Teaching Emotions

I just viewed a valuable training mentoring video from my training Guru, Susan Garrett, in which she explained that you can’t train emotional reactions, and of course she’s right.

We can understand dog emotions simply by understanding our own emotions. When I’m crying, don’t ask me to do anything! If I’m pissed, which of course only happens to other people, or  anxious, which I’ve been constantly since about 2016, it has various degrees of influence on all my behaviors, requiring different life strategies for myself.

But also, I used to be terrified of deep water. That happened because my mother’s friend wanted to teach me how to swim. I must have been 6 years old. She carted me out to water where the waves washed over my mouth and I felt like I was drowning.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“You’re shivering,” I remember her saying. “Are you cold? If you’re cold I’ll bring you in but Im not bringing you in just because you’re scared.”

“I’m FREEZING!” And that’s when I learned how to lie, because she promptly brought me back to shore.

And that was the beginning of years of me being terrified of any kind of water activity. My mother finally brought me to New England Divers for special remedial classes for kids who feared the water. A pretty curly haired young woman who in my memory looks so much like I did myself at that age, she taught me not to worry about the water. I could hold onto the edge, I could do whatever I wanted to do to feel safe. I didn’t go anywhere I didn’t want to go. I could do what I wanted, and she was just there to help me and to show me stuff.

Now at 58 years, swimming has been a HUGE part of the big joy of my life, swimming across Casco Bay in Maine, off the many islands, snorkling through the thousands of miles my husband and I have sailed, thru the Virgin Islands. Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, the East Coast, Cape Cod! What a world flows through my arms when I swim, which I do strictly for meditative purposes at a rate of three miles a week at the Y.

So my emotions have changed completely regarding the water. Yes, of course emotional learning can happen. If only I knew the name of the New England Divers teacher who helped me recover from my fear, I’d love to let her know how she is a heroine of my life.  I think of her so often, with amazement at how her few lessons in a swimming pool truly changed the entire course of my life. Of course,  all my companion swimmers also, so many who’ve contributed to my emotional  courage  that makes possible all the amazing swimming adventures of my life.

Emotions can change! But you really can’t learn when you are upset, overly excited, scared or not feeling well.

Dogs are not so good at abstract reasoning. Their brains work a bit differently than ours do, but emotionally, they are very similar! They can feel upset, or confused or frustrated. They can be over the top excited.

A dog doesn’t have to be displaying big emotions to be experiencing them. Dogs often hide their injuries, they act “stoic,”  maybe because displaying weaknesses is  not a  survival skill. Because somewhere along the way, some dogs, learn to lie. So we know some dogs that show emotion by shrinking very slightly.  Instead of barking, yapping in reactivity, their reactions look like they just freeze up a bit.  The dog becomes still, withdrawn, maybe depressed looking, sad, freezing or shrinking slightly or entirely away, often in a sort of slow motion. I know some people who can react that way too.

Thanks for posting any comments here on my blog rather than on FB where your comments get lost! Don’t make me cry! But we need each other’s help to heal our emotions, it’s very hard to do that by yourself.   I used to have really terrible stage fright. I cried on stage in 6th grade, when I was put in “over my head” on stage! So don’t put your dog or yourself in “over your head.” And thanks to many teachers I don’t have stage fright anymore.



Published by

Jenny Ruth Yasi

author, sailor, animal trainer,rally, agility and freestyle competitor, owner/proprietor Whole Dog Camp, now located in Freeport, Maine. For 31 years we lived on Peaks Island Maine. Now we are sailing with our 2 dogs in the Bahamas, and will return to Maine in 2017

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