Lessons in dealing with negativity (from a puppy)

We’ve got a Corona puppy. Well she’s actually a German Wirehaired Pointer but you know what I mean… like many people this year we’ve taken the opportunity to get a puppy as we will be working from home for the foreseeable future and it seems unlikely that we’ll ever go back to the old patterns of regular commuting and so will have the time to commit to a pup.

So. Puppy – yay! Waggy tails, lots of furry fun and games, walks and lovely fresh air.

And yes it is all those things. It is also a lot of nipping and biting of ankles and hands (“play biting” – tell that to my bleeding knuckles…), terrorising of cats, digging up of freshly laid turf. Every time we take her in the lounge she chews the rug, the cushions, the plug sockets… so we are currently camped out in the kitchen dreaming of a time when we can relax again on the sofa in front of the cosy wood burner.

She needs training I hear fellow dog owners cry. Yes indeed she does and we are doing lots of it – puppy socialisation classes, gun dog training…

Bracken (the pup) is lots of learning stuff. She’s learning to sit and to stay, to come when called (occasionally), to leave (the cats – rarely), and to walk calmly on the lead (not a chance).

Here’s what I’m learning.

That how much patience I have with her is directly proportion to how much sleep I’ve had or how busy and stretched I am with work commitments.

I’m learning that the less the pup is doing what I want to do in the training the more controlling I become with others in the household trying their best to train her. (This doesn’t lead to harmonious marital relations).

That I have high expectations of my ability to train a dog having never done it before (well not for a long time and not this high energy type of breed) and I’m not very kind to myself about how well I’m doing it.

One morning when I was standing groggy eyed in the garden waiting for Bracken to answer the call of nature I had a little moment of realisation. I realised that I’ve mainly been focussing on the things that aren’t working – the wee on the carpet on our third attempt to sit in the lounge, the crazed attacks on my wellies when I’m trying to put them on, me close to tears of frustration at her continually jumping up… rather than all the things that ARE going well. Things like gorgeous waggy tailed hellos in the morning (or any time we come back in the room); her lying on her back waiting for tummy tickles or contentedly munching on a carrot she’s been given; playing fetch – doing a delighted little pounce on the toy before returning it to us triumphantly; her being clean through the night because of our committed routine and patient training.

It’s remarkable isn’t it – the brains tendency to focus in on the negative – a phenomenon known as the “Negativity Bias”. The Negativity Bias is born out of our brains ancient survival instinct which mainly pays attention to the things that it perceives to be bad or a threat therefore putting more emphasis on those things at the expense of good or positive things in an attempt to keep us out of danger. Such is the brains pull towards the dark side that research shows that in order counteract it we need a ratio of five positive thoughts for every one negative thought.

It’s very easy, therefore, to fall into the brains negativity bias trap. So what can we do about it? Once I’d recognised that I was focussing on everything that wasn’t going well rather than what was, I was able to consciously redress the balance in my head. Yes, Bracken peed on the lounge carpet but she hadn’t had any accidents anywhere in the house for a week before that; yes I came close to losing my temper when she jumped up repeatedly at the traumatised cat but I remained calm the subsequent nine times (!)… Now before I go to sleep at night I do a quick mental run through of all the things that did, rather than didn’t, go well that day – be it puppy, life or work related – and turns out that there is a lot of good stuff to be grateful for*.

So right now I’m heading off for a soggy walk in the woods with the pup Bracken. As she snuffles her way through the autumn leaves she’s learning things about the world around her, discoverying new things everyday – and it turns out that with her I’m learning new things about myself everyday too.

All the Best


*A note about gratitude. Research shows that practicing gratitude can have all sorts of positive effects. Keeping a Gratitude journal where you note at least three things you are glad of or went well everyday can really support redressing the brains negativity bias. You may perhaps think that something like that sounds “woo woo” or cheesy but there is evidence that regularly being thankful and noting the good things in your life can improve sleep, reduce stress, and provide a boost for your relationships.

P.S. Do you find your brains negativity bias getting the better of you sometimes? Perhaps the voice of the inner critic is very loud some days.  If you would like to partner with someone to help you get into a more resourceful headspace please feel free to drop me a line for a chat at sarah@boldly-go.co.uk

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