Cesar Millan works on training two dogs.

There’s always something magical about New Year’s Day, especially when you’re a kid, but it’s the kind of magic that I hope stays with you throughout your life and at the dawn of every new year.

It’s like we’ve been climbing up a mountain for almost twelve months, take a break through the holidays as we make it to the top, and then plant our flag at the summit as we stop to admire the achievement.

Going from 12/31 to 1/1 can feel like a reset or a do-over. It’s a moment to pause, catch our breaths, recharge our batteries, and look at the lesson in those number ones in the date.

The first lesson is in the expression “back to square one,” and while there’s still disagreement on its origin, its meaning is clear: to go all the way back to the beginning. This is similar to an expression that you’ll hear on film and TV sets all the time: “back to one.” They use this in particular when there are a lot of extras and camera movement and they want everyone to return to their starting mark.

Sometimes, this is an excellent strategy in life, particularly if you’ve been trying to deal with an issue and getting nowhere — like a behavioral problem with your dog. Clearly, what you’ve been doing hasn’t been working, so it’s time to go back to look at the original problem.

If one method hasn’t worked after a while, it’s entirely possible that you’re trying to stop the wrong misbehavior. For example, let’s say that about once a month your dog turns over the trash can in the kitchen and scatters the trash everywhere when you’re out. You figured that the dog was hungry and looking for food, so you’ve followed that plan — never leave food in the trash can, maybe get a can with a secure lid, try some negative reinforcement training — but nothing works.

What if the problem isn’t really the dog trying to get food from the can, but rather some other signal that’s causing the dog to attack the can because he can’t get to something else? Go back to square one, stop thinking of it as a food-stealing issue, and what else stands out? It happens about once a month. Now, is there anything else that happens about once a month? Something that your dog might interpret as danger, so they’re taking it out on the trash can because they can’t get to the real “threat…?”

If you said “meter reader,” then congratulations! And now you have an entirely new plan of action — one that will probably finally work, because you’ve uncovered the actual problem. You don’t need to train your dog to stay out of the trash can. You need to train him not to react to the sounds and smells of the meter reader, or be prepared to minimize his exposure to the stimulus.

The second lesson is to remember the relationship between the numbers in 1/1 — one for the day and the other for the month. This reflects our relationship with our dogs, which is 1 + 1 = 1 or, to be more precise, it’s “Big one and little one equal one.”

In the date, the number of the month is the big number while the number of the day is the little number, and the month is a lot more important in defining things than the day is. If someone says, “It’s February,” you still have an image in your head of what that month means — the likely weather, the holidays, etc. But if someone says, “It’s the fourth,” that could refer to any month of the year and, unless there’s some special significance to the date regardless of the month, it doesn’t tell you as much, except maybe that the rent is due or it’s payday.

Being the “big one” means that your energy creates the mood and feeling of your relationship with your dog, not the other way around. You are the Pack Leader, or should be, and it’s only when you find that balance of you as the big one in charge and your dog as the little one following that the two of you can become a team — hence 1 + 1 = 1.

So the other important thing to remember, if you think you can’t fix an issue, is to make sure that you are, in fact, the Pack Leader in the relationship in the first place and, if you’re not, then it’s time to go back to (being) one and focus on re-establishing your leadership.

There’s no better opportunity than New Year’s Day to remind ourselves that no problem is impossible to solve and, if it seems insurmountable, it’s up to us to go back to the beginning in order to see things in a new light.

Stay calm, and go back to one!

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