16 Things You Should Stop Doing In Order To Be Happy With Your Dog

— by Roger Abrantes

 

Roger Abrantes in 1986

Cover photo from the author’s book from 1986 “Hunden, vor ven” (The Dog, Our Friend) (photo by Ole Suszkievicz).


Here is a list of 16 things you should stop doing in order to make life with your dog happier and your relationship stronger. Difficult? Not at all. You just need to want to do it and then simply do it. You can begin as soon as you finish reading this.

1. Stop being fussy—don’t worry, be happy

Like most things in life, being a perfectionist has its advantages and disadvantages. When you own a dog, you tend to live by Murphy’s Law. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. There are so many variables that things seldom go 100% the way you expect. You can and should plan and train, but be prepared to accept all kinds of variations, improvisations, and minor mishaps along the way as long as no one is injured, of course. In most situations, less than perfect is better than good. Why worry about perfection—a concept that only exists in your mind—and doesn’t make anyone happy, neither you nor your dog?

2. Stop being too serious—have a laugh

If you don’t have a good sense of humor, don’t live with a dog. Dog ownership gives rise to many mishaps where laughter is the best way out. Mishaps are only embarrassing in our minds. Your dog doesn’t even know what embarrassment is, and you should follow its example. As long as no one gets hurt, just laugh at your and your dog’s mistakes.

3. Stop your desire to control everything—take it as it comes

When life with a dog is often dictated by Murphy’s Law, if you attempt to control your dog’s every move, you’ll end up with an ulcer or fall into a depression. Give up your need to control. Of course, you should be able to manage your dog’s behavior reasonably well for safety’s sake, but you should let go of anything that is not a matter of life or death. Reasonable rules are necessary and serve a purpose, but total control is unnecessary and self-defeating. Take it as it comes and keep smiling!

4. Stop apportioning blame—move on

When things go wrong, and they will, I assure you, don’t waste your time apportioning blame. Was it your fault, the dog’s fault, or the neighbor’s cat’s fault? Who cares? Move on and, if you found the scenario all rather upsetting, try to foresee a similar situation in the future and avoid it. If it was no big deal, forget about it.

5. Stop believing in old wives’ tales—be critical

The world is full of irrational, unfounded old wives’ tales. These days, the Internet provides us with quick and easy access to a lot of valuable information—and a lot of junk as well: bad arguments, bad definitions, unsubstantiated claims, fallacies, emotional statements, pseudo-science, sales promotions, hidden political agendas, religious preaching, etc. Of course, in the name of freedom of expression, I believe everyone should be allowed to post whatever they like, even the purest and most refined crap—but both you and I also have the right to disregard it. Use your critical thinking. Don’t stop asking yourself, “How can that be?” and “How did he/she come to that conclusion?” Suspend judgment and action until you have had time to ponder on it and, if necessary, seek a second and third opinion. If the argument is sound and you like it, then do it. If the argument is sound, but you don’t like it, don’t do it and think more about it. If the argument is unsound, reject it and think no more about it. Make up your own mind and do what you think is right.

6. Stop caring about labels—be free

We are over-swamped by labels because labels sell, but they only sell if you buy them. Should you be a positive, ultra-positive, R+, R+P-, balanced, naturalistic, moralistic, conservative, realistic, progressive, clickerian or authoritarian dog owner? Stop caring about what label you should bear. When you enjoy a great moment with your dog, the label you bear is irrelevant. A label is a burden; it restricts you and takes away your freedom. Labels are for insecure people who need to hide behind an image. Believe in yourself, be the dog owner you want to be and you won’t need labels.

7. Stop caring about what others think—live your life

You spend very little time with most of the people you meet, significantly more with family and close friends, but you live your whole life with yourself. So, why care about what other people think about you as a dog owner or your dog’s behavior, when you probably won’t see them again or will only ever see them sporadically? If they like you and your dog, fine. If they don’t, it’s not your problem.

8. Stop complaining—don’t waste your time

You only have a problem when there is a discrepancy between the way things are and the way you expect them to be. If your expectations are realistic, try and do something about achieving them. If they’re not, stop complaining, it’s a waste of time and energy. If you can do something about it, do it. If you can’t, move on. Period.

9. Stop excusing yourself—be yourself

You don’t have to excuse yourself or your dog for the way you are. As long as you don’t bother anyone, you are both entitled to do what you like and be the way you are. You don’t need to be good at anything, whether it be Obedience, Agility, Musical Free Style, Heel Work to Music, Flyball, Frisbee Dog, Earth Dog, Ski-Joring, Bike-Joring, Earthdog, Rally-O, Weight Pulling, Carting, Schutzhund, Herding, Nose Work, Therapy, Field Trials, Dock Dogs, Dog Diving, Disc Dogs, Ultimate Air Dogs, Super Retriever, Splash Dogs, Hang Time, Lure Course Racing, Sled Dog Racing or Treibball; and you don’t need excuses as to why not. You don’t even need to excuse the fact that your dog can’t sit properly. Change what you want to change and can change; and don’t waste time and energy thinking about what you don’t want to, don’t need to or can’t change. Do whatever you and your dog enjoy, however you like, so that both you and your dog are happy. It’s as simple as that!

10. Stop feeling bad—act now

If you’re unhappy with any particular aspect of your life with your dog, do something to change it. Identify the problem, set a goal, make a plan and implement it. Feeling bad and guilty doesn’t help anyone—it doesn’t help you, your dog, or the cherished ones with whom you share your life.

11. Stop your urge to own—be a mate

The ownership of living beings is slavery; and, thankfully, slavery is abolished. Don’t regard yourself as the owner of your dog. Think of your dog as a younger and less experienced mate you are responsible for and needs your guidance. You don’t own your children, your partner or your friends either.

12. Stop dependency—untie your self

Love has nothing to do with dependency, obsession and craving, quite the contrary. Love your dog but don’t create mutual dependency. Have a life of your own and give your dog some space. You and your dog are two independent individuals. Enjoy living together as free agents, not being addicted each other. Stop projecting yourself onto your dog.

13. Stop turning your dog into a substitute—show respect

A dog is a dog, and it is indeed a remarkable living being. Love it, enjoy its company, but don’t make it a substitute for a human partner, a friend, a child or a spouse. To expect anyone to be a substitute is the greatest disrespect you can show to a human as well as non-human animal—and to yourself. Stop letting your dog play a role for you and begin to love your dog as a dog.

14. Stop rationalizing—be truthful

All relationships are trades: you give and you take. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as there is balance. Be honest with yourself: what does your dog give you and what do you give your dog? If you find that one of you is almost solely a giver or a taker, think about it and redress the balance. Your dog needs you, just as you need your dog and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you both are givers and takers. You didn’t get your dog just to save the poor, little creature. You got your dog so you could both enjoy a solid and fruitful partnership.

15. Stop wanting what you can’t have—be happy with what you’ve got

That is a very common human characteristic: you always want what you haven’t, and you are blind to all the good you do have. Your dog gives you a great deal, and the two of you can be perfectly happy together, even if your dog is not particularly good at anything. It’s amazing how dog owners say they love their dogs, and yet they spend most of the time trying to change their behavior. Focus on what you do have, not on what you don’t, appreciate it and be grateful for it.

16. Stop fighting yourself—follow your heart

There are many different ways of being a good dog owner, and yours is your own and different to everyone else’s. It’s your life. As long as you don’t harm anyone, live it the way that feels good for you. Listen to experts, ponder on their advice, but, at the end of the day, do what you feel is right for you, follow your heart. Be yourself.

Life is great!

 

Dramatic second day Guinea Pig Camp

Dog and Guinea Pig.
Guinea pig and dog sharing a bonding moment (photo by Mark Taylor of http://www.marktaylorphotography.com).

 

So many lessons to learnGuinea pig camps are intense. In the morning, one of the little ones was almost unconscious. At first, I thought he was dead. Guinea pigs are fragile and when they get sick, usually, it goes quickly downhill and there’s not much we can do about it. I notified everybody that he would probably die so no one would be shocked by it, and proceeded to give him emergency care: warmth, orange juice and rest. I also gave him a few “flakes” of cucumber and carrot, and he ate them, which was a good sign.

Danielle, of the team where he belonged, monitored his progress closely. Surprisingly enough, he improved rapidly, and, at noon, he seemed to have recovered. At 2 pm, he was working, going the full course of obstacles and learning the indication behavior “paw on cube” he will need to point out the target scent when we get to that step today.

I dubbed him ลูกปุย (Lūk puy). I have this habit of naming the Guinea pigs in Thai. His name means “fluffy baby” or “fluffy ball.” ปุย is a common nickname for Thai girls, but I don’t think he cares too much about that.

Here is ลูกปุย showing his newly acquired “paw on cube” skill.

 

 

Less than perfect is… perfect, seemed to be a lesson to learn from Michaels team. His teammates are rookies, but dedicated and positive ones, and Michael is an excellent team leader. Everybody commits mistakes and, naturally, rookies error more often than experienced trainers. In order to progress, we must evaluate our POA (plan of action), analyze our mistakes and correct them—but that’s it, no more, period. Alas, I see many trainers getting too upset when things don’t go the way they want, which ends up working against their best intentions. Not so in Michael’s team, they took it cool and at the end of the day both their piggies were running the whole course and showing the indication behavior they should just perfectly.

To bring it all into perspective (see my blogs from yesterday and the day before), a little emotion and stress are necessary to learn and to achieve success—and too much defeats the purpose.

It’s all a question of balance. Amazing, isn’t it, what little creatures like the Guinea pigs can help us realize? Then again, there are lessons to learn everywhere if we care to watch and to listen. The difficult part in doing it, is that we have, if only for a moment, to forget ourselves, be aware that we are not the center of the universe even though it may appear to be so for us. Not easy, but doable and extremely gratifying, if you ask me.

Life is beautiful.

 

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How Splendid They Are—or the Importance of Imprinting

 

First Guinea pig camp day. How splendid they are, the little Guinea pigs! Between three and eight weeks of age, they are curious, friendly and quick learners. They are so totally cute! (To put it in modern American English.)

The clip above, which I’m sure you watched as soon as you arrived at this page, is a quick iPhone recording to show you little Chupa-Chupa only two hours after the team started training it. It does not live up to the quality of the movies I usually show but bear with me. I just had to capture the moment and show it to you.

I must compliment Michael and Natalie for the brilliant job they have done imprinting and socializing the young Guinea pigs. Without it, we would have spent the whole day yesterday, and would spend most of today, habituating them to the environment, novel stimuli, humans, etc. As they are, the teams could teach them all the agility obstacles. This is the first time we have achieved it in one day, undoubtedly due to the perfect imprinting and socialization of the piggies.

Though this makes it much easier for the camp attendees to train the Guinea pigs, it also deprives them of the experience of going thru the laborious process of imprinting and socialization. Fortunately, we have a couple of older piggies, Michael and Natalie got later, for comparison.

I wished dog breeders knew more about these all relevant mechanisms in the formation of behavior. Imagine that all puppies were perfectly imprinted and socialized to the human world. I bet we would see a dramatic fall in problem behavior and wouldn’t that be splendid?

 

Lorenz And Geese.

Konrad Lorenz and his geese showing the effect of imprinting.

 

Imprinting describes any kind of phase-sensitive learning (learning occurring at a particular life stage) that is rapid and apparently independent of the consequences of behavior.

Imprinting affects subsequent social adjustment and sexual behavior among others. It occurs immediately after birth or early in life. Though critical for the future behavior of the animal, its preferences and aversions, the consequences of imprinting are not as rapid or as irreversible as Lorenz and the early ethologists thought.

Studies of wolf cubs show that although the period of imprinting is longer than in ducks, and most birds, it is just as important. Holding a wolf cub in our hands for three minutes a day in the first 10 days makes all the difference in its behavior towards humans later in life. The same applies to our domestic dogs, even if they are more flexible. The difference is that we have selected dogs for thousands of years for their sociability. They have probably many genes determining this trait, allowing imprinting for longer, or over several periods.

A sensitive period (or critical period) is a limited time in which an event can occur, usually resulting in some transformation. If the organism does not receive the appropriate stimulus during this time, it may be difficult, or even impossible, to develop some functions later in life.

Evidence suggests that there may be more than one type of a sensitive period. Recent studies point out that the critical phase for sexual imprinting occurs later than that for filial imprinting. Researchers discovered that learning components are more important than previously thought. There is evidence that cumulative learning entails the release of endorphins in the brain providing a comforting feedback and, thus, fixing the association.

As amazed as the camp attendees are with the speedy progress of their training (at the end of the first day, they have gone thru all agility obstacles, including weave poles), what left them flabbergasted today was the limited use of food treats and that we did not use training tools and gadgets at all.

This is training the ethology way, my preferred method of interacting with animals. We create a relationship of mutual trust and respect, with higher benefits than costs, leading by example, meeting the animal half-way, controlling ourselves rather than the animal.

Watch this space, my friends, I will tell you more tomorrow.

 

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On My Way to LA for Guinea Pig Camp

Guinea pigs.
Guinea pigs are intelligent and curious animals, very social and showing excellent learning abilities.

 

I’m on my way to LA for the Guinea Pig Camp hosted by Michael McManus of Ready-Sit-Go. I’m looking forward to spending some time with these wonderful creatures (the Guinea pigs, that is) which have earned my respect and my heart. I have trained so many of them, and it’s never the same. They are all different with their own personality and charm.

I know Michael. He was the trainer of Nam Peum, the Guinea pig from Florida; I wrote about her last year.

 


 

น้ำผึ้ง (nám-pêung), the little Guinea Pig, was born, destined to be snake food. She did not. The first morning, she was clearly disturbed and was could not deal with the obstacles. We gave her a long break and contact, so she felt safe. At three in the afternoon, she was running the course following our fingers.

Lesson learned: don’t make it more difficult than necessary. A bad experience does not result inevitably in trauma. When you face a strong emotional response, resolve it first. Then, return to your plan of action. There was nothing wrong with her learning ability or our plan of action. We just had a temporarily inhibiting emotional response to sort out. Natural selection favors those which cope with adversity. In the evening, we put น้ำผึ้ง in her cage to rest. The next morning, to our surprise, she wasn’t there. Where was she? That’s a story for another time.

I said I was looking forward to seeing the Guinea pigs, and I am. Of course, I’m also looking forward to seeing Michael. He’s a great animal trainer with the right attitude and patience, and always cool. In the evening, we’re gonna drink some beers and play pool at my favorite sports bar and pool hall in Burbank.

By the way, before I forget it, there are still a couple of spots,  should you be interested in participating in the camp. Mail Michael right away at readysitgo@gmail.com.

“My daily blog” has run uninterruptedly for 44 days. I’ll try to write tomorrow, but I can’t promise. It all depends on where I am and whether I have an Internet connection. If you don’t hear from me tomorrow, I’ll be back after tomorrow. Be well.

Off to the airport—I have an ocean to cross, a long journey ahead.

 

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Do You Want to Become a Better Dog Trainer?

 

When we had traditional, on-campus programs at the Ethology Institute, every year the new students would invariably fall into two groups: those who wanted to become dog trainers and those who wanted to become horse trainers. Every year, I would tell them the same, “If you want to become good trainers of your favorite species, you’ll have to train other species, you’ll have to gain some perspective.”

In principle, it doesn’t matter what other animals or animal species you train. Cats, rats, parrots, they are all good and they all have a lesson for you to learn. However, there is one little and cute animal that stands to me as our (almost) ideal teacher. It is charming, social, curious, shy, and relatively easy to train. You have probably guessed it. I’m talking about the guinea pig. Today, I’m going to tell you how these little, cute animals can make you a better dog trainer, a better horse trainer, a better animal trainer, and—most importantly—a more ‘complete’ individual. Please, keep reading.

The basic skills you need to train a dog are the same you need to train any other animal. One difference—and this is good news for you—is that (mainly due to our common history) there is no other animal as easy to train as a dog. On the other hand, there is a limit to how much you learn if you only train dogs.

Dogs forgive our mistakes and are nearly always motivated to cooperate. Other species scrutinize us far more thoroughly. We must earn their trust—if they don’t trust us, they won’t cooperate with us. A horse will not follow you if it doesn’t trust you and it takes a lot to earn the trust of a horse (and only a moment to lose it). You can offer it as many carrots as you like, but if it decides you are not someone to be trusted, the best carrots in the world will be to no avail. A cat will blink, at least twice, at you and the treat you offer it before even considering moving into your direction. Then, if it deems your request reasonable, it may just indulge you—otherwise, no deal.

 

Dog and guinea pig

Dog and guinea pig together. Training a guinea pig can make you a better dog trainer (photo letsbefriends.blogspot.com).

 

The guinea pig, a favorite prey of many predators including humans, is social and fearful by nature. We don’t share a common evolutionary history with it as with the dog. You won’t get anything for free. You’ll have to work to gain your guinea pig’s trust and show it that co-operating with you is profitable in both the short and the long term.

Training guinea pigs will teach you the theory of animal learning. You’ll have to be precise and use the right procedures to produce the right behavior. You’ll explore the whole spectrum of operant conditioning, but you’ll be left gasping for more. You’ll find yourself desperately attempting to think like a guinea pig, thus entering the realm of ethology.

You can teach dogs many things without a proper plan. They are so active and eager to please that, sooner or later, they will do something you like, which you can reinforce. With dogs, you can play by ear and sing along, but with other animals, you’ll need to plan. Timing is important when you train your dog, but surprisingly enough, you’ll still achieve acceptable results even if your timing is off. With dogs, it’s like singing a melody out of tune and your friends still recognizing it. With guinea pigs, you’d better sing in tune or they will tacitly suggest you get your act together before going back to them. It’s tough, but it’s also a good lesson about life.

Much like horses, guinea pigs tend to react fearfully when in doubt (the key to their survival throughout their evolutionary history). Displaying composed, self-confident behavior works well, but anything more assertive than that will backfire on you. Dogs, these ever amazing animals, give you a second chance (and understand our bad “accents” in dog language); a horse or a guinea pig hardly ever do so. If you as much as think of trying to bully a guinea pig into doing what you want, it will probably freeze for up to 30 minutes, which is a real stopper for any aspiring trainer.

You’ll learn soon enough that coercion is not the way to go at all. Thus, you’ll learn the secrets of motivation and the beauty of working within and with your environment, rather than attempting to control it, and that in itself will lead you to unexpected and welcomed results.

If they could, I’m sure your dog and your horse would thank the guinea pigs for what they teach you when you train them, for you become, undoubtedly, a much more subtle and balanced trainer. You’ll be in control of yourself rather than the animal, motivating rather than forcing, showing the way rather than fumbling about, achieving results with the least (sometimes even imperceptible) amount of intrusion into your favorite animal’s normal behavior.

If you have a chance, give it a try. We can never learn too much, can we?

 

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The Importance of Confidence in Animal Training

Confidence comes with success and success comes when you are confident—believe in yourself.

More often than you might realize, your animal training, independently of species, does not succeed because you don’t believe it will. Doubting yourself, your abilities, or the outcome of your behavior has an impact on those with whom you communicate.

Dogs, horses, cats, guinea pigs, just to mention a few, are experts in reading your body language. They will detect the slightest hint of doubt. If you don’t know or aren’t sure of what you want or what you’re doing, how do you want the animal to feel safe by following your instructions?

Here’s your plan of action: work it all out first and then do it believing fully that you will succeed. Don’t worry about the animal. Control yourself and your emotions. If you’re good, it will end up good.

“What if I don’t succeed, anyway?” you may now ask.

Tough luck, sometimes it does not work! In that case, return to square one, re-think your plan and go for it once more—and, as always, believing in yourself and that you’ll succeed.

Enjoy your training—but, first and foremost, enjoy spending time with another living creature.

"Relax, enjoy, believe in yourself" from the movie "Confidence" by Roger Abrantes.

“Relax, enjoy, believe in yourself” from the movie “Confidence” by Roger Abrantes.

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Can two training methods be equally good?

Treat Training Dog Cartoon

I receive many emails with questions about animal behavior. Most of them involve practical issues, but, now and then, someone poses a more complex question. Here is my answer to one of the latter, one I’d like to share with you because it deals with important issues for our understanding of animal behavior and training.

Dear ….,

Thanks for your comment, which gives me the opportunity to clarify a few issues. By no means, I see animals as biological robots or do I regard the Skinnerian approach as the truth, the only truth and nothing but the truth, quite the contrary (please, consider the following passages from “Mission SMAF—Bringing Scientific Precision Into Animal Training”).

“In fact, I suspect that [communication] even involves more than what science can describe with the intrinsic limitations of its key concepts and methods, no matter how stringent they are.”

“It seems to me, therefore, that our goal must not be to oppress or suppress emotions, but rather control them and use them advantageously. Emotional arousal proves to be necessary to learn and the right amount of emotional arousal even shows to increase the efficiency of learning processes.” (A very non-Skinnerian statement, I would say).

As to my own method to analyze learning processes in artificial set-ups (like in animal training), I write: “In a crude sense, SMAF is an oversimplification of complex processes […] certainly not an attempt to reduce complex mechanisms to a few formulas. In the end, [its] value depends solely on its successful application to solving practical problems; beyond that it has no value.”

Operant conditioning (when we use it correctly) is an efficient model of behavior for animal training because we control the conditionals to a certain extent (as Pavlov explains in its original writings, not the subsequent translations). Whilst operant conditioning is adequate to analyze behavior at a particular level, beyond that it is too crude a tool. To do that, we need evolutionary models and tools like variation, selection, adaptation, fitness, function, evolutionary strategies, ESS (evolutionarily stable strategies), cost and benefit, etc. Thus, my approach to behavior is based on evolutionary biology and philosophically sound argumentation.

Greetings,

RAA

The core of the argument is reductionism, the view that we can reduce complex processes to the sum of its simpler parts. In a sense, all science is reductionistic. We attempt to explain complex processes with a few notions well organized in little boxes. This is a process that seems to suit our human brain particularly well.

However, we must bear in mind that our interpretations, independently of how good they are, are just our pictures of an illusive reality. They explain parts of it from particular angles so we can make sense of it. Newton and Einstein, the classical example, are (probably) both right, only explaining reality at two different levels.

There’s nothing wrong about being a reductionist if only we do not get greedy and attempt to explain far too much with far too little as in, “That’s it, this is the way things are. Period.” Simplifying gets us often to the point, which complicating and oversimplifying, both have missed.

In animal training, one theory or one method can be as good as another depending on its foundations, approaches, what it attempts to explain and what practical purposes it intends to serve. If both are based on reliable evidence, use well-defined terms, and are logically sound, there’s little to choose between one or the other.

If only animal trainers would understand that, I believe we would forgo many senseless disputes.

Then again, we can brag about being the most emotional creatures on this big blue marble of ours, can’t we?

 

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The most powerful training tool

Roger Abrantes in 1985 working with Silas, the wolf cub.

Roger Abrantes in 1985 working with Silas, the wolf cub.

Those were the days! Yours truly in 1985 with Silas, the wolf cub. Notice the whistle hanging around my neck. I used it as a conditioned positive reinforcer (yes, the precursor of the clicker). Silas preferred, though, my own verbal reinforcer (“dygtig”) because, I guess, it was always associated with a friendly body language and facial expression, and meant accept. For wolves, much more sensitive to social situations than dogs, accept is the ultimate social reinforcer; for the cubs, it is vital. These were the first observations that led me to suspect that the verbal and the mechanic conditioned positive reinforcers were by no means the same. Since part of the verbal reinforcer (the body language and facial expression) was partially unlearned, I later classified it as a semi-conditioned reinforcer.

If you ask me today, I’ll answer you without hesitating that the most powerful tool you have when working with animals is yourself. If you control yourself, your body language, your facial expressions and the little you say, you’ll achieve what you pretend and more. After all, this shouldn’t come as a surprise—interacting with someone is not only a question of conditioning a series of behaviors, it’s foremost a question of building a relationship.

You can see me illustrate this in the DVD “The 20 Principles All Animal Trainers Must Know” shot by the Tawzers in Montana last year. Watch the trailer here.

Animal Training My Way

Animal Training My Way—The Merging of Ethology and Behaviorism by Roger Abrantes.
This book is about making simple things simpler but not simpler than necessary. It’s about knowing what you want and what you need to get it. It’s about training animals, changing their behavior and creating harmonious relationships, but it’s foremost about training ourselves and changing our behavior.