Thursday was a good day! As many of you know I rescued a second dog – Lola – from Turkey and brought her to England last September. She is definitely a Disney dog and utterly gorgeous although still showing signs of having had to fight for survival and every scrap of food for the first twelve months of her life. This manifests itself by madly barking at every new dog she meets, obviously doing her best to show how fierce and brave she is so that they are not inclined to attack her. She is very fearful, until she knows them well, that they are going to hurt her and drive her away.
Well, on Thursday she took her Bronze test, with 5 other dogs who she had more or less got used to. On one of the exercises one of the other dogs, quite a large and exuberant German Shepherd, who had behaved impeccably in class, decided to throw a wobbler, rush around the training arena and leap straight on to Lola – well, not quite as I was doing my best to hold one dog between my legs and the other one out of the way! Not good news, shot her confidence to pieces and sent her into a panic so that she did not meet the requirements of the next exercise through not wanting to move away from me. I was calmly and repeatedly stroking her and telling her how good she was and how clever she had been to handle a difficult situation. The assessor was excellent and, knowing her background, came over himself to give her reassurance and, when she had calmed down, give her a second chance. She did it and passed the rest of the test with flying colours. Together we are now proud owners of a framed certificate and a rosette. Next week she starts training for her Silver!
This happened in front of our wonderful trainer (Peter Branch of Newbury Lodge Kennels in case any of you want to know the best dog trainer in the UK!), the assessor and the rest of the class, so we all knew what had happened to upset her and cause her to nearly fail. Obviously I don’t know too much of what happened to her in the first year of her life and most of it is hearsay. I do know the state she was in when she was found and from what I have seen out there can guess the rest – it would not have been pretty. Rebuilding her confidence will take time, lots of time, with consistent positive reinforcement on all her good behaviour and endless patience when she gets it wrong. Every single bit of training done with love and kindness, telling her endlessly when she gets it right and not criticising her when she gets it wrong – just calmly telling her ‘no’.
This experience made me think. How different are some of our human reactions due to things that might have happened to us in our past, creating very un-useful beliefs about what could happen to us in certain circumstances? Stop for one moment and think about all the people in your life who are not quite living up to your expectations of them and ask yourself if you really know why that is. Could they have had an experience, that you know nothing about, that has badly knocked their confidence and caused some negative assumptions to creep in. In Lola’s case it is almost certainly ‘all dogs are going to attack me’. In the work place it could be ‘I will lose my job if I get it wrong’, ‘my boss will tell me off in front of everyone if I make a mistake’, ‘failure is not acceptable’, and so on.
What set of assumptions might the assessor have made about Lola if he had not known of her past? For sure he would have judged her in the moment, believed her to be a dog ‘not in control’ and failed her. In that very short space of time, she was handled with care, gentleness and loving reassurance that she was OK so she found the courage to still deliver.
How do we typically treat people who we see as not stepping up to their capabilities? I know that my approach in the past was to judge them, criticise them (hopefully supportively) and keep telling them what they could do to be better. Was my approach the most useful? With hindsight and with what I now know about leadership, almost certainly not. Had I had the wisdom those years ago I could have learnt a lot about leadership by working with Peter and understanding how to get the most out of my dogs.