I can’t imagine what he meant. What could possibly go wrong? Well I have discovered in last few weeks of trying to update my insurance, that it turns out plenty of folks can think of plenty going wrong when doing what we do at WAGS. Whodathunkit?
But hey, you gotta love what you do, else what is the point?
So when I set out with the team this week to meet a bunch of primary students at a somewhat isolated little rural school, I had no real thoughts in my head about possible disasters. I might have lost some sleep prior to the event had I known.
First let me introduce you to Josie. Josie is a border collie bitch who is not a regular member of the team. Rather, she is a sometimes member to fill in for us when we need an extra set of paws. Josie is a little too emotionally invested to do this work all the time, she tends to get depressed if used too often. Josie is a super sweet dog but is a working dog at heart and if left unattended will find you the nearest herd of anything, even if that herd is 10km distant when she sets out.
So on this beautiful New England day, Josie was pressed into service to fill in for Dotty who is due to have babies any day now. Josie is always enthusiastic to be included so it was with high spirits that we set out.
The school we were headed to is a fair drive but such a lovely destination that I always feel it’s worth it. The students are polite and friendly and the teachers are enthusiastic and invested in their students.
To cut to the chase (pun intended), as the second session of the day got underway, Josie took her small handler on a big walk around the perimeter of the park we were in. At some point it registered with me that Josie may not have the purest of motives. Sure enough, Josie pulled free shortly after this thought hit me, and was off after some birds camped on the oval. Apparently the birds shouldn’t have been there? In any event, Josie was pretty through in her efforts to clear the park of all birdlife.
Seeing all of this unfold, I was not at all concerned, given how obedient Josie is in recall should I need to call her in. Instead of doing that however, I let her young handler try to sort it out herself. Possibly I should have realised that my experience with primary kids is limited. Possibly I should also have realised that the creativeness with which I formed possibilities in my mind of what could happen, were nowhere equal to one who is under 10 years old.
In any event, what did happen was pretty funny now that I am looking back. It started with the young handler giving chase to Josie all over the park, her getting frustrated and starting to yell, then having the other 25 or so young participants decide to ‘help’ her by giving similarly loud chase. Josie grew more and more bewildered until eventually deciding it might just be better to come hide behind me. Lucky she thought that, I could never have made myself heard if I had needed to!
I learnt that I was pretty crappy at handling a group of kids of this size at that age. Josie learnt that the park was probably big enough for us and the birds to co-exist. And the kids got to learn that dogs are way quicker and more agile than humans. Awesome learning opportunities all round!
Perhaps the biggest learning of the day went to the young teacher who was “supervising” us all. She had that slight, nervous smile I see sometimes when people are still working out whether I am sane or not. Between the end of this session and the start of the next one, we had a few minutes alone. She ventured the information that her own dog at home often runs away so she can only play with him in an enclosed yard. “I would love it if he wanted to come to me like Josie wanted to find you”.
A dog running away from you is a difficult reality for a lot of people. It’s a problem I have had more than once myself. Nothing helps you feel as unloved, ineffectual and just plain stupid as a dog that won’t come when you call it. I think that’s why it usually happens with an audience?
So when someone nervously mentions having this happen regularly with their dog, I know there is a whole depth of emotion behind those words and I’m going to tread lightly around the answer. Usually, I work through human problems with people by talking about dogs. In this case, I talked through a dog problem by talking about people.
Usually, dogs run because they love to run. Pure and simple. The idea of racing up a hillside, or flat out across a wide expanse, is simply too great to pass up. It has been a lot of years since I last felt like running anywhere but I still remember the feeling of freedom, health and excitement. It’s intoxicating. And because a dog can generally be relied upon to do what is in their hearts to want to do, they love to run.
Unfortunately, dogs don’t always understand the concept of danger. They rarely consider a wild romp down the street as life threatening in the same way that humans do who see cars as lethal weapons. And not understanding this, means that dogs simply do not interpret your reactions to their behaviour accurately. When you give chase, the dog simply believes you have decided to join his fun game.
The only way to regain control of a dog who has run away from you, is to decline to engage in the game. Demonstrate to him you have a different game in mind and most likely he will decide to join yours. Chasing the dog is engaging in the game.
So the young teacher and I sat on the bleachers at the oval and talked about kids. We talked around those little people who love to continue seemingly futile arguments into infinity. You know those people who describe themselves as someone who “loves to argue for arguments sake”? Teenagers who swear they will go to the grave knowing that black is white just to spite you? The 7 year olds who have endless reasons for not packing up toys when bedtime comes?
As I expected, my new friend the teacher had ample experience with little people who love to argue. We talked about how this is both a stage of normal development for little people, as well as an indication of trauma affect in young people who are demonstrating the skill out of sequence or appropriateness.
We talked on about how the very worst plan of action in these situations, is to engage in the argument. Anyone who has parented a 2 year old knows that if you enter the argument, you have already lost. Having a little person argue the toss with you every waking moment is about as frustrating and soul-destroying as having your dog run away from you and not come back. It’s incredibly frustrating and ridiculously emotionally triggering.
But how about if I were to remind you that by arguing with you that little person/child/young person/devil spawn/brat is actually offering you a rudimentary form of respect? Fact is, they wouldn’t be looking to struggle with you if they didn’t recognize your power.
Turns out that my teacher friend had heard the advice about not entering the argument many times, but had never understood why – she had assumed that she just needed to employ a politely firm tone explaining her superior reasoning in such effective tones that the arguer would be stymied. Unsurprisingly this was never effective with those really tenacious kids and was one of her greatest frustrations at work. Problems of these sorts were sometimes making her consider whether she had made wise career choices.
So we talked more about why you can’t enter the argument. About why dogs love you to chase them when they are running away. And about why such things are so emotionally triggering in supposedly healthy adults.
Sometimes we get so stuck in the patterns of our own behaviours that we really can’t see any alternatives. How do you stop arguing with your teenager every night? Stop arguing. That’s an alternative. Just don’t enter the ring and you can’t be beaten to a pulp by your own emotional roller-coaster. If it upsets you, choose not to do it.
Not yelling for the dog to come back and chasing after it is definitely an alternative. It’s counter-intuitive sure, but it’s an option. When you turn your back on the dog and start your own game, like bouncing a ball or throwing a stick around, the dog will want to come back for his own reasons. He just wants to be a dog and wants to have fun, especially with you.
Not entering an argument with an argument lover is definitely an alternative. It’s hard to do because there is this lizard part of your brain that screams at you about how disagreeing with you is demonstrating a lack of respect or validation for you. Except that it isn’t. It’s demonstrating an understanding that you have the power already. So hold it, and own it, and refuse to engage in the game.
You can practice strategies to sidestep inevitable power struggles in people you know or suspect will challenge you constantly. My favourite, that I have stolen from Barbara Tantrum (great name for an expert in working with traumatised children no?) is: "nice try." "Nice try" works great to diffuse power struggles while not shaming the individual. For example, “I see you’re trying to break the dress code again. Nice try. Go ahead and change before you go to school.” Or “Hmm, it seems like you’re trying to talk me out of the curfew we have already set. Nice try. You can either choose to come home on time or you can choose for us not to trust you to go out.” Then leave. Do not hang around and argue and do not feel like you need to prove that you have the power. You already have the power or they would not be arguing with you.
It was a big day of learning for all of us that day. I don’t know if my teacher friend had any luck with her dog on their afternoon walk that day, but I know that she learnt something about herself and about how powerful she is as a woman, as a teacher and as a dog owner.