Aha Training Moment with the Help of Visualization

When I’m training, I’m always thinking about why Kiera does or doesn’t do what she does. I’m always trying to see if I can understand it from where she is and go from there. For example, once upon a time, I wasn’t having any luck getting Kiera to remain calm when people came over to our house. Whenever someone would arrive, Kiera would go into overdrive to make sure everyone in the house was safe for posterity. I’d tried the “go to your place”, having visitors throw treats, yadda, yadda, yadda. No real reliable improvement. I was thinking that I was just going to have to always manage the situation. I don’t know what made me try the visualization approach, because I certainly wasn’t thinking, “Oh boy, here’s the solution!” Maybe it was that I’d often used visualization with my clients, and figured it was another opportunity to practice what I preached. Maybe it was just an act of desperation.

Here’s what unfolded.

As I started visualizing, I first began trying to see through Kiera’s eyes, to determine if I could see/feel what it was that she was seeing/feeling, to better understand what was triggering her. In particular, I was trying to see if or how I contributed to Kiera’s getting keyed up when visitors come over.

It was a combination of doing this and trying to remember to also ask the question “who is the person on the end of the dog’s leash”—in other words, to remember to look at the role I played in creating the dynamic. It was this one-two punch that helped me have a breakthrough in understanding.

What I could see in my meditation that I couldn’t see in the live situation with Kiera was how, in fact, I did play a key, and perhaps central, role in the interplay of what was happening.

This is how I was able to break it down in the meditation/visualization: I imagined someone coming unexpectedly to the door while I stayed totally focused on watching Kiera, not saying or doing anything — just observing. I noticed that before she could have seen the person, she’d flash a look at me, and then, in what would seem like a nano-second, race to the door, just as the person would be coming around the back of the house. I replayed this “tape” a dozen more times with different people coming to the house. Invariably, there would be an instant that she would look at me before she’d zoom into overdrive. There were other little cues (like us both hearing a car slow down in front, etc.), but this was the major one that always precipitated movement on her part.

Next, I reran the tape to observe what I was doing. I would know the car was pulling into the driveway and I could immediately feel myself getting all tense at the anticipated barrage that would be forthcoming from Kiera. I could feel my adrenaline start to run, as I’d know that I’d quickly have to grab her before she’d get to the door to open it first (she figured out how to open doors as soon as she was tall enough to jump up and reach the door handle). I’d get myself all geared up in a forward motion energy anticipating the race to the door that was about to take place, as I’d be telling her to “go to her place” or stay, or whatever I’d tell her. I actually became aware that the emotion I was feeling was close to panic. (I’m not worried about Kiera biting anyone, just scaring the daylights out of them. I actually think what I’m responding to with Kiera is what happened with another dog I had who was aggressive–but that’s another story.)

When I replayed these scenes yet again, this time from looking out of Kiera’s eyes, I could “see” it all so clearly. In that instant that she’d look to me, she’d feel my rush of panic and think something was wrong. To top it off, I’d be telling her to “stay” in a keyed up voice, while I was rushing to the door. She could see so clearly that I was in a high state of arousal and everything in her wiring was telling her that she should be right there too, to do her job of guarding, herding, protecting.

Once I saw that I was actually the trigger for this behavior, and not necessarily the people coming to the door, I had a different way of thinking about the problem. I started visualizing people coming to the door while I remained calm and stayed put sitting down. I visualized Kiera seeing/feeling me staying calm and connected to her (instead of disconnecting to get to the door before her) and both of us feeling relaxed and light. I visualized Kiera seeing the person come to the door and told her to go say hi and then come back to me. Then I visualized seeing through Kiera’s eyes, with her hearing me tell her what to do while remaining nonchalant, and feeling her body walk happily to the door to see that everything was fine, and then walk back to lay next to me. I could actually feel, or I believe I could feel, how much relief Kiera was feeling. I continued doing these visualizations while imagining that Kiera and I were really one body, so I had a way to feel her feelings as easily as she felt mine.

The whole time, in the visualization, I was remembering to BREATHE! Something I instantly forget to do as soon as I feel tense. Once I could get through the whole meditation with all the “parts” working in harmony, I started noticing a difference in Kiera’s behavior. This was before I was actually able to change my behavior to people showing up. I’d get up to rush to lock the door and Kiera would stand up but not rush right along side me. When that link was broken, it became easier for me to back-chain the rest of my behaviors to where I can now actually remain seated as someone approaches my door. As I’m writing this, I can see what a good trainer Kiera is.

Anyway, the end of this long and hopefully not boring story is that Kiera and I both do better when someone now comes to the door. We’re not always perfect–sometimes it’s hard to remain enough in the moment to remember to stop my automatic responses–but we’re both definitely doing a lot better with this. So much so, that anyone who comes to the house has remarked on it.

Who knows why she changed. Maybe it was just a coincidence and all the training of the last few years finally gelled for her at the same time I decided to try this other experiment. Doesn’t matter. I know that now I’ll always include some visualization now, if for no other reason than it helps me to see what I’m doing more clearly. And that’s a good thing.

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