Blog post by Emily Jacobs

I believe there are certain inevitabilities that come as part of the human condition. There are things we might as well accept because the alternative is to drive ourselves crazy attempting to resist reality. One of these inevitabilities, it seems, is the existence of the to-do list. It has come to my attention time and again that I have unrealistic expectations when it comes to the number of items that fit into a 24hr period. I generate significant anxiety in my life by waking up each morning, brushing my teeth, putting the kettle on, and then resolutely biting off more than I can chew. It’s almost as if I think that, though the day before I was unsuccessful in fulfilling my expectations, today I must have superhuman powers. This perpetual pattern has driven me to deeply envy my dogs.

I was told once, though I can’t quote the source, that we are humanbeings, not humandoings. That statement resonated with me deeply. I wrote it in my journal, made it my personal mantra for a day or two, and then went about ignoring the sentiment entirely, returning to business as usual: self-perpetuating to-do list chaos. My dogs, on the other hand, live this statement every moment of every day. Beings, not doings. Dogs are entirely successful at living in the now, and at signing up for exactly what they can manage each day – namely, nothing. They sign up for nothing. 

It is with this in mind that I turn the topic to training. Existence, for dogs, comes with no innate rule-book (excluding the evolutionary necessities of eating, drinking, sleeping, and so on). Dogs are not born with the evolutionary imperative to be productive, but we seem to think that we are. They are not genetically predisposed to refrain from counter surfing any more than they are genetically predisposed to sit when asked to. What I mean is, every behavior outside of the necessities of seeking food, water, shelter, physical exercise, mental stimulation, and a place to potty is something we are asking dogs to add to a to-do list that doesn’t otherwise exist at all. We are asking our dogs to do things for us, and not just to be. 

My dogs do not feel worthier when they check things off their to-do lists. They don’t feel any less worthy if they don’t achieve the required number of tasks. We would do well to remember this when we attempt to anthropomorphize. Tuvia, when she eats a pair of underpants, hasn’t woken up and meditated on the notion: “today, I will eat underpants at 9:00am.” She has found them, received reinforcement as she chewed through the elastic, and then left them for another action when the reinforcement diminished. That sounds like a pretty decent way to go about life, doesn’t it? 

Of course, we do actually need to-do lists. It’s unlikely that we could sequester ourselves in caves and refuse to participate in the culture in which we live. However, we might take a page out of our dogs’ books and tune in more closely to what reinforces us. What brings us joy and what depletes our energy stores? What do we actually have to do today and where might we set healthy boundaries? I’m trying to think more about what we need versus what we want and then set realistic expectations for ourselves. We can do the same for our dogs and will probably make more graceful training progress to boot; achieving small goals frequently is more emotionally rewarding than failing day after day to meet a giant milestone. 

Framing tasks as things we are asking of ourselves, rather than requiring of ourselves might save us some stress. An over-full day is uncomfortable from start to finish, but a productive day punctuated with small victories is pleasant. Training can be fun and build confidence in our pups. It shouldn’t be overwhelming for them. Remembering to give our dogs credit for their progress is key. And, remembering to be reasonable with the to-do list items we set for them helps them feel confident and appreciated rather than disappointing and frustrating. It would allow us both some more space to breath, have a bit of time to be and not to always do.