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No names, dates, places, or gendered pronouns. Dog handlers are a little too quick to talk smack about each other as it is. I will say it was some time ago.

Dog handler had run a dog in training through a search problem, and the dog Did Good. Found the subject, time for the reward. Dog handler stood erect, “praised” the dog without touching it or raising the pitch of their voice. I can’t remember whether there was a food or toy reward, but if so it was presented in a lackluster way. The dog was not excited. The dog was not in any real sense “rewarded.”

I hear another dog handler, standing next to me, sum it all up under their breath: “[They] need to learn to dance like no one’s watching.”


SAR dog handlers have many possible ways to reward their dogs. I won’t reproduce the arguments they have over which are best, and which are or are not appropriate. “Infinite are the arguments of dog handlers.” But I will say that the one absolutely required part of the reward is to become a clown. For a couple of minutes, your main job is to amuse your dog, to act like an idiot in the name of making her feel special. Raising the pitch of your voice, raising your volume, dancing around like a moron are all de rigueur.

Now I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I cannot actually dance like no one’s watching. But I do try to commit to the reward, to have fun with it, and not worry about what a halfwit I’m looking like.

Hanging over my home office desk (lately, simply “office desk”), where I can look at it every day, is a photo of Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama. I got it many years ago, when I attended a talk by the Lama and a group of scientists from Harvard and MIT working with him to measure the physical and medical effects of transcendental meditation. He’s up there now, smiling down at me.

I’m not a Buddhist. But at the time I was a young medical science writer working at the Harvard Medical School News Office, which had been given two free tickets to the talk at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium. A coworker, who’d had a long interest in alternative medicine, was assigned to cover the talk for our publication. I snagged the second ticket, got there early enough to sit in (or near, it was a long time ago) the front row center. I expected it would be interesting.

Now, this was an audience with many faculty members at Harvard and MIT in it, and they were not going to go easy just because he was the Lama. They asked some penetrating questions, and while I had every respect, as an outsider, for TM and the Lama, they made good if respectful points about how uncritically the scientists working with him were approaching the research.

But that wasn’t the main show; at least, not for me. I was fascinated by how the Lama, assisted by a young, earnest monk who was acting as translator, was doing a schtick. The young man was translating the Lama — who speaks excellent English, BTW — from Tibetan into English in a somber, serious tone. But the Lama was anything but serious. He was mugging the crowd, smiling and hovering just at the edge of making fun of his interpreter.

Now I’d seen something like this before, though not in person. Stephen Hawking did a similar schtick when he “spoke” publicly. The artificial voice he used was hard to understand, and as time went by and his disease progressed, he couldn’t operate it quickly enough to deliver a talk anyway. But by having a student who knew his work speak for him, he could let the youngster deliver the material earnestly, directing the talk without having to dictate word for word. But the real schtick was the same — young, earnest mouthpiece speaking for the master, who spent as much time clowning as directing. Establishing a rapport with the audience, and rewarding them for their attention, thanks to the straight man on stage with him. The Great One as Grace Allen.

Anyway I’m sitting there, taking this all in and mightily impressed by the presentation’s sophistication, when the Lama looks down at me, locks eyes, and breaks into a broad, clownish grin that said, as clearly as if he’d said it out loud, “Aren’t you and I just the most ridiculous things in the Universe?”

I was poleaxed. It was a true Zen lesson, the master-as-clown piercing my own young earnestness in just the same way as his stage act. It was an exhortation to dance like no one’s watching, delivered in an instant. It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten, particularly when I want a dog to feel accomplishment.

To paraphrase Carl Spackler, “The Dalai Lama smiled upon me. So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.”

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