New Perspective: From Service Dog to Demo Dog

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival graphic. A square graphic, with a lavender background. A leggy purple dog of unidentifiable breed, with floppy ears and a curly tail, in silhouette, is in the center. Words are in dark blue, a font that looks like it's dancing a bit.

It’s time for the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival, and the theme for this edition — hosted by Laura at Canines In Action — is “perceive.”

My life has changed drastically since I recovered my health. Barnum’s life has changed a lot, too! In the past month, Barnum has earned his CGC (Canine Good Citizen — an AKC title) and his CLASS (Canine Life And Social Skills), BA with honors. In the course of preparing for these tests, I have realized that how I perceive Barnum has also changed. I hope I bring this new way of seeing when I work with others who are training their own service dogs.

When you work toward a very high standard, it is easy to get too focused on unattainable perfection. I want to help others achieve a high standard while also appreciating how far they have already come!

* * *

When I got Barnum, I was extremely ill and in terrible physical and emotional distress. Awash in grief over the death of my second service dog, Gadget, whose help and companionship I missed in equal measure, I was not really able to see Barnum for who he was. Yet I wanted Barnum to be an even better SD than Gadget had been.

The work that went into Barnum’s career began years before he was born. I researched the Bouvier breeders I thought would be best. And the breeder I chose had spent years on her breeding. Then, based on her observations of her puppies and on their temperament tests, the breeder chose Barnum as the best puppy to be my future service-dog-in-training.

Once he got home, I went to great effort to socialize him to everything — dogs, horses, cows, children, elderly people, police officers, skateboarders. The sounds of chainsaws, thunderstorms, owls, rock concerts. I took him to farms, construction sites, and office buildings. I really wanted him to be able to work well in any situation.

But I was terribly disappointed in Barnum because he was not Gadget perfect. He was a puppy. He was not an Einstein. He was a sweet, “soft” dog. We were not flying through his training with lightening speed and mind-blowing success.

Then I found Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels, and I started learning how to lay out a really solid foundation for all SDiT behaviors with ANY dog. I learned about the importance of training the dog who shows up (not the dream dog I wished I had). And slowly, over time, I trained a great in-home service dog.

I didn’t train Barnum for public access — even though that had been my plan and what I’d done with previous SDs — because I was too sick. I was stuck in bed and at home, so it was just too hard to do the training we needed in the wide world. Also, since I actually needed a service dog’s help at home, it made more sense to put in the effort to do what was immediately useful.

A part of me still blamed Barnum for not being a perfect, all-round service dog. I thought that if he’d been more food motivated, less distracted, or smarter, he could have worked in public. Nevermind that he never had a chance to put in the hundreds of hours he needed to learn to work in public.

* * *

After I got well, I no longer needed a service dog. I began pursuing my dream of becoming a professional dog trainer. That meant taking classes with Barnum so that I could have the student’s experience as well as so Barnum could learn how to focus and work in highly distracting environments. I wanted to prepare him to become my “demo dog.”

Over the past five months, Barnum and I have taken four six-week classes: a basic manners and obedience class, an intermediate manners and obedience class, a Rally Freestyle class, and a Canine Good Citizen class. I didn’t take the classes so he could learn new skills. No, I wanted something simpler: “I just want the kerflushinner dog to FOCUS on me and NOT pull toward the other dogs! If he can just use his brain and even remember how to SIT around other dogs, I’ll be happy!”

Of course, I quickly forgot that that had been my goal and wanted him to actually succeed at what we were doing. When we took Rally Freestyle (a class on the basics of dancing with your dog), we did learn new skills, such as leg weaves and spins, and we learned them relatively well and quickly because Barnum already knew how to learn, and I already knew how to train. Furthermore, I discovered that having learned the great precision needed for pivot turns or backing up next to a powerchair translated really well into dance moves! [Link to first video for email subscribers.]

[Link to second video for email subscribers.] [Text description of all videos.]

You know what I didn’t notice in those videos until I was writing this post? Barnum’s wagging tail. He is wagging his way through our dance routine, totally happy and focused on me in a room full of other people and dogs.

The Rally Free class was two months ago. Last night, as I drove us to our CLASS evaluation, I was completely confident. I was certain  — unless something really unexpected happened — that we would pass with flying colors. And we did. It didn’t matter that we were in a pet store, that there were people and other dogs walking around, that there were shopping carts rattling, parrots and the PA squawking, aisles full of dog food and treats and toys. I expected him to be focused and thoughtful and on-task, and he was.

This is how a service dog should be, but Barnum didn’t have the chance to achieve this level when he was a service dog.

What’s more, I don’t think either of my previous service dogs (who WERE trained for public access) were ever as well trained as Barnum is now.

Yes, Gadget and Jersey worked in public. They did their long down-stays on the floors of grocery stores, doctor’s offices, and emergency rooms. They were quiet and polite and willing. They didn’t snorffle people or food. They were well-trained enough that people were always surprised that I had trained them myself and said, “I wish MY dog behaved that way.”

Even though they usually met that most important service dog standard of being as unobtrusive as large, hairy dogs could be, they were never truly relaxed and familiar enough with working in those environments to perform at the level they did at home. Jersey and Gadget could sit and down and heel in those environments, but their more complex skills — such as cued retrieves — were totally unreliable in public. I can’t imagine asking Gadget to open a door or shut off a light in a public space, but I bet that Barnum could do either of those in a store, doctor’s office, or training facility. Which is good since hopefully eventually we’ll be teaching and demonstrating those skills in novel environments one day!

* * *

Each time I’ve trained a new service dog, I’ve wanted this dog to be better trained than the previous one. And each time, I’ve been very proud of myself and of my dog, yet terribly aware of all the areas we have not lived up to what I have hoped. I tend to work so hard to get to the next level that I forget what it has taken to get where we are and to just enjoy BEING there in the moment.

A few weeks ago, Barnum did his first demo dog stint. I brought him in to teach the basics of clicker training to twelve new dog owners taking their first dog manners and obedience class. As I began the “pass the puppy” portion of my spiel, I wondered whether Barnum would be able to follow cues from twelve new people three times each, whether he would stay focused, whether he would be relaxed enough to take treats gently. I was on the watch for anything we might do wrong.

But the students loved him.

“What kind of dog is he?”

“How many commands does he know?”

“How long did it take him to learn all this?”

After his last round of demos — when Barnum had eagerly done twelve nose targets to twelve students’ hands in the class –one of the students turned to his girlfriend and said, “Now I think our dog totally sucks!”

I laughed really hard. It was such a wonderful compliment to Barnum. It is also a terrific reminder of how ridiculous it is to compare one dog to another. I said to this student, “Barnum has been training for his entire life! By the end of this class, your dog will know how to do ‘Touch,’ too.”

When I see Barnum through others’ eyes, I realize how far we have come, how fluent and reliable his skills are, and how the solid foundations we built when he was young really have allowed us to do whatever we want. It really doesn’t matter that he is not the smartest or fastest or most motivated dog on the planet. What matters is that he knows how to learn, I know how to teach, and he is happy while he is working.

This is the gift I want to bring to others. I want to help people to train their dogs to be relaxed, eager, and focused. More importantly, I want them to see this about their dogs because when they get there, there will be nothing they can’t do.

Dog-Walking Safety Tips (around cars, hunters, snow…)

It’s that time of year in New England: daylight is limited, snow is plentiful, visibility is sometimes poor, and hunters are out. It’s a good time to take a few safety precautions on behalf of yourself and your dog. (And if you’re reading this in the summer, it’s a good time to make preparations for the winter!)

Visibility Gear

It’s the middle of winter: snow blocks the sidewalks or narrows roads where there are no sidewalks. It’s dark in the morning or the evening when you walk your dog. And some of the motorists driving past might be driving to or from holiday parties or the mall, where they might be a little tipsy or extra distracted and stressed out. And if you’re in a rural area, people are out hunting deer.

It’s a good time of year for visibility gear for you and your dog!

Blaze Orange or Hunter Orange Vests are my favorite dog gear.

Here’s why:

Hunters look for blaze orange (also called hunter orange) before they shoot. If your dog is wearing blaze orange, he is a lot less likely to be mistaken for a bear or deer and accidentally shot. (I mention bears because my last three dogs have been Bouviers des Flandres, which are often mistaken for black bears by the general public!)

Most blaze orange vests also include reflective strips that catch the light from headlights. This alerts drivers that there is something there they need to watch for!

Dogs come to associate their blaze orange vest with walks. So even a dog who doesn’t start out liking wearing a vest will eventually view it as a signal that fun is on the way.

Wardrobe flexibility. There are fleece or flannel visibility vests for winter wear, mesh or lightweight nylon for summer wear. You can even find blaze orange dog raincoats or snuggies!

Vests provide more coverage than a blaze orange collar, leash, strobe, or bandanna, making them easier to see. This is especially important for big dogs, dark dogs, and very hairy dogs whose fur might cover a visibility collar.

Vests or coats last a long time. After a few years, the fabric fades and needs to be replaced, but one or two blaze orange vests often last for the lifetime of my dog. It’s worth the investment!

Check out these pictures of my dogs, below, which were taken in the daylight and with good visibility. How much harder would they be to see in poor light without these vests?

Sure, when it’s a black dog on a light background, as in this picture of Barnum on the frozen pond, he’s very easy to see….

Barnum running on the white snow, black furry dog in orange vest.

But what how much more visible is Gadget in his blaze orange winter-weight fleece vest among the trees? (Readers of After Gadget, might recognize this picture from the blog header.)

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Here’s Barnum on the same day and just a short distance away from that picture of running on the ice….

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Dog Lights and Strobes

My second-favorite visibility item for dogs is a flashing light. A flashing light really stands out in the dark in the country. Just be aware that if your dog is very furry or shaggy, a light might not show up as well because it can be “muffled” by their fur. On the downside, a light eventually either runs out of battery power or breaks. A vest lasts much longer.

Here are a random assortment of pet lights:

Other visibility gear for dogs

That being said, if a vest or coat isn’t right for your dog, there are also bandannas, collars and leashes, and a host of other visibility gear for dogs. Here’s a variety of handmade blaze orange dog gear on etsy. If you have a hard-to-fit dog, there are great custom dog gear resources.

Safety for the OTHER End of the Leash (YOU!)

People need to be safe in the low light, too. Especially if your dog is off leash, you won’t be visible even if your dog is. I often call my dog over to me if a car is coming. I want us both to be visible!

Neon yellow mesh vest with white reflective strips and neon orange stripes.

My favorite safety items for me are

Train for Safety!

You cannot control what other people do. You can control what your dog does. The tips below will help you and your dog build communication skills to keep your dog safer on walks. The one I spend the most time on is the recall because that’s the most important thing for your dog to know to be safe on a walk.

GSD running

Recall (Coming When Called)

If you walk your dog off leash, the most important skill you can teach is a strong recall (coming when called). If your dog does not always come eagerly and consistently when you call, you will want to pick a new word or phrase as your recall cue.

There is more than one way to train a great recall, but the sure-fire ways to ruin a strong recall are universal.

What not to do…

These are the four things you must never do if you want your dog to have a strong recall on a walk, or anywhere else. The first is the most important.

  1. Never make the dog sorry she came. This means never call the dog and do something she dislikes. Don’t call her and then yell at her for coming too slowly or put the medication in her ear she hates or give her a bath or put her in her crate so you can go to work.(If you need to crate your dog, bathe her, put medicine in her ear, etc., go to her and lead her to the tub or crate. Do not call her over. Or, if you must call her in from the yard, first reward her heavily and then wait at least five or ten minutes, ignoring her, before you go and get her — don’t call her — and do the unpleasant thing.)
  2. Don’t call her unless you are 99 percent certain she will come! Training is built on successes. You practice calling her over and over so she learns to always come. This is training for the eventual day when she is running into the street and you need to call her. If you call her, and she doesn’t come, you have just done one training session teaching her to ignore your recall cue.
  3. Don’t repeat your recall cue in the hope that it will get her to come the third or eighth time. Say your recall cue is “Maggie, come!” If you end up saying, “Maggie come. Come! Come here, dammit!” Eventually you will have to say “Maggie come. Come! Come here, dammit!” every time to get her to come.
  4. Never make your dog sorry he came — from the dog’s point of view! This means not only don’t do things you know your dog doesn’t like when you call him, but also don’t do things he doesn’t LOVE, especially when calling him away from things he does love.For example, often people praise their dog and pat them on the head when they come. A lot of dogs don’t care that much about praise. Sure, they like it OK, but will they leave a squirrel or a pile of horse poop or another dog for praise? Probably not. Also, most dogs don’t like being petted on the head. You think you are doing something the dog should enjoy, but your dog doesn’t agree. You have to make coming to you worthwhile from your dog’s perspective. When you call your dog, you want their perspective to be that they have just won the doggy lottery.

Make Your Recall Word Marvelous

I like to use classical conditioning for recalls. This means that you make a positive association for the dog between a really happy event and their recall word. For most dogs, the most exciting part of the day is their meal. If there is anything else your dog is overjoyed about (such as going for a ride in the car), you can pair it with that, too.

For the first three weeks, every time you are about to feed your dog, say his recall word right before you put his food bowl down. Remember that if your dog already has a lackluster recall word, you want to pick a brand new cue that he has no associations with for this training. (With my second service dog, Gadget, his new recall word was “porcupine.” I wanted a word I could think of easily if he was racing toward a porcupine!)

For example, if your lackluster recall word has been “come,” instead of saying “Peppy, come!” when you put down Peppy’s food bowl, you will be using “here,” as in “Peppy, here!”

So, every day for three weeks, you will ONLY say, “Peppy, here!” when you are putting Peppy’s bowl down. If you feed twice a day, you will be doing two repetitions a day. It doesn’t matter if Peppy is standing right there next to you, about to dive into his bowl, before you say it. You are not actually calling him right now. Right now you are teaching Peppy that Marvelous Things Happen for Peppy When I Say the Magic Word.

For these three weeks, DON’T say, “Peppy, here” when you’re calling him to come. Keep using your old lackluster come cue for now. Peppy doesn’t know that what “Here” means yet.

If there is something else Peppy is completely wild about, such as getting a nightly Greenie or bully stick or going for a ride in the car, you can say, “Peppy, here!” right before you hand over the bully stick or as you open the car door. Don’t pair it with anything that is not like Christmas morning for your dog.

Start Using Your New Recall Word in the House Only

Now you are going to teach Peppy that coming when you say this word makes the Doggy Lottery pay off. To do this, get 30 small pieces of Peppy’s favorite food. Not dog food. Not kibble. Use hot dogs, cheese, hamburger, liverwurst, roasted chicken. Stuff your dog does not normally get to eat. It should be moist people food that is equivalent to $100 bills for him. They can be the size of an M&M or smaller.

Take nine pieces of this fabulous food when Peppy is in the house, and you’re sure he will come. Say, “Peppy, here!” And praise as he runs to you. When he gets to you, praise him to the heavens and give him the nine treats one after the other, praising him the whole time.

Then you’ll need to get him away from you so you can call again. Toss one treat a few feet from you and as he finishes slurping it up, say, “Peppy, here!” again. Praise him like wild again and give him nine treats in a row again.

Do that one more time and end. Do not repeat it until he gets full or bored or distracted. You want to end when he is thinking, “This is the best game EVER. I want to play this ALL DAY.”

Repeat this in different parts of the house at least once a day for the next week. Sometimes do three repetitions. Sometimes do one. Sometimes do four. Dogs can keep count, so you don’t want it to be the same every time. Just keep it short and make sure the treats are fabulous and plentiful.

Start Adding Low-Level Distractions

Now make it just a tiny bit harder. For example, if you take Peppy for an off-leash run at the park everyday, do not try to call him when you first let him off leash and he’s super excited to run off. Instead, do almost your whole run and then, when he’s tired and not terribly interested in anything else that’s happening, call him with your new recall word. When he gets to you, SHOWER HIM WITH PRAISE AND FANTASTIC TREATS. You did bring your 10 pieces of hot dog or cheese with you, right?

Then, release him to go run around some more. This is important. You do not want coming to you to mean, “The fun’s over. We’re leaving now.”

Over time, continue to practice coming when called, following these steps:

  1. Call your dog only when you are sure she’ll come.
  2. Praise her the moment she looks at you or starts running to you.
  3. When she gets to you, give her really fantastic food.
  4. If you called her away from something she enjoys, release her back to doing that thing some more.

Continue this for the lifetime of your dog! You will have a very strong recall!

If you don’t want to always carry hot dogs or cheese around with you, you can reward your dog with other good things when you call. Throw the ball if he’s a fetch enthusiast. Pull out the tug rope if he loves to tug. But keep in mind that to keep the recall strong, you need to make it pay off really well, so use it sparingly and pay off really big one way or another. One day, when you absolutely need the recall, you want your dog to have lots and lots of experiences of knowing that coming when you call is the best choice he can possibly make.

GSD sitting outside

Sit on a Walk or at a Distance

Another behavior I use a lot for walks is “sit.” I usually train my dogs to come to me and sit if a car is coming. I live in a rural area with few cars, so this usually only happens two or three times during an hour-long walk. A dog who is sitting can’t also be chasing cars or eating garbage. This gives you some control over the dog until things are safe again.

A lot of dogs know what “sit” means when they’re in the house, but they don’t know the game is the same outside. Bring some really tasty treats (hot dogs, cheese, roast beef, broken up pizza crust) on your walk. When your dog is already paying attention to you and is nearby, ask her to sit. If she does, praise and give her a piece of delicious food. If she doesn’t, don’t repeat the cue. Instead, lure her into a sit by holding the food right above her nose and pulling it back toward her eyes. Her nose will follow it up, and her butt will go down. Praise and give her the food. Do this twice more and then switch to asking for the sit and then praising and giving the treats.

Ask for a sit two or three times each time you go for a walk. Always pay up with something delicious.

Over time, you can start asking for a sit when she’s looking at you and is a foot away. Praise quietly, walk toward her, pop the treat in her mouth, and release her to run around some more. When she’s good at that, increase your distance little by little — two feet, then three feet. Eventually, you can ask her to sit when she’s 20 feet away, praise quietly as you walk to her, feed her, and release her. This is a really useful safety tool if you need her to stay put while a car or bear goes by!

Enjoy your winter walks!

There’s lots more you can train on walks to make them more interesting, safer, and more enriching for you and your dog. These are important first steps. How about you? What skills do you think are essential for winter walks — in the country, the suburbs, or the city?

Enrichment: Make Your Dog Happy while Preventing Common Behavior Issues!

What is enrichment?

Enrichment is giving your dogs things to do to keep their minds and bodies active, exercised, or engaged.

Dogs evolved to work. First, as their wild ancestors, they had to hunt or forage for their food. Later, domesticated dogs had to work with people as hunting, herding, or fishing assistants, as protectors of the farms or homes, or as racers or vermin catchers.

Today, dogs whose job is “companion” still have the drives that their ancestors had to forage and hunt for their food. This means that what dogs are programmed to spend several hours doing — finding and eating their meals — instead takes them just a few minutes in a day. This leaves most domestic dogs — whose food is plunked down in front of them in a bowl with no challenge — severely understimulated. After they gulp down their meal, what do they do with the rest of their day?

Busy dogs are good dogs; bored dogs are . . . less good dogs

We are not used to thinking of our pets as bored. We see them napping or greeting us happily, and we don’t know what else may be going on in their minds. But our dogs don’t have the language to say to us, as a child might, “I’m bored! There’s nothing to do!”

Even if your dog spends half her day sleeping, that still leaves several hours each day when she needs to do something to occupy her mind . . . and mouth and paws. If you’re home and available, you might spend this time cuddling, playing, or otherwise engaging your pet, but when dogs are home alone or when their humans are busy, many find their own “games” to occupy themselves. The activities they come up with to busy themselves — barking at people and cars outside, foraging for food (in the trash or on the kitchen counter), or having a satisfying chew on your shoes or the couch — are often games we do not appreciate!

There are many types of enrichment — sensory, cognitive, social, and more — that can make your dog happier, more content, and less destructive. To learn more about how to offer diverse kinds of enrichment to your dog or cat, pick up the book Beyond Squeaky Toys: Innovative Ideas for Eliminating Problem Behaviors and Enriching the Lives of Dogs and Cats.

This post focuses on one type of enrichment — giving dogs the opportunity to work for their food. This type of enrichment is often quick, easy, and inexpensive for human caretakers and can give our dogs hours of enjoyable fun and mental exercise. It also means that while they are busy working for their food, they are not engaging in other activities we don’t like!

Also, mental exercise can be much more tiring for a dog than physical exercise. If you’ve ever started studying a new language or taken an intensive math class and just wanted to take a nap or zone out in front of the TV after, you have experienced this yourself! A dog who is working his brain is often pleasantly wiped out afterward and happy to take a nap. A tired puppy is a good puppy!

Isn’t it mean to make a dog work for his food?

Just the opposite! Dogs LOVE to work for their food. We can see this excitement at work when we give a dog a food-dispensing toy that they have to paw at, push with their nose, bounce around, or excavate with their tongue; they become very enthusiastic about playing with that toy and getting every last bit of food out.

In fact, most of the time, a dog who has learned the joy of a feeder toy will ignore a bowl of food in favor of a food-dispensing puzzle toy that she has to work to get the food out of! There is even a name for this phenomenon among scientists who study animal behavior: “counterfreeloading”!

Egg-shaped ball made of hard, clear plastic with purple rubber lattice on the outside.

The Kibble Nibble

Here is a review of the “Kibble Nibble,” a vanilla scented feeder toy, where the owner describes this phenomenon:

Can someone explain to me what magic properties regular dog food has that when you make it difficult to get to, it becomes the most highly desired treat ever??? I have a 1 1/2 year old Golden Retriever that is a freak of nature. She is the kind of dog that you can put an entire day’s worth of kibble out and she’ll just munch on it off and on throughout the day. BUT if you put that EXACT SAME KIBBLE into this toy, she is on a mission from God to get every single piece out this very second….I’ve been laid up after having hip resurfacing surgery so haven’t been able to play with my dog as much the past couple weeks. This ball has definitely helped easy some of her boredom.

Will this take a lot of extra time?

No, not for you. It will take more time for your dog, though. Time that he will NOT spend anxiously awaiting your return or barking out the window, jumping on guests, or shredding the toilet paper.

If you feed your dog a bowl of kibble twice a day, instead you can simply pour their meal into a feeder toy twice a day. If you feed wet food (such as canned dog food or raw ground meat), you can stuff some Kongs with his food, pop the Kongs in the freezer, and hand them out for their meals. A Kongsicle is a delightful challenge for a bored dog!

Always make sure to supervise your dog with any new feeder toy until you are sure they can use it safely. While feeder toys are generally designed to be very safe, some potential dangers are the following: Chewing or taking in the mouth a toy that should not be chewed, breaking a toy that could be ingested or cut the dog, shoving a toy into a closet and ending up locked in (Barnum did this!), etc. Most dogs can play with most feeder toys safely unsupervised once they know how to use it and the area they’re in is “dog safe,” but until you know for sure, it’s best to supervise the first few sessions with a new toy.

Here are some of my favorite toys to feed my dogs from. 

Kibble-Dispensing Toys

  • The IQ Treat Ball is sturdy, inexpensive, has adjustable levels of difficulty from easy to challenging, can be “worked” with a nose or a paw or both, and is great for dogs of many different sizes and breeds. (I recommend the large size — five inches — for all but tiny dogs.) What would otherwise be hoovered down in a minute can now make for a half hour of great fun, physical and mental exercise! (Here’s a video of Barnum playing with the IQ Treat Ball.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MTG4Dn7mGU
  • Another very popular feeder toy is the Buster Cube. This is a big toy (which comes in two sizes) that you can fit a lot of food in at once. It has the advantage of being too big to fit in a dog’s mouth (even a very big dog), making it hard to destroy and very safe for even aggressive chewers. It also has an easier and more challenging setting, though it’s not as easy for people to fiddle with the levels as the IQ Treat Ball. Because it’s so big, you can fit even a large dog’s entire meal into the toy pretty easily. (This is the loudest toy. See quieter toys in the “Troubleshooting” section below.)

    A hard plastic cube, but with rounded corners and edges. There's a large hole in the center of one of the sides.

    It’s Big. It’s Orange. It’s Loud!

  • The Kong Wobbler is Barnum’s favorite feeder toy. This is a big, heavy toy that the dog can smack around with a paw or nose, and instead of rolling, it wobbles and skids and gives out unpredictable amounts of kibbles.

Toys to Stuff with Wet (Canned or Raw) Food

  • Kongs are the classic enrichment toy. They are made of natural rubber, can be washed in the dishwasher, and last for many years. If you have a very aggressive chewer, get the black Kong. For most dogs, red Kongs are best. It’s also a good idea to go up a size or two because you can fit more in a big Kong, and you don’t have to worry about the dog ingesting it. So, if your dog is small, get a medium or large. If your dog is large, get the XXL, etc.
  • There are other versions of Kongs, such as the large and sturdy Kong Stuff-a-Ball, and the smaller and less rugged (but tennis-ball sized) Kong Biscuit Ball.
  • There are some other rubber toy manufacturers. The West Paw Tux is an all-natural rubber toy that can be stuffed and will be replaced for free if your dog ever chews through it!
  • The Busy Buddy Twist’n Treat works with both wet and dry food and has adjustable levels of difficulty.

Do I need to buy toys? Are there free solutions?

Yes, there are! While the toys listed above are generally around $10 or less each, you can also make food-dispensing toys from things around the house. Here are some tricks that I learned from Beyond Squeaky Toys (and there are more ideas in the book). Definitely supervise your dog with these as some of them can present a choking hazard if they are shredded or chewed.

  • Use an empty plastic water or soda bottle. Make sure it’s clean (especially if it had soda or juice in it that had xylitol, which is an additive that is poison for dogs). Pour kibble into the clean, dry bottle, and let your dog bat it around to get out the food! (If you want a more durable version of this, there is the Busy Buddy Tug-a-Jug [vanilla scented].)
  • Lick clean the empty jar of nut butter. When you finish a jar of peanut butter (or other nut butter, or applesauce, or anything your dog loves to eat that is safe for him), you can give it to him to lick clean! (Not sure which foods are unsafe for dogs? Here’s a list of foods toxic to dogs from the ASPCA.)
  • Tennis ball o’ kibble. Take a tennis ball, cut a few slits in it with a razor blade, and stuff kibble into it.
  • Paper bag surprise. Do you have a lot of extra paper bags around the house? Put some food in a few of them. Or put the treat-dispensing toys inside paper bags or cardboard boxes for your dog to find and extricate.
  • Forage. This is the easiest one and can be done indoors or outdoors. Take your dog’s breakfast or dinner kibble and scatter it on the ground! Then they have to sniff it out with their nose.

Troubleshooting

This toy is too noisy!

Some toys are much noisier than others. Especially if you have hardwood or tile floors, the Buster Cube, Kong Wobbler, Kibble Nibble, and IQ Treat Ball are very loud. I don’t mind it except when I am on the phone, but Betsy hates the noise. If you like peace and quiet, and you are satisfied that your dog is safe with her toys, you can give your dog the toys right as you leave the house (to give them something to do while they’re alone).

Otherwise, you can try a toy that has a softer outer surface. The rubber Kongs are usually pretty quiet because they are rubber, not hard plastic. There are also kibble feeders that are quieter, though you still usually hear the kibble rattle around inside the toy.

Some quieter kibble feeder toys are . . .

This toy is too easy! My dog gets all the treats out in a minute!

There are a few ways to make toys more challenging.

  • You can put it inside a bag or box or hide it in a different room so the dog has to work to get to the toy.
  • You can put food in a few toys and hide them around the house.
  • You can use a toy with an adjustable difficulty level, like the IQ Treat Ball or the Kibble Nibble.
  • You can use bigger kibble that doesn’t come out as easily from a large hole.
  • You can make the hole smaller by putting a piece of duct tape over part of the hole to make the hole smaller (which is what I did with the JW Hol-ee Treat Ball)
  • You can soak the kibble in water or mix it with broth or yogurt, put it in a Kong, and freeze it.

This toy is too difficult! My dog can’t get enough treats out quickly and gives up!

In this case, you can do the opposite of some of the tricks above — feed a smaller kibble, make the hole in the toy bigger, or remove some of the barriers (with the IQ Treat Ball, you can take out the white piece that separates the ball in half). For an inexperienced Kong user, put kibble dry into the Kong, and just put it on the floor. If they move it at all, treats will fall out!

If you have a shy, young, hesitant, or low-confidence pup, you can also help them along by nudging the toy a bit with your foot so some treats fall out, encourage them when they touch the toy in any way, and otherwise cheerlead until they get the hang of it.

The toy gets stuck under the couch!

Yes, a lot of these toys are ball shaped and can easily roll and get stuck under furniture. You can solve this problem in different ways:

  • Allow your dog to learn some useful skills by supervising and letting the ball get stuck for a little while and then asking them to “Show me!” And going to where they indicate, removing it and giving it back. Some dogs will learn to get faster with their nose or paw to keep the ball from going under furniture. It’s also a very helpful skill for the dog to show you where the hidden toy is stuck.
  • Use a toy that is too big to fit under the couch or does not roll easily. The Buster Cube is too big to fit under most couches and some beds. The Kong Wobbler, Tug-a-Jug, Twist ‘n Treat, and other oddly shaped toys will be less likely to roll fast and far.

This toy is too messy!

Some people have had experiences of messy Kongs with peanut butter getting smeared on furniture or floor or dog. If you’re using a kibble feeder toy, as long as your dog hoovers up all the kibbles, there is no mess.

If you’re using canned food or raw meat, freezing it in the Kong usually means there’s not much mess because the dog licks it out as it thaws. I also have had a rule with all my dogs that they only eat a Kong or chew toy in their crate or on their mat. They are not allowed to bounce it all over the house and have raw meat go flying everywhere! If you want the same rule, either give the toy to your dog inside their locked crate or supervise and tell them to take the toy back on the mat or in the crate if they move off (or put it back yourself, if they don’t know what you mean yet).

I feed only raw, whole pieces of food

If you feed raw, most of these toys won’t work, but you can apply a lot of the same concepts to enrich your dog’s eating experience. You can use large bully sticks or dehydrated cow tracheas as a long-lasting chew the dog has to work to eat.

To add challenge, you can hide them in a box or bag, put more than one around the house, or thread a bully stick through one or two or three Kongs so the dog has to remove the toys to get to the chew, etc.

What about enrichment for my cat?

There are cat feeder toys, too:

You can also enrich your cat with many other ideas found in Beyond Squeaky Toys or listed above, such as hiding food in paper bags or boxes.

Have fun!

Giving your dog puzzles to work for his food will make him happier and calmer and therefore less destructive. It is also a lot of fun! I really enjoy witnessing my dog’s excitement and satisfaction when he is working for his food. I bet you will, too!

Lyme Disease and Neuroplastic Recovery

After I went public about my recovery, I received many queries about Lyme disease. Given that Lyme disease is rampant, that it can be a long and grueling illness, and that I was an example of how bad chronic Lyme can get, I’m not surprised that people are asking me about my recovery. I have also done several coaching sessions with people who are already working on a neuroplasticity recovery program who, along with chronic conditions such as chemical sensitivities or chronic fatigue syndrome, also have Lyme disease.

It’s sometimes been challenging for me to answer questions about Lyme. For one thing, there are a lot of unknowns about how neuroplastic treatment approaches work for Lyme disease. While I have opinions, I definitely don’t think the topic of recovery from tick-borne disease is cut-and-dried. I also sometimes get the impression that my answers to people’s Lyme questions are not what they hoped for, which isn’t fun because I hate to disappoint.

Nonetheless, I do want my experience to be as useful to as many people as possible, so I am writing this post in an effort to answer the most common questions and issues I’ve run into related to Lyme and neuroplastic recovery approaches. The recent suicide of a friend who had Lyme disease has given this topic a greater sense of urgency for me.

I really want people with chronic Lyme disease to know that there absolutely is hope. When I first joined Lyme communities online, I felt discouraged when I met people who said there is no cure to chronic Lyme, that it wasn’t possible to recover completely. For anyone reading this who has thought the same and is hoping for more encouraging perspectives, I hope this post will help you.

The questions I’ve been asked about Lyme and recovery that I adress in this post include…

  • How cured is your Lyme disease? Do you still have symptoms?

  • Can DNRS* or a neuroplasticity program cure my Lyme disease, too?

  • Which neuroplasticity program do you think helped you the most?

  • What should I do if I have chronic Lyme disease? Should I do DNRS*? Or something else?

  • I did DNRS* but I still have symptoms. Why do you think this is?

In this post, I’ll address these questions and others about tick-borne disease (TBD) and neuroplasticity-based therapies. I’m basing my opinions on my personal experience, my study of Lyme and of neuroplasticity, and on the best informed guesses I can make at this time. There is still a lot more to learn about TBDs and about neuroplastic recovery. I am hopeful that in time, all interested people will have more answers.

Also, please note: I am not a doctor and am not making recommendations of treatments for individuals reading this post. I have done coaching sessions with people who wanted to know if I think DNRS or other neuroplastic approaches can help them, and some of these people have had Lyme. I am more than happy to offer this to anyone who is interested, but this post should not be interpreted as medical advice.

Now, on to the questions!

Are you actually cured of Lyme? Do you still have symptoms?

The short answer to this is that I have recovered, and I don’t have symptoms anymore, but for a while it mas hard for me to know for sure. I’ll explain why below.

This was me before I started my recovery. I’m at the optometrist, trying on glasses. Before my recovery, this is how I almost always looked in public — I had my mask and oxygen on and was using a powerchair.

Sharing wearing a white baseball cap and white cotton mask over her nose and mouth, sitting in a powerchair with many glasses frames and mirrors in the background.

April 2013

Why it’s hard to say definitively that I no longer have any Lyme symptoms

  • I still have a little bit of recovery left, so I’m not sure what the eventual picture of my health will look like. I have found that a lot of symptoms that I thought were going to stay with me have faded as I have settled into my recovery and my “new” body. It seems reasonable to expect that process to continue.
  • I first became chronically ill when I was in my 20s, and I’m now in my 40s, so I don’t know what feels normal for an aging body, what is a side-effect of a long illness, what is side effects of medication and medication withdrawal that I’m still going through, and what is a result of deconditioning that I will recover from.
  • As part of my recovery process, I pay as little attention as possible to any form of physical distress, so I am not that aware of “symptoms” unless they are very intrusive.

Even with those caveats, my recovery from Lyme feels pretty remarkable to me! I would like to explain why.

Here’s me before DNRS in May 2013. My Lyme doctor and I decided that after four-and-a-half years of intravenous antibiotics, I had gotten all the benefit I could from them.

Sharon sits in a powerwheelchair and has a white mask on her face. She has her left sleeve rolled up to reveal a dressing and PICC line on her left upper arm.

This picture was taken when the visiting nurse was about to remove my PICC line. I was very happy about that!

To get a sense of the scope of my recovery, I offer a list of the TBD symptoms I used to have which I don’t have anymore. Some of these symptoms were things that had improved to some extent from antibiotics before I started neural retraining, and others were things that were still huge problems even after antibiotics. In the list below, I’m focusing only on symptoms that started with my TBDs. I’m not including the CFIDS and MCS symptoms I had before I moved to the country, although there were several symptoms I had before Lyme that did worsen or take on new aspects after infection with TBDs.

I no longer have these TBD symptoms…

  • Trouble speaking (mixed-type, apraxic spasmodic dysphonia)
  • Trouble or inability to move my limbs, especially my legs
  • Tremors or weakness in my limbs
  • Exhaustion so severe I cannot move or can barely move
  • Migraines or vertigo, nausea, or vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light, movement, touch, sound, and smell
  • Severe, chronic pain in my muscles and joints, or swollen joints
  • Sore throats, sweats, flushing, feeling feverish, chills
  • Mood swings, anxiety, agitation, rage, paranoia, mood and behavioral disturbances
  • Hopelessness, despair, loss of creativity
  • Insomnia that reversed my sleep schedule (e.g., going to sleep at 5 AM and getting up at noon)
  • Cognitive impairment, including trouble thinking, remembering, concentrating, finding words, problem-solving, or reduced processing speed or impaired executive function
  • Tacchycardia, ringing in ears, eyelid droop, hypercoagulation (thickened blood)

August 2013 — two weeks into my recovery, without mask or oxygen, happier, still using wheelchair:

Sharon's mother, father, and Sharon sitting outdoors at a festival at a folding table with literature on it, grass below, trees above, other tables and umbrellas, tents, and people in the background.

My parents visiting with me at my town’s summer festival.

What might still be “symptoms”?

It’s a pretty short list!

  • The most challenging thing has been my feet. For a very long time, I did extremely little standing or walking (for a few years, I did none), so when I started walking again, it was a really big adjustment for my feet. Since I began to recover, my feet have gone through plantar fasciitis, plantar fibromas (lumps of collagen in the sole of the foot), tendinitis, fallen arches/flat feet, and bunions. With stretching, reconditioning/time, good shoes, and orthotics, my feet have improved a lot! It was a very happy day when I first noticed that my feet were not in pain all the time anymore. I expect my feet to continue to improve. I don’t think any of this is Lyme-related.
  • I have some aching and stiffness in the muscles and joints of my legs which goes away with movement and exercise. (Essentially, if I sit or lie down for half an hour or more, when I get up again, I’m creaky for a couple of minutes, then it goes away.) My PT was pretty sure that it was muscle fatigue — the aching you get the day or two after a big workout. Since almost every day for the past year has been the day after a big workout for me, it’s taken some time for this to subside. For example, when I had a virus last winter and was resting on the couch for several days, doing no swimming, yoga, or hiking, the pain lessened after the third day. Thus, this seems to be a deconditioning issue. Like my feet, I have noticed my legs getting less and less painful over time.
    Another wrinkle is that I am tapering off of Elavil (amitriptyline). Elavil withdrawal causes muscles to contract, which leads to tight, sore muscles.
    Because of the questions around aging, medication withdrawal, and deconditioning, it’s really hard to know how this will shake out.
  • I am still going through withdrawal of some medications. The most unpleasant effect has usually been anxiety, though sometimes it also affects my sleep or causes mood swings or other symptoms. These symptoms subside within one to four weeks after a reduction in medication, then kick up again after another reduction. I do not think this is Lyme-related.
  • Although my mind feels very functional overall, I think I don’t think as fast or as easily as I did before I got sick. Since I have noticed other people my age have the same “issues,” I think this is probably just the difference that twenty years makes.
  • Probably the hardest thing about recovery has been reentering the world of social interactions in meatspace. I always had some anxiety and confusion around social situations and did not feel like I fit in with other people, and that’s been the biggest challenge of being out-and-about again after 90 percent of my communication being by phone and internet for almost 20 years. But I don’t think this is related to Lyme disease, either.

Recovered! Things are pretty different now:

Sharon standing with knees bent and arms blurry waving in the air, wearing a purple tank top and olive cargo shorts. Her house, which is purple, is behind her, and there are tables and chairs with food on them around her.

Dancing!

Sharon stands at an outdoor grill, holding the lid up with one hand and a pair of tongs in the other hand.

Grilling!

Can DNRS* cure Lyme disease?

Well, I don’t have a straightforward answer. There are variables.

  1. I don’t consider DNRS (Dynamic Neural Retraining System) a “cure.” I consider it a rehabilitation and recovery program. The difference is that a cure is something that is done to you. You take a pill or you have surgery, and suddenly — shazam! — you are all better. This is not how DNRS works.
    Rehabilitation is a process. It takes effort and commitment. Neuroplasticity-based recovery approaches requires practice, just like other types of rehab programs. If you were learning how to use a leg again after an injury from a car accident, or if you were learning how to eat or write after a stroke, you’d need to practice a lot. With DNRS, as with most rehab programs, you practice, incrementally raising your criteria. Over time, you get more and more skilled, and your brain and body change.
    The end result is yes, that you’re no longer ill. It looks like a cure to others, but for people who have gone through it, we know that we were not cured. We have recovered.
  2. If a person has an active systemic infection, such as Lyme disease, babesiosis, bartonellosis, etc., I think it is unlikely that DNRS or another neuroplasticity-based treatment will lead to their complete recovery. I’ll say more about this below because there are a number of other questions and wrinkles in this topic, but I believe that the best way to treat infection is to kill the infectious bacteria or parasites with antibiotics or other antimicrobials. If someone with chronic TBDs has undergone an aggressive, comprehensive, long-term antimicrobial treatment regimen and still has symptoms, I think neuroplasticity-based treatment will likely help them achieve complete recovery.
  3. If you have already done a comprehensive, long-term antibiotic (and/or antiparasitic) treatment with a Lyme-literate doctor, and you still have chronic Lyme symptoms, then I definitely think DNRS can help you recover completely. This is what I did. I had improvement after my six years of antibiotic treatment for Lyme, babesia, and bartonella, but I was still extremely sick. Doing DNRS is what made it possible for me to turn my life around. I think it is especially likely you’ll do well with DNRS if your Lyme complex also includes any of the following: chemical or fragrance sensitivities, food sensitivities, electromagnetic-field sensitivities, anxiety, or depression.

Which neuroplasticity program do you think helped you the most?

Absolutely the answer to this is the Dynamic Neural Retraining System (DNRS). Although I added a lot of other practices to my recovery plan, it is hard for me to imagine any of it would have been possible without the information, guidance, and inspiration I received from watching the DNRS DVDs. Before I watched those DVDs, I believed it was impossible for me to recover from MCS and CFIDS, and I thought I probably would not ever recover completely from Lyme, either.

DNRS requires the person who wants to recover to change their behavior and their thoughts because we can use the conscious mind to change the function and anatomy of the brain, which then affects other organs and systems of the body. So, most people who use neuroplasticity-based treatment approaches experience a gradual improvement over time. And the improvement requires repeated activities — practice — to change the brain and therefore the body.

Doing DNRS gave me the first big boost of hope, provided me with cognitive tools to approach recovery, and gave me a conceptual scientific and behavioral framework in which to work. When I followed it to the letter and started to have improvements in my MCS, I was then able to think about additional approaches that would complement what I was already doing.

If I have chronic Lyme disease, what should I do? Should I do DNRS? Something else?

My recommendation depends on your situation. There are a lot of variables. My answer often depends in part on people’s answers to these questions…

1. Have you already undergone comprehensive antibiotic therapy?

“Comprehensive antibiotic therapy” does not have a precise definition, of course, but basically I want to know if a person with chronic tick-borne disease has seen a competent Lyme specialist and been on (at least) several months of antibiotics/antimicrobials that target the various different forms of borrelia burgdorferi (cyst form, biofilms, etc.) and also the specific coinfections the person had. This is necessary for a chronic infection or multiple infections. For someone who has simple acute Lyme, recently contracted, they may only need a month or two of antibiotics.

If you have an active bacterial infection, I think the best thing to do is kill the microbes that are causing the infection. While Western medicine does not have the best answer for everything, it has the best answer for some things. Bypasses for blocked cardiac arteries and antibiotics for bacterial infections are two of the best tools Western medicine has to offer.

I do want to include here, as an alternative viewpoint, Lauren’s story. Lauren recovered from a slew of disorders — including POTS, CFIDS, MCS, etc. — using DNRS. Although I didn’t see it on her website, she says that she also had Lyme and coinfections and did not use antibiotics, and she recovered completely anyway. So maybe it is possible to recover from Lyme and other tick-borne infections without antibiotics. To me it seems less likely, but here is Lauren’s wonderful recovery story, so you can see for yourself.

If you have already killed the infection, and you are still sick, then I think it is very likely that retraining the brain will allow you to recover completely. If you have undertaken thorough antibiotic treatment and you still have Lyme or other TBD symptoms, then in most cases I would say you should try DNRS.

If you have not undergone antibiotic therapy because you think antibiotics are dangerous**, or because you tend to have really severe reactions to medications, I would probably say you should do DNRS first instead. Some related questions are below.

2. Do you have have MCS, EMFS, anxiety, or depression along with Lyme and cos, OR did you have fibromyalgia or CFIDS before you got Lyme?

If yes, then I would say that if you haven’t already done hard-core antibiotics and you don’t have a major problem with them, to either go ahead and knock out the infection and then do DNRS, OR — especially if something is preventing you from taking antibiotics — you might want to do DNRS first so that you can recover from the MCS, EMFS, etc., and get relief from those things. If you have any Lyme and coinfection symptoms after that, you can then do antibiotics for whatever is left over.

There are a few benefits to doing antibiotics first:

  • If you don’t have any of the other limbic system injuries/dysfunctions, you might not need to do DNRS; you might recover completely from Lyme just by doing antibiotics!
  • DNRS requires you to focus on recovery and not focus on symptoms, medical management, etc., so it’s much easier to do DNRS if you know that you have already done the one big, obvious thing that Western medicine has to offer for infection, and you are not still looking toward the possibility of medical intervention.
  • A neuroplastic recovery process requires committed, ongoing practice, including changing your behaviors and thoughts, over many months or sometimes longer. It is much, much easier to stick with a plan that requires big changes in behavior if you are being reinforced by having lots of periods of relief from symptoms. If you still have active infection that causes symptoms, it may be challenging to do lots of ongoing brain retraining because you will not be getting as much reinforcement from symptom relief, and you will likely have trouble with the cognitive component of the work. This is the main reason I usually suggest antibiotics first for most people.

There are a few benefits to doing DNRS first:

  • The most common “side effects” I’ve noticed from people who do DNRS are improved mood (increased happiness, reduced anxiety) and a greater sense of empowerment and hopefulness. These are benefits to anyone and can certainly help with the process of recovering from Lyme.
  • Once you have gone through the DNRS recovery program, you will be better equipped to maintain your brain training practice as you go through antibiotic treatment.
  • If you have trouble with antibiotics because of bad reactions to them, doing DNRS should take care of that so that you will later be able to do them if you choose. This is often the deciding factor for why I recommend doing DNRS first for some people with Lyme.

Are there benefits to doing DNRS and antibiotics at the same time?

I don’t yet know of anyone who’s done this, but it’s certainly possible, in theory. I think the most challenging part would be not focusing on symptoms and treatment while undergoing aggressive antibiotic therapy.

What about doing DNRS and antibiotics in some other combination?

Yes, that is possible, too. Recovery is often not a linear process. Someone could start on antibiotic therapy and get through a year or two of that, and then continue on them while starting DNRS. I think this would have many of the benefits I listed for doing antibiotics first, as well as some of the benefits for doing DNRS first. This seems like a really viable option for some.

In many cases, I think the answer is to do a combination of antibiotics and neuroplastic approaches. The order you do those in can vary a lot.

3. Is something preventing or delaying you from doing DNRS?

There are some people who want to do DNRS but haven’t started yet. Usually the reasons for this are one of the following:

  • They are still raising money. For people with very low incomes, such as people on SSI, it can take several months to save up $250.
  • They are actively experiencing fresh or ongoing trauma. It is best not to do DNRS when in the midst of a major trauma or when newly recovering from a recent trauma. This includes things like being abused or assaulted by a family member or partner; having a parent or other important person or family member die recently; or having recently lived through a natural disaster. (If you have a trauma history or are dealing with the on-going stress of a chronic illness, this does not apply, and it’s great to go ahead with DNRS. It will help a lot with these things!)
  • They are trying to get their life or schedule in order to support DNRS and want to wait to start until they can devote themselves to it.
  • They are doing a lot of medical treatment that they’re very focused on, and they want to wait to start DNRS after that is more resolved or takes less attention.

If you’re in one of these situations,  there are other neuroplastic approaches you can take in the meanwhile. These are things you can pursue even if you are doing other Lyme treatment. Any amount of the following have been shown to be good for mental and physical health and to make positive changes in the brain:

  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Walking
  • Spending time in nature

Yes, any amount is beneficial! There are studies that show that just five minutes a day of meditating, walking, or spending time in nature are good for your brain and your overall health!

If you can only add one of these things, my vote would go to yoga, if you like movement, or meditation, if you like stillness. The data supporting yoga and meditation promoting wellness and happiness are overwhelming!

I’ve been doing the DNRS recovery program faithfully for a long time, and I’m still sick! Why?

This is sometimes a reason people book a coaching session with me. Now, NOBODY gets well as fast as they want to. I got well at warp speed, and I still was sometimes frustrated and impatient and wanted it to go faster! And it’s definitely not unusual for it to take a year or two or more for some people to recover. Having your recovery take longer than you wish does not necessarily mean you have Lyme! A lot of the time, it has to do with needing to do more practice, do things differently or in a more complete way, or other factors.

But some situations I hear about are like this: The person has MCS, and they do DNRS, and they recover completely from reactions to fragrances and other smells, but they still have achy joints, vertigo, fatigue, migraines, and fevers. These symptoms have not improved. They have incorporated the program completely. They are still practicing every day. They live in the Northeast. I ask them if they’ve been diagnosed with Lyme, and they say, yes, actually a doctor diagnosed them a few years ago, but there were so many other things to deal with, it got lost in the shuffle. And they have never taken antibiotics. They weren’t treated. In this case, I think they should get on antibiotics!

There are wrinkles, though. There are people who have done DNRS, have had MCS symptoms resolve but are not having a complete recovery in some other respects and when I ask them about Lyme, I hear….

  • The doctor who diagnosed them with Lyme was a jerk, so they didn’t trust his diagnosis even though they had a positive Lyme test.
  • Or they had a negative Lyme test, but they know Lyme tests often turn up false negatives, and they did think they had Lyme, but their doctor said they can’t have Lyme if the test is negative.
  • Or they did have Lyme, but they used an alternative treatment they believe in (not antibiotics), so they don’t think they have Lyme anymore even though they have joint pain, fevers, etc.

In all these cases, I think it’s pretty likely these people have Lyme disease (active infection), for which I think they should take antibiotics. This is usually not what people want to hear! And maybe I’m wrong. I would love to be wrong, but I try to do my best to present the information I believe to be most likely to be true.

I hope you have found this post helpful and informative. I welcome your comments and questions!

Footnotes:

*DNRS is Dynamic Neural Retraining System. I have written about it in previous posts and on some of my neuroplasticity pages. It was developed by Annie Hopper to treat multiple chemical sensitivity, electromagnetic field sensitivity, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia. It also happens to work very well for PTSD, depression, and anxiety. I have no affiliation with DNRS and do not make any money from people buying DNRS products. I just think it’s a very helpful recovery tool.
I was also asked by Annie Hopper to further clarify in this way: I am not a certified DNRS Coach. My opinions may differ from those who developed the program or who are certified DNRS Coaches.

**If you have done DNRS: I view the belief that antibiotics are always bad or dangerous as a POP. (If you haven’t done DNRS, “POP” won’t mean anything to you, so please disregard.)

Neuroplasticity Tip: Understand How Associative Learning Causes Physiological Changes

Two things to understand first:

  1. You can use your conscious mind to train your brain, changing its unconscious activity.
  2. AND, your brain learns from and changes due to unconscious activity, too.

Most of the brain’s activity is unconscious. Things like regulating your blood pressure, regulating your breathing, triggering feelings of hunger or thirst, triggering the release of chemicals and hormones (such as oxytocin, vasopressin, or cortisol) do not generally enter your consciousness.

But if every time you are around cleaning chemicals, your hypothalamus is scanning the environment, identifying bleach as a danger, and flooding your body with fight-or-flight hormones and chemicals, your brain will learn quickly that anything it thinks is related to bleach is a problem, whether you consciously smell it or not.

There is no question that anyone can train their brain to associate a stimulus with an unconscious response, thereby making the previously neutral stimulus a “trigger.” Most of the time, this happens without our conscious awareness or intent.

Ivan Pavlov was the first person to specifically document this and be recognized for this work. Neither dogs nor humans have conscious control of our salivation, but when Pavlov paired a bell ringing with the appearance of food, he “trained’ dog to drool at the sound of a bell.

Likewise, any of us can train our brains to turn on thirst or hunger — or shallow, fast breathing; a rise in blood pressure; or a release or oxytocin — with ANY stimulus. We could set up a training situation so that seeing a yellow card, hearing a horn honk, feeling something prickly, or smelling flowers changed our physiological response so that our breathing, hunger, blood pressure, or hormone levels change, even though there’s nothing intrinsic to seeing a yellow card that to making blood pressure rise. Like all animals, humans learn by association in the most primitive parts of our brain.

However, you can use your conscious mind to change your brain:

  • If you feel an unbidden surge of anger and anxiety every time you think of someone, you can train your brain to react differently to the thought of that person by practicing lovingkindness meditation. This would make it more likely your brain would trigger the release of oxytocin (the bonding or love hormone) when you see that person instead of cortisol or epinephrine (stress hormones).
  • If you have a spike in blood pressure when you smell fragrances, you can change your reaction to them by doing the DNRS steps when you smell fragrances.
  • And likewise if your digestion comes to a halt or you start breathing shallow, fast breaths when you eat a certain food, you can retrain your mind using DNRS and thus, eventually, your brain, which will communicate with your GI tract and your lungs…

If you pair whatever the trigger (stimulus) is with a DIFFERENT association (response), you can change your body’s PHYSICAL reaction. I know it seems weird to think that physical changes — changes in the body — can be affected by the mind, but they can because the mind tells the brain what’s important.

Happy Repatterning!

Neuroplasticity Training Tip: Perform an Incompatible Behavior

This tip is a continuation of yesterday’s tip about management versus training. Sometimes you can do BOTH management and training at the same time!

“Performing an incompatible behavior” is a great trick to get your brain doing something other than the undesirable behavior AND it is usually also a way to train a response that is different from your previous, undesirable/dysfunctional reaction.

Performing an incompatible behavior is a four-step process.

1. First you have to check in with WHAT you’re brain is doing that you don’t like. Try to name it.

This could be: feeling anxious/tight/constricted, ruminating on hopelessness or past hurts, hyperventilating, fixating on the chocolate cake in your refrigerator, predicting a bad outcome, fixating on an unpleasant smell, causing butterflies in your stomach and tightness in your throat, etc.

2. Then think, “What would be the OPPOSITE of this?”

You might come up with any of these:

The opposite of “feeling anxious/tight/constricted” may be feeling loose/relaxed/open.

The opposite of “ruminating on hopelessness or past hurts” may be feeling hopeful or imagining a wonderful moment in the future, or feeling grateful or thinking about a time someone was kind to you.

The opposite of “hyperventilating” may be breathing slowly, deeply, and calmly.

The opposite of “fixating on the chocolate cake in your refrigerator” may be focusing your thoughts on a really absorbing activity that is not in your kitchen.

The opposite of “predicting a bad outcome” may be focusing on anything happy or confidence-inspiring.

The opposite of “fixating on an unpleasant smell” may be (again) focusing on anything else that excludes that, especially ignoring all smells at all or could be focusing on enjoyable things you see or hear or touch.

The opposite of “causing butterflies in your stomach and tightness in your throat” may be feeling warm and relaxed and soft in your belly and open and free in your throat.

3. Then, decide what behavior would get your body/brain into the desired state. 

Generally speaking, you want to do something that requires active focus and concentration, if possible, and something enjoyable. I often find that vigorous or careful physical activity work best because I have to really be focused on what my body is doing. Studying a topic you care passionate about, playing a musical instrument or singing, doing an interesting and complex puzzle or game (usually solo because you don’t want to have flights of fancy while someone else takes a turn), painting or other artwork, or an intense interpersonal interaction (giving someone empathy, playing with a very active child) are all good.

Activities that are passive or in which you can “multi-task” usually don’t work as well. So, for example, watching TV, talking on the phone, or checking email are often not focused enough because your mind can still wander back to the undesirable location.

Continuing with the examples I gave above, you might decide to try these activities as incompatible behaviors:

The opposite of “feeling anxious/tight/constricted” may be feeling loose/relaxed/open.

I feel relaxed and open when I dance. Dancing is exercise, so it releases cortisol. It’s joyous and open and active, and the music can be loud. When I am dancing, I am just present in my body and not ruminating. Dancing is my go-to FAVORITE activity that is incompatible with anxiety, tension, rumination, worrying, etc.! You could use dancing for anything on this list!

The opposite of “ruminating on hopelessness or past hurts” may be feeling hopeful or imagining a wonderful moment in the future, or feeling grateful or thinking about a time someone was kind to you.

You could use the DNRS steps for this because the memory and visualization part very often involve great joy, appreciation, hope. If you wanted an antidote specifically to ruminating on past hurts, I would pick a memory or visualization involving someone you really love who has treated you with kindness, respect, or caring at one time that you recall clearly.

The opposite of “hyperventilating” may be breathing slowly, deeply, and calmly.

For this, you can belly breathing; talking to someone in a very slow, calm, relaxed way; yoga; breathing into a paper bag; or any exercise, especially bilateral exercise, such as walking (especially outdoors or somewhere beautiful that distracts you from yourself) or swimming or ping pong!

The opposite of “fixating on the chocolate cake in your refrigerator” may be focusing your thoughts on a really absorbing activity that is not in your kitchen.

Again, pretty much anything that is mentally absorbing and enjoyable that is not in your kitchen would work, although I think the best thing is something physically active because that gets the same calming brain chemicals going as are stimulated by eating. (Dancing!) Some that I use are walking the dog, reading something fascinating, playing Lumosity, or doing dog training homework.

The opposite of “predicting a bad outcome” may be focusing on anything happy or confidence-inspiring.

Again, this is a perfect one for DNRS steps because you end up focused on your happy memory and then future visualization, which contradicts predicting bad outcomes. You could also connect with a person or animal who makes you feel happy. You could do a power pose for two minutes, which increases confidence and lowers stress. Or, you know, DANCING. You can also make yourself laugh or make a joke to yourself and then laugh at it.

The opposite of “fixating on an unpleasant smell” may be (again) focusing on anything else that excludes that, especially ignoring all smells at all or could be focusing on enjoyable things you see or hear or touch.

For this one, if I’m able, I will do DNRS, if I can. If I can’t because there are people around and I’d feel too self-conscious, I engage them in conversation by asking a question to which I think they’ll give a long answer. Then I listen intently to them. I also have used focusing on my other senses (enjoying what I see and hear or feel with my fingers), looking at pictures of Barnum when he was a puppy, or DANCING.

The opposite of “causing butterflies in your stomach and tightness in your throat” may be feeling warm and relaxed and soft in your belly and open and free in your throat.

For this one, anything that gets you moving and open and relaxed. Yoga is my go-to behavior for this one. Singing is good, too, because it opens your throat up. Dancing, of course. Any movement, such as walking, would get the muscles looser and reduce the anxiety and stress hormones. Doing several big sighs or yawns opens the throat and also stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms and relaxes the body.

4. DO IT!!!!!!!!

I was recently telling a friend about how I use dancing as a behavior incompatible with feeling anxious and shut down. (The process of going off of several drugs that have anxiety as a withdrawal symptom has made me really good at working on this one.) She said, “But how do you make yourself do it?”

Here’s how I do it.

I think, “I feel anxious. This feels terrible. I want to make this go away but I’M TOO ANXIOUS TO DO DNRS! I CAN’T FOCUS! AUGH!!!!

WHAT CAN I DO??? Wait a minute… What can I do?…

Umm, I can dance….

I NEED TO DANCE!!!!!!!”

Then I go put a dance CD on, or if someone else is around, I get my iPod. I turn up the music REALLY REALLY LOUD. I dance around like a maniac. I start smiling. I start feeling more relaxed. I sweat. When I feel all warm and relaxed and happy, I can stop, but I usually keep going till I don’t want to dance anymore. Then I do whatever else is on the day’s agenda.

Neuroplasticity Tip: Management versus Training

I have been sending out sporadic email tips to my clients and friends who are doing neuroplasticity-based recovery programs. I am trying to send the emails more often, and to write shorter tips, and it occurred to me that some of them might make good blog posts. So, here is today’s. Enjoy!
Those of you with dog training experience will recognize this tip because it’s something that animal trainers use a lot.
There are two ways to handle unwanted behavior: Management and training. This applies to all animals and humans, but when doing neuroplasticity-based recovery, I treat my brain as the “animal” I am training.
Management prevents the unwanted behavior from happening in the moment but does not affect future behavior. Management is good for when you don’t want to practice the undesirable behavior. It might also be useful when there are safety issues (such as if you are working on balance and you want to have control over when, how, and where you fall).
Some common examples of undesirable mental “behaviors” are ruminating on symptoms, worrying, replaying a recent unpleasantness, or predicting a negative outcome about something you’re doing. Ideally, you’d want to do some form of retraining when you notice these cropping up, but maybe that’s not workable in the moment because you can’t concentrate or you’ve been training for the last four hours and you’re fried.
In this case, redirecting your thoughts in some way that is NOT practicing the behavior won’t necessarily rewire your brain, but it will keep your brain from practicing the behavior more, which is good management. Management strategies could include reading a book, watching TV, asking a friend how THEY are (so you are focusing on them, not you), or doing any mental task that requires focus (such as playing a musical instrument, writing, training your dog, reading to your child, playing Lumosity, etc.)
Training is the process of changing future behavior.
Training is what “rewires” your brain and changes your neural pathways. Training is what brings about recovery. Depending on what neuroplasticity program you’re doing, training might mean doing the DNRS Limbic Retraining Steps, doing yoga, meditating, walking, etc.
Daily life requires both management and training. We do not live in petri dishes. The ideal is to train. Whenever possible, turn to training; this will bring about faster results.
However, if there are times you simply cannot train, look to management. Here are some examples:
  • If you’re practicing balance, and you feel unsteady, and you can’t train balance right now, sit down so you don’t practice falling down and feeling scared.
  • If you’re practicing DNRS to recover from MCS, and the exposure is too overwhelming, leave the situation that is challenging for now so your brain doesn’t keep rehearsing reaction.
  • If you’re experiencing anxiety or PTSD symptoms, connect with a person or animal to help you feel grounded and calm so your brain doesn’t keep practicing anxiousness.
  • If you’re feeling rageful and ruminating on a past injustice, call someone who is having a hard time and offer them support (and focus/talk about them, not yourself!).
Happy training! (And happy management.)

Neuroplasticity Quiz Answers & Drawing Winners!

I had so much fun doing these drawings! Thank you so much to everyone who entered! I wish I could have given prizes to all of you. I hope to have more giveaways in the future, so if you didn’t win this time, please try again!

Neuroplasticity Quiz Answers (and Who Got Them Right AND Why the Answers Matter!)

  • What is the name researchers give for the phenomenon of the human brain’s tendency to focus on things like worry, danger, anxiety, and interpersonal anger? (Answer is in, among other places, Rick Hanson’s book, Hardwiring Happiness.)

The answer: Brain negativity bias

Who got it right: Congratulations go to Kevin, Jill, CJ, and Sarah!

Why it matters: Our brains have evolved to focus on danger, rewards, and connection with other humans, or as Rick Hanson puts it, to make us anxious, driven, and clingy. Of these tendencies, the strongest one, and the one that is most relevant to brain negativity bias, is the propensity to worry about dangers or threats — our tendency to focus on worry, danger, anxiety, loss, and other “negatives.” This is because being on the constant watch for danger kept our ancestors alive, which allowed them to pass on their genes, so there was an evolutionary advantage to being vigilant.

Unfortunately, while vigilance may keep you alive long enough to reach maturity and reproduce, it’s very bad for your long-term health and happiness. Further, our modern-day focus on negativity is not limited to actual dangers, such as keeping us from getting into a car accident or keeping us from falling off a cliff. We actually focus on any negatives more than positives or neutrals. So, if 20 things happened to you yesterday, and 12 of them were neutral, and nine of them were positive, and one was negative, which one are you fuming about on your way home? Which one are you going to tell the sympathetic ear in your life about?

This is because our fight/flight system in our brain doesn’t understand that a computer software glitch, being late to an appointment, or having a fight with our spouse is not actually a life-or-death situation. Any situation that gets us stressed, revved up, brooding, or adrenalized is activating that do-or-die part of our sympathetic nervous system. This is what floods our bodies with stress hormones, raises our blood pressure, interrupts our digestion, dilates our capillaries, makes our heart pump faster, and affects our breathing so that we can run for our life or fight to the death . . . with our internet service provider? Yes. Our brains don’t know the difference between saber-toothed tigers and email viruses.

However, there is good news here: Once you know about the brain negativity bias, you can become aware of this tendency that is your birthright and start focusing on the positives. You can get more in touch with reality, in other words, and notice the good and neutral things, too, and dwell less on the negatives.

For example, if you just take ten seconds once or twice a day to notice what is good in the moment, you will be taking on a practice that will support your physical and mental health. There is something good in every moment. Probably on most days you can be glad that you had enough to eat for breakfast, that you can go to the bathroom on your own, that somebody in your life loves you, that the sun is shining, that you can communicate what’s in your heart or mind to someone else. Even on days that that’s not true, you can notice that your heart is beating or that you are breathing!

If you want to learn more on this topic, here’s a Psychology Today article on Brain Negativity Bias, and here’s a New York Times article on Overcoming Your Negativity Bias. Or, read Rick Hanson’s excellent book, Hardwiring Happiness.

  • Which three healing modalities did Donna Jackson Nakazawa detail in her book, The Last Best Cure?

The answer: Meditation, Yoga, and Acupuncture

Who got it right: Congratulations go to Sarah, who got it completely right, and to CJ and Holly, who got it mostly right.

Why it matters: The Last Best Cure is a compelling combination of memoir, medical research and science, and practical information for applying strategies to your own life. When she started her search for healing, medical journalist Donna Jackson Nakazawa had multiple health problems, including autoimmune, neurological, blood, and endocrine disorders.

Her doctor urged her to use techniques that would support beneficial neuroplasticity — positive changes to her brain — to help her recover her health. The reason the author chose meditation, yoga, and acupuncture is that there is an overwhelming amount of evidence supporting their medical efficacy (more so for meditation and yoga than acupuncture at this time), and they are generally pretty accessible. You can do yoga and meditation on your own at home, or for a relatively low cost in groups or classes in the community, and acupuncture is also widely available and often covered by insurance.

The book chronicles her ups and downs and explorations. The longest portion of the book is devoted to her path in exploring meditation. She learns both metta (lovingkindness) and vipassana (insight) Buddhist techniques, and uses both walking and sitting meditation. She also finds yoga practice to be astonishing in its effects for her. In the chapter entitled, “So Why Aren’t We All Doing Yoga?” She says,

Neuroscientists are just now fully grasping the profound ways in which yoga helps to activate the healing responses of the brain and establish a positive feedback loop between state of mind and cellular vitality. As it turns out, the overall positive mood benefits of practicing yoga are more robust than what we see with other well-studied types of exercise. For instance, women who take a twelve-week class in yoga show greater improvements in mood and lowered anxiety levels than do women who expend the same amount of time and energy walking. That’s saying a lot — because, for a long time, walking has been the all-around wonder exercise for those of us with chronic health constraints.

The next paragraph describes yoga’s specific benefits for people with fibromyalgia, breast cancer, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and allergy. In other words, yoga and meditation are amazing tools you can use, no matter where you live, to improve your physical and mental health.

Learn more about The Scientific Basis of Yoga or support forthe healthful effects of meditation, tai chi, yoga, and acupuncture, or check out these links on Neuroplasticity and Yoga, Meditation, Cognitive Training, and Health. And of course, I recommend The Last Best Cure.

  • The study of the expression of genes — which genes are “turned on” or “turned off” in our genetic code — is called what?

The answer: Epigenetics

Who got it right: Congratulations go to Kathleen, CJ, Holly, Forest, Courtenay, and Sarah!

Why it matters: I’m going to quote extensively from The Last Best Cure again because even though I’ve read other explanations of epigenetics, I found this one most compelling. For one thing, she puts it in the context of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and a disregulated response to stress, which resonated with me based on my own experiences as well as those of virtually all of my chronically ill friends:

…When we are repeatedly thrust into a state of hyperarousal when we are still young and our brain is developing, the physical and emotional sensations of fight or flight do more than send forth a toxic floating brain cocktail….Neurobiologist Michael Meaney recently found that this chronically elevated state of fight or flight causes deep biophysical changes in the young, developing brain. This occurs through a process known as epigenetics: biological changes that affect the expression of our genes — in this case, the genes that govern our stress hormone receptors in the brain.

Here’s how epigenetics works. Every cell in the body has the full set of chromosomes and contains all of our DNA. But the reason why one cell, during embryonic development, becomes a skin cell versus a bone cell or eye cell is because most of the genes that could be expressed are turned off. They get switched off by an epigenetic process called gene methylation in which small chemical markers, or methyl groups, adhere to specific genes, silencing them. This gene silencing is permanent, which is why we don’t grow eyes in the back of our head. But scientists are beginning to realize that the brain is an epigenetically “priviledged” place. This process of DNA methylation can occur much more easily within the brain, allowing the brain to respond to experiences that might be good or bad, and change with those experiences over time.

Meaney has found that when the young, developing brain experiences ACEs [adverse childhood experiences], these small chemical markers, or methyl groups, adhere to specific genes that oversee the production of stress hormone receptors in the brain. These chemical markers disable these genes, preventing the brain from successfully regulating its response to stress long into the future. The chemical markers that should govern stress hormone production profoundly disregulate the brain’s ability to moderate stress — and they impact us for life.

This methylation process tips the brain into a state of constant hyperarousal. Stuck on autopilot, inflammatory hormones and chemicals keep coursing through the body, like a leaky faucet left on, building up corrosive effects….

By the time children with a high ACE score reach adulthood, their stress hormone and fight-or-flight responses have been stuck in the “on” position for decades….

…Perturbed by all that I’ve learned — and concerned that it might be too late to change the brain that I now have — I reach out to neuroscientist Margaret McCarthy….McCarthy conducts research into how epigenetics impacts nuances of behavior and mental health. The good news, she reminds me, is that the brain is an eipgenetically priviledged place not just in terms of creating negative changes, but positive ones as well. “Our brains are malleable,” she reassures me. “Scientists are now of the mind that DNA methylation can come and go. And it may be that the reason why approaches such as meditation and mindfulness have such power is that they undo bad epigenetics or even induce new, good epigenetics.”

  • Which world-renowned religious leader has hosted conferences and written book introductions on neuroplasticity?

The answer: The Dalai Lama (aka Tenzin Gyatso, aka His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama)

Who got it right: Congratulations go to Sarah! (A couple of people said Deepak Chopra. While he has a spiritual practice that he has written and spoken about, he is largely known as a physician who advocates alternative medicine.)

Why it matters: Well, it’s partly just interesting, I think. I mean, I picked up the book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by Newsweek journalist Sharon Begley at my library, and I was surprised to see, “Introduction by the Dalai Lama” on the front cover. It was kind of like picking up a book on neuroscience and seeing, “Introduction by the Pope,” you know?

It turns out that this book is actually a report on a neuroplasticity conference organized by the Dalai Lama! He has had a lifelong interest in science — partly because he believes that science is the main “religion” of the West — and he organizes a conference every year of Western scientists and his handpicked Buddhist monks to discuss where these two areas of inquiry overlap. (For more information on this, check out the Mind & Life Institute which is dedicated to contemplative science.)

It’s also relevant because the more I learn about neuroplasticity and ways to use it to our advantage, the more I see Buddhism as the practical, spiritual application of beneficial neuroplasticity. Those of us raised in the West have a lot to gain from learning from Buddhism (which does not require being Buddhist, or even if you are Buddhist, you can still be Christian or Jewish or Muslim). I think the fact that the Dalai Lama has been curious and inquiring and supportive of Western science provides an entry for those of us enamored of Western science to become curious, inquiring, and supportive of contemplative traditions. Everybody wins!

  • PTSD that grows worse over time, autonomic dysreflexia after a spinal cord injury, chronic pain, tinnitus, and addiction can be examples of what phenomenon?

The answer: I would have accepted any of these answers: “the dark side of neuroplasticity,” or “negative neuroplasticity,” or simply “neuroplasticity”

Who got it right: Congratulations go to . . . me, for thinking of such a challenging question that everybody gets to learn something from the right answer?

Why it matters: Neuroplasticity is not good or bad; it just is. Our brains are changing all the time. If you are alive, neuroplasticity is occurring!

Most of the recent explosion of research and writing on neuroplasticity focuses on its positive effects: that we are not condemned to Alzheimer’s disease or poor balance as we age; that we can recover from strokes, traumatic brain injury, depression, and PTSD; that those who exercise a specific area of their brain can develop amazing skills in that area; that more children with learning disabilities or auditory processing disorders can be helped to learn and process information more easily.

But I think it’s really important for people to understand that neuroplasticity is always occurring. Whatever you are doing or thinking about is always shaping your brain. If you an elite alpine skiier, spending your time skiing down mountains, not only will you develop strong muscles in your arms, legs, and back, you will develop the parts of your brain that have to do with balance and courage and coordination and competitiveness. And because neurons are competitive with each other — you only have so much cortical real estate, which is all in use all the time — some parts of your brain that might otherwise be used for other things will be given less space.

If you spend your time worrying — if you practice worrying — a larger-than-normal chunk of your brain will be devoted to “worry circuits” which will be juiced up and ready to spark into anxiety, worry, and fear, and that will have an answering impact on your body. If you spend your time reading novels, more neurons will be recruited for language, focus, and empathy.

So, neuroplasticity cuts both ways. The more you do something, the more your brain streamlines to get good at that thing — neurons are recruited from nearby cognitive maps to do that thing, those neurons get more nutrients and get stronger, the neural pathways for that activity are the fastest and most easily accessed. If that something you are doing is good for you — meditating, reading, doing math problems, feeling compassion — the end result will be a brain that supports your health. If that something you are doing is not good for you — feeling enraged, snorting cocaine, having flashbacks of a traumatic incident — your brain is getting good at it anyway.

This is why many chronic neurological conditions become chronic, and it’s also why it can be so hard to recover from them. Likewise, it’s why there’s hope for these conditions. For example, several years ago, a friend sent me an article about PTSD that talked about how having PTSD changes your brain, making sturdy pathways that are devoted to trauma increasingly stronger. She found it incredibly discouraging because it seemed to be saying, “Your brain will become increasingly warped by trauma.”

That article was focused on the negative side of neuroplasticity. If I had known more about neuroplasticity at the time I read that article, I would have realized that it was hopeful, too: If you can build up these neuronal networks of trauma, you can also break them down!

Tinnitus, addiction, and chronic nerve pain are disorders that grow out of the way the brain changes. Thus, there are also ways to make use of what we know about neuroplasticity to change the brain to ameliorate these problems.

If you want to learn more on this topic, check out this interview with Eric Nestler on the “dark side” of neuroplasticity and its role in addiction and depression. There’s even a book called Neuroplasticity and its Dark Side.

Now the giveaway winners…

Winners of a Set of Dynamic Neural Retraining System (DNRS) DVDs

Jill Huggins and CJ Buffalo!

Congratulations Jill and CJ! Please email me your US postal mailing address where I can have the DNRS DVDs shipped to.

Winner of a Coaching Session with Me

Sandy Friedlander!

Congratulations, Sandy! Please email me when convenient to set up your coaching session.

Winners of a Tagulator and Clicker

Kevin Skorupa and Sarah Friedel!

Congratulations, Kevin and Sarah, on your correct answers in the Neuroplasticity Quiz! You both totally rocked it. It seems really fitting that you won. Please get in touch about your preferred colors and styles of tagulators and clickers and where I should send them.

Thanks to everyone who participated! I hope you found the quiz and giveaway fun and informative!

Additional Giveaway Items: TAGulators, Clickers & 2nd DNRS DVD set!

With Nerdy Bonus Material: Why Clickers Are Particularly Useful for Limbic System Retraining

In my previous post, I announced that, in celebration of my upcoming one-year anniversary of my recovery program, I’m giving away a coaching session and a set of DNRS DVDs*.

I was just thinking, “Oh shoot. I should have included a couple of TAGulators in my giveaway,” when I got an email from a generous donor offering to pay for a second set of DVDs! (Thank you!) So, now I’m offering it all! The whole enchilada: two sets of DVDs, a coaching session, and two TAGulator/clicker sets.

What is a TAGulator?

It was developed by people who do TAGteaching, which is clicker training for humans. (TAG stands for “Teaching with Acoustical Guidance.”) But you can use it even if you’re not actually clicking yourself. TAGteach International defines tagulators in their post, “What the heck is a tagulator, anyway?“:

A tagulator is a specially beaded string that allows you to keep track of your tags.

I like to make TAGulators for myself and my clients. It’s a way of reinforcing yourself for a behavior you want to do more often or continue to do. You move a bead/button every time you do the desired behavior, and then when you have moved all the buttons/beads, you give yourself the reward you promised yourself when you started. (I usually get myself a neuroplasticity or dog training book.)

When I was doing brain retraining, and I was really sick of it and didn’t want to do it anymore, I would sometimes use my clicker to focus me on a particular aspect of what I was working on and as a way to reinforce myself and keep me going. For example, I would focus on smiling while doing my brain training and then click myself for keeping a smile on my face for longer chains periods while training.

Normally a click is a “secondary reinforcer” or “conditioned reinforcer,” which means it’s meaningless on its own, but it becomes a powerful signal to the learner because it’s paired with some other “primary reinforcer” — such as a piece of food for an animal or a token or candy for a child. Money is the classic example of an incredibly potent conditioned reinforcer: a $20 bill has no inherent worth — if you gave it to a baby, she wouldn’t find it any more valuable than any other piece of soft paper or cloth — but because money has the ability to get people virtually any primary reinforcer (food, drink, comfort, pleasure, etc.) — we value it above actual primary reinforcers.

For me, the sound of a click is like money. Since I have a long positive-reinforcement history associated with the sound of a click (many, many happy dog-training moments since 1998), hearing the click made me happy all on its own. I didn’t even need to pair it with another reward. (Curious to know more? Here’s a post I wrote explaining more about what reinforcement is and how I used it to train myself.)

Why is a clicker particularly useful for brain retraining?

All secondary or conditioned reinforcers are processed through the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system. And Karen Pryor makes a pretty compelling case in her book, Reaching the Animal Mind, for the distinctive sound of the “click” being particularly effective at going directly into the amygdala, without needing to be processed first by the neocortex. Here’s an excerpt from her post, “Amygdala: The Neurophysiology of Clicker Training“:

Research in neurophysiology has identified the kinds of stimuli—bright lights, sudden sharp sounds—that reach the amygdala first, before reaching the cortex or thinking part of the brain. The click is that kind of stimulus. Other research, on conditioned fear responses in humans, shows that these also are established via the amygdala, and are characterized by a pattern of very rapid learning, often on a single trial, long-term retention, and a big surge of concommitant emotions….

We clicker trainers see similar patterns of very rapid learning, long retention, and emotional surges, albeit positive emotions rather than fear. [Veterinary neurophysiologist Barbara Schoening] and I hypothesize that the clicker is a conditioned ‘joy’ stimulus that is acquired and recognized through those same primitive pathways, which would help explain why it is so very different from, say, a human word, in its effect.

If this is true, another contributing factor to the extraordinary rapidity with which the clicker and clicked behavior can be acquired might be that the click is processed by the CNS much faster than any word can be. Even in the most highly-trained animal or verbal person, the word must be recognized, and interpreted, before it can ‘work;’ and the effect of the word may be confounded by accompanying emotional signals, speaker identification clues, and other such built-in information.”

I am in the midst of writing a post about how much modern animal training and trainers (clicker trainers) have to offer the field of human neuroplasticity research and application. I come across relevant — and practical — applications in my work and studies of animal training all the time. This is just one example of that cross-fertilization!

Back to the giveaway!

Here’s the scoop: I’ll give away a clicker and a custom-made TAGulator to two people who comment on this or the previous post AND answer any of the quiz questions in the previous post correctly! (If you already answered them and you don’t know if you got them right, feel free to take another crack at them in a new comment.)

I have a variety of types of clickers (box, button, and party-favor type), and I’ll let the two winners choose their color and style of clicker. They’ll get some say in the design of their TAGulators, too. When I make TAGulators, I use buttons instead of beads because I have a ready supply of groovy, free buttons. (Thanks, Mom.) I’ll get in touch with the TAGulator winners to ask their preferences for button color, shape, or materials. (Want to see one? Find TAGulator pictures at the TAGteach International Shop.

All winners — of DNRS DVDs, coaching session, and TAGulators/clickers — will be chosen at random from people who comment on this or the previous post. Please see previous post for commenting/entry instructions.

*I do not represent, nor have any connection to, DNRS, other than as a very satisfied customer.

Updated! DNRS DVD and Neuroplasticity Coaching Giveaway!

This coming Friday is my first “rebirthday”! It will be one year since I started the Dynamic Neural Retraining System (DNRS) DVDs that launched my recovery. Woohoo!

To celebrate, I’m having a barbecue at my house and inviting many friends. I’ve been looking forward to this since June.

I’m also doing a giveaway to spread the hope, joy, and recovery tools that have helped me — and many others — make such positive changes to their lives.

“What are you giving away?” I hear you muse.

I will give away at least one copy of the DNRS DVD sets to someone who has difficulty affording them on their own! If enough people chip in, I will give away as many DNRS DVD sets as we raise funds for!

UPDATE: Someone has indeed donated enough for a second DVD set. I’m now giving away two DNRS sets of DVDs!

I will also give away a free neuroplasticity coaching session with me!

UPDATE: I’m also giving away two sets of clickers and TAGulators! Read about what these are and why they’re so good for limbic retraining.

“Where is this giveaway?” You might ask.

Why, right HERE on this website/blog!

“How will you choose the winner?” You may be wondering.

I will use the random.org random sequence generator to pick several winners — two for the DVDs, one for the coaching session, and two for the TAGulator/clicker set.

“And how might I participate?” You may be thinking.

I’m so glad you asked!…

You can participate in several ways!

1. If you are interested in a neuroplasticity coaching session with me by phone (or face-to-face if you live in Western Mass.), and you have never done a coaching session with me before (you are not already a client), please comment on this post by answering one of the neuroplasticity quiz questions below.

Also, please indicate in your comment that you are entering the coaching drawing.

2. To enter the drawing for DNRS DVDs, I ask that you follow these guidelines:

I really want these DVDs to go to someone who really wants to recover (from MCS, CFIDS/ME, fibromyalgia, PTSD, anxiety, depression, or post-treatment chronic Lyme disease) AND who finds it difficult or impossible to afford the DVDs on their own. Anyone on SSI is encouraged to enter, for example, and anyone who does not have access to $275 to pay for these DVDs without struggle or hardship. I am not going to ask for your financials. I just want these DVDs to go where they will be put to good use.

Note: The DVDs are captioned/subtitled in English, German, Spanish, Italian, and French. There is also a transcript available (for an additional charge) for people who cannot watch the DVDs due to electromagnetic field sensitivity or other reasons.

If you are interested in entering the DNRS drawing, please answer one of the Neuroplasticity Quiz questions below AND please indicate in your comment that you are entering the DNRS DVD drawing.

3. UPDATE: Anyone who answers any of the quiz questions below CORRECTLY is eligible for the TAGulators/clickers. (You can answer incorrectly for any of the other prizes.)

4. If you would like to support this drawing — either to help defray my expenses or to help make another set of DNRS DVDs available — I welcome your donation.

In addition to offering my time for free for the coaching session, I am paying for the set of DVDs. One set is $250 plus shipping (about $25) from Canada or $300 plus shipping for someone who can’t watch the DVDs and needs a transcript. I am committed to giving away at least one set, so even if nobody else chips in, I’ll still do that. (One person did donate after my last post. Thank you, friend!). If $250 or more comes in, I’ll donate a second set (or a third, fourth, fifth!).

If you would like to support this neuroplasticity giveaway, you can use the Paypal “Tip Jar” link on the right side of my homepage OR you can mail me a check (contact me for my mailing address) or you can hand me some cash in person (if you are a person I see in the flesh). No amount is too big or too small! $1, $5, $10, $100, $500, or whatever you would enjoy offering would be warmly received.

5. If you know of someone who you think would like to enter the drawing for the DNRS DVDs or the coaching session, please send them a link to this post. I’d like it to get to the people who can most make use of the giveaways. Thanks!

Neuroplasticity Quiz Questions

Please answer one of these questions if you want to take part in the giveaway! You do NOT have to get the answer right to win the DVDs or the coaching session! Just give it your best shot.

You can also answer the questions in the comment section just for fun even if you do not want to enter the drawings.

  • What is the name researchers give for the phenomenon of the human brain’s tendency to focus on things like worry, danger, anxiety, and interpersonal anger? (Answer is in, among other places, Rick Hanson’s book, Hardwiring Happiness.)
  • Which three healing modalities did Donna Jackson Nakazawa detail in her book, The Last Best Cure?
  • The study of the expression of genes — which genes are “turned on” or “turned off” in our genetic code — is called what?
  • Which world-renowned religious leader has hosted conferences and written book introductions on neuroplasticity?
  • PTSD that grows worse over time, autonomic dysreflexia after a spinal cord injury, chronic pain, tinnitus, and addiction can be examples of what phenomenon?

I’ll post the answers to these questions when I announce the names of the winners of the drawings. I don’t know exactly when that will be (I have a lot going on!), but it will be AFTER my “rebirthday” party — sometime after August 11.

I am really excited to be able to offer these resources in celebration of my recovery. It makes me very happy to support others in their recovery journeys, too!

Thanks for reading!