At the very beginning, in the very first lesson on dog training, I talk a lot about what good leadership is and what a good leader looks like to a dog. Dogs are naturally inclined to look for leaders and they feel safer and more secure when they know someone is in charge.
The first task in my form of dog training is to master leading the dog. For me, leading the dog is about establishing a hierarchy with the dog and an understanding about how things are gunna go from here. And for me, the most important aspect of leading the dog is learning to keep your left hand still.
Dogs are traditionally led on your left side. This leaves your right hand (for most people the dominant hand) free for sword fighting, firing a gun, texting on your phone… you know, whatever’s appropriate to your circumstances.
So when I teach leading, I have you hold the end of the lead in your right hand, put the dog on your left, and hold the lead about half way down with your left hand (fingers facing your thigh). This leaves a small amount of slack in the lead for the dog to be comfortable and unaffected if he is sitting, standing, walking or lying down on your left side quietly.
That left hand, the one that is holding the lead about half way down, needs to be glued to your thigh to start with. It really shouldn’t move. If the dog is to have a chance at knowing where he should be in order to be comfortable and not get choked, you can’t move that hand.
That left hand is all about teaching, allowing and offering choice. It’s the single most powerful thing you can teach a dog. Or a human. Here’s why.
Choice is about power. The power to determine your own outcomes. People will generally be satisfied with either choice or power (or both) but the lack of either will tend to make people feel distinctly unsatisfied. When you only have $3.00 with which to buy an ice cream, would you rather buy it from a store with a choice of 4 different types of ice cream, or a store with 20 different varieties? You feel like you get a better bargain when you have more to choose from, don’t you?
Feeling powerful in your own life is akin to unlocking the door to freedom. To be and feel love. To connect and be engaged. To unshackle the imagination. All these emotional states require a sense of power in one’s own life. Without power in your own life, you lack the ability to love or be loved.
When I am working alongside young people, the central focus of EVERYTHING I do, is to enumerate, consolidate and define all of the areas over which they have control in their own lives and help them to expand that list as much as possible. Choice is power, choice is freedom. A young person who already feels powerful has no need to exert him or herself to try to control or intimidate me. I offer nothing for a defensive young person to fight against - you can’t argue with someone who respects you and your power to choose.
That feeling of power in one’s own life can open a traumatised person up to healing or an aggressively defensive person can see their support network for the first time. It open’s eyes and hearts and minds.
So choice is, like, super important, yeah?
Offering choice can be difficult if you are yourself still struggling with a feeling of powerlessness. Ever met a control freak? Emotional instability leads us towards emphasising those areas over which we do have power. You may not be able to control what food is cooked for dinner, but you can control whether or not you eat it. You may not be able to control who lives in your home but you can control whether they feel safe and comfortable there. Enter a lack of power, and in comes poor behaviour choices, eating disorders, self-harm, violence and anti-social delinquency.
Without really nailing this understanding that we all have choice, we never get to the knowledge that we are all responsible for our choices. Want your teenager to take some responsibility? He needs to know he can choose first. If you want people to do stuff, give them options.
Of course, having choice does not necessarily mean we are going to be good at choosing well. We won’t always choose the fastest way to get something done. We won’t always choose the safest option.
And of course which choices you make are largely dependent on the range of options you are able to choose from. Starting out with a limited set of alternatives can often leave people with very few opportunities to make choices that best suit their needs.
And in order to really offer choice, you can’t keep changing the rules. Changing rules makes you untrustworthy. You promised one thing to be true, then you made something else true instead. Changing rules will always result in disengagement and fear because you can’t be trusted.
So back to the dog…every time you move your left hand you are changing the rules. If you do that, the dog doesn’t have a choice about getting choked by the collar, he is gunna get choked no matter what he does. If your hand is still, the dog can choose to travel directly by your side and have no pulling on his collar. In practice, if you are holding the lead and moving forward, the dog is going to move from point A to point B anyway. If you want the dog to feel empowered while you move, you will offer him the choice to get there with or without being choked at the same time.
Keeping your left hand still is acknowledging a need to offer choice. It’s giving the dog power. And learning to keep your left hand still is teaching the human a whole lot about choices – how even if you are holding a lead attached to a collar attached to a dogs neck, the dog can choose to make that an instrument of torture or a badge of honour. It all depends on how fair you are at offering the choice. And how well the dog recognises his power, and his choices.
This is always one of those lessons that I tend to repeat a lot as kids unpack it in a different way every time. Eventually a link is made which illustrates how we all have choices, even if we think we have none. You have no choice about having to sit in the classroom, but you do have a choice about whether you go into combat with your teacher or come to a genuine understanding of each other.
It’s easy to assume that the plethora of choices out there is obvious to everyone. But that is far from the truth. Especially for kids who have had a hard time growing up. If no one ‘kept the left hand still’ for them, they never got the chance to learn about their own power. And since as a society, we typically respond to poor behaviour choices by removing options, until there are none, we don’t offer many of these kids much chance to learn. I would say that responsibility for one’s self is impossible to learn in a jail cell.
Practice keeping your left hand still (pro tip: it’s harder than you think) and look around you for opportunities to recognise where behaviour (either yours or someone else’s) comes from a leader not keeping their hand still – recognise it and choose to see where your choice was and honour your choice in that moment.