(originally published in 2013 for The Chook House when I had only recently started on my dog behaviour journey, but still reads well today)
It is a winter’s night, but not cold.
Barbara Arrowsmith Young tells us of her usual winter’s night in Canada where temperatures hover around minus forty. I wonder if she is speaking Fahrenheit or celsius. Either way it is nothing I can imagine.
But Perth people don’t really do winter or the rain.
The audience is mainly women between 40 and 50 in slacks. Like me. A queue has formed for a snappy white wine before the lecture begins. Not a skirt in sight. Trouser wearing women – practical types. Women who think they can change things – including their own and others’ brains. That’s the business they’re in. Mostly educators, psychologists. Probably mothers too.
My friend works in Mindfulness. She is well in-touch with her mind and its capabilities. She knows she needs a lot of sleep. She tells me how working with people to develop mindfulness “deepens their keel in the water.” What a steadying, comforting image. Indeed for most minds it is a rough sea out there, but what a difference a solid keel makes.
Barbara tells us her own story first. As a child she had such severe learning disabilities that she was a danger to herself. Despite so many issues she managed to learn through sheer determination and persistence. It helped that her mother was an educator and her father a creative inventor. But it was not till adulthood when she discovered the work of a physician, who had studied a patient who had had a bullet lodged in his brain, that she uncovered the source of her problems. Seeing the similarities between her own cognitive fog and that of the damaged man, she was able to locate her disability and pin-point it to the angular gyrus in the cerebral cortex. She then devised exercises to teach herself the things she could not do. She worked at the exercises, which were always slightly above her level of skill, till she mastered them and then she made them harder. She changed her brain, at a time when medicine really didn’t believe it was possible to do so.
It is accepted today that the brain is changeable. Neuroplasticityis studied and yet in schools we don’t give children the cognitive exercises that would help them to change their brains. Instead if a child is poor at hand writing we give them permission to type. She didn’t really go in-depth as to the specific exercises she has developed to help the various disorders of learning, but gave examples of how countless people have changed their brain’s functioning through the use of exercises in the areas that they have trouble with. She said people needed to lose the supports they had developed to cope with the learning disorder and approach it head on.
Again I thought of dogs.
Dogs too can change their brains. And we can be their teachers. I have a sense that changing a dog’s brain may be simpler than changing your child’s, especially since asking your child to join you in some cognitive exercises might be harder than you think. At least with a dog there is always food rewards. Just like people, dogs have the ability to learn new things. Everybody needs the right environment to learn. Dogs and children need not to be anxious, not ill, not in pain, not sleep deprived and not chronically stressed. The old adage “you can’t teach a dog new tricks” may not be true after all.
Think of the dog-reactive dog that flies into a rage every time it sees another dog. To improve behaviour he/she must practice being calm in front of other dogs. It is best to work just below threshold with dogs like this. We don’t want him/her to tip over into non-thinking dog. Brain-switched-off dog. One that is just shouting – “go away, go away.” But he/she must see other dogs to learn the new way. Neurons need to make new connections, instead of flying down the well-worn path of reactivity. I think of the laminex table and its marbled pattern – why now it resembles dendrites. A filigree of filamentous nerve endings reaching out for connections. A finger can trace the path to get from one point to the other, but the route can change. So too the destination. Left isolated, apart from other dogs, our Cujo will never improve his/her dog reactivity. Leaving maths alone won’t make your arithmetic better. Buying a piano and leaving it idle will not turn you into a pianist.
She described the feeling of living with a learning disorder as walking through life with a heavy pack of rocks on your back. But when people changed their brains they were released of their heavy loads. Previously difficult tasks became easy and free of stress. A stressed brain cannot relearn. At any age change was possible. For all species.
Like a dance. The neurons that fire together, wire together, and the more they fire together the stronger the connections between those neurons become. I guess this is the basis of learning. We can all do it. Change our brains to become peaceful, calm and plastic.