The Puppiness Project – It’s All About Context

Gretchen Rubin wrote in The Happiness Project about the year she spent “test-driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies, and the lessons from popular culture about how to be happy.” The Puppiness Project is my attempt to learn the same from Honey, my Golden Retriever.

Drilling vs Doing

Honey’s training sessions at home go slowly.

Golden Retriever walking down boat ramp

Ramps aren't my favorite but I guess that wasn't so bad.

As we use agility equipment to give her the confident footing she’ll need to sail with us and practice with her Doggy Ride bike trailer, it’s two steps forward and one step back. We’re always making progress. But it’s on Honey’s time, not ours.

And yet she amazes me with some things she’s willing to do outside the house. The first time Honey walked calmly over a swinging bridge at a playground I was stunned. I think she smelled the pizza crust someone left at a nearby picnic table so she was too distracted to care about the movement under her feet. But, as a result, she’s never shown any fear walking over a swinging bridge.

And, although she won’t easily walk over a piece of plywood set on the floor or sidewalk, she happily traipsed up the metal ramp onto the dolphin watching tour boat in Cape May.

I guess it’s all about context.

Is it Windy? Or is it Sailing Weather?

Yesterday I stepped out onto the porch as the wind gusted and I smiled.

I shocked myself. Because usually I hate being blown on. Riding in a convertible sounds like torture to me. I always shift the fan so it’s directed at my husband, no matter how hot the day. And twice, when considering my academic future, I didn’t even want to apply to schools in Chicago because it’s called “the Windy City.”

And yet, you need wind to propel a large boat without power.

I still don’t care for being blown on. And I fear being blown over when riding my bike in stiff winds. But sailing on a warm summer day with 25-30 knot gusts was exhilarating.

I wasn’t saying the same thing last October with the same wind conditions accompanied by cloudy skies and rain. That was scary. But I guess it’s all about context.

Golden Retriever sleeping.


Try Scary Things in a Happy Context

I guess the lesson is to spend at least some of our learning time (Honey’s and mine) in a happy context.

Honey tolerated the swinging playground equipment better because she associated it with her walk and all the fun things we do outside. With the smell of pizza in the air there was even a possibility of mischief.

She didn’t balk at the boat ramp because it was obvious we were all packed up to go somewhere together. This wasn’t practice. We had luggage (poop bags, water bottle, dog bowl, etc.).

And, as for me, any activity is better in the sunshine.

Having fun in high winds, struggling to manage sails, and wrestling with the tiller on a beautiful day gives me equity in my courage account that I’ll need the next time it’s dark with storms threatening and we need to sail quickly into port.

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  1. We usually learn stuff when we least expect it. Great job for Honey to get things figured out. We are having the same learning process with Torrey. She’s getting there too.

  2. With all the patience you are showing I am sure Honey will wind up being a great sailing dog. Its always great to take your time with a dog rather then trying to force something upon them. Dogs are wonderful teachers in that way

  3. My dogs would venture pretty much any place if the smell of pizza offered a promise in the air.

    But then so would I.

  4. I suspect there’s not much you can’t overcome Pamela. :-)

  5. Another great lesson. Kelly will go places she might think is scary because she knows I’m there with her. I think that is part of the idea of some therapy dogs who help with PTSD and other issues. It is comforting to people to know their dog is with them.

  6. It’s so great how you and Honey are working on these things together. I’ve wondered if I should back off on encouraging Shiva to swim, if I should just accept her for who she is. But then I see all the success you’ve had with things Honey never thought she could do, and I don’t want to give up. If Honey can tackle a swinging bridge, maybe Shiva will one day jump into a lake. Maybe I’ll have to bring pizza next time.

  7. It’s always easier to teach someone when they’re having fun. Sometimes they don’t even realize they’re learning.

    Most of the early work I did with Bella consisted of turning what frightened her into a game. She was afraid of the role of wrapping paper? It became a tug toy or a game of keep away.

    I think you and Honey are doing great and will make awesome sailing partners. Oh and that picture of her sleeping on your husband’s lap? Priceless. :)

  8. Everyone learns stuff easier when it’s fun and enjoyable! I want to move to Cape May now. So jealous seeing that picture of Honey on the boat.

  9. It is all about context isn’t it? The things I think should be easiest sometimes take much more effort than things I think will be difficult but turn out to be effortless.

  10. She really seems to be the perfect traveling companion (and teacher!). Hope you had a great time sailing :)

  11. Honey is such a wonderful role model. Long may she inspire! :)

  12. I’ve found that if I walk into new situations with the dogs confidently, they tend to follow as if it’s no big deal. And you know, it’s true for me, as well. If I don’t overthink things, I tend to do much better than I would if I’d just walked into and done it.

    I think one of these days, Honey will surprise you with how far she’s come! :)

  13. Mike Webster says:

    From the Husband:
    I’m still looking for a context in which it is fun instead of scary to do my taxes.

  14. So maybe Honey will just need Pizza every time you sail….and hey, who doesn’t get hungry on the water? Seriously though, I agree with Urban Hounds – it is awesome that you are working with her to assure she will be comfortable, rather than just flooding her with bad experiences. She’s got a good mommy! You should probably reward yourself with some Pizza too!

  15. I think it is important to mix fun in with the learning, whether it be dog or people. Oh and I lived in Chicago for a time. It can be very windy….

  16. Isn’t it nice when they surprise us? Then WE have to figure out what motivated THEM, instead of them having to figure the situation. It’s a nice and interesting change of pace. Also, I hope you saw a lot of dolphins!