I had to laugh a little when, this past week, my friend Rachel and I were discussing an exchange I’d had with a guy in St. Louis who was angry with the protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, and how I’d approached the situation from the standpoint of asking questions and listening to the response rather than jumping to conclusions – and down the guy’s throat.
Rachel commented, “I think you’re able to see things that many others don’t take the time to see …You take the time and you dissect the situation…you don’t jump to any conclusions.”
I laughed, and replied, “Oh, I always jump to conclusions! It’s just that I’m learning to keep quiet until I know what’s going on!”
Two week ago, I was ready to call the police on a neighbor who’d left his windows open and allowed his dog to bark non-stop for five hours.
I was absolutely furious that someone would be so rude and insensitive, and as I called the rental company to report the dog for the third time in a week, I wanted to go down and give the guy a piece of my mind.
To their credit, the rental company responded immediately and addressed the issue, but it didn’t stop the problem; it simply cut the barking time from five hours to three. I grew increasingly more irritated as, in our u-shaped complex, the barking bounced off the brick walls and felt like it was coming from inside my apartment.
Three days ago, I went out for my afternoon walk and as I was exiting the front gate, I was lovingly accosted by a very friendly five-month old Labradoodle named Vanessa.
As I stopped to pet her, I exchanged small talk with her owner; asking how old she was and where he got her. He confessed that his uncle had pushed him to take her after his dog had had a huge litter of pups, and that she was causing him all kinds of problems with her barking.
Suddenly it dawned on me that this was the barking dog that was driving the neighborhood crazy.
As we talked, her owner told me about how he was afraid of being evicted, but that he didn’t know what to do to stop her. I told him I was one of the people who’d called management — because I was concerned that something was wrong since she’d barked for five hours straight (sometimes a spoon full of sugar helps the message go down). He apologized, and told me what had been going on.
He said he’d never raised a puppy before, and had been trying to figure out what she was doing by sitting outside the apartment and waiting for her to bark, and then going in and scolding her, but that he was frustrated because it wasn’t helping.
Having spent almost a decade partnered with a veterinary technician who brought home every orphaned animal on the planet, I immediately understood his problem.
As we talked, I slipped suggestions about toys he could buy that would keep her occupied and techniques he could use to stop her barking into the conversation, and warned him that if he didn’t nip the bad behavior in the bud now, he was going to wind up with a very bad adult dog.
He laughed and said she did, indeed, have him wrapped around her paw, but that he didn’t know where to begin to break the bad habits.
I told him that the first thing he had to do was to make sure that he only reinforced the good behavior. No more going out, waiting for her to bark, and the going back in because it only rewarded her by giving her what she wanted – his presence.
I told him that he needed to ignore her (unless she was doing something that was dangerous) until she behaved the way he wanted her to. A confused look crossed his face, but as I got up to go on my walk Vanessa, who had been laid out dozing on the walk next to her owner, gave me the perfect “teachable moment.”
She jumped up and put her huge puppy paws on my stomach as she begged for attention. I took both of her paws in my hands, put them on the ground, and said, “Vanessa, SIT!” as I held up my index finger in the universal sign for sit. She looked at her owner, and then jumped up on me again.
Again, I put her paws on the ground, but this time her owner held up his finger and firmly said, “Vanessa, sit!” She looked at him for a moment, and then sat nicely, and I swooped in to kiss her soft fuzzy face as I praised her lavishly for her good behavior.
The third time she jumped up, I pushed her off, folded my arms across my chest and looked away as her owner said, “Vanessa, sit!”
Vanessa immediately sat, and looked up wagging her tail as I bent down and gave her all the attention she wanted.
Her owner looked at me in amazement as I said, “It’s as easy as that! But it’s the constant reinforcement that’s going to be hard because she’s so adorable!” He laughed and waved goodbye as I headed out for my walk.
As I walked, I thought about how the conversation had completely changed my perspective on the situation. My neighbor was no longer “the rude guy with the annoying barking dog;” now he was “Vanessa’s owner” who was trying to figure out how to train her to be quiet. We had listened to one another and helped each other find solutions to the problem rather than escalate the situation to the point that I became an enraged tenant, and he got evicted.
I’m not saying that all problems can be fixed as simply as this, but I do believe that, for me, half the battle was deciding that being the change is more important than being right, and then changing my behavior to reflect that belief.
In many ways, I do think that Rachel was right when she said, “Really it just comes down to you listening.”
And as I sit here typing – and listening – I am happy to report that I haven’t heard a single bark all week.
The next time I see Vanessa, I’m going to give her a big reward!