Would You Talk to a Dog That Way?

I was watching a man with his pup the other day.  The dog had scrambled up on the picnic table next to me.  Now his owner wanted his attention. “Sit,” he said.  Pup did nothing. So owner says, “Sit. Sit. Sit. Sit.” Eventually, Pup plops his butt down. Does owner say “Good Boy!” and pat the pup?  No, Owner says, “Sit.  S-i-i-i-t. Sit.”

Sometimes I’ll intervene when I see a newbie making obvious training mistakes.  This time I didn’t. I didn’t feel a receptive vibe, so I kept my mouth shut. But this scene came to mind after I spent some time on the phone with a friend who was dealing with long-standing relationship issues. The problem is, she communicates with her significant other the way this guy talks to his dog.

To explain what I mean, some basics of effective human to canine communication:

  1. Be consistent.  Use the same signals for the same commands.
  2. Keep it simple. Don’t add any extra words or flourishes.
  3. Demonstrate what you mean through action. If you say, “Sit,” and Fido doesn’t,  say “Sit,” once more and gently push his butt down to the floor.
  4. Never give a command unless you are willing to enforce it. Each time you say “Sit,” and Fido doesn’t, you have to demonstrate what it means by gently pushing his butt to the floor.
  5. Never escalate. Yelling at Fido or smacking him because he doesn’t do what you want will never teach Fido anything except to be afraid of you.
  6.  Once Fido sits, shut up.  Repeating the command makes him think you want something else, and he must not have understood you.  If you want him to keep sitting, the command should be “Stay.”

Consistency is important.  You have to follow through each and every time you make a command, or else Fido realizes that sometimes “sit” DOESN’T mean “sit” after all.  So Fido will start testing by not responding when you give that command.  What you do at that time determines what Fido decides “sit” actually means.  I know a dog who has been taught, through his owner’s consistent actions, that “Sit!  Sit!  Sit! Oh, to Hell with you!” actually means “Jump on me and I’ll give you a biscuit.”

Consistency is a pain in the patootie. My first dog was a marvel of obedience, but occasionally Beez would get a wild hair.  One day I walked him (off lead) down to the neighborhood convenience store, like I did every morning.  “Down,”  I said.  He went down, like he did every morning.  “Stay,” I said. I walked into the store and went to the coffee counter.  I looked up, and there was Beez, sauntering by the window.  I swear he looked in and grinned.  I went back out and took him back to his original spot.  “Down,”  I said, “Stay.”  I went back into the store and was pouring my coffee when I spotted Beez lazily walking by.  I went back out and put him back down.

I will make this story short.  It took 17 tries before I was able to buy my coffee and newspaper and get back outside to release him before he took off.  It didn’t help that it was a busy morning and the line was really long.  It didn’t help that everyone ELSE was highly amused.  But it was important to keep at it until he followed directions.  Other wise, he would know that I don’t mean what I say.  Yes, it was very inconvenient that morning.  But sticking to my guns meant that I had a dog neighbors offered to trade their children for.  I want to add, Beez was a feral dog rescued after spending several months in Red River Gorge. If it was possible to teach him, it’s possible to teach anyone.

I have friends who are terrific with their dogs and blow it with their humans.  When they try to set boundaries, they say the equivalent of “No. No. No.  Oh, all right.”  Maybe they add, “Just this once.”  What they communicate is: “Be patient and I will give in.”  They think they shouldn’t have to treat their humans like their dogs.  “Humans can reason,” they say.  “They already know my situation, they know I don’t want to, why do they keep asking me?  Why are they making me be the bad guy?”  Umm.  Because you eventually say yes?  Because your “nos” don’t really mean “no”?

Communicating boundaries is not the same as issuing threats.  At one time I worked in residential rehab for alcoholics and drug addicts.  Our clients were not only addicted, most of them came to us through the criminal justice system. We’re talking chronic professional rule breakers here. My boss was a terrific guy, and he loved helping drunks.  The only thing he had a problem with was clients breaking rules.  His solution was to make the penalty so big that it would act as a deterrent.  “Change the rule,” he said, “If they do that, we’ll throw them out of treatment.” He figured then nobody would break that particular rule.  Except that eventually every rule gets broken. When the time came, no one was willing to levy the consequence because it was too harsh. Which demonstrated to the entire house that the rules had no meaning. (I want to go on record here.  I was vocally opposed to this strategy when he adopted it.) Is it any wonder this wonderful, caring man suffered high blood pressure and heart attacks?

And of course, it is always important to say what you mean.  I’ll never forget my beloved grandmother repeatedly imploring a guest to stay and have another glass of tea.  The woman insisted, no, she really had to go.  Grandma finally closed the door behind this woman.  Then she shook her head and said, “I thought she’d NEVER leave!”  Seriously.  Would you tell your dog to “come” if you wanted it to “stay”?

Do your loved ones take advantage of you?  Do they ignore your feelings?  Try talking to them the same way you should talk to your dog.

Dialing it Back in a Relationship

Last week I spent an hour walking back and forth across the dog park with a friend while she vented about her boyfriend.  For several years she helped him out while he was unemployed and in school, putting herself in debt on his behalf.  He finally has a good job.  What does he do?  Does he cheerfully take on the credit card bills he ran up?  Does he offer to whisk her away to Bimini? You guessed it, he chose Door Number Three:  “I can’t do this anymore.  I want out.”

You don’t know my friend, but you’ve heard some variation of this story.  I’ve known people who have ruined themselves financially over love. One wasted an entire inheritance on her boyfriend.  One took out a loan to buy a car for the woman he loved and is also paying insurance on this vehicle while she cheerfully drives by his house with her new boyfriend. She always waves. Meanwhile, he is eating peanut butter and Vienna sausages for lunch.

I am talking about finances because that’s the most obvious place to look for inequities in a relationship.  But we could be talking about affection, attention, empathy, or even how often each person gets to choose which movie to see.

There’s a hint of this tired tale in my first book, “A Shot in the Bark.”  Lia’s boyfriend Luthor is a selfish schmuck, and part of Lia’s ongoing evolution in the series is learning how to have a healthy relationship.  I would not be able to write about such things if I had not at some point given too much of myself in pursuit of love.  I have, more times than I care to confess.  And it NEVER has a happy ending.

I want to help my friend. I offered to round up a crew to dump his stuff on the lawn and change her locks.  She declined. She’s at that exquisite  point where she wants to kill him, but she hasn’t given up hope yet.  It’s painful to watch.  I wish I could fast-forward her life to that day when it sinks in:  He’s NEVER going to change.

Our conversation got me thinking. What do I know about relationships?

All adult relationships are reciprocal.  If they are not reciprocal, what you have could be a parent/child relationship, even if it involves sex.  If you aren’t related, it might be legal, but it’s still icky. If there is little to no sex involved and you are putting out all the energy in keeping things going, your relationship might edge over into stalking territory.  If the other person is a willing party who adores you as long as you pay for everything, look in the mirror.  You probably have “Patsy” tattooed on your forehead.

If your relationship is not reciprocal, you’ve got to ask yourself why you’re investing so much into it.  If it’s not reciprocal there’s something important you need to understand about giving.

People give on their own terms.  Everyone has rules for what and how much they give and when, and it’s based on their personality, their particular circumstances, how they were brought up and how invested they are in the relationship. You don’t get to decide how someone else gives or reciprocates.  You might nag, guilt or blackmail them into giving what you want for a time, but all that does is create resentment and set up barriers to a truly healthy give-and-take.  You have to decide whether or not you are happy with the way the other person responds/reciprocates to your overtures/efforts. You have to realize that “what you get is what you get.”  They don’t have a closet full of goodies stashed away somewhere, just waiting for a special day when they jump up and and cry, “Surprise!  I really do love you and today is the day I show it!  Take your shoes off and let me rub your feet while I tell you all the marvelous things I’m going to do for you now!”

If you aren’t happy with how much/what the other person is putting into the relationship, you have two choices. You can end the relationship. Harsh, but in the event of disappearing trust funds and looming bankruptcy, this may be the only intelligent option.  Or, you can dial it back.  Dialing it back means reducing your efforts to match what’s coming back to you. It means redefining the relationship based on what is, rather than what you hope it will be. Out in the Ether somewhere, I hear someone screaming, “But if I did that, There would BE no relationship.  To that I say, “Uh, Doh?”

The first rule of dialing it back, is do not do anything you are going to resent later. “Not fair!” That same voice screams out in the Ether. “How am I supposed to know what I’m going to resent later?”  It’s not that hard.  Anytime you are doing something you would not ordinarily do to please someone else, stop and take a good hard look.  Notice, I did not say, don’t ever do anything nice for someone.  But take a moment to imagine that they don’t notice, don’t care, don’t reciprocate.  And if that thought has you feeling hurt and/or embarrassed and/or resentful, don’t do it.  If you are denying your own basic needs and obligations to please someone else, don’t do it.  If you are making sacrifices for someone who will not sacrifice on their own behalf, don’t do it.  And if the person has a history of not taking care of their obligations, don’t do it. Lastly, if you feel that little tingle of shame inside, the one you get when you are hoping that this time your beloved is going to respond if you try just one more time, Call your best friend immediately and have them duct-tape you to your kitchen chair, well out of reach of any means of contacting your so-called beloved.

When you think about giving something (time, energy, attention, as well as actual gifts), imagine that this person is going to give back only what they have given you so far. This is important, because, as Dr. Phil says, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.  Does this outcome make you happy?  If it doesn’t, then don’t do it.

Dialing it back means ending resentment.  It means giving up on the idea that you are “investing” in a relationship by giving more than you receive.  It means setting boundaries so that you put yourself first and never give more than you can afford (financially, physically, mentally, emotionally).  It is not romantic or noble to give blood to someone who pours it on the ground and asks for more. It means that when you give, you give wholeheartedly, without a hidden agenda, and without hope or expectation of return.

It also means recognizing and appreciating what the other person has to give to the relationship. You’ve got to understand who you are dealing with through small gestures first.  You’ve got to decide if that’s what you truly want. It means assessing your light-of-love’s level of reciprocity early in the relationship, BEFORE you give them the keys to your home and your ATM password.

This is not about bean counting, exactly.  Playing tit-for-tat will destroy a relationship.  But you have to feel secure that your relationship is not one-sided, that your partner is also invested in it, and will be there when you need them. Maybe not all the time, every day, but enough. That your relationship will feed you in some way, in return.

Every relationship is unique.  It may be that you have a good job and plenty of discretionary income, and your friend is always broke.  If you find your friend’s company truly worthwhile, say they are a great listener, or always cheer you up, maybe it gives you pleasure to treat your friend to things they can’t afford.  If you can do so without resentment and without making your friend uncomfortable, that’s a viable option.  Or you can dial it back by meeting your friend on their turf, where they can afford the price of admission. You can mix apples and oranges here. You cook meals.  They fix appliances.  As long as you both understand what you are getting out of the relationship and are happy with it, fine. Just don’t kid yourself.  It’s okay to mix apples and oranges.  Not so much if we’re talking watermelon and grapes.  Unless it’s a whole lotta grapes.

Transparency is important.  Can you talk with your friend/lover about what you are each getting out of the relationship?  If not, that’s a red flag.  Can you talk to yourself about what you are giving and getting out of your relationship?  Be honest.  Write it down in two columns.  Take a good look at it.

There’s another side of this.  When you give more than the other person can (on their terms) reciprocate, you are likely to make that person feel uncomfortable because you’ve created an obligation they can’t or aren’t willing to repay.  We’re talking about normal people here, not users.  This will push that person away rather than bring them closer. Someone who cares about you will not want you to overextend yourself on their behalf. They’re happy with your company without any grand gestures. On the other hand, greedy, selfish people will be happy to suck you dry. Want to find out who they are?  Dial it back.