My husband and I have been walking up “early” (for us, anyway) to walk for exercise most days of the week. We’ve walked 5-7 days a week for about two months now, with our daily mileage up to 2.5 miles – and Robert has done 5 miles on the weekend. This is an amazing new habit for us! We’ve each gone in and out of exercise routines before, but this one is doing a good job of sticking – and, it has the added benefit that we’re doing it together. Conventional wisdom says that 21 days makes a new habit; I just read an article by Dr. Oz that says 6 months is more like it, and I tend to agree. I don’t mind looking ahead to say that we are 1/3 of the way towards making this a REALLY solid habit. We’re even premeditating how we’re going to handle the upcoming cold and wet, so that we don’t let that become an excuse to skip any days this Fall and Winter.
Today I slept late (as is my former habit) so I missed the walk with Robert. But, I woke up early enough before my first appointment that I could still make it happen, and so I did. Every good decision like this is a major accomplishment in my book! Especially since I’ve been struggling with stress and other challenging emotions lately, which, I admit, I’ve used as an excuse to skip a few days last week. I’m proud and grateful to be back on it this week.
I love to walk with my dog Buddy so I hatched a plan to take him through a hilly neighborhood near our house; this is my favorite alternative to the Middle School track we use every morning. Laps can get so boring for me. I’m doing much better managing my boredom this time around – and having the walking buddy (Robert, not the dog) surely helps – but I do like a little change in scenery every once in a while. Needless to say, once Buddy realizes he’s invited on a walk, his day is made and he can barely contain his excitement long enough to get the leash on.
I decided to bring out an old tool we hadn’t used for a while – the choke collar. If you have a bigger dog, you may be experienced with this gadget. It’s a leash made out of metal links reminiscent of a chain-link fence, with serious metal spikes poking out of every one. This wraps around the dog’s neck in a slip-knot fashion, with the spikes facing the skin – but, assuming you are a responsible dog owner, the collar is loose enough that the spikes don’t dig in unless you pull on the leash.
I imagine this collar could be controversial in some circles, but I’ve seen it advocated by every trainer of medium-to-big dogs that I’ve encountered. It is certainly not for small, delicate dogs, which I almost learned the hard way. Shortly after I got Buddy and was trained in how to manage him (a Border Collie/Chow mix, about 2x bigger that my previous Corgi), I was bragging to a friend about my Dog Whispering skills. As proof of the pudding (and, who are we kidding, my superiority as a dog owner), I offered to help her family tame their unruly Pug, appropriately named Duchess.
Of course, my new favorite tool, and the one I planned to apply in my dominance of Duchess, was a choke chain. Lucky for me – and surely no coincidence – I couldn’t find one small enough. Good thing, because I later learned that choke chains are verboten on little dogs, as they can crush their little necks. Stands to reason. (Postscript on Duchess: there is no taming Duchess! Being the trainer or an effective master of a small dog is surely a high-skill occupation. Their Napoleon complex is worth its weight in…well… weight!)
Back to the story of today’s dog walk. My routine when taking Buddy on a long walk is that he gets to have relatively free reign during the part of the neighborhood that is his daily walk route – because I know he has pee-mail to read, and other important things to sniff, in order to keep up with the news in his world and make sure his fellow citizens know he’s still in the game. But once we’re past those blocks, we are On Patrol. This is when the leash shortens and he is supposed to heel. I use the term “heel” loosely, because we’re not very official about it – but basically, he’s supposed to stay close to me, neither pulling away towards the curb, nor walking in front of me. We have relatively good success with this and he usually earns lots of praise for being a good dog.
But of course, if Buddy gets a whiff of something tempting, he pulls away from me and towards the temptation. This is where the choke collar comes in. Ideally, no correction is required by me – rather, his collar will automatically tighten as he pulls away, and the spikes will start doing their job of digging in to his neck to get his attention. In theory, the slightest nudge by the spikes is enough to make his doggie brain wake up and think, “Oops, wait, I’m not supposed to be doing this!” And then, depending on how stubborn and/or pain tolerant he wants to be in that moment, he will eventually change his mind and move back towards me to make the “pain” cease.
Now that I’ve described it, I’m sure I don’t have to beat you over the head with the metaphor. The idea that popped into my head was, ”What’s MY choke chain? The thing that will remind me, ‘Hey, stop that!’ when I’m distracted by something shiny (or yummy)?”
Now that I think about it, I’ve heard an idea for this, maybe from Weight Watchers or some other dieting resource – the ol’ rubber band around the wrist idea – to snap ourselves to attention in times of temptation. But who’s to say that when faced with a donut, I’m going to have the willpower to stop and snap the band, to remind myself that I’m supposed to have willpower?
I’m not really offering an answer here – and I wish there were a difference answer than this – but it seems like, ultimately, our “choke collar” has to be our own willpower, self-discipline, and/or habit. Sadly, I can’t think of anything physical I can “put on” that will serve the purpose of the choke collar, without me having to be the one to activate it. Maybe such a gadget would be the worlds greatest invention! (Shark Tank, here I come!)
But I can imagine that, after some length of time spent practicing a good habit over and over again – be it taking that walk, refusing that donut, saying no to animal products and yes to healthier alternatives – that the “choke chain” reaction becomes instinctive, because we’ve trained ourselves to take the preferred action over the non-preferred one.
I love self-development. I hate self-discipline. I hate to admit that I won’t be able to enjoy the first without having to acknowledge the reality of the second…not mention having to actually practice and cultivate it. Oh, the dog’s life. Sometimes it sounds like it might be nice to be on the other end of that leash, doesn’t it.
Your turn: What’s your “choke chain”? Are you naturally gifted with good self-discipline? Have you developed one or more habits that serves this purpose? Or do you want to go in with me to develop the world’s next and greatest invention?