There are some remarkable similarities between dogs and people in general, but there is a heck of a lot that working with dogs can teach us about how to help kids who are having a hard time.
My pack and I are currently learning about pedestal training. We have been trying it out for a few weeks now but very sporadically and the results have therefore been a little underwhelming. This morning I was focusing on the dogs learning to “hop on” the pedestal with a gesture and word command. Tonto, a 12 month old border collie, wasn’t all that interested in learning this command. He was, however, very interested in trying to tell me that he would rather be scavenging under the kennels for left-overs. As Tonto tried to leave, again and again I brought him back and demanded his attention on the job at hand.
Frustrating? Yes. The potential here is that I can get so wound up in my own frustration with the dog, that I can’t actually get anything done. I want him to pay attention! Come on, we’ve all been in a situation like this - You’re trying to get to the store / work / home and all you want if for your child to bloody well put their shoes on / get off the phone / grab their stuff, so you can. You get frustrated and impatient, start to yell and the oppositional child / surly teenager starts to argue and the whole process takes twice as long as it should. Relate?
There are lots of things that kids who have experienced some form of trauma will do, seemingly just to yank your chain. You get frustrated, an argument ensues and the relationship further degrades.
The ‘Why’ of this issue is massive. There are as many reasons for behaviour as there are stars in the sky. And we could discuss them forever. Every child is different and their reasons for doing things will be similarly unique.
At this point, having told Tonto for the 15th time that I need him to focus on me and be ready to work, I don’t actually really care why so much as I need to focus on how to deal with it effectively.
Cos’ here’s the thing, if I yell at Tonto and get cranky, he will get worried about that and start reacting to my mood. If he is worried, he still isn’t focusing on the command I am trying to teach him. So even if yelling gets his attention, it doesn’t get me any closer to my goal.
There is an old and common saying:– every action has a consequence. Now, I don’t want to get into a philosophical discussion about the Law of Karma here, but what I have learnt from my dogs is to create a space in which that “Law” doesn’t apply.
If I focus on the behaviour Tonto is offering (leaving) and give him a consequence to that action (reprimand) I have lost focus on what I am actually trying to achieve (get him on the bloody pedestal) and have actually turned the training session into something different (how to pay attention to Penny when she is frustrated). The biggest loser? Me. I assure you Tonto doesn’t mind getting into trouble that much and he is getting attention from me regardless.
What is actually at play here is a belief in ‘Justice’. I just don’t think he should bloody well get away with it! He should pay attention because I said so! Because I am the pack leader!
I have noticed that on occasion my boss (alpha) dog will let things slide. This doesn’t happen often, but just sometimes she will ignore behaviour from another dog that I know is disrespectful to her or to the pack hierarchy. And here comes the light bulb moment: She ignores it because not every action needs a consequence.
Everyone has their reasons. Some kids have had a really tough experience of childhood. Some people really struggle with being honest. Some live in fear, every day. And part of understanding that, is understanding that a person’s reaction or response to you may not be what you were looking for. And that that is ok.
A friend uses an expression that I love: “It is what it is”. Sometimes, what you get in response doesn’t make any sense to you. Sometimes it just downright annoys you / frustrates you / hurts you. But “it is what it is” – it’s neither right nor wrong, good nor bad.
Which is all very nice, but what next?
Not every action needs a consequence.
Your goal is to heal trauma and equip young people to live as functioning adults. If you focus on that goal then it can be easier to choose disciplinary techniques based on what they need, not on your sense of justice.
In this case, putting the dog on a lead and focusing his attention with this physical aide, is the best way to move forward with my training plan. Yes he “should” pay attention just because I said so. But if I let his lack of attention bug me more than his lack of interest in getting on the pedestal, I am never going to achieve anything this morning.
So with the rascally Tonto on a lead, I am able to keep him bodily within reach. While ever I can reach him, I can engage him using positive reinforcement (move towards the pedestal and I’ll give you all the praise you can take) and make the right thing easy and the wrong thing undesirable.
When young people, particularly those who have lived with trauma, do things that are “wrong” (given your view of the world), take some time to consider whether their action actually needs a consequence. Does reacting to them get you any closer to your goal of healing trauma? Or could you let that one slide and focus on the bigger prize?
Not every action needs a consequence. Even when the action is in direct opposition to you or shows complete disregard / disrespect. Reminds me of a young man I have been working with. He is 14 and fast losing the struggle to stay at school. The problem has been his complete disregard for rules in the classroom, and a propensity to tell teachers to F*?# Off! From what I can gather, teachers tend to take exception to that.
Only, what is at stake? This young man grew up with regularly occurring violence in the home from a very early age. He has lived the later part of his childhood with a mother very much scarred from her domestic experiences which were completely beyond her ability to cope with emotionally or physically. His trauma history is established. But he knows no other life, so he can’t tell you he has had it rough. For him, this is life.
Now we are looking at compounding his life’s woes by having him leave school early and make an attempt at a career with no education. This is what is at stake: A young life. This boy’s chances lie with his classroom teachers at this point. Numerous attempts have shown that changing his behaviour in the short term is not going to be effective. The sort of trauma this boy has suffered takes significant time and professional skill to address and heal.
But do you see the skilfully drawn parallel between this young man and my determinedly impish Tonto?
What is the equivalent to a dog lead that can be used in the classroom? There is nothing literal (and legal) that I can think of. But we can apply the same thinking.
Not every action needs a consequence.
Right before the student tells the teacher to “get f&$#@”, there is a confrontation. But what if there wasn’t? What if the teacher could ignore some of his student’s actions (like looking at his phone / not writing in his book as instructed) and not give the counter-productive consequence? Sure it’s not ideal. Our sense of justice demands that he pay attention, respect and abide the rules. But how is that working? How much closer does it get us to showing him how to live as a functioning adult? Isn’t having him in the classroom, albeit not keeping up with the work but at least physically there, preferable to having him on the street thinking about what to steal from your house or car?
Not every action needs a consequence.
Tonto is gunna be fine. We established his desire to get on the bloody pedestal in the end, although he is a dog who will never really see the point in such shenanigans. But my young client? Who knows, we’ll help his teachers be the best they can be and see what happens from there.