We have three dogs; they have all been rescued from one situation or another. They have had different life experiences up until arriving at our home. They are different ages, different breeds and distinctly different personalities.
There came a point that we recognized that the dogs were taking over. They were up on the couches when not asked, barked incessantly when the UPS driver arrived and crowded the door when it was dinner time. If the front door opened, you best be sure you have your runners on because there was bound to be foot race. We stopped having people to the house because of the gong show that ensued when we had guests. We had enough.
We called a trainer. We found out, quickly, that he was there to train us more than the dogs. Eric (the trainer) has a vast amount of knowledge and experience. He was assigned to Marine One when he was in the military. He was tasked to train the dogs that protected POTUS while in his Unit’s charge. I noticed that he repeated things as he spoke to me and to the dogs. He repeated them three times.
Over the course of a month, he worked with the dogs (and us) in our home and around our neighborhood. Scout (our white boxer) is deathly afraid of other dogs and anything that moves quickly. His unfortunate coping mechanism to the fear is to attack; not good. Not good for him, not good for our neighbors, not good for us.
On our third session, I was walking Scout with Eric and we decided to walk past a house that has a dog that likes to run to the fence and bark. This ALWAYS sets Scout off. Eric and I had a chat as to what was expected of the dog and from me. The first pass, Scout looked at me and was visibly agitated & growling but didn’t freak out. I was feeling SUPER proud and headed back to the house. Eric, however, isn’t ready and calls me back. “Three times to change a habit, Jen. Go again.” I am apprehensive. I mean, he did it ONCE. I really don’t want to push things. Right? I mean, he has it now. Right? Ugh. I go again. Scout looks at me, gets a bit wiggly but keeps moving. I head back to the house. Eric, again, shouting “Jen! 3 times makes a habit. Do it again.” I do it again. Success! Eric is pleased and we head back to the house for a debrief.
Eric reminds me that we have had Scout 2 years and that he has taken countless walks with disastrous results. THIS three times is creating a habit TODAY but I will have to do this process many more times until Scout changes his patterns with this particular dog. And the same process will have to be followed when we see a different dog or a human walking in the neighborhood. I am overwhelmed at the thought. I really wanted this to be all better, right now. I mean, I did it three times!
Recovery from substance abuse is relatively the same process. Just because you decided to quit doesn’t mean everything becomes rainbows and unicorns. If we have been using substance as a coping mechanism for any length of time, it has become a habit. We feel uncomfortable, we use. Scout sees the dog behind the fence, he loses his mind. Until he doesn’t. Until we don’t.
Scout needed me to re-assure him that he is not going to get eaten by the dog and that I don’t need protecting. As I walk with him, I tell him “Good easy. Good easy. Good leave it. Goooooooood leave it.” We also need that re-assurance; from friends that have gone through the process before us, from a therapist, from someone safe. We need to be told that we don’t have to respond “that way” any longer, that there is another way that isn’t so physically and mentally exhausting and debilitating. We have to practice it. We might get scared or anxious but we don’t use substance to cope.
One. Two. Three. and then again for many more One, Two, Three’s.
We give Scout a lot of love. We give him treats when we get back to the house. We verbally praise him and tell him what a good boy he is. We set boundaries for him. These keep him safe and less anxious. We give him good food and a comfortable place to sleep. We buy him toys on occasion. See a parallel to what we need as human beings to change and thrive? Change is HARD. Patterns are HARD to change. Habits are HARD to change. That doesn’t mean that it cannot be done. It can! But we have to keep walking past the house with the barking dog. We need to acknowledge we are anxious and uncomfortable and look to our safe person for reassurance.
And then we do it again; One. Two. Three.
*This article was originally published on Medium.