The Do-Over Dog

Abandon your sad history; meet me in the fire.
–Jackson Browne, “Under the Falling Sky”

___________________________________________Seamus only

I don’t remember the age at which my birthday became a day to stop and gape at the size of the number that represents my age and ask the proverbial question:

“What have I done with my life?”

The question first popped up on some birthday in my late 30s or 40s, and has returned on schedule every year since.

The answer requires a whole day of brooding, all of it difficult and pained and full of regret; a meditation on blown chances, squandered friendships, waste-of-time relationships and roads less traveled that I blithely chose only to find out why no one else had chosen them before: They were rocky and dusty and left me with bloody feet. Plus, they were dead-ends.

Somebody asked me a few weeks ago how I got into this mess with dogs. It has nothing to do with not having children, though that always ranks high on my regret list. It does, however, have a lot to do with the annual birthday regret party of 2006. It was three days after I turned 47 that I made the decision to call the vet and end of the life of my 17-year-old cairn terrier, Seamus, who was by then completely deaf and almost blind; incontinent and slow and growing an apparently malignant tumor on his tongue. People around me — neighbors, a boyfriend at the time — scolded me for not making the call sooner. “You prolonged his pain to postpone your own,” chided one particularly sensitive dog expert next door. I disagree to this day: I knew Seamus and he knew me, and he let me know when he was done.

I knew Seamus and he knew me. He was born on my 30th birthday.

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Among the 86 percent

One evening a couple of weeks ago, I shouted to a psychotherapist friend of mine across the field at obedience practice, “Hey, what is that thing that happens to you when you fail over and over and over again? When you don’t get rewarded for behavior you think is right and you stop trying?”

“Learned helplessness,” she shouted back. “All-too common in obedience dogs.”

Working the pileRight. Learned helplessness. It refers to a discovery psycho-behaviorist Martin Seligman made in the late 1960s while messing with the minds of dogs; dogs exposed to electric shocks and offered no way out stoppedtrying to escape even when a solution became clear. A less dismal version of a similar phenomenon is what Ur-clicker-trainer Karen Pryor calls “extinction”: You,
the rat, hit the lever over and over and no little piece of food comes out. You, the dog, scratch on the box where the scent is and yet never hear the click and get the Charlie Bear. You, the human, venture into the competition ring over and over again and yet never get to stand with the judge and other qualifying teams and receive that little green ribbon that says success. You get anxious. Depressed. Eventually you stop trying.

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