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How My Pup Taught Me a Few Things About Writing


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NEW-Writer-Unboxed-posts.png?resize=860%In November, with the first snowstorm of the year about to descend and despite considerable trepidation, the ToolMaster and I set off for a two-hour drive into the Canadian countryside. Our mission? After too many years of felt canine absence, we hoped to adopt a dog found on an internet sales ad.

Before you chastise me about feeding into puppy mills and their attendant risks, trust me, I’m aware. All our cats and but one of our past dogs have been rescues. I wrestled with a metric tonne of pre-emptive guilt.

But I’d already spent months watching local shelters for a pup that would be a good fit for our home and courtesy of the pandemic, the competition was fierce. Suitable candidates were adopted before we could wrangle an appointment.

I’d also spent weeks learning to read subtext in online ads and felt I had a good handle on determining the conscientiousness of amateur breeders. I’d finally found one who said all the right things. Even better, they seemed poised to refuse adoption should we fail their screening process.

And so, having successfully battled a malfunctioning GPS and just as the first snowflakes swirled, we turned down a farmyard lane.

We’d agreed that if something didn’t feel right about the puppy or her owners, either one of us could exert a veto, no questions asked. Then the pup emerged from the garage.

She gave my husband one look before trotting up with a “YaY! NeW peOples!” attitude. She also permitted us to pick her up and roll her on her back and scratch her belly.

Despite her attractive mixture of confidence and pliability, we continued with our research. We met her parents, who lived onsite. Saw the tidy and well-kept garage workshop in which she’d been raised. The legit vet record. The good quality kibble she’d been fed. We observed her interactions with the farmyard cats—important since we have two feline overlords—and the family, including their three very active children. Everything on their end screamed of professionalism and caring, right down to the preprinted contract awaiting our signatures.

As you no doubt have guessed, we had found our new companion. (If you’d like to meet her, scroll to the end of this post for a brief introduction.)

The weeks since Betty’s arrival have passed in a blur. But when I’m not taking her out to the bathroom or working on training or snuggling with her before the TV, I’ve done some reflecting. This process has changed me, and it’s already altered how I approach my writing journey.

Before I share exactly how and why, let me disclose my relative ignorance about dogs and dog training. Past successes as an owner were largely due to sweet natures of the animals we adopted rather than my skill set. Take anything you read here with a blood-pressure-threatening dose of sea salt.

That said, what I’ve learned from Betty is to…

1. Begin by matching the raw materials to the job.

My daughter and son-in-law own a Belgian Malinois/German Shepherd cross. There’s a reason they are often used as police dogs and known as land sharks or maligators in their puppyhood. Raya’s prey drive means my daughter has worked hard to train the nippiness out of her. She cohabits well with their cats, yet I’d never trust her around mine. I love her, admire her smarts and athleticism, and find her occasionally intimidating—exactly as befits her breed.

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I would not recommend you buy a stove with this design if your home shelters large dogs or small people.

Nippiness isn’t Betty’s issue. Her grandfather was a champion bird dog. On the rare occasion she confuses your hand for a toy, she has a soft mouth. But her back legs are comprised of springs, meaning that her instinctive greeting manners are atrocious. We’re already dealing with counter-surfing. In fact, if we hadn’t grown wise to her proclivities and locked the burner dials on the front of stove—seriously, what were you thinking, oh foolish design engineer?—she’d have already burned down my house.

This illustrates that to a certain extent you can shape nature, but it’s far easier to begin with a dog whose breeding matches your desires.

I wouldn’t expect Raya to greet a mail carrier with a butt wiggle and leaps of joy. Nor would I expect Betty to function as a guard dog. That wouldn’t be fair to either of them, and we’d all be doomed to frustration and disappointment.

Similarly, it’s unlikely I’ll ever write a work of towering literary fiction. My voice is too snarky, my sensibilities too pragmatic, my story interests too commercial. That doesn’t mean I can’t experiment and learn and grow and perhaps stumble into success in that lane of fiction, but seriously, what are the chances? And at what cost, especially when I can write in genres that reflect my natural strengths?

While I’m at it, why not be picky about the writing projects I choose to develop? Better to begin with a higher-concept idea than attempt to turn a quiet book about quiet people doing quiet things into a commercial success.

2. Hire experts if you can afford it.

Both the ToolMaster and I tend to have a DIY mentality. We enjoy the process of learning and like wrestling with novel problems. Given enough time and effort and the online resources available, I’d like to think we’d have found eventual success with Betty.

But training a puppy is similar to raising a child in that it can expose hidden values conflicts. Soon, not only are you dealing with a puddle of piddle, but you’re navigating heated disagreements on how to prevent them.

Happily, we weren’t too proud to seek a qualified arbiter. My daughter recommended a local trainer with impressive credentials and we were comfortable with her philosophy and methods. She was expensive, but worth every penny if only for one single nugget she imparted: in order to get Betty to sleep in past 6 a.m., we were to shift her feeding times to noon, 5 p.m. and 10 p.m.

After three weeks of exhaustion, peeps—three solid weeks!—Kristen’s advice worked the first time.

Similarly, if you’re not making progress with your writing, consider borrowing the smartest and most educated brain you can access. Depending upon the issue, this might mean hiring a book coach, a developmental editor, cover artist, etc.

If you’re on a modest budget, perhaps you can bolster your skills with a book or course tailored to your specific problem.

If you aren’t in a position to pay outright, perhaps you can make a material trade. A critique for a critique, or similar.

Whatever the case, don’t let pride prevent you from accessing the resources to move forward.

3. Value incremental change, mindset, and persistence.

In the writing life, how do you talk to yourself about fallow periods or times of relatively low productivity? Do you call yourself lazy or unmotivated? Compare yourself to others? I need look no further than my own psyche or the comment section in Therese Walsh’s recent impassioned post to know how cruel we writers can be to ourselves. But there’s nothing like working with a puppy to see how unnecessary and unproductive those impulses are.

Kristen explained her training paradigm this way: When you combine ability + motivation + clear communication, you can expect to see the desired behavior.

If the result is what you asked for, you immediately mark the behavior to let the pup know they are on the right track, using a clicker or word like “yes.” Then you administer a positive reward. (In behavior training, “positive” means an assertive action whereas “negative” means a lack of action.) For most dogs that will mean they get a treat reward, but it’s basically access to whatever they value. For ones not motivated by food, for instance, they might get to play with a desired toy. For another, it might be a trip to the neighborhood pee tree.

If the result isn’t what you asked for, you don’t administer positive punishment, like a rebuke or scold or dragging the dog to their kennel. The response is negative punishment, which she describes as “no cookie/try again.” (“Negative”, in this case, isn’t as bad as it sounds! It’s essentially an absent response.)

In short, the philosophy is that you’re either providing a positive reward (good job, here’s the cookie) or negative punishment (no cookie, try again.)

Does that make sense?

As an example, when Betty greets people with “four on the floor,” she gets a “yes” and is rewarded with pets and treats. When she jumps, the visitors ignore her or even leave repeatedly until she’s had a successful greeting. Then she gets smothered with pets.

Time and again, by making small asks of Betty and following with consistent feedback, I’ve seen how remarkably effective these methods are. I mean, I should have trusted Kristen, who routinely trains dogs for TV commercials and shows. Still, to see its application to disparate tasks like nail clipping and harness wearing and the “touch” command is nothing less than inspiring.

How does this apply to writing? Well, when I’m in a fallow period, I’ve already discovered the limits of self-shame and castigation in getting myself to return to the page. Of all the many riches Betty has brought to my life—among them, puppy kisses and dog park walks and winter air when I might have chosen to cocoon indoors, not to mention a warm, wiggling body whenever I need a hug—this lesson might be the biggest reward of all. I’m permanently ditching the scolds, peeps, as being unhelpful or counterproductive. Since pee trees hold no value for me, I’m going for the cookie.

Care to join me?

What have you learned from your furry companions and how might that apply to your writing journey?

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About Jan O'Hara

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara (she/her) left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories that zoom from wackadoodle to heartfelt in six seconds flat: (Opposite of Frozen; Cold and Hottie; Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures). She also contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.

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