What A Racket!
A shrink told me once that we deal with life either through strategies or rackets. A racket is when you “solve” the problem short term, but long term your “solution” makes things worse. A strategy is when you solve a problem permanently; both short term and long term. Common examples of rackets are over-eating, smoking or drugs. Far too many people assuage emotional and social loneliness through chocolate. In the short term, chocolate increases endorphins causing you to feel good—long term, overeating causes weight gain and further feelings of alienation. In an effort to be “part of the gang”, individuals smoke, drink or do drugs. Long term, these activities that looked like a quick way “in” can cause the person to lose their family, job or life.
Another way rackets show themselves are through emotional personas. Childhood is fraught with trauma and drama due to the fact that children are born conscience-less savages and it takes time and training to develop them into civilized beings. Children, young people and even adults are literally dying from bullying from “friends” and schoolmates. The pressures of trying to fit in, find a way to survive and succeed, force children to develop personas, “rackets” to deal with the outside pressure. The Bully, the Ditz, the Clown or the Victim are common ones.
Say a kid is clowning around and does something wrong. An adult starts to correct the kid and the kid clowns and looks cute. The adult is dis-armed and the kid gets out of all or most of the correction that he knew was coming. The class clown is born.
The Bully is born from the idea that “I’m going to get you before you get me.”
The Ditz learns that no one is going to expect much from her, require much from her, if she twirls her finger in her hair and sucks on her thumb.
The victim learns that crying, wailing and tears rolling down your cheeks deflects much if not all of the pressures and drama directed toward her.
These are very brief thumbnail sketches of the personas, but the idea to take away is that pressure was applied, and through (most probably) sheer accident, the child’s response made the pressure go away. The first few times are probably unconscious, but at a certain point, it becomes a conscious, deliberate racket to deal with life’s pressures. The problem of course is that these personas for the most part, do not translate well into the adult world. The Clown is not taken seriously at work and is passed over for promotion. The Bully can run afoul of the law and the Victim can set themselves up for serious abuse.
Dogs develop these persona rackets just as much as people do. I’m going to talk about three of the most common ones seen: The Bully, the Ditz and the Victim.
The Bully: This one is seen too often in my favorite breed, the German Shepherd Dog but can be seen in most any breed. Someone buys an 8 week old, happy, healthy, maybe just a little shy, puppy girl. She was bought because the family thinks German Shepherds are smart, loyal and will protect the family. They buy her in part because she has inborn aggressive capabilities. They expect her, want her, to show aggression. They bring her home and feed her. She’s used to having to defend her food from her littermates so when someone approaches her bowl, she growls at them. They back off saying, “You shouldn’t bother a dog when they are eating.” The puppy says to herself, “Pressure was applied, I growled, pressure was released. Ok!” A little time later, the family tries to groom her. They grab her up, try to hold her still, maybe cut her nails. She growls and they give up. “Well, she doesn’t like that.” Her conclusion, “Pressure was applied, I growled, pressure was released. Ok!” They try to introduce her to their friends, family and strangers at Petsmart. She thinks they are scary and growls to make them go away. They all see a German Shepherd (You know they eat their owners, right?) and they back pedal with all speed. The puppy’s conclusion? “Pressure was applied, I growled, pressure was released. Ok!” As she gets bigger, older and more-scary looking, things just keep ramping up. Showing aggression made pressure go away. If someone tries to enforce their point: doing nails, making her be nice to a person, then her answer is, “If a growl won’t work anymore, let’s try snapping teeth.” And it works.
Eventually this too common, sad, sad story ends with the dog in the vet’s office meeting a needle.
A corollary of this story is the 500lb. Gorilla dog. The cute, adorable Rottweiler, Mastiff (…substitute whatever big ass dog you want) grows into a massive beast that learns to use his weight and strength to release pressure instead of teeth and growling.
The Ditz: This dog is classically seen with the sporting breeds, but again can be seen in most any breed. They are active and scattered as pups. The owner attempts to train them. They tell the dog to “Sit”. The pup acts like a rubber ball. Down, up. Down, up. The owner gets frustrated at having to constantly replace the beast’s butt on the ground, gives up and walks away. The pup’s conclusion? “Bouncing around gets me out of having to do boring stuff. Pressure was applied, I ditzed around and pressure was released.”
The Victim: This racket is probably the toughest one for people to recognize, deal with or resolve. The Victim persona entangles us on so many different levels. Most of us get dogs for emotional reasons. They are our wubby blankets, our comfort objects; our port in the storm of life. Having a dog that uses you for comfort, strength and a hideaway appeals to many. NO one wants to be the bad guy. No one wants to look like a monster making the poor little dog do scary things!
The classic example is the dog that has been taught to be afraid of storms. Storm comes over head. Thunder rolls, puppy startles. Mom or dad cuddle him and soothe, “It’s okay, baby” Well-meaning parent wants to take away pain. But the message to the puppy was, “Pressure was applied, I cowered, I got a big pay-off for showing fear.”
You can substitute almost anything for the storm and get the same result. “My poor dog is afraid of: cars, boats, bridges, other dogs, men, cats…” The fear object may change but the underlying problem is exactly the same: pressure was applied and the release of pressure focused on the wrong thing.
I’m sure by now you are sensing a theme: when and how pressure is released from a dog determines how that dog will deal with that particular pressure again. When pressure is released from a growling dog, the dog learns growling works. When pressure is released from a cowering dog, the dog learns cowering works. The trick to resolving these rackets is to change where/when pressure is released.
Example One: A while back I came into the possession of an adult Kelpie bitch. She had been working stock but had shut down. She was very timid and if you looked at her she would lay down and show you her belly. She was shy with adults and growled at kids. My first rule with this dog was that no one was allowed to pet her when she was laying down. I was not going to reward her hyper submissiveness. When I first bent down to pet her she would flop over. I wouldn’t reach down to pet her. I would pat my knee, and finally she would come up for petting. I did not reward her submissiveness. I waited and rewarded her boldness of coming up for pets. (To make a long story short, using the concept of rewarding boldness instead of shyness solved most of her issues. In fact, she’s went through a phase where she was a bit of a pain jumping on people and she is now a therapy dog.)
Example Two: I recently had to groom a 6 month old pup for his first time. The owner had held off because he had “issues”. She brought him in because she thought he was just getting too long to deal with. I led him back to my room and reached down to pick him up. He screamed. I mean screamed. Loud and heart felt. He screamed when I placed the grooming noose around his neck. (This noose keeps the dogs from flying off the table and hurting themselves) He really screamed when I touched him with the clippers…and I mean simply touched. No pulling, no snagging on mats. He screamed as soon as the cold blade touched his coat. I ignored all of it. One of my fellow groomers came in to help me when he realized that screaming wasn’t working. He got himself to the point that he was trying to bite the clippers and me. I finally stopped trying to clip him and just held onto his leg. I didn’t pull or yank him. I just didn’t let go. He finally quit struggling and I finished “roughing him out” (roughing out is where the groomer gets off the unneeded coat so that she isn’t wasting time and effort bathing, brushing and drying coat that is going to be cut off anyway). I bathed him and placed him in a dryer. I wasn’t going to traumatize either one of us by trying to blow dry him!
With trepidation I collected him from the drying cage and placed him on the table. No problem. I put the noose on, no problem. I clipped and cut and finished. No problem. No screaming.
I talked to mom after I was done. Turns out she had been advised to not “push” him when he was “scared”. When he would cry, she would back off. When he cried with me, I didn’t release. I only praised him when he was quiet and standing. Honestly, even I was surprised at the complete turn-around he did between session one and session two.
Many years ago, I had experienced another “Screamer”. He was a GSD puppy that the kennel I worked for had bred and sold to a couple. They brought him back in for boarding when he was about 5 months old. I say brought, I should have said, carried. “He won’t walk on a leash. He screams the world down if you put any pressure on his collar” the dad said. We talked and they ended up leaving him for a 10 day “board and train” with me. I let him acclimate for a day or two and then started working with him. I brought him into the office, slipped a collar on him, patted my leg, talked to him and applied a little pressure to his collar. His screaming brought people from all over the property assuming that some dog was in critical danger …caught in a fence, grabbed by another dog… It took about three days to get him to realize that screaming was not going to get him what he wanted. Collar pressure went away when he moved toward and with me, not when he screamed.
Example Three: I took a training lesson for a fellow trainer once. He had a hot date with his wife that he had forgotten. The lesson was a guy and his Golden Retriever. Everything was going well until I asked him to sit his dog so that he could walk away and do a Recall. He sat the dog, started to walk away and the dog got up. And got up. And got up…
After 20 long minutes of him putting his dog back, I started asking questions. Turns out that the dog had learned that Dad would only push it so far. He’d put the dog back two or three times but then he would put the dog back in a sit and then immediately release him from command. So what the dog learned was, “If I’m a jerk long enough, he will give up and go away.” The focus of the lesson became, “If you get up 117 times, I will put you back 118. Pressure will not be released until I get compliance.”
We all have emotional reactions to what happens to us in life. We get startled, scared, angry, happy or ecstatic spontaneously. Actions happen and we react. We are judged on our reactions and rewards or corrections are dispensed. We modify, change, adapt or embrace depending on what is dispensed. Life is a constant tide of pressure being applied, and released. Pressure is applied by life, lessons and other beings living their life and where pressure ends up being released is the critical lesson that helps you move forward or keeps you trapped.
Changing where you release pressure will make huge changes in your dog’s life strategy.