Sit! Good Writer! What I Learned about Writing from Dog Training
October 12, 2020 § 15 Comments
By Sonja Larsen
Here is a thing you should know about me. Sooner or later it will all come back to dogs. I don’t mean that I am dog crazy, that I have a special breed, that I wear t-shirts with puppies on them. I simply mean that every important story in my life had a dog in it. I mean that how I remember myself during those stories, if I am shamed or proud, will be captured in a moment of how I behaved towards a dog. Did I scream at them for pulling me too hard, loving me too much? Did I humbly stoop over to pick up after them on a hungover Sunday morning, grateful for the way their presence had given me an excuse to come home at all? I have to get home to my dog. I mean that all the terrible and wonderful things I know about myself I learned by how I behaved towards a dog.
In 2010 my husband and I got a small rescue dog, our first dog as a couple, our first small dog. We took a dog training class, and learned what is often called clicker training. What I discovered about using behavioural conditioning and positive reinforcement not only helped me be a more thoughtful and engaged dog owner, but a better human, and a better writer. Because, as BF Skinner himself said: “What is love except another name for the use of positive reinforcement? Or vice versa.”
The first thing I learned was that our brains are a kind of evolutionary hodgepodge, starting with that lizard brain and moving up into the more ‘evolved’ functions. Learning takes place across all these aspects of the brain, but it all starts with that fight flight freeze fear response. It’s hard to learn to make good choices when you’re scared. A calm learner, a trusting learner, is an engaged learner. On our walks I learn to walk wide of other dogs so my dog doesn’t have to bark in panic each time. I learn to stop being mad at him for being afraid. I accept where he’s at, not where I think he should be. In turn he learns to trust me. I reward him for all his good choices, his calmness, his attention.
In my creative life I learned to stop and recognize the berating voice who yelled about the quality or slow pace of my writing, or all the things I should and should not be afraid of. I’d spent a lifetime trying to bully my creativity, make it sit, make it do tricks, or just make it shut up. What if I instead I asked it what it wanted? What it needed? What if success didn’t look like a body cowed in submission, but rather a creature that was perked up, excited, ready for what came next? If my art was a dog, how would I treat it?
Lesson two was to start a little hungry. For years I had dabbled between writing and craft but when I decided to write a book I gave up nearly all of my other creative projects. In the same way that my little dog didn’t find the learning game as fun on a full stomach, I didn’t have the same urgency for my writing if I’d spent the day playing with a glue gun. I had to recognize that, like my little dog, I had limited attention and I needed to use it wisely.
“How did you ever train him how to do that?” My friends ask when my dog jumps through my arms, or turns on a light with his paw. “I just showed him the YouTube video!” I joke, but really, each of these was the result of many small sessions.
The third lesson was to break it down. In dog training, you learn to work one skill at a time, sometimes one movement at a time. What is my one ask for this moment? The first ask, the basic skill I wanted to teach myself was writing at consistent times each week. For the first little while, being there was all that really mattered. Reward the behaviour you want, ignore the behaviour you don’t. My other asks since then have varied between word counts, submissions, a project goal. I like short bursts of time writing for retreats or where stretches of unstructured time feels a bit scary or I’m really trying to brainstorm. I have an accountability group where we talk about things like goals, how our commitments to ourselves can be honoured and measured. The bonus is when you break it down, there’s lots of chances to earn cookies.
My little dog Ralphie still does not love big dogs and there are still days when writing creative nonfiction is hard emotional work. But when I hear that old choke-collar voice of shame or judgment, I remind myself that if my art was a dog, I would be gentler. I would be more analytical, trying to understand what parts of the brain and body are reacting in this moment. And I would remember to love it not only for the tricks it can do, but because of the companionship it brings me. Because sometimes your dog is a good dog just because it’s yours.
It took a ten pound mutt to show me the importance of taking tiny steps, rewarding the behavior I want, measuring progress, guiding without punishment or anger. And all of these insights have been a big help in all areas of my life, but perhaps my writing most of all. In learning a kinder way to train my dog, my own creative animal learned how to respond more joyfully, more consistently, when called.
Sonja Larsen is the award-winning author of Red Star Tattoo: My Life As A Girl Revolutionary (Random House Canada) Her work has also appeared in literary publications in the US, Canada, and the UK. She lives in Vancouver British Columbia and when she is not playing with her dog Ralphie she is working on a book about her experiences running a computer lab in an inner-city community centre.