Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Beyond Obedience Training

There have been a few times when reading dog training books has felt a little like reading the gospel, when I've wanted to stand up and shout, "Yes, yes, yes!  Exactly!" (a strange and unexpected reaction, I'll admit).  Patricia McConnell's book The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs explores the inherently different nature of humans and dogs and how our species-specific ways of communicating get us into trouble with each other.  Based on this understanding of canine behavior and communication, she makes a case for benevolent leadership with tips for successful training.  Much of what makes a good trainer, it seems, is the same as what makes a good parent: clear boundaries, plenty of praise for good behavior, consistency, and redirection to what is acceptable rather than harping on what isn't.

(Interesting aside and canine tip of the day: as humans, our first instinct when we see a dog is to lean forward into their space, reach our hand over their head, and pet them; this frontal approach with our hands raised is how we greet other humans and comes naturally.  Dogs, however, interpret this move as a dominance display and may even feel threatened; they'll tolerate it from humans they know and love but would much prefer to be approached from the side and rubbed under the chin or on the chest.  Pay attention next time you or someone else greets a dog: you may find they duck their head or back away or grow tense.  I've been observing it ever since I read about it.  Who knew?)

The parts of the book that have resonated most are those that address leadership and motivation.  Much of what I'm reading boils down to the idea that we want our dogs to do what we ask because they want to, because they believe it's in their best interest, not because they are afraid.  This concept parallels my desire for my own kids.  I want my children to make good decisions not because I make them do the right thing or because I told them to and they're afraid of me but because they know life will go better for them if they do, because they know it is in their best interest to make that decision.  

McConnell writes this:  "So much of old-fashioned obedience training could be summarized as, 'Do it because I told you to, and if you don't, I'll hurt you.'  The assumption seemed to be that dogs should do what we say because we told them to: after all, we're the humans and they're the dogs, and surely humans have more social status than dogs.  If a dog didn't obey, then he was challenging his owner's social status and needed to be forcibly disciplined to be kept in his place...Many people use force because of the myth of 'getting dominance' over their dogs.  But yelling at a dog, reaching for her collar, and shaking her is a very primate thing to do, not something that she will inherently understand.  It might make her afraid of you, and it might make her pay a lot of attention to you, but it won't teach her what you'd like her to do.  Giving a dog a hard jerk on her collar is like rapping a child's hand in school when she gets the wrong answer.  It may make the child afraid of making a mistake, but it doesn't do anything to teach her the right answer" (p. 147-148, 182).
I'll confess there are many, many times I wish my kids would just obey.  There are times when I feel affronted by their behavior, when I think, "How dare you ______ (insert irritating, disrespectful, or immature behavior here)."  I am the adult; they are the child.  Don't they know I know better than they do?  Don't they know our lives would be easier if they would just comply?  Those are the moments when I'm tempted to try to make them do something rather than frame the moment as a learning opportunity.  McConnell discusses the irony that force (she means physical but regarding the kids I mean emotional or authoritative force), which seems powerful, in fact, is only necessary when we lack power.  It may be effective in the moment, but no true learning occurs.  

The moments I feel most enraged, most angry, most inclined to rant or rave or punish are the moments when I find myself without power, when I've backed myself into a corner--often over a power struggle I shouldn't be in in the first place--and don't know what to do.  Regrettably, I've done a lot of damage in the name of authority--it's an ugly place but one I'm learning to avoid more successfully each day.  If my kids and I are pitted against each other in this kind of emotionally charged situation, I'm better off stepping away than coming on as the you-do-it-or-else mommy.  No learning occurs when we're in fight-or-flight mode.  When I find we're headed to this lose-lose realm, I'm beginning to use the phrase, "We'll talk about this later.  I make better decisions when I'm calm."  I buy myself time to figure out a legitimate consequence, they see a model of self-control even when tempers are flaring, the relationship is preserved, and we do not suffer the emotional fall-out of an authority trip.  

Sometimes I fail.  Sometimes I succeed.  Always I learn.  This is how it should be for my kids.

If my goal were to teach my children to do what others say, then this model of "obedience training" might be effective.  But it's not.  My goal is to help my children learn to think and make good decisions for themselves, whether someone is telling them to or not.  I want them to have the confidence to make hard decisions when offered a ride home from a drunk friend, when handed the drug-du-jour, when asked to compromise their values, when tempted to cheat, lie, or steal--not because they're afraid of what Mom and Dad might say if they find out but because they're thinking about the consequence for themselves.  This confidence can only come from experience, and I pray to God they don't gain that experience in a situation with potentially fatal or irreversible consequences.  So I have to let them think for themselves now, make their own decisions now, fail now, feel the small, insignificant but nevertheless painful consequences now so that they learn how to choose.

I already see it working.  Ben is only four yet he demonstrates such incredible thinking skills, such sound judgement.  I never have to haggle with Ben over whether or not to bring or wear a coat; he has learned to trust me when I say it's pretty cold outside--not because I've made him wear a coat every time but because I've given him the freedom not to wear it, and he's experienced being cold.  It didn't take long for him to realize it may be best to wear it, or at least bring it, just in case.  Just yesterday, Ben looked at his library book and asked when it's due.  I told him it's due Friday, and he said, "Well, I'll bring it back Thursday just to be safe."  It still amazes me when I see him put away his books or toys during rest time, turn off his light, and crawl in bed for a nap because he recognizes he's tired.  This kind of thinking is not bred of simply obeying my authority.  It comes from experiencing cold, Colorado  mornings.  It comes from paying fines for late books.  It comes from feeling tired and cranky.  It comes from making a mistake, feeling the consequence, and having the opportunity to choose differently next time.  

I want to work all things in my children's life together for their good.  I want to give them free will within the boundaries I set for them.  And when they choose to go outside those boundaries, I want them to experience consequences in the safety of my love for them so that, hopefully, they won't have to experience the harsh consequences of a larger world that has little concern for their well-being.  And hopefully, when they venture out in this wide, wide world, we'll have a relationship that goes far beyond me telling them what to do.  

I want them to learn so much more than obedience...


We found out we'll be bringing a puppy home in a few short weeks.  Merlot is her name--for now, at least.  I imagine there are many lessons in store for me; I've learned so much already.  On the one hand, I can't believe we're bringing another creature into the house that needs training and discipline and guidance in addition to all the physical demands of meals, potty breaks, play time, etc.  On the other hand, I am smitten with the notion of relationship, of bringing more love and joy into our home, even as we invite their bedfellows, frustration and discouragement.  It is a beautiful mess, family, and a beautiful blessing.

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