No profit grows where is no pleasure taken; in brief, sir, study what you most affect.
— William Shakespeare
If your overweight dog is ever going to get back into shape, you’ll have to play several different (but equally critical) roles throughout the process.
On one level, you’re going to be a general. This one is pretty obvious. You’re the one with the big brain, the one with the ability to set goals, the one with mental faculties that allow for differentiated tasks and strategy-formation, the one primed for (though not always capable of) skepticism and critical analysis.
For most of us, this is the relatively easy role.
Most of your responsibilities in this realm are of the set-it-and-forget-it variety. You’ll formulate a broad strategy featuring an exercise routine and a carefully-chosen dietary plan. You’ll identify existing habits that need to be eradicated and new ones that need to be formed. You’ll revise your plan after analyzing which strategies are working and which ones are proving to be fruitless. All these tasks can be performed from the comfort of an office.
But on another level, you’re also going to have to be a drill sargeant.
Though most dogs derive great pleasure from being active, the vast majority won’t simply exercise themselves, regardless of how big your yard is. When it’s time for your pup to be active you’re going to have to motivate him to engage in active behaviors. This motivation needn’t be and usually isn’t compulsory in nature (so the drill sargeant metaphor doesn’t work perfectly). Rather, it takes the form of positive feedback and encouragement, play-partnering, and leading your dog by example through physical activities.
The drill sargeant role is where we usually falter in our efforts to help our dogs lose weight and it’s not hard to see why. First of all, the on-going participation required by this role places significant demands on our time. We all live busy lives and it can be extremely difficult to make time to exercise your dog when work, family, home, hobbies, and community are all competing for your limited bandwidth.
Moreover, most drill sargeant tasks are active in nature. They usually require us to go outside even in non-ideal weather conditions, to run around and work up a sweat, to push ourselves a bit past our own comfort zones.
For many of us, this is a big problem. We are a chronically-inactive nation. Many of us simply don’t like exercise. We’ve grown accustomed to a sedintary lifestyle. We’ve been conditioned to view exercise as “work” and inactivity as “recreation.” We feel bad about ourselves when we can’t perform physical tasks as well as we’d like. We hate our bodies. We feel jealous when we see others being active and we feel depressed when others see us feebly trying new activities.
If you want to help your dog lose weight and live a longer and happier life, all that amounts to a big, fundamental problem.
Here’s something you can do about it:
One of the keys to turning a new activity into a habitual behavior is to develop a mindset in which you view the new activity in a positive way — as something worth doing not because it’s “good for you” but as something that is enjoyable and worthwhile “for its own sake.” In other words, if you can re-frame your personal perspective on a new activity — ignoring and mentally “dropping” the painful aspects of the experience and finding and focusing upon aspects of it that are pleasurable, rewarding, enjoyable, beautiful, invigorating, satisfying, whatever — you’re more likely to want to do the activity more frequently.
If all this sounds a little wishy-washy to you, then I applaud you for maintaining a skeptical mindset. But, in this case, you’re wrong–this idea is firmly grounded in hard science.
In addition to bearing the planet’s most-difficult-to-pronounce name, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is also the world’s foremost expert on the psychology of “flow,” a state of “optimal experience” characterized by exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment, a lack of self-consciousness, and widespread, comprehensive happiness. We’ve all been in a state of flow at one time or another — it occurs when we lose ourselves completely in a pleasurable activity.
Over forty years of research, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi has found that subjects describe their optimal flow experiences as having the following characteristics:
A sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear cues as to how well one is performing.
In addition, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi has found that these conditions can be created by individual participants on a case-by-case basis if they simply mentally re-frame the way in which they perceive a specific activity. In other words, anyone can learn to find enjoyment in most anything. In essence, to do so one must come to view the activity as a game which, through some amount of effort that one is capable of mustering, one can get better at and ultimately develop a relative mastery of.
You don’t have to cherry-pick activities built around systems of rules and opportunities for progressive evaluation either. You can create and impose these rules and progress measuring-posts yourself. It’s your activity, define it however you want.
If you hate running with your dog because you’re not good at running and it makes you feel bad about yourself, don’t force yourself to suffer through it and bravely tolerate the psychic and physical pain in the service of your dog’s health. Instead, re-frame what running with your dog means to you:
Create little, personal games that you can play with yourself every time you run, taking your mind off the painful aspects of the experience and focusing your attention on something else — What’s the most beautiful thing on this block? How many steps am I taking per minute? Can I sing along with every word of the song playing on my Ipod? How many different types of birds have I seen today? Can I run just 50 meters farther than last time?
At the same time, deliberately and specifically focus on the positive aspects of the experience to the best of your ability — I’m helping my best friend live a longer and healthier life! I’m allowing my best friend to do something that he loves! I’m getting to observe so much of the world! I’m getting a tan! I’m getting better at my personal game! I’m getting better at running! It can be difficult at times but it is possible. And if you fall off the horse — you find your mind wandering and focusing on negative thoughts — just gently correct yourself and get right back on. It’s all about progress.
This transformation isn’t always easy but it is the key to turning “drill sargeant” activities from chores into play (note, of course, that because your dog isn’t burdened with the same psychological baggage as you are, he doesn’t need to be convinced that a walk outside on a cold morning is an opportunity for play). And turning chores into play is the key to changing those former chores into enjoyable habits.
If this all sounds a little simplistic or a bit hokey, it’s because I can’t do the subject adequate justice given the limited platform of this blog and my own personal limitations as a writer. Obtain Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” and read more about it yourself.
Have a GREAT Sunday.