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Ah, chère, don't be embarrassed...

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I could manage a decent imitation of Dennis Quaid​ as he soothed Ellen Barkin in a totally indecent New Orleans accent: "Diss is de Big Easy. People got a certain way of doin' things down heah." I was happy to discover a few years ago that the movie doesn't seem much sillier now than it did way back when I was in college. It's cheesy, The Big Easy, but it has its (tender-awkward-sexy) moments. Not to mention DQ's abs at their rub-board finest.

I've been wondering whether I should maybe dust off my version of a corrupt Nawlins detective for the benefit of my clients and their dogs, even at the risk that I'd send any self-respecting Catahoulah fleeing for the home swamps of Louisiana. (I haven't dared to try it out on our gal Kili, who likely has a big dose of leopard dog in her mix.)

Dogs aren't actually the ones who need to hear me channel Dennis Quaid. They're never embarrassed, but those with red-faced owners are often afraid, and they have good reason to be: there are few things more dangerous than an embarrassed human. I know that embarrassment has triggered many of my own worst decisions - if they could truly be called decisions at all. "Reflexes" would be more accurate. When something makes bruising contact with one of my ego's many soft spots, I often feel compelled to act in ways I later regret.

In my work with dogs and their people, I've become ever more alert to how seriously the human fear of embarrassment can undermine training and destroy trust. Thanks to a recommendation by Madeline Gabriel, a San Diego trainer who specializes in kid-dog interactions, I've been reading Becky Bailey's wise book Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline. Bailey wrote it as a guide to effective parenting, but much of her excellent advice readily applies to dog training and other situations where we're tempted to exert forcible control over another creature's will (e.g. as supervisors, directors, spouses, etc.).

As I write this, Pazzo & Kili are going bonkers over the squirrel who's taunting them from the maple tree in our front yard. It's all I can do to take my cue from Barley, who's curled up peaceably beside me. She raises one golden eyebrow before snuggling deeper into the couch cushions. The "Shut up, you idiots!" that rings in my head goes unshouted.

Bailey's central premise is simple but profound: we cannot teach skills of self-control that we do not possess ourselves. We all "know" that we teach most effectively by example, but few of us model the behavior we want to see. Few of us have made any concerted effort to master our many hungers, or learned to accept their inevitable frustration. Our desires get thwarted a thousand times daily, but most of us continue to believe that this is somehow unjust. We're still waiting to wake up to the world as it should be. The one built to our private specifications, where the rivers flow with whiskey (Kentucky bourbon) and everyone finds us charming and wise. That world has yet to arrive, so we throw tantrums into our forties (and beyond), or whip up sickly sweet batches of passive aggression that we slather on everything that fails to please us.

Given this sorry state of internal affairs, how can we hope to help less savvy or experienced creatures negotiate life's challenges with dignity and grace? The short answer: we can't. The long answer: we need first and foremost to get to work on our own tetchy selves.

As Bailey points out, one of the best ways to start is to stop asking our kids (or dogs) to be our ambassadors, to represent us to the world. It's our job to guide those under our care through the crazy obstacle course that is human life, but it's not their job to make us look good. If we ask them to shoulder that burden, if we "lose face" every time they misbehave, we set ourselves up for humiliation and anger, and we set them up for anxiety and resentment.

Bailey lays out an alternative path: Welcome mistakes. Welcome misbehavior. They are evidence of vitality and a healthy will. Set limits, establish consistent consequences, but never suppose that any creature is "bad" for wanting what it wants urgently enough to mess with your totally righteous desires.

Wonderful macaque photo by Jean-François Chenier. Find more of his work on Flickr.

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