Category Archives: leading a pack

Seize the Disc [Not the Hand]

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Unlike her predecessor, Lili [whose motto was “Quit trying to make ‘fetch’ happen.”], Emmy’s enthusiasm & talent for catching thrown round  objects was evident early on. We have found that extra-large Kong tennis balls work best inside [since they don’t always end up under the furniture]; but outside it’s definitely the floppy disc [“Flying Saucer”], which she usually catches before it hits the ground, even in high & variable winds. Our one day of serious & unseasonable snow last month made the footing a little tricky; but she was still able to get under it & launch herself a couple of feet off the ground for the midair pick & roll.

As much as she loves to catch things, though, she is still a puppy; and she loves to chew things more. Valuable playtime & owner patience are wasted, while she savagely gnaws her beloved toy, finally yielding to the command “Bring!” then, reluctantly, to “Drop!” and, less reliably, “Sagare” [“Back up”] & “Zin-zin.” [“Stay”]. A test of nerve & will [not to mention, reflex time] then ensues. Will her desire to continue the game override her instinct to seize the disc before I pick it up? Woe betide her, if she inadvertently grabs my hand. [That hasn’t happened in months, luckily.] Even if she grabs the disc, it’s “game over.”  I fold my arms, utter a discouraging word, “Baca!” [“Fool!”], and stalk off back towards the house in high dudgeon. If she manages to get ahead of me and drop the disc at my feet before I’ve gone too far, and then backs off, the game resumes.

My power subtext: “It’s my way or the highway, Little Grasshopper!”

Even with all the adrenaline the game produces, she always comes back in from it a better-mannered dog.

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Many Therbligs expended. Ready for a little nap.

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Filed under ambivalence, leading a pack, power subtext

Looking for The Beauty Part

This is the hardest post I’ve ever had to write for this blog. Last week’s power “outrage” had a couple of Beauty Parts. First, both daughters were in town, and [although it could have gone either way] we found the shared misery of our Second World [if not 3rd] existence bonded us together, rather than pulling us apart. Second, it gave me an alibi for postponing the disclosure of our sad news about Lili, whose DNA test for Degenerative Myelopathy came back positive.

If you’re not familiar with the disease [and we weren’t], a simplistic way of thinking about it is that it’s Multiple Sclerosis for dogs, with some important differences. Unlike human MS, whose etiology is still mysterious [maybe there’s a genetic component, maybe it’s stress-related, maybe it’s triggered by a virus…just follow the stories surrounding Jack Osbourne’s disclosure of his diagnosis], the dog version is 100% genetic. Both parent dogs have to be carriers of the gene, for it to be expressed in the offspring. Our pain & suffering-fueled angry thoughts have been [predictably] directed at Lili’s AKC-registered breeders, who “should have known better,” even though the genetic test for the disease was developed after Lili was born in 2004. Nowadays, though, any breeder who doesn’t test for DM is as unscrupulous as those who don’t test for hip dysplasia.

Those who have read my “About a Bird” post will know that my mother got MS when she was 35 [and I was 10], so I had 25 years’ experience of watching how the progressive numbness of an individual’s [back] legs makes walking tricky, then difficult, and ultimately impossible. Lili is still at the “tricky” stage. She tends to “wipe out” on hardwood floors [especially when in hot pursuit of a cat], but still gallops on grass. The daily walk through the Smithsonian woods is both worrying and inspirational. On some mornings it takes 3 attempts for her to leap into the back of either of our 2 Jeeps; and the other day she landed in a disorganized heap on the grass verge as she jumped out of the car at the school. But [here’s one of the Beauty Parts] she has a “fan club” of laborers working on school renovations this summer; and when they expressed dismay at her fall, she pulled herself together and trotted off smartly towards the woods. So far, she seems to experience no humiliation when she loses her footing [unlike my late mother, and most of the MS patients I have known]. “She just gets on with it,” as the Brits say. That’s the Beauty Part.

The “I am your Pack Leader” power subtext has changed subtly on the cross-country trail. I let her set the pace, sometimes marching in place while she collects herself for the assault on the next steep hill. She often delights me by then going so fast that I have to double-time to keep up with her. Every day that she “makes it through” the woods and back to the car is a beautiful gift. I realize that I have to make contingency plans for the day that she can’t.

What is absolutely clear, at this point, is that [however tricky it is for her numb back paws to negotiate hidden roots & fallen branches, steep inclines & muddy patches] she is having the time of her life.

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Filed under born to run, leading a pack, power subtext

Attractive Nuisance Doctrine


First let me make a cheap pun at Zanzibar’s expense, and say that because he is usually purring at my elbow when I’m writing this blog, it is his fault that I don’t catch all the typos before hitting “publish.” Like typing “Packer Leader,” when I meant, of course, “Pack Leader,” in the previous post. “If only his eyes weren’t so adorably blue…”

As those of you who have a swimming pool on your property know [and we learned, when we bought Dusk the QuarterHorse], an “Attractive Nuisance” is a term of art in tort law, referring to any animate or inanimate object which poses a threat, “because of its attraction, to children who will be unlikely to recognize its dangerous quality.” [Webster’s 1988 ed.] In Michigan [where tort lawyers abound] we had to buy Attractive Nuisance liability insurance on Dusk, even though she lived at a private riding stable, across town from our home. [In fact, she lived in Sterling Heights, whence cometh Marshall Mathers III. Check it.]

Now let us consider the External/Internal Locus of Control doctrine, which the UK researchers tried to measure in 10-year-olds, with a self-report questionnaire. A girl with a high level of External Locus of Control will tell her parents, “The horse whinnied at me, so I knew it was hungry, so I gave it my Ice Lolly to lick [remember, we’re in the UK], and it bit my hand!” [In Michigan, that would be a Popcicle.] Was a sign posted on the stall door, saying “Do not feed this horse without owner’s permission”? Not good enough. What if the child is too young to read? Tell you what the management at the London Zoo do. They post this surreal but high concept sign with a human hand, out of which a cookie-cutter-[or, biscuit-cutter]-shaped chunk is missing, near the cages of animals whom it is dangerous to feed. Next time I own a horse, I’m posting that sign on the stall door.

What if the horse spared the child, but ate the rod [in this case, the Ice Lolly/Popcicle stick]? Would the family of the young doner of the ill-advised confection be liable for the vet bill, to remove the wood splinters from the horse’s throat? Not bloody likely! The horse would be diagnosed with “Dietary Indiscretion,” and its owner would be charged for its treatment.

So, you see where I’m going with this, right? Up to a certain age, the law attributes External Locus of Control to young ones, and blames bad outcome on others [man & beast]. After that age, though, all bets are off. If, as a teenager, you schmize my horse into eating a dangerous stick [and I catch you at it], you’re guilty of animal abuse. An adult caught feeding a zoo animal will be prosecuted [right after being discharged from the ER]. So, how is this shift from External to Internal Locus of Control supposed to happen? Passage of time? Trial and error? Fairy dust?

I happen to believe it happens by grown-up Pack Leaders [there!] keeping an eye on young ones, and issuing Conative commands to them [such as “Don’t feed the animals, unless you ask first.”], along with a Sound-Bite-on-Why-Not. [“Cuz I say so,” does not count as a Sound-Bite-on-Why-Not, incidentally.] So, here’s what I’m saying, grown-ups. Man up, and risk the humiliation of a hissy fit from the thwarted young person [or their doting parents], in the name of animal welfare, of child welfare, of public order. Think of these Sound-Bites-of-Why-Not as your own, award winning Public Service Announcements. The more novel and amusing [usually], the more effective they are.

The alternative is the intrusive mission creep of increasingly silly tort avoidance notices from which we now suffer, warning us that a cup of Hot Chocolate “might be hot.” That raw eggs may contain salmonella. That roads may be slippery when wet.

Get working on those PSAs, folks.

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Filed under leading a pack, locus of control, pro bono publico, semiotics

"Your eyelids are getting heavy…"


First the boring scientific stuff. When we are wide awake, our brain is emitting Beta waves (14 to 100 hz). When we are fast asleep, Delta waves (< 4 hz) are produced. Theta waves(4 to 8 hz) combine external stimuli with internal mental images—creating Boogeymen and other monsters under the bed. But the most wonderful, useful state of mind is available when the brain puts out Alpha waves (8 to 13 hz).

This is variously referred to as “enchantment,” “hypnotic trance,” “meditation,” or (especially when playing sports) “being in the zone.” As those who work with sports psychologists will attest, being in Alpha during a tennis match (or a baseball game) seems to slow the ball down, making it much easier to hit. Everyone who has taken a car journey has been in Alpha, even the person driving! (It’s sometimes called “white-line fever,” since the repetitive dotted white lines on the highway can “entrance” a person, until the sign for his exit appears; and he jolts back into Beta, wondering “Have I been asleep at the wheel?”) Fortunately, the answer is usually “no, unless you were also intoxicated or exhausted.” One thing to notice, is that when a car swoops in front of you, requiring you to brake, you are able to do so; but often with a slight feeling of vertigo. Abrupt switches between brainwave frequencies [states of consciousness] can cause that, so when you are “going into Alpha” on purpose, it’s a good idea to plan enough time for a gradual transition back to Beta.

Back in the (surprisingly cool) 70s, the Navy sent me and my 4 fellow Clinical Psychologists @ USNA on a course to learn how to do “medical hypnosis” (as opposed to “Stage Hypnosis,” in which volunteers from the audience end up quacking like a duck). The thought was, it would be good to teach Midshipmen how to manage test anxiety, cope with pain, and…well…play sports better. In the required Intro Psych course, most of us did a little class demonstration, using a volunteer subject (for absolutely no extra credit), but inviting the skeptics in the back of the room to follow along with the suggested steps for inducing a trance. Inevitably, while the volunteer subject was able to “feel” the loft of a (pretend) helium balloon “tied” to his wrist, and let his arm float up a few inches, there was at least one Mid in the back, practically levitating off the floor, who became the most enthusiastic convert to the powers of Alpha.

When I was back @ USNA in the new millennium (as a humble civil servant), my favorite two days of each year were I-Day and I-Day-Minus-One (when roughly 1000 Young Ones were shorn, accoutered, and given a physical which included comprehensive blood work). There was usually about a 1 in 10 “hard stick” rate (as our team of phlebotomists called it), where the kid either keeled over in mid-blood-draw, or no viable vein could be found from a sitting position. Their code phrase to me was, “Doc, this one needs to go to the beach,” at which point the candidate was escorted to one of several cots, and I did my 2-minute send-you-to-the-beach trance-induction patter. In less hurried circumstances, I usually let the subject pre-select a “happy place” destination, towards which the slowed-down breathing, progressive muscle-relaxation, and “smooth descent on an escalator” leads. These kids had joined the Navy. Their choices about most things were going to be restricted in a few hours (once they were sworn in), so they all “went to the beach.” Once there, they “lay under a palm tree, with one arm out of the shade, in direct sunlight.” And, lo, the veins of the “sunlit” arm would swell up like ropes. Occasionally, the phlebotomist would need to finish the draw from the other arm; and so the first arm would be “put in the shade,” while the other would “get some sun.” Magic! The veins in the second arm would engorge.

Individuals vary as to their ability to achieve trance “on demand,” like that, although being highly motivated obviously helps. Many researchers contend that purposely “going into Alpha” is a uniquely human skill; but I doubt it. “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan talks about the “migration mode,” in which a pack of dogs can travel great distances, following the Alpha dog, expending the least amount of physical and emotional energy–just trusting the leader to walk point for them. I say that’s purposely “going into Alpha (wave, not power position).”

I also say, get yourself an entrancing book, or CD, or zen master that you trust–that you would be willing to follow–and let yourself be guided into Alpha. It only takes one “guided tour,” before you can get back there by yourself, whenever you want.

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Filed under altered states, leading a pack, pain reduction, secret code

Meaner Than a Junkyard Dog


Not Lili (she said, Metalingually). Idiots (mostly guys, but not always) who buy what is currently called a “Status Weapon” (a Pitbull or similar breed of dog), and then realize that it is high maintenance, needs lots of training & exercise, needs a pack leader to follow or it will freelance…and so–emotionally or physically–they abandon the dog. In a 12-hour interval, I heard 2 news stories about this, and had one personal experience of the phenomenon. On the way to work, I heard an NPR report [so it must be true] on the citizens of Fresno, CA–fruit & veg growing capital of the country–who are the most prone of any city in the USA to obesity & Type II Diabetes. How come? The report boiled it down to two reasons. The fruit & veg are all shipped out of Fresno, because of a city ordinance against Farmers’ Markets (hence a less healthy diet); AND no one dares to walk outside in Fresno anymore, because it’s overrun with packs of (gang-acquired, then abandoned) Pitbulls.

Then–like a made-for-television movie–as I pulled into the parking lot at work, a loose Pitbull came over to greet me as I got out of my car. He had a collar on, but no apparent owner supervising him. I reflexively gave him some Japanese commands, got the Robert de Niro quizzical head-tilt, and switched to hand signals and English. I could get him to “heel” for a few steps, but then he would leave me and head back towards the road. What was I planning to do with him, even if he had followed me all the way to the building? Put Lili’s leash on him and bring him inside? Tether him outside the building and hope his owner would retrieve him? Tell you what I was not planning to do–call Animal Control. I had done this about a month ago, for a loose dog holding up traffic in both directions on the hilly, twisting road near my home; and I was so humiliated by the cynical tone of the questions they asked me [“And why, exactly, are you reporting this?”] that I made a Note to Self : “Let canine ‘Kitty Genoveses’ fend for themselves in this county.” Hours later when I left work, the parking lot Pitbull had escalated to holding up traffic on a main thoroughfare, during rush hour. I rationalized that shortly one of the many cop cars that patrol that road would encounter him, and handle the situation. On my drive home, BBC news did a long piece on the growing problem of dogs acquired as “Status Weapons” in the UK, with an audio vignette of policemen approaching such a dog, armed with fire extinguishers, and a dog handler wearing the afore-mentioned “bite-me” padded suit.

This is the first post where I consider the power of vicarious pain & suffering to provoke anger. If I really wanted to connect all the dots, I could probably make it be all about Lili & me: humiliation that strangers will perceive her as my ill-advised “Status Weapon”; fear that just her breed will provoke others to treat her and me like criminals. But–apart from that one lady & her dog in the school yard some months ago–Lili and I have received nothing but positive feedback on our sorties. She was even addressed as “Sweetie-pie,” by the guy who maintains the cross-country trail and coaches the high school team, this week.

So, there you have it: a possible distinction between a human’s amygdalar arousal, and a dog’s. As Bill Clinton might put it, we “feel their pain,” and it makes us angry, and we wonder what to do for the best; whereas when a dog senses a human’s pain, it has only to decide, “Hmm. Should I go over and lick him, or bite him, or should I just keep walking?”

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Filed under leading a pack, semiotics, vicarious trauma

"Hearthrug!"


Jus’ like ol’ Rhymin’ Simon says, “Detroit, Detroit got a hell of a hockey team.” In honor of whom, today’s post will use a sports metaphor. Our dog trainer left two commands to the discretion of the dog owner. The first, today’s topic, was to be in English [not Japanese], so that visitors to one’s home could easily use it [without consulting the cue card of Japanese commands we hand all who enter here]. We were to designate an area in the home as the Penalty Box, to which the dog would be sent, briefly, for incidents of “unnecessary roughness” [to borrow a sports term]. No G-water would be served there, however. In our household, typical infractions include: too vigorous herding of our 3 cats, too emphatic barking at intruding neighborhood dogs on our property, and–most egregiously–challenging guests who have been designated by the Management as “Welcome.” A second guest-challenge results in being tethered, by a longish leash, to the hearthrug area, and commanded to “Fuse” [pronounced Foo-say, lie down]; and a third challenge results in being sent off to the “locker room” [her downstairs dogroom, which is larger and more comfortably furnished than either of my kids’ college dorm rooms].

The hockey metaphor is apt, because no one in this household is kidding themselves that Lili subscribes to a policy of absolute non-violence. There is presumed in hockey to be a certain degree of “necessary roughness” [euphemized as “checking”] that is part of the game. I grew up hearing droll Midshipmen at Dahlgren Hall hockey matches chant, “Impede him! Impede him! Make him relinquish the puck!” Likewise, another old chestnut from Coronation Street is “Why keep a dog and bark, yourself?” The English telly dog trainer, Victoria Stillwell, advises that when one’s dog first barks to announce the approach to one’s home of a non-resident, one should say “Thank you!” [in our case, “Arigato!”], since that is what dogs were bred to do. Only if the dog carries on barking after being thanked, should s/he be corrected.

Let us apply this principle to the barking dog in our head [the amygdala]. It was “bred” to warn us of potential danger. [It’s just trying to keep us alive. Give it a break, already…and maybe some G-water.] Upon first noticing our hackles rise, we should be grateful. It means we’re alive and taking notice of our surroundings. Now, let’s assess the threat: pain & suffering, or just fear, or an annoying intrusion, or our old nemesis, humiliation? At this point, the barking dog should “belt up,” so we can start dealing with the situation.

But, what if it doesn’t “belt up”? What if it winds itself up into a frenzy of over-the-top, adrenaline-fuelled fury? Well, then, we need our own personal command to send it to the Penalty Box. [Coincidentally, in Cognitive Therapy, this is often called “Thought Checking.”] Here’s where the Emotive Speech Function can help. Back in the day, well-brought-up English boys were trained to say “Rats!” [as opposed to an actual oscenity or profanity], whereas girls were encouraged to say “Crumbs!” These quaint bowdlerisms are fun to collect: “Crikey!” “Gor blimey!” “Gordon Bennet!” Whatever the outcry, the meaning–to others and to oneself–is clear: “rush of blood to the head” [amygdala]…”am about to flee, fight, or freeze”…”need to chill.” Interestingly, although being told by another person to “chill” or “relax” [melded these days into “chillax”], only increases one’s sense of humiliation, telling oneself “You must chill!” is often just the ticket, to drain the adrenaline, stop flailing around, and start dealing.

Personally, these days I tell myself “Hearthrug!” [Incidentally, I have never had G-water. It might be vile. I just notice it’s what the Red Wings drink, while chillaxing in the Penalty Box.]

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Filed under aggression happens, leading a pack, limbic system, pragmatics

"If a thing’s worth doing…"


“…it’s worth doing badly,” is a quotation attributed to the late Lord Louis Mountbatten, which I heard on holiday in the UK in the 1990s, and which changed my life. Initially, it gave me the courage to pursue the exacting sport of Dressage (imperfectly), despite having ridden horses since the age of 7. It allowed me to endure the humiliation of scathing criticism from riding instructors decades my junior, without feeling like such a loser that I gave up on the enterprise. (I even won the Reserve Championship during the year I showed.)

Today, I performed the role of Pack Leader for Lili badly. A women and her dog, whom we have encountered several times before [always with Lili bristling at the sight of her dog], appeared from over-the-hill, out-of-nowhere, at the beginning of our walk through the school playing fields to get to the woods; and before I could stop her, Lili transgressed again. The owner (correctly) rebuked me for my poor dog handling, and declared, “Your dog is vicious! ‘He’ should never be off the leash!” The good news in this anecdote is that I managed to avoid acting out my own humiliation (that I had failed to control my animal), fear (that the angry woman would take legal action against me or my dog), and intrusion: (Where did they materialized from? The field was absolutely clear when I unleashed Lili.) But the failure was that I assumed that we would be alone, and therefore free to do our own thing in the field. Needless to say, the rest of the trek was on-leash.

Since Lili clearly needs a reassertion of the message, “I’m in charge here” from me, it will be leashed walks for quite some time to come. Since I continue to believe that what gets up Lili’s nose is more intrusion than fear (of this smaller dog), I will vary the venue of our walks, so that she does not come to regard any one of them as “her” property, from which she feels entitled to exclude other dogs.

Like Freud, the prospect of being deprived of my beloved dog’s companionship [because of her misconduct or my mismanagement] causes me such pain & suffering, that I am prepared to do whatever it takes, to keep her–and others–safe from her amygdalar arousal. At least, for once, I had my own limbic system under control.

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Filed under aggression happens, leading a pack, limbic system