Connie and Rowley: A Personal Story of Transformation
(This is a guest blog by Connie Burnet)
Some people, when they get into middle age, buy a sports car. Me? I adopted my first Border Collie!
Being single and in my 50s, my dogs are my immediate family. I have several Shelties that I’ve raised from puppyhood; my dearly departed heart dog, Sander, was a Sheltie; and I am a serial adopter of senior Shelties from a rescue in Illinois. A senior Lapphund, also a rescue, found his way to my house in 2008, and he fits right in.
But in January 2010, my youngest Sheltie had to retire from agility because of an arthritic elbow, and I was surprised to realize that she was over 9 years old. I had a house full of senior dogs! Very restful, and certainly they’re good company, but I needed a more active dog, I needed an agility dog, a go-everywhere-with-me dog. I’d wanted a Border Collie for years, so I adopted from a local BC rescue. The dog they called Rowdy was young – about 10 months old – and had been pulled from a rural shelter in western Illinois.
A natural at agility!
I started him in agility immediately. What fun! He showed himself to be a natural athlete, strong and flexible and capable of almost floating over jumps, and right away he developed an amiable interest in the sport. I’d been working an agility dog with a shy temperament and not the best structure for jumping, so I found myself in handler heaven with Rowley (his new name). He was such a dream come true in agility for me that a few months later, I took him to Dancing Hearts to see if he would be a candidate for herding lessons. Kathy assessed him and told me that yes, he would be suitable for training. Looking back on that now, I laugh: the pool looked so placid, so safe! I was sure we would just hop in and be able to swim! After all, he’s a BORDER COLLIE, right? Sure, I’d have to learn a few things, but I wanted to do it, so let’s go!
If I hadn’t taken that plunge, I might have accepted at face value a lot of what I thought my relationship with Rowley was, and I would have missed one of the biggest learning opportunities of my life.
In almost every area of his life, Rowley was easygoing and biddable, tail up and waving gaily, always happy to see me, friendly to other people and not in the least bothered by other dogs. But there were two places that caused a dramatic change in his demeanor: walks, and the sheep pen. In those environments, it was not about play and fun and let’s-do-that-together. It was about the serious business of taking charge, and he got so excited and nervous that he tuned me out almost entirely.
He went into crouching, bark-screaming fits. Walks were awful; he pulled every second, on every foot of the walk.
I put a pinch collar on him but took it off when I realized that it didn’t deter him at all, he’d pull just as hard with it on, and that was a recipe for neck injuries. I tried a walking harness that connected the leash to a ring on the front of the harness, on his chest, and that got me a dog who turned himself into a pretzel and then pulled me down the street. I tried being a tree; I tried talking to him; I tried clicking him for not pulling; I tried putting him on a ‘heel’ command. It was so not fun.
And he was even worse around sheep.
Pulling, lunging, barely registering my presence – he seemed to want me to drop him off at the sheep pen and leave him to his own devices, because I didn’t figure in his plans at all. He ripped the lead out of my hand, he pulled me out of my chair, he was crazed by the very sight of the sheep and beyond the reach of my voice.
Then we’d get home and he was again my sweet, happy-go-lucky young dog who loved being with me and loved playing with toys with me and loved everything we did together, even if it was just a nap on the couch. I could not reconcile the two dogs that he seemed to be.
I thought about quitting the herding lessons.
It would be so easy to just not deal with that. In agility he was the perfect dog and people didn’t believe me when I told them he was a whole other creature in the sheep pen. And I still wasn’t enjoying our walks. I avoided that by taking him to local parks where he could be off-leash – his recall was stellar – and just pretended that it wasn’t a problem.
The reason I didn’t quit wasn’t pride, or stubbornness, or that I had any great desire to do stock work, which I had never done before and found confusing most of the time.
It was that for Rowley, working sheep is part of what he is. Without it, he won’t entirely be the dog that he can be, and I’ve seen enough to know that the dog he can be is a pretty awesome dog. By growing into his abilities, he’s going to learn so much that I can’t teach him in any other way, and he’s going to gain a confidence and a maturity that I can’t approximate for him elsewhere. And by doing that work with me, we’re going to create a bond that will be deeper, and teach both of us more, than we could otherwise achieve. I really want that for him, and I want it for me!
I hope to have a long life with this dog and I want to be able to trust him and have him trust me every step of the way.
I know people who don’t think that you can really and truly trust a dog at some level, but I have had that trust and I know it’s real. I had it with my heart-dog, a Sheltie who spent 14 years with me. Sander gave me all of the things he taught me, and it seemed to me that all I had to do was to love him and believe in him. Rowley is making me work for the things he’s teaching me – but maybe that work is just another form of loving him and believing in him.
How does that translate to training? Well, I knew what wasn’t working! I didn’t realize why it wasn’t working until I examined the 5 C ideas. The very first C is “clarity” and I could see that my dog did not find my instructions or actions clear at all. He mostly found my frustration and confusion unnerving, and he reacted to that with frustration of his own. I needed calmness in order to achieve clarity; I also needed to revise my picture of communication. The word ‘command’, so often used in training, is one that I find problematic. It conjures an image of a drill sergeant barking orders. When I gave my dog a ‘command’ my tone changed and became stern. The pressure in that tone was apparent even to me. And the frustration was just behind it. The results were predictable:
Rowley didn’t see that he and I were doing something together, he saw that I was trying to compel him to do something and to stop him from doing something else.
Not the way to foster a partnership at all!
Rowley’s excess of excitement meant, I realized, that he wasn’t finding an emotional ‘ground’ in me. As his partner, I need to provide that for him – not just in the sheep pen, but in every aspect of his life. When he encountered something that made him froth with emotion like an uncorked champagne bottle, he would only have the ability to control that emotion if he had an outlet for it, a way to ground all the energy that was aroused by his impulses or instincts. No amount of putting him on command could help with this; in fact, that would only increase the pressure that he feels (and can’t handle). I did some homework and found a way to start addressing this, and I worked on deepening that connection in everyday situations.
Then Kathy and I incorporated it into the herding lessons, so that Rowley was learning to relax and
remain connected to me when he was around sheep. His connection to the sheep, which he had been frantically trying to make on his own, can only come through me, and that is the ‘ground’ that he needs emotionally.
An important lesson from Kathy’s dog Sue.
This point was made for me by one of Kathy’s dogs one day: Sue wanted to work sheep, and she kept presenting herself to Kathy and casting imploring looks from Kathy to the sheep. As Kathy pointed out, Sue wanted the sheep, but she didn’t express that want by racing to the sheep pen or by focusing on the sheep; she expressed the want by coming to the person who contained and facilitated her connection to the sheep: the shepherd.
It was an unforgettable vignette that made the point beautifully, without any words!
After a very long time, and after many missed approaches on my part, Rowley and I are now starting to be a team around sheep. We’re still working on getting my keen boy to handle his emotional energy around the stock, but he is no longer lunging, bark-screaming, and trembling uncontrollably. He can remain connected to me through play, with the sheep just a few yards away from him. He knows they’re there but he doesn’t feel that he has to ‘do something, anything!’ about that.
The next step is to transition him from play to work mode while keeping the calmness that comes from his connection to me in the sheep pen. I have no idea how long it will take to achieve that. It probably won’t take nearly as long as it took me to figure out the correct approach for this dog and this situation and this very green handler, though. And Rowley is only three years old, so we’ve got time.
We’re in this together, for the long haul.
We’re in this for the long haul, because as I realized early on, this is part of what Rowley is. He will be competent as I acquire competence. He’s way ahead of me in his intuitive knowledge of sheep, but I have to be the leading partner on this team, and I still have a lot to learn.
As for the coaching, that couldn’t be better. I’m certain that if I had taken Rowley anywhere other than to Kathy’s place to ‘try herding’, I’d have quit long ago in the face of utterly colossal frustration. Kathy saw all the frustration, she saw the reasons for it, I’m sure she saw the solutions to it, and when eventually I got myself and my dog headed in the right direction, she was there waiting to help us. That’s the thing about coaching – it isn’t a series of commands. It’s often a process of assisting someone as they reformulate their objectives and methodology. Being told something is not at all the same as realizing that thing, and the best coaches know that they have to wait for the student to realize what they need to know in order to even start working on things like skills.
The 5 C’s are the formula for a winning partnership.
I have found the Five Cs to be the formula for a winning partnership. I had to create a program specific to my dog and his needs, but once I did that, observing the Five Cs began paying enormous rewards. Rowley was always biddable in situations not involving sheep: now he’s more than biddable, he’s genuinely connected to me. I don’t issue ‘commands’ now – I give directions. The walks are enjoyable now. When he’s on leash, the pulling is occasional and I know how to stop it. When he’s off-leash, he pays even more attention to me and checks in constantly. All the potential for partnership that I sensed in this dog is starting to be borne out.
And as always when we work with dogs, the benefits that are realized by the dog are realized by the human, too.
Rowley needed emotional control? So did I. Rowley needed connection and trust? So did I. As Jimmy Buffett said, “it was so simple, it plumb evaded me.” But we’ve got the idea now, and it’s with genuine confidence and enthusiasm that I look forward to what comes next for us in this partnership.
Connie Burnet lives in the southwest suburbs of Chicago with her happy family of dogs.
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