Saturday, April 28, 2012

It's a Matter of Control

In my view dog training and parenting have a whole lot in common. Not that I think dogs are little people in fur coats but the role I play for both my children and my dogs is to keep them safe from harm, keep them from annoying other people, and equip them to be able to function safely and well in human society. Lately this has me thinking about the issue of control. In our society young children and pets have virtually no control of their lives. The grown ups decide when they eat, what they eat, where they go, when they go, and on and on and on. My children are 18 and 12 now but I remember the wise woman who told me when they were small that the reason so many parents and toddlers develop issues around eating, sleeping, and toileting is that these are the  only three areas completely under the toddler's control; you can't make your kid eat, sleep, or potty. Light bulbs went on in my head when I heard that. What she said was so obvious and made so much sense and instantly explained to me why some parents had a pretty adversarial relationship with their children and some did not. You can't make your child eat but you can provide them with healthy, attractive, tasty food that they will want to eat. You can't make your child sleep but you can make sure they have enough mental and physical activity during the day to make them tired at night and you can create relaxing calming rituals around bedtime. You can't make your child potty, nature takes care of making them need to; your job is to make doing it in the place you want worth their while and/or create expectations that they will engage in approved toileting activities. In short you can try to control them or you can create circumstances most likely to lead to the behavior you want and let them control themselves.

I think it's true for dogs as well. Short of having her vocal cords surgically removed I can't keep Finna from barking wildly at the delivery person but I can do my best not to put her in a situation where she's frightened by the delivery person and feels it necessary to bark ferociously. Her barking is not under my control. I can only physically remove her once she's begun to bark. Yes, I know there are bark collars, and shock collars etc. but those only punish her for barking they do nothing to teach her to control herself. At best such devices will teach her to be afraid of what's going to happen if she barks. This is not what I want for her.

The question is, how do you give them opportunities to practice control without endangering them or annoying others. It begins with understanding and empathy. I understand that Finna wants to keep the scary people away from her territory and her pack. I can empathize with this desire since there are many occasions when I would dearly love to make the noisy neighbors go inside and stop making a ruckus. My desire to control my environment really isn't that different than hers. The difference is that I understand which things are under my control and which are not. I can't make the neighbors be quiet, they are simply loud by nature but I can remove myself from the noise. So what I want Finna to learn is that she can't  make everything be the way that she wants but she can make choices that can improve the situation--that's what I'm doing when I go inside because the neighbors are being too noisy.

Teaching Finna control begins with giving her choices where all the available choices are equally positive for me. When we play ball Finna tells me which type of fetch she wants to play. She can choose between playing find the ball in the bushes where I throw the ball as hard as I can into the bushes and she races after it, finds it, and brings it back; rolling the ball down the hill and having me bounce it back so she can snatch it out of the air; or catching the ball as it rolls off the roof. It doesn't really matter to me which version we are playing and there is no wrong choice so the choice is hers. She gets to control which game of fetch is played. When she goes outside she snatches a ball out of the bowl and goes to the place in the yard where we play the version she wants to play. She drops the ball and I obediently scoop it up and chuck-it where it needs to go. Of course I could insist that Finna play my choice rather than hers but that gives her one less area where she can make choices and exercise control. I believe that if I give her safe choices to control she's both less likely to fight me for control in areas where I need to be the one in charge and she is having the opportunity to learn to make choices for herself. The more she gets to control the better she will be at controlling herself and making good choices. It worked with my children and with Ranger, I'm hoping it will work with Finna as well.

Here is Finna waiting on the hill for me to throw the ball again.

No comments:

Post a Comment