Attempts to help

I know how hard it is to have a dog who's behaviour is causing stress. I'm writing this in August 2020 and at this time, the most recent time when I experienced a high level of stress over one of my dogs was in May 2019 when I travelled away from home to go on two back to back dog courses.

To set the scene. The courses were at Tilley Farm – a place that is really familiar to me. I knew many of the people on each course. Some of them are good friends of mine. Roxy, Cuillin, and I have all been there before. That visit was Roxy's third trip – and I've lost count of how many times Cuillin has been to Tilley Farm.

I went expecting a relaxing time among friends – a chance to decompress from all the stress I'd been under at work. In May last year, my work colleagues and I were at the start of our redundancy process. My stress levels were fairly high and I was looking forward to going somewhere so safe and familiar to relax.

It wasn't relaxing at all. In fact, the whole time I was away was unbelievably stressful. The problem was that in the time between visits to Tilley Farm, Roxy had attended a few dog training groups and workshops. She loves them. Nothing makes Roxy happier than being in a group of people and dogs. For the entire time I was there, she struggled enormously with getting into the car. I would sometimes want to pop her into the car so that I could go to the toilet or have a short break. Or so that she could sleep.

So - instead of relaxing I found myself, stretching my problem-solving skills to find a solution that would help Roxy feel safe enough to rest in the car for the times when I needed to go and do something.

That's the scene. What I want to write about is my experiences of people's attempts to help. There were lots of experienced dog trainers on the course who were kind in offering me help and support. Everybody was being lovely and I experienced nobody being unpleasant to me.

Still, some attempts to help felt helpful and others resulted in me feeling more stressed. When I thought about it afterward, what made the difference was whether or not I felt listened to.

Help where I felt heard and listened to felt useful.

Help where I didn't feel as if I was being listened to felt stressful.

Often the difference was in the phrasing:

“Put Roxy in a cage in one of the stables and then she'll be closer to you and more able to see and hear what's going on.” - raised my stress levels.

“Just an idea – but do you think it would be easier for Roxy if she had a cage in a stable rather than the car?” - felt helpful.

The answer to that suggestion was that it wouldn't be helpful for Roxy but how it was offered made a big difference to me.

The first way of asking made me feel more stressed. It forced me then to say “No” and go into an explanation about why not. Some days I gave that explanation repeatedly. I would be left after each of those discussions feeling like I was just being difficult which ramped up my stress levels.

The second way of phrasing felt much better. I felt as if I was being included in the conversation. It felt like the person was seeking to hear what I thought. When I explained to those people why I wasn't doing as they suggested, I felt listened to and supported.

There was a third group of people who didn't offer suggestions at all. They would ask me if there was anything they could do to help. They would often sit with me or walk with me and let me talk about the issue.

Those people helped me enormously. In giving me the time and space to talk through my thoughts, I was able to come up with lots of ideas of ways to adjust space and to help Roxy settle better.

Isn't that interesting. In the moment of dealing with my dog being unexpectedly stressed and acting in ways that caused me to be stressed – and knowing that it couldn't be properly resolved while we were away - the people who helped me the most on the face of it did nothing. They didn't offer solutions or talk to me about ways to fix it. They were just with me and they listened while I talked it through.

That support allowed me to come up with enough of a resolution that Roxy was able to rest in the car for some of the time.

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Tracey McLennan

Tracey is the author of Canine aggression: Rehabilitating an aggressive dog with kindess and compassion and founder of Best Dog Learning and Stuff Ltd. She has an honours degree in Canine behaviour and training, is a Tellington TTouch practitioner, and is an ACE Advanced Tutor.

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