Cognitive Behavioral Strategies

Lynne S. Gots, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist

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How to Keep Trying in the Face of Obstacles: Lessons from a Dog

By Lynne Gots, posted on August 13th, 2012.

My dog Baxter is at it again. As I’ve mentioned before, he’s crazy for vegetables, and he’ll do anything to get to the few gnarled green tomatoes and warty cucumbers in my pathetic garden. Given the opportunity, he’ll even go after the jalapeños. Nothing deters him—not the triple-reinforced plastic fencing, not the gates and makeshift barricades, not even the noxious sprays guaranteed to repel deer and other wildlife.

We could all take a page from Baxter’s book. I’d call it The Little Dog that Could. Watching him case the perimeter in search of a breach in the fortifications, I imagine him saying, “I think I can, I think I can, I KNOW I can!” until he breaks through, triumphant, and scarfs as much produce as he can before I drag him out by the collar.

Even when he snatches the only ripening tomato off the vine, I can’t help but admire his tenacity. Call it the unbridled optimism of the simple-minded, if you will, but I choose to see it as sheer determination. He never gives up.

Unlike Baxter, many of us humans tend to get discouraged when obstacles stand in our way. I’ve seen lots of recent college graduates (my own daughter included) who want to throw in the towel after ten, twenty, or fifty job applications meet with rejection—or worse, get no response at all. Of course it’s profoundly disheartening for a former academic superstar to find herself unemployed with no clear prospects for the future. But summoning the wherewithal to keep plugging away with no immediate rewards in sight is a life skill worth cultivating—and one with the potential to yield a far greater payoff than any entry-level job.

Being a dog has its advantages. I doubt Baxter has to deal with a running stream of self-defeating thoughts telling him he’s not smart enough or strong enough or young enough or canine enough to break through the fence. He’s surely not predicting he’ll never eat another tomato again. He just keeps digging and scratching away. Even getting his head stuck in the plastic netting hasn’t scared him off. He was back at it the very next day.

Yesterday I harvested the first tomatoes from my garden. I’m planning to enjoy them tonight with a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt, and a handful of my own homegrown basil.

And I’ll be sharing a few bites with Baxter.


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Posted in Dogs, General, Motivation |

Overweight Dog Makes Owner Look Bad

By Lynne Gots, posted on April 12th, 2012.

My dog Freddie needs to lose weight.

I discovered the fact of his avoirdupois last week at his annual vet checkup. At almost fifty-three pounds, he’s only slightly more than five percent over the ideal weight for his medium-sized frame. Just a little chubby, and certainly not porcine enough to win us an appearance on the British show, “Fat Pets, Fat Owners” (to make the cut, I’d have to beef up quite a bit, too), where clueless, overweight denizens of the UK express bewilderment when they discover their dogs and cats are dangerously obese. The featured owners sit in front of the telly every night sharing packets of crisps and Cadbury chocolates with Nigel or Jemima. Their dogs need to be wheeled around the block in prams because they can’t ambulate on their own. Why, then, does it come as such a surprise to discover their pets have packed on a potentially lethal percentage of body fat?

But I digress.

If you saw Freddie, you might not know he’s carrying a little extra weight. He’s a handsome boy (such a pretty face!), well muscled, with a thick, lustrous coat that hides the excess poundage.

And does he care? Not a whit. Lacking the cognitive capacity for self-awareness, he doesn’t look at himself self-critically in the mirror. In fact, he doesn’t recognize himself in the mirror at all. If he does catch a glimpse of his reflection, he barks at it. (Translation: “That big guy better not come near me! Stay away! And, by the way, shouldn’t he cut down on the kibble?”)

So Freddie’s weight doesn’t damage his self-esteem. But it does have a negative effect on mine.

You see, I pride myself on being an informed, devoted pet owner (Sorry, PETA, but I can’t quite get on board with being my dogs’ guardian. They’re chattel.) I’m careful about what I feed my pets. I’d never give them grapes or chocolate or onions, and I panic if Baxter scarfs up even one errant raisin from the floor. Their meals consist of a high-quality, grain-free kibble with no animal by-products—purchased from a pet store subsidiary of an organic supermarket chain—which I flavor with crumbles of hamburger or hard-boiled egg, dollops of yoghurt or canned pumpkin (a digestive miracle food for dogs), and steamed green beans. As a proponent of positive training, I use food liberally to reward my dogs for desired behaviors, but the treats don’t add many calories. A single, one-centimeter square piece of doggy beef jerky can be broken into as many as ten teensy morsels, each sufficiently enticing to keep them working for more.

I also try hard to exercise my dogs, aiming for at least forty-five minutes, and preferably an hour, of walking a day. If I don’t have the time, I’ll substitute with a shorter run or a game of fetch in the yard.

One challenge, however, has been overcoming their reluctance to engage in sustained physical activity.  Baxter is now considered a “senior,” but even in his youth he lagged behind on walks, intent on sniffing the ground in search of the occasional banana peel or goose dropping. Who’d have thought, though, that I’d have trouble getting Freddie, a young and energetic Australian Shepherd, to keep up on my slow runs. He’s so balky I end up towing him behind me at the end of a six-foot leash.

And he’s not too enthusiastic about running after a Frisbee, either, despite his breed’s dominance in the sport of Disc Dog. It’s not that he can’t. He’s perfectly able to catch a flying disc with an over-the-shoulder twist at thirty yards. But when I try to engage him to play with me, he’ll snatch the Frisbee from the air on the fly and then gallop past me to a far corner of the yard, where he likes to graze on the new shoots of grass poking through the fence. (At least they’re fat-free and low-cal.) The only way I can induce him to hold up his end of the game is to reward him with food when he brings the Frisbee back to me, which, I think, kind of defeats the purpose.

As if finding the time and motivating the dogs to exercise weren’t enough, I also have to contend with my husband, who can’t resist sharing his evening snack with Baxter and Freddie. No matter how often I tell him not to slip them bits of food under the table, he always ends up giving into their soulful gazes. At least I’ve finally convinced him to substitute pieces of apple and asparagus for peanuts and pretzels.

So for all the reasons I’ve explained, Freddie’s weight isn’t completely within my control. But I still take it personally, as if somehow I’ve been derelict in my duties as a pet owner. When the vet said Freddie needed to drop a few pounds, I felt embarrassed.

OK, let’s be honest. He may be carrying some extra weight, but the excess baggage is all mine.


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Posted in Dogs |

This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.

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© 2008-2020 Lynne S. Gots, PhD. Photographs by Steven Marks Photography.