Learning Dog Tricks Made Me a Calmer Person

Writer, Cindy Zikmund talks about the words, “leave it”, and how they can be of benefit in our life.

While practicing the dog trick, Leave It, with my five-year old pup, I unexpectedly learned to regulate my own impulsive reactions and it couldn’t have come at a better time. 

During a live internet broadcast about COVID vaccinations sponsored by my employer, the typically cordial colleague-to-colleague chat turned hostile over the company’s vaccine requirement. Two years of isolating and conflicting information had transformed a professional, respectful organization of almost 20,000 employees into a battleground. We’d forgotten our manners, and shot four-letter words, insults, and outlandish accusations across the ether. 

My friend frequents Twitter and forwards the more polarizing discussions to a group text. Responses from our group hover around, “How can they think that?” or “What’s wrong with him/her/they?” Like my Zoom call at work, more people are publicly venting their rage and less people are understanding them. 

We’ve become a “type first, ask no questions later” society. 

Since the pandemic, I’ve been a remote worker. My rescue pup, Leo, stays near me all day. When the tone of a Zoom call changes, gets too loud, or the pitch goes too high, he sighs and walks to another room. I imagine him thinking,

“Why can’t they just Leave It?” 

Leo and I practice a “Leave It” exercise at night. I drop a dog treat on the floor and say the command. The appropriate response is for him to turn his head and ignore the salmon jerky. 

Leo is a Chow-Shepard mix, literally a chow hound. It’s challenging for him to control his food urges. But when he does, he gets a reward, two treats, one of higher more tasty value, and the first one I retrieve from the floor. 

This exercise has a grander purpose. When out for a walk and another dog appears, Leo’s protective instincts fire up, he growls, jumps, and pulls at his leash. But when I say, “Leave It,” he’s been reprogrammed to show no reaction except to look away. He’s not always successful and I sometimes forget to issue the command in time, but for the most part, the daily conditioning worked to control his natural impulse in a high stress situation, curbing his aggressive behavior. 

On the Zoom call where my colleagues flung word arrows at one another, my fingertips were poised to issue a zinger, but Leo’s reaction sidetracked me. He sensed the tension, snorted, and left me alone with my frustration. 

That hurt. 

Over the past twenty-four months, Leo and I have shared a daily routine, going from office to kitchen table and back throughout the day. We’re rarely separated and are always aware of the other’s location. When he walked away, a force took over. 

I had to make a choice. I could either type my snarky comment or leave my computer. 

At that moment of lift, the meeting moderator said to the inflamed crowd, “Take a breath. Step away from the keyboard.” 

Leo’s instincts had been correct. I exhaled, followed him to the kitchen, and gave him a dog treat and myself a chocolate. 

The heated exchange wasn’t what weighed heavy on my mind. It was realizing how frayed we all had become. More so than before, the behavior common on social media had seeped into our workplace, disrupting our core tenets of being inclusive and staying humble.  

I wanted to push a reset button and restore everyone back to 2019. 

Over the past two years, our collective mental health has been challenged. The Today Show recently aired a segment, “How Parental Burnout is Affecting Families.” Parents have had to become everything from elementary school teacher, caregiver, cleaner, emotional support, parent, and spouse. These demands have created a hidden risk to their wellbeing. To combat burnout, the advice given was to take a few minutes each day, have a comforting beverage, breathe deeply, and let the wave of anxiety pass. 

This reminded me of practicing Leave-it with my Chow-chow mix. 

I wondered if we could retrain ourselves the way I had retrained Leo. For each of us, the exercise will be different. For some, it might be deep breathing, for others it might be going for a run, or reserving time with your favorite drink at the end of the day. 

We can’t expect to miraculously transform overnight, and we can’t always take the high road when we’re feeling low. But we can set aside a little time each day to practice. And make sure we receive a high value reward the way Leo enjoyed his tasty treat plus one.

We may even find that the reward is simply knowing we can let things go. 

I made a promise to myself: to observe Mental Health Awareness Month. For all of May – and hopefully beyond – I promise to practice restoring the calm I once knew.  

It’s an old remedy. Be mindful. Do unto others. Count to ten before you speak/type. The reason these simple antidotes have lasted is because they work. Albeit we’re up against more severe circumstances and extreme stress than ever. 

Even more reason to stop for a moment each day and Leave It. 

Cyndie Zikmund’s essays have appeared in Cutleaf, Under the Gum Tree, Pink Panther Magazine, Magnolia Review, and The Literary Traveler. Her book reviews have been published by River Teeth, and Southern Review of Books and her poems by North Dakota Quarterly Review and In a Woman’s Voice. She has served as CNF Editor for Qu Literary Magazine. Cyndie has an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte, MBA from Santa Clara University, and BS EECS from UC Berkeley. 

Find her on the web at www.cyndiezikmund.com, Twitter, and Instagram

WWW Disclaimer

3 thoughts on “Learning Dog Tricks Made Me a Calmer Person

  1. And…I remind myself that at least on a Zoom meeting, I can step away easily, thus saving me from firing off what’s on on the tip of my tongue. Thanks for sharing these thoughts on being mindful of our selves and others. Keep seeding the message, please. It will grow in our hearts again.

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: