The Art of Not Panicking
Me: River, are you nervous about your first day of school?
River (age 9): I’ll wait until something happens to be nervous. No sense wasting it on nothing.
A photo came up in my Facebook memories a few days ago. It’s of River almost three years ago, starting her first day of school just after we had just moved, so she didn’t know anyone. I’ve long stated that my daughter is the most emotionally healthy person I’ve ever met in my life. This statement is just another profoundly logical quip from my girl. Interestingly enough, that statement played out for me today in a completely different capacity.
I’ve long stated that there is no difference between how I raise my kids and how I Pilot my dogs. Each is in a world that they aren’t quite equipped to handle on their own, and each ask a lot of questions. If you don’t answer the questions, well…
The good thing is that the more you Pilot your dogs/kids, the easier it is to Pilot them. In other words, you followed through with your answer this time, it’s more likely you’re will follow through the next time. It doesn’t matter what the question is:
River: “Mom, can I stay up all night and play video games?” Me: "No, and if you do, you will lose your computer for a week.”
Guess who lost their computer for a week, and guess who now knows I will follow through with that answer.
Another example is my Sparta.
Sparta: “Mom, is that other dog going to kill us?” Me: Me“No, I will protect you and make sure you are safe.”
Spoiler: we didn't die on the walk, so guess who believes me next time we see another dog on a walk.
Each little question we answer for your dogs/children is worth a certain amount of money in our Piloting Piggy Bank. It starts to add up. So the next time my son asks a question worth a dime, it’s easier to answer because I’ve already got the quarter to spend from the last question he asked (and I followed through on). Now that total is $.35! Cha-ching!i
And saving money is So Very Important, because eventually, you know that rainy day is going to come, and you’re going to need it.
That day came for me today.
“Hi Ms. Stack, this is Jody from River’s school. River is having a seizure. We’ve called 911. Please come up to the school immediately.”
Yeah, not the call I was expecting this morning. So I went into my usual crisis mode. In other words, the PAW Method I constantly preach. It’s not for working with your dog: it’s for working with your life.
1) Control Yourself. I’ve had a lot of practice with this one over the years. Panicking is a luxury, and is very selfish in the end. You are either robbing energy that can be used towards resolving a situation, or you are forcing others to use theirs to calm you down. Take a deep breath, and FFS, Put on your big girl pants and deal! As I like to tell my clients, this isn’t about you, this is about the situation, and the situation ain’t luxurious, it’s crisis. Wallow in luxury later when you have time to unpack the day’s events. It’s okay to get upset… just not now. Put on your Piloting uniform. You have a job to do.
2) Control the Situation. When I got the call, I was on the road with friend about to go on a road trip. Controlling the situation in that moment meant not adding stimulation to the situation. Can I drive on a 4 lane road, about to hit a traffic circle while taking a phone call about my daughter’s condition? Nope. I pulled off onto a side-street to take the call. Don’t let panic dictate your timeline. Control the present situation as much as you can. Sometimes it means crossing the road when you see another dog coming, or sometimes something as little as making sure you have backed Fido up a few extra feet before answering your front door. Situations are on my terms, or at least as close to my terms as I can get them. Once you've controlled the current situation as much as you can, let it go.
Could I do anything else from the car while I was driving to my kid’s school? No. So didn’t attempt to. As River said previously about being nervous, “I’ll wait until something happens to be nervous. No sense wasting it on nothing.” Sometimes it’s easier said than done, but the more you accept that, at least for the moment, you’ve done everything you can to control the situation, stop. You’re done. For the moment.
Once you have control of the present situation, now you are ready to take stock. Can I add more stimuli? Is there more information/change in circumstance that I need to control/manage? In this case, it was getting to the school just as they loaded my daughter into the ambulance that provided me with more stimuli. She was still unconscious, but I could still Pilot myself. How did I do that? By allowing others to Pilot me. You know how I always say Piloting is a big piggy bank, and whomever has the most money wins? Guess what? At that moment, surrounded by the school nurse, principal, and 3 EMT’s, I had the least amount of money. So I had to look to them to answer my questions:
- What’s her current condition? - Can I see her?
- What hospital is closest?
- Is her current state typical for a seizure?
The more questions that were answered logically by someone who had already controlled themselves and the situation, the more I trusted in their answers. In less than 15 seconds I had faith that these strangers could indeed save my child. All based on how their Piloting skills.
A lot of people are amazed by how quickly I can get a frightened dog under control, and feeling calmer and safer. It’s the same principle:
Seeing scary things, being in a scary situation, it’s all the same. You are looking for a Pilot. The EMT’s were helping to Pilot me and answer my questions, so that I could in turn answer River’s questions. Act the same way nurses do. After all, this wasn’t my first hospital run with my kids.
During our ride to the hospital, I had to Pilot River (who became semi-conscious during the ride) while they put an IV in her (“It will hurt, you might cry, and then we will go out for McDonalds.”) I had enough money in my bank to tell her she had to hold still. To tell her to look at me in the eye, not the EMT’s as they did it. And guess what: she survived the ordeal of the IV.
River finally came around at the hospital. More questions, but again, I had the money in the bank. CAT scan (“It will take about 5 minutes, it doesn’t hurt.”). IV coming out (an honest “I don’t know if it will hurt.”). And finally, after many hours, we were home.
So now she’s resting, and we have a slew of tests ahead of us. She’s got a diagnosis of epilepsy. More questions, starting with, “Mom, what’s a seizure?”. Honest answers, including “I don’t know” when I truly don’t know. But Piloting isn’t about coddling, nor is it about being a domineering authoritarian: it’s about recognizing that unanswered questions lead to anxiety and fear. It’s about respecting an individual (dog or human) enough to answer their questions with honesty and confidence, and not trying to circumvent difficult answers with easy lies (“This won’t hurt at all”), or high-pitched baby talk (“It’s okay honey you’re fine”).
**Hint: If someone says “you’re fine, it’s okay” you know that it’s not. Don’t lie, no matter how much you don’t like giving the answer. Most of us are made of sterner stuff, and can handle the truth.**
River: Why am I here? Where am I?
Me: You had a seizure. You’re in the hospital. Do you know what epilepsy is?
River: The shot my cousin has to get if she eats peanut butter?
Me: No, that’s an epi-pen. Let’s talk about seizures and epilepsy. And then you can ask the doctor or me any questions you have.
River: Can I still get McDonald’s?
That’s my girl.
Kerry Stack Darwin Dogs Dog Training, Differently
This article was originally posted in September of 2019. Given the current situation right now with Covid-19, I thought it prudent to re-post this article. Remember, there are steps you can take to help rid yourself of your initial panic responses.