On training dogs and learning personal boundaries

I’ve said it a lot. Diving into the world of dog training in general, and in exploring my working relationship with Z in particular, has taught me a lot about personal boundaries.

What I haven’t really elaborated on is what I mean by that.

Training a puppy is a frustrating experience.
Training a SIGHTHOUND puppy is frustratingly exhausting.
Training a sighthound BITCH puppy is maddeningly, frustratingly exhausting.

Especially when you don’t have any prior experience or practice.

I remember so many times when Z’s will would lock horns against my own, and I would grow frustrated by the strength of her will, and, in shadow, how weak mine often felt in comparison. I began to learn to feel that feeling in my body instead of in my brain.

And as I did that, I began to learn the signs that preceded it.

And perhaps the most important thing I learned, was that, while it was important for me to acknowledge and feel my own frustration for what it was, it was destructive to the process to expend it on Z. To do so would be to lock us into an escalation match where no one could win.

My frustration was my responsibility to own, manage and repurpose into motivation. Z could (and does) push my buttons to set it off, but that does not make it her responsibility to fix. She’s an animal. To expect her to would be the height of anthropomorphizing.

As I have learned the skill of inhabiting my body in the wash of a feeling and acknowledging it for what it is and then carefully, intentionally and consciously choosing what to do with it, it has proven as invaluable tangible practice in my dealings with other humans.

We have a tendency to expect people to read our minds. To know what we need and want without having to ask for it. To expect that the human experience is similar enough that taking care of each other should be “common sense”. And so, it becomes easy to blame other people for “making” us feel someway, and in so doing, make it their responsibility to fix it. All, typically, without asking. Or, “asking” by explosion.

The problem with explosion is that it’s rarely clear.

In training a dog, you have to train yourself to be clear and consistent in relaying your commands and expectations to your dog, as well as fair. You have to understand and know what you want from them, make sure it’s something they’re capable of (including raising the bar when you know they’re capable of that, too), and be decisive and self-possessed enough to communicate all that with clarity and considered resolve.

When you get frustrated with a dog, when your voice tone changes and you only growl “no!” at them, or tut at them, tower over them to make them cower, or even physically punish them, you teach them nothing other than to fear you. Because you’re unclear, because they don’t know how to interpret what you want from them, you might explode at any moment. How that fear manifests? It could be aggression. Or it could be extreme submission.

Sometimes, the offense warrants a stern, serious correction, though with as little emotion as possible.

When we explode at each other, the same dynamics apply. When we explode, it usually means we haven’t taken the time to sit in the discomfort of the emotion for ourselves for a few moments, or figure out what it is that’s really at the core of it. And if we haven’t done that, we can’t hope to communicate effectively or make fair requests on the person who set us off. Instead, we’re displacing. We’re offloading the “THIS FEELS SHITTY AND I DON’T LIKE IT” feeling to someone else to make it their responsibility to fix with no tools or insight into what they could possibly do to achieve that.

It’s inherently unfair.

So when I say that Z and dog training have taught me about personal boundaries, what I really mean is: She has given me enormous practice in:

1) Feeling a feeling for myself and letting that wash through me without offloading it

2) Being diligent and intentional on what I do with or because of that feeling, by asking the questions:
– What specifically set me off?
– What could I have asked for or signalled more clearly to have prevented that?
– What can I take from this and ask for consideration of in the future? Is that a fair request, or is it me reassigning responsibility for my emotional experience to someone else?
– What part of this emotional response just needs to be acknowledged, and not attempted to be solved out of existence?

It’s rarely fair to ask people to anticipate my own emotional reactions or experiences. It’s more fair to learn my own emotional response system so that I can better take care of myself.

It’s still a work in progress.

I suspect it always will be.

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