one of our most intimate relationships that of human and dog. So come along and take a peek into our world, you will be glad you did!