Friday, March 24, 2017

Lessons from dog training: Temptation

On the first Sunday of Lent, the lectionary passages included the temptation Jesus faced after his baptism, as well as the Genesis story of the choice Adam and Eve made to eat from the forbidden tree.

I did not know this as I walked Fritz that morning.

Fritz needed to go out before I left for church. When I take him out, he is to walk with a loose lead to the area where he relieves himself, after which we go back to the house. During the two days leading up to that morning, he'd lunged toward some dried manure that fell from a tractor tire on the driveway.

Sunday morning, as we walked down the driveway and back again I began talking to Fritz in an excited voice while we moved past the tempting smells. His ears perked up. His tail began to wag. He placed himself next to me and watched my face as we walked past that spot. He was so focused on me that he showed no recognition of the odor.

When I began training Fritz, one statement I remember was that in order to keep your dog from chasing squirrels, you have to be more interesting than a squirrel. So I frequently took Fritz outside on lead, and while I did not have squirrels, I did have rabbits. I found I was definitely not more interesting than a rabbit. It didn't matter how exciting my voice was, how good the treats were, or how fast I could run in a game of chase, the rabbit was more fun than me.

The training I have chosen to follow since then is one of playing games with him. We learn games that are fun for the dog and also help them rehearse and be rewarded for self control and engaged attention. Day after day we play together. Fritz loves the games. When we start a new one, he is highly motivated to try to understand what is required of him. His ears are up. His tail is wagging. His eyes are on me.

In church as we read the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent in the garden, I was fresh from this experience with Fritz being able to focus his attention on me while walking past the smell of something he usually wants.

Genesis 3:6 reads, "So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate."

Eve and Adam were aware of the fruit, always. They had been told about it ahead of time. But they had not been tested until this moment, and in this moment they were not strong enough. Something allowed them to forget the truth that all goodness comes from their creator. Their focus changed from the goodness of their creator to the desire for what they saw.

In the temptation of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 4, there is a difference in focus. Jesus hears the words of the tempter, but he hears them through the lens of truth, of his goals, of his relationship with God.  There is no record of his taking his attention away from God to the goodness of the temptation. Even though famished and exhausted, his eyes stay clear. His immediate response to each offer are words he knew from scripture. There isn't a sentence about him seeing the goodness of the bread, or wondering about whether the angels would save him, or being drawn to having the world at his command.

I want that kind of clarity. I desire to know how to foster it in my relationship with God. Is there insight in the dog training?

With Fritz, I'm still not more exciting than a rabbit, but in the videos posted by those farther into the training than I am, I can see that dogs can be called off running wildlife. Not only can they be called off, but they can even wheel around and run joyously back to their masters. Why? They have developed such a strong relationship with their person, that they know being with the person means only good things. They have practiced and been rewarded so many times that it is no longer a thought process, but an automatic response. If this person calls me, I'm going!!!

In training Fritz there is a goal of rewarding increased focus in the presence of increased distraction. A rabbit is pretty high on the list of distractions. We start smaller. We play a game called, "It's your choice." I hold a good smelling treat in my closed hand. Fritz comes running and nudges my hand, licks my hand, lunges toward my hand, and my hand stays closed. If at any moment he backs away from my hand, it opens. But if he tries to get the treat, my hand closes again. He quickly learns that backing up is good. Soon he learns that sitting is even better because if he happens to sit down while he is waiting and looking at the treat, I will take the treat to his mouth and tell him to get it.

Step by step we increase the difficulty of the challenge while also celebrating wildly the successes of self control, and Fritz begins to learn that the good things he wants will come to him through his relationship with me. Not only that, but it will be fun and joyful as well.

Fritz ignoring temptation

But the goal for me as his trainer also has to stay in focus. I'm not training him in order to have the heady experience of having a dog that does exactly what I tell him to do. The goal is to have a dog who is free...free to go anywhere with me off lead, because I know that the sound of his name being called will be enough to turn him around instantly from dashing in front of a car.

 As Jesus was free, free from needing the approval of anyone but the Father, free from distractions away from his goals, free to offer truth and love and a path to that same kind of freedom for each of us.

Eve and Adam lost sight of the truth that the goodness of obedience far outranked the beauty of that fruit. We all do. But our story does not end there.

Like Fritz, we aren't done learning yet.

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