The Importantance of Your Dog’s Questions

Set your course by the stars, not by the light of every passing ship.  - Anon.

All that sass...

All that sass…

My daughter, River (aged almost-10), and I got into a battle of wills the other day.  I realize it’s part of growing up: expressing a difference of opinions, not readily agreeing with with everyone says, and generally breaking away a bit.  Just because it’s a normal phase (and let’s face it, necessary), doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Or even fight those battles.

Yes, you read that correctly.  I am not my daughter’s “alpha” any more than I am my dog’s “alpha”.  That term actually disgusts me.  What I’m here to do is answer questions for my daughter as long as she needs me to do so.  As she gets older, the questions get less frequent, but more intense and definitely more serious.  When she was 4, she wanted to know if she could have candy for dinner (um…no).  Now that she’s a tween, she wants to know if she can spend hours on her computer and neglect her homework.  It’s obviously not a question that is vocalized, but rather asked through her actions (or lack thereof).  Again, the answer is “no”.  Eventually, she will be at a point where she doesn’t need me to answer her questions anymore (though she still may want to seek my advice). I will hopefully have done my job as a parent, and showed her how to think for herself; how to take information and act upon it.

It’s a difficult break when the time comes, but as a human, that’s my goal:  a child who will always be my little girl. To the rest of the world however, she will be a strong, courageous woman capable of both standing up for what is right, but also apologizing when she’s wrong.

River in full bloom.

River in full bloom.

I raise my kids in a very similar way that I raise my dogs.  No, really.  I’m here to answer my kids’ and my dogs’ questions.  As far as my dogs go, Sparta’s big questions usually involve other dogs, and if they are a threat or not.  For Orion, it’s usually about a fear of being separated from me.  I’m not their “alpha”.  I’m the person who has answered all of their questions in a way that they understand, and doesn’t scare them. I don’t lose my temper…at least not in front of them.  (Hint: It’s okay to walk away.)  The difference between dogs and kids, though, is that you aren’t raising dogs to be independent.  Dogs will always require a Pilot to help them navigate our human world.  The important thing to remember, is that it is still their right to question our answers.

Let me repeat that: a dog is allowed to ask questions, and to challenge the answers you have given them. 

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The key is that you have the right to stand firm in your answer.  For instance, Sparta’s main question, as I’ve stated in an many posts, has to do with other dogs.  She perceives them as a threat.  Her question is usually, “Should I kill it before it kills me?”.

Of course my answer is “no”.  But it is her right not to immediately accept my answer.  I call it the Are You Sure.   The object of the game isn’t to bully her into accepting that my answer is valid and correct.  It’s to help her understand that I will stand firm in this answer, and that I will keep answering her questions until she accepts my answer.

Look at it from a human perspective.  I recently bought a new house, and did a 100% gut and remodel of the interior.  During the process, I was convinced that I wanted hardwood floors.  I love the look, the feel and just the vibe of hardwood.  My husband, on the other hand, suggested tile floors.

No way.

So he set about answering my concerns about it:

It will look cheap. No, there’s tiles that look exactly like hardwood floors.

We can’t refinish it like hardwood. We won’t need to refinish it; it’s so much more durable than hardwood.  

It’s cold.  We can put radiant heating under it.  

So eventually, I took the leap of faith (after many, many more rounds of Q & A). I accepted his answers to my questions.  We put in the tile.  

And I love it!

But bear in mind that my husband did not “alpha” his way into getting me to accept his answer.  He gave his answers in a calm manner.  He didn’t ignore my questions, nor did he try to distract me from my questions about the tile.  He definitely didn’t use an electric shock collar on me to get me to accept his answer (I mean, wtf?!).  He answered questions for me until I felt that his answers made more sense than mine did.   Now, I’m not going to say I can always be this cool and rational about a difference of opinion.  After all, I’m human, and so is he.  We sometimes throw emotions into it.  The really nifty thing is that dogs don’t.  They are logical, sensical beings who, once you have a higher amount of money in your Piloting Piggy Bank than they have, will acquiesce. And the more money you have in your bank, the more they trust your answers.

Boots and Bee Photography - By Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography – By Brittany Graham

I will never bully my way into being Pilot.  I want them to ask questions of me. To feel safe asking questions that I will always answer for them (to the best of my ability).  One cannot use the pain of a shock collar to establish your role as Pilot.  That role is earned, not inherited just because I have opposable thumbs and they don’t.  I answer their questions.  And most importantly, I choose my battles.  Yes, I usually answer their questions (“Can I bark at the mailman?”  ”May I please have a treat?” “Can I pull on the leash?”) but only if I feel mentally capable of doing so at time.  I need to be calm and rational when answering questions.  Not harried and frustrated.  Let’s be frank, the more I answer their questions, the more money I get in my Piloting Piggy Bank.  But sometimes, I just don’t have it in me, and that’s fine.  As I told my husband the other day, I win 100% of the battles I choose to fight with our dogs (and our kids!).

So that battle with River I had? It really wasn’t a battle of wills.  It was a battle of my being tired after working all day, along with her being a tween and trying to move her boundaries forward.  But I’m the adult.  I’m her Pilot.  I knew I wasn’t in a position to Pilot her correctly when I was tired, so I didn’t.  I told her issue was valid for discussion, and that we would address it in the morning when we were both more rational.  I stood hard and firm in that conviction, and gently, but firmly negated her attempts to discuss at that moment.  After a few “Are You Sure’s” from her, she accepted that answer, and we did end up discussing it in the morning.

And you know what?  I answered her original question (Can I have a later bedtime) with a positive.  She presented her answers why she should be allowed, and I agreed.  She was right.  Piloting isn’t always about standing firm in your convictions; it’s about being able to change your views when presented with more information.  That’s what Piloting is about: giving the correct answer, not the easiest nor the most convenient. And that’s how to win a battle correctly.

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Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

 

The Beauty of Failure

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“Grow up!” – Me, to my son Eric, aged 12

A few weeks ago, my son did something pretty immature.  Not End-Of-The-World immature, but I had been having a rough day, it was late, and I was cranky.  I finally lost it and told him to grow up.

“Mom, I’m 12″, was his response.

Yeah, thanks kid.  I needed that. Along with the medicinal pint of Ben & Jerry’s, which Eric and I shared.

Problem is, Eric is the most well-behaved, mature, responsible kid I’ve ever met.  I seriously doubt that’s because of my DNA.

No regrets

No regrets

Regardless, I know I don’t deserve that kid.  He’s amazing.  But he’s a kid.  No matter how “good” he is, he’s still going to be just a kid at the end of a (long, frustrating) day. I allow him to make mistakes, and we laugh it off.  I allow him to grow in spite of because of those mistakes. The more I allow for him to be a kid and to fail occasionally, the less he fails, and the stronger he emerges from his rare failures.  But sometimes I do need to remind myself that he’s just a kid (or at least have him remind me).

And I’m still just a grown up.  I may be the adult, but I need to cut myself some slack.  I’m not here to set an example of how to manage a perfect, non-frustrating day.  I’m here to model how to manage in a perfectly imperfect world.  My children need a mom, not a messiah.

I can see it so easily with my clients.   One of my favorite clients called me the other day.  June* had adopted a beautiful dog who almost immediately bit a child on the head(!).  Rather than instantly returning the dog to the shelter to be euthanized, she called me.  She stated the circumstances: a neighbor kid had been playing tag with their preschool aged child, which can easily be misconstrued by a dog as attacking.  The dog tackled the neighbor child and essentially put them in a headlock.  Terrifying to witness, but the dog did no damage beyond a scratch to the “offending” child.

Still, it can be a traumatizing thing to any parent to witness.  June firmly believed that the dog, Ladybug, was not actually aggressive, but was trying to protect her child.  I agreed.  We worked together, and discussed Piloting Ladybug.  Piloting involves answering Ladybug’s questions so she would never be put in a situation like that again.  Questions like:

“Is that kid going to hurt my little girl?”

No, Ladybug, they’re only playing.

“Is my little girl going to die?! Do I need to save her?!”

No, Ladybug, it’s called a swing.  She’s fine.  

June noticed the more she answered Ladybug’s questions, two things happened:  Ladybug started accepting answers a lot more quickly, and she stopped asking questions so frequently.  In short, Ladybug allowed herself to be Piloted.  She learned that June would not only answer all of her questions, but would let Ladybug know if she needed help.  Result: Ladybug didn’t feel the need to monitor every single situation.  Ladybug was free to relax.

 

Happy ending to Ladybug’s story…until I got a phone call from June.  Ladybug had gotten loose.  Simple mistake.  See, Ladybug also had separation anxiety, and while it was being managed pretty well, she still wasn’t too thrilled with being left home alone.  Busy, hectic morning for June, trying to get a herd of kids ready for school, carpooling, etc., and suddenly Ladybug decided she wanted to join the fun. She got out of the house and ended up in the car with the kids some how.

Not the end of the world, right?  But as June put it, the kids saw her lose her temper.  No, she didn’t hit Ladybug.  She didn’t do anything terrible.  She just happened to yell at her a little bit.  June was upset, though.  She claimed she didn’t want her kids to see her like that.

“Like what, a human being?”, I responded to her during our phone call. I reminded June that it was precisely because she had allowed a dog to make a mistake (tackling the neighbor kid) that Ladybug still had a home.  She saw through the situation to realize that the behavior was not because Ladybug was aggressive, but because she was overwhelmed by the circumstances.  A dog had done the best she could…in a human situation.  And had failed miserably. Fortunately June had realized that Ladybug tackling a “threatening” child was merely the culmination of a perfect storm of events, and gave her the chance to do better (which she did).  Yet June couldn’t cut herself 1/100th of the slack she had allowed for Ladybug.  I guarantee that Ladybug had already forgiven June for the slip-up.

I will never be the perfect mom.  I will never be the perfect dog owner.  All I can do is the best I can with what I have.  Some days that’s more than others.  Some days I’m hanging on by a stash of Milano cookies and a glass of Pinot.

Don’t strive for perfect to be the normal that you show your dog.  Strive for best you can do to be the normal for your dog.  Sometimes the Pilot crashes.  Sometimes it’s just a rough day.  Striving for perfection only has negative consequences:  1) you burn out; and 2) your dog panics.  You broke character.  It’s okay.  I promise.  You’ll do better next time. Don’t fail at failing.  You’re going to fail; accept it.  Now either you can dwell on it or you can utilize that failure and grow from it.

Now, as Oprah said, “Think like a queen.  A queen is not afraid to fail.  Failure is another steppingstone to greatness.”

Long live the Queen.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

 

 

 

 

*Names have been changed for privacy