Mr Hooper's Sketch
Twenty-seven years ago I was twice my daughter's age. For those of you who want to do the math, my daughter is currently two and a half years old - just old enough to start enjoying Sesame Street.
Sometimes I eat my breakfast watching TV with my daughter. Not a whole lot has changed on Sesame Street in the last twenty-seven or so years, even a lot of the original cast is still there. Big Bird hasn't aged a day, even if his puppeteer, Carol Spinner, has.
On the wall behind Big Bird's nest sits a sketch of an elderly, balding man with glasses. Seeing that sketch the other day made me feel sad, I recognised that it was of an old character from the show, someone dear to Big Bird. I couldn't remember much about the character, but the name "Mr Cooper" came to mind.
The image and the name played on me for a couple of days. This morning I sat down with my eggs while my daughter was watching Sesame Street again. Elmo was out the front of "Hooper's Store". It suddenly came to me - the sketch was of Mr Hooper, who owned the store and used to make Big Bird his "bird-seed milkshakes".
I still couldn't justify why that sketch made me feel so sad, though. Maybe it was nostalgia? Maybe it was the way he still found a place in the show through an image in his likeness and the store named after him?
But I don't normally feel "sad" when I get nostalgic. Actually, I don't care much for nostalgia either. So I checked out the Wikipedia entry for Sesame Street. For some reason Wikipedia is far more accurate on pieces of television trivia than it is on topics such as behavioural science or dog training.
There was the story of Mr Hooper and episode 1839. Wouldn't you know it, Big Bird, for reasons unknown, could never seem to get the name "Mr Hooper" right, always calling him "Mr Looper" or "Mr Cooper" (the name that I had remembered).
Episode 1839 was the episode where Big Bird makes sketches of all the adults on Sesame Street, including Mr Hooper, who had recently passed away. Big Bird doesn't understand that death is permanent, and that Mr Hooper is never coming back. The adults (and writers) of Sesame Street do a very admirable job of not sugar-coating the death of Mr Hooper, and allowing Big Bird to feel angry and sad about the loss of his dear friend. The emotion they show is genuine, and apparently this scene was shot in one take, I doubt such sincerity can be acted.
It certainly must have had quite an impact on a five year old boy for him to feel sad at the mere sight of Mr Cooper's sketch on the wall behind Big Bird's nest - twenty-seven years later, while eating breakfast with his daughter.
I remembered very few of the details, but I did remember the feelings that I felt while watching that episode as a five year old boy, possibly my first experience with human death. Just that simple sketch of Mr Hooper was enough to trigger those same feelings, twenty-seven years later. Every experience I have had with death has been influenced by episode 1839 of Sesame Street, in 1982, but I wasn't consciously aware of this until today.
People with reactive dogs, or aggressive dogs, or fearful dogs often want to "fix" those feelings. We all want to believe that we can change how a dog feels about something. Sometimes we even fail to recognise that an animal is not just being melodramatic, but that something real has happened in that animal's experience with life and it has learned to feel this way about certain things. The triggers for those feelings might be as subtle as a sketch on the wall in the background, many years later.
Classical Conditioning is powerful. And persistent. It does not require conscious thought or awareness and you can't think your way out of it. Your thoughts might influence it, but something deeper has to occur, and this must be accepted with the sort of humility that human ego is rarely capable of because it can't explain it.
Feelings must be acknowledged, and respected. They are just as real as sticks and stones.
I don't mean to suggest that we can't change how a dog feels about something, but we must have a healthy respect for those feelings. We must have patience. You can lead but you can't force, and no matter how many years of experience you have behind you, or how many degrees in behavioural science, or what the testimonials on your website say you cannot dictate the terms of this process.
It doesn't matter how much we learn about the behaviour of living organisms. The very fact that they are living means that we cannot treat them like programmable machines.