By Cesar Millan
Happy Groundhog Day, everyone! Today is the day that, according to tradition, the groundhog comes out of hibernation. If he sees his shadow, then he returns to his burrow and we get six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t see his shadow, then winter is over.
Does the groundhog really know? Probably not — his track record is no better than chance. But it is another reminder that all animals are, or should be, in touch with Nature. I say “should be” because many dogs that live in big cities rarely get the chance to interact with Nature.
There’s something else about Groundhog Day, though, that’s important for humans to remember. I’m talking about the movie, “Groundhog Day,” which came out just over twenty years ago. I think I’m supposed to say “spoilers” here if you haven’t seen it. In the film, Bill Murray plays a reporter sent to cover Groundhog Day events in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania — but he somehow becomes stuck living February 2nd over and over again.
At first, he takes advantage of the situation in not very nice ways, but when he realizes it isn’t going to stop soon he despairs, trying to kill himself more than a few times. But, eventually, he takes advantage of the situation to better himself.
This is very similar to the process that a lot of dog owners go through when they are trying to learn the right techniques to use to get the desired behavior but not seeing results. They are living the same experience over and over with their dog — still seeing the aggression, pulling on the leash, separation anxiety or whatever problem they are trying to deal with.
And a lot of dog owners despair at some point, debating whether to give the dog up. This is usually where I come into the picture, and my job is to get them to see what Bill Murray’s character learned in the film. As soon as he began paying attention to the world around him and using what he learned to move toward his goal (in this case, getting the woman he had fallen in love with), then February 2nd became a much more interesting day until, eventually, he woke up on February 3rd and the cycle was broken.
When working with your dog, there are two very important things you have to pay attention to: What your dog is telling you, and what you are telling your dog. I touched on this subject last week, when I wrote about the horse Clever Hans, and how dogs pay very close attention to the cues that we give them. It’s when we don’t pay attention to the cues that we are giving that we have trouble.
Dogs respond to their environment, and you are part of their environment. It isn’t until you notice how your dog is responding to you, though, that you will begin to see changes for the better and a reduction of the unwanted behavior. In the film “Groundhog Day,” one of the things Bill Murray’s character learned about his love interest was that she adored the French language, so he learned it in order to win her over. In the same way, we need to learn what it is that brings our dogs to a calm, submissive state and elicits the behaviors that we want from them.
It’s not as difficult as learning French, but it is learning another language — the language of energy and instinct that your dog speaks. Once you begin to understand that, you will no longer be stuck in your own Groundhog Day without progress. Instead, like Bill Murray in the movie, you will move rapidly toward your goal and, eventually, achieve it.
Stay calm, and have a great week!