Just five short months ago on my birthday, October 1st, I drove home my first big girl purchase – a brand new 2015 Mazda CX-5. It’s my dream car: manual transmission, black, equipped with Bluetooth and a back up camera and perfect for driving around both two-legged and four-legged passengers. I love love love my new car.
On Monday night I was driving through a really terrible three-lane traffic circle during rush hour. I was cautiously navigating my way through the circle in the middle lane when BAM! another vehicle smashed into my car, gashing up the entire driver’s side and ripping off the plastic molding. In that moment my heart shattered into a million pieces. I was fine, luckily, but my car! My brand new baby car! I kept it together, thought to myself that it was going to be okay because it wasn’t my fault, and got out of my car to get the process started.
As the other driver started telling the cop what happened, I waited for the explanation of why he merged into my lane. Accidents happen. It’s a chaotic traffic pattern with a lot of angry drivers, I get it. Insurance would cover the damages and I wouldn’t be penalized. Then all of a sudden he says, “so then she cut me off and hit me.” Wait. WHAT. My mouth dropped open. My heart started racing. I could feel my eyes starting to sting with tears of frustration. How could he try to blame this on me? I didn’t do anything wrong!? A million thoughts started rushing through my mind. I wanted to scream.
I’m sure you all can relate to this feeling. We’re all human. It’s that gut-wrenching, emotional reaction inducing feeling. It’s when a lot of people make decisions they wouldn’t normally make. As a positive dog trainer, I’ve taught myself to strive to not be reactive. These are the same emotions that owners and trainers feel when they are frustrated enough to do a leash pop or perhaps a harsh verbal correction. It’s these moments, after our dogs have messed up and maybe angered, scared or embarrassed us, where we as humans make emotional training decisions in reaction to what our dogs have done. What I work towards as a trainer is keeping these emotional reactions in check and, better yet, being proactive about the behavior that sparks them. Adding aversives to an already emotional situation often makes it worse. It takes practice and patience and a totally new frame of mind, but now when my dogs mess up I take a deep breath, address the issue and figure out how to change it for next time.
In this moment Monday night, standing in the freezing cold next to my horribly damaged brand new car as rush hour traffic whizzed past us, staring at this person who was trying to accuse me of an accident I didn’t cause, all I wanted to do was react. I wanted to yell and argue and ask him why he was being so mean. But I didn’t. What would that help? I took a deep breath, and I put my energy towards finding a solution. Instead of losing it on him, I let him say his peace (the cop wouldn’t take a report anyway so it was up to insurance to work it out later) and I formulated the next steps in my head: gather as much evidence as possible, call insurance ASAP with my full story, stay calm, etc. Reacting would have added fuel to the fire – just like with so many situations involving our dogs.
I’m thankful that I’ve learned this skill, and that I’m in the position to help other dog owners learn it as well. The type of reward based training we do is not just skipping aversives or ignoring unwanted behaviors, it’s about having the mindset that we can prevent these behaviors from happening by thinking critically, teaching appropriate alternatives and setting our dogs up for success – not by reacting after they’ve already failed. I unfortunately found out the tough way that it helps in all areas outside of working with dogs, but you don’t have to! I encourage you to see if there are pieces of your life where you can switch from being reactive to proactive – the peace of mind is totally worth it.