I don't know about you , but when I hear the word assertive I cringe a little bit. It's something I aspire to, and yet, also something I have a weird association with.
To get an idea of the "assertive" I want to talk about here I am going to define it as-
"Creating clear and distinct boundaries understood between opposite parties that are consistent, fair, and without emotion. "
You are more than welcome to point out anything you would like to add or subtract to this definition, but this is how I see the word.
Google dictionary however, defines it as-
"Having or showing a confident and forceful personality."
The latter feels pretty icky to me, but I think it's also something I have come to associate this word with since it does make me cringe a little ( I guess it's the word forceful in that definition)
However you see this word, my intention is to speak of it in terms of my own definition as it applies to animals and training.
So how did my dog teach me more about this word?
As the owner of a loud mouth (a very cute loud mouth barky cattle dog....haha) I have done a lot of training to help my dog regulate his emotional state since barking is something he typically does when he is in a state of eustress or distress (happy or not so happy stress).
The less stressed he is (in a happy or not happy way) the less he barks-
so I have worked tons with him on slowly helping him through situations at his own pace to help him learn how to cope with stress, and how to let go of stress and frustration.
There is a lot you can pick apart when an animal is stressed.
For example, a dog who is dog reactive may already be starting to go into fight or flight when they hear the jingle of a collar. Breaking these situations apart can really help your dog understand each part of a situation and feel more relaxed through it.
The same is absolutely true for myself, and hopefully some of you out there to!
However, in any kind of animal training people have this idea of a perfectly trained animal, or a "finished" animal. This has always been odd terminology for me since training lasts for life and our animals are not machines we can program and forget about.
So when you are a dog trainer, and your dog is barking he could appear "unfinished" to someone else. This has been somewhat of a battle for me, because typically if my dog is having a hard time in a situation he may bark, and that is simply what it is-
he is having a hard time in that situation & I am probably in a situation that is a little too challenging for my dog.
Yet when we get our brains and our egos involved in this conversation it quickly feels like I am a bad trainer, that everyone is mad at me for having a barky dog at the moment- and things can quickly spiral down if I don't keep myself grounded. I start to feel like I should be doing more to look like I am not being complacent about my dog's barking. Which to the average person means yelling at my dog, which will accomplish nothing and in fact make things worse!
Everyone else near your dog suddenly wants to give you advice on how to train your dog so that your dog stops barking. They don't see the barking for what it is-
a communication of an emotional state-
which to me is not something I want to just shut down by yelling at my dog. I want to actually support my dog through the situation which is going to look very different than yelling at my dog in public.
But I am not going to lie, the pressure from others can get very real! It's up to me to stand my ground and be fair to my dog, while also not allowing this peer pressure to change what I have studied and learned to be true. I have to be assertive about my plan of action here. Anything less than that people start to pick you apart!
So that's one of my own little stories about one of the ways my dog has pushed me into a higher role for myself. An uncomfortable, boundary drawing, assertive person role that feels really awkward to be honest, but nonetheless good for me to practice and try on!
Going against the grain isn't easy, but it's what needs to be done for the best results for me and my pup! Yelling at my dog when he is barking will stop the barking momentarily, but in the long run it teaches him nothing other than I don't care of about his feelings, which hurts our relationship.
So if you have a barky dog I feel for you, stay strong!
Or if you have a reactive dog it could be a blessing in disguise, maybe the experience will teach you how to make and set boundaries in ways you wouldn't have before.
Hope this is helpful if you are a trainer who has ever felt "less than" or a dog owner who feels like no one understands what you are going through. Building an inter-species relationship isn't always easy, but the life lessons you can learn in the process are solid gold and that's why I call our dogs our mindful guardians.
Sending you love, support, and good training vibes!
Love Val & Lewen