Why should anyone ever do anything for me? Am I commanding, do I look intimidating, am I holding a weapon or holding something hostage, do I have a bribe for you? How does a leader make things happen? This is a very important question, especially if you take away spoken language.
With two weeks off from herding, I have had plenty of time to ponder what leadership really is. I know if my reactive dog fails, it is because of faulty leadership. He really doesn’t have the option to use his regular dog MO, fight or flight, since he is leashed to me. I have tried many different things, but I believe I need to define leadership in my own head to really make this happen for us.
First, a leader takes charge. After we had our major breakdown a few weeks ago, I stood there and looked around. I saw Jedi, frustrated with me; take a few nips at my Carhartt’s. He had never done that. I had never corrected him the way I did that day, when he was at his worst. What good did I think it would do?
You cannot believe how secretly happy I was to see that force was not the answer. I guess I had to try everything. I really do think we hit bottom right there. It was not leadership; it is more like a dictatorship. No teamwork or relationship building, he started fighting me. We are not at war. Live, learn and try, as a leader, but continue on.
I felt like things finally slowed down for me at that point. You know how you feel when you do something for the first time and it zips right by you. You barely comprehend what happened; your first competition, your wedding, all of those firsts. I never feel like we have really gotten out of that state.
Jedi and I have finally been in this place enough times before, that I could breath in the middle of it. I am done reacting back. Stare and whisper as you will, I give you no energy.
A good leader doesn’t just make decisions based on anyone’s emotions, not Jedi’s, not anyone’s around me, not mine. Jedi needs me to stop reacting to not only the people and dogs, but even to him, his craziness and myself. I don’t have to worry, we are learning and that usually takes a few mistakes.
No, I cannot simply will him to stop from being afraid or concerned. Do not put your energy here. This can only generate frustration for all parties. I know this first hand. You will become stuck in the mud.
What I CAN DO is give him another outlet. I mentioned food hasn’t worked for us. We have been practicing playing tug. He loves it. I believe letting him use that, as a positive outlet. This will be a place for him to put his frustration, maybe use a little fight. He can displace it.
If you play tug with your dog, you might get what I am saying here. I amp us up, I get us energized, add pressure. I feed the game. I grit my teeth a little and ask him if he can hang on. When I stop the game, I bring my energy down. I calmly ask him to “give” me the toy or “release” it. No energy, I release the pressure. It stops everything. He knows the game is over. It is on my terms. I created it. It is like an off switch. We have practiced creating an off switch together his whole life, now I need that here. I need a BIG off switch.
I do have one tip, if you are going to try start playing tug with your dog. If your dog won’t give you the toy at first, attach a leash to it. The game is not about getting the toy from you. I do let him have it sometimes, but at this point he will give it right back to me. The game isn’t about chasing him. The game is about a moment that we both enjoy together, connected. There is no game without Jedi, there is no game with me. I made the rules and I created the fun.
You need fun in a healthy relationship. It strengthens connection. I don’t know why, but fun usually takes a back seat to everything else. Training is more enjoyable, if there is fun involved. Do you only represent work and discipline…or are you also the cookie? You raise your value in their eyes with fun! Guys, be the cookie!
So, what being a leader means to me is, creating a framework for Jedi to operate in. A framework where I establish choices for him, creating a safe environment so he has the opportunity to make his own decisions and gain confidence. I let him decide how close we get to things; he decides he can turn to me for another outlet. He has choices.
My leadership can only influence his decisions; to be successful they must come from him. He must see he has a choice to react or find another outlet. I want him to see, one is more rewarding than the other. When we are successful, I also gain confidence. We work as a team and build our relationship. I too have choices.
Reacting is a coping skill; it keeps things away from us, it keeps us from moving forward. No one wants to go toward the thing that looks out of control. I have been quietly reacting; I have kept us from moving forward. I have been acting on emotion and not simply trusting my own choices.
I have been freaking out a bit with him, trying to steer us both around, yet feeling out of control. Wondering when this would all end. I know he felt that I was a bit reactive and it fed his reactivity. He is not a bad dog; he just doesn’t feel like his leadership has control. I really felt different after that moment standing in the field, looking around and taking it all in for what it was. I saw nothing was coming for us; we made it out alive. LOL!
Can I make this happen next week? Oh boy, I sure hope so!! If he can see that we survive each and every time, release the dopamine and actually have crazy fun in the presence of his trigger…maybe, just maybe…one teeny tiny little itty-bitty baby step forward is all I am asking for us. We want out of the muddy muck.
I did read a cool tip about what to do if a loose dog approaches your team. Sprinkle treats all over the ground in front of the dog that is headed in your direction. Don’t panic, be a treat fairy and be generous. The dog will stop and sniff all around trying to find those goodies. That will give your team time to create distance and the other dog’s owner time to catch up to their dog. Fair warning, this won’t work if the other dog is in attack mode, we know food only works when the dog is calm and present.
Here is another wonderful technique you can use for your team. If another dog or object is passing too close to you and you see your dog is getting a little concerned. Throw treats on the ground for your dog and tell them to “find it”! It is a fun game; we practice in the yard at home. Dogs love to use their nose. It distracts your dog, while it gives the object of concern time to clear the area.
This all sounds really good in my head so far. Ha ha! Plus, these leadership skills can be applied anywhere, with dogs, children, students and employees. I want my dog to look to me for guidance, because our foundation is built on trust. Leaders cannot be afraid to make mistakes, but we must learn from the mistakes. Leaders have to remain calm and non-reactive, to make the best choices possible. Now lead on!!!