No Boundaries, No Connection

Updated: Feb 1, 2019

Connection needs Boundaries

There is a misconception that positive training equals permissive training. This false belief creates problems between people and their dogs. It also creates problems for us, the trainer and our clients. My own journey towards effective boundary setting has been hard work and I am far from the finished product, but it has reconnected me to the passion of working with dogs and the people around them. For that reason, I am sharing what I have learned so far.

Dog training is a female dominated culture and women can have struggles around assertiveness, saying ‘no’ and being perceived as aggressive. We have the additional pull of strong emotion to contend with. Dogs are part of a family and people have strong emotional reactions to them. Dogs can give people an outlet on emotions such as grief, joy and anger that they would not display in other areas of their lives. Sometimes people feel free to express emotions, words and behaviours around dogs that are kept well under control in other arenas.

To effectively teach people and dogs we need a sense of connection with both. Failure to set boundaries and apply consequences can lead to disconnection, which leads to disengagement. In her book Daring Greatly, Dr Brené Brown describes disengagement as a ‘betrayal’. Disengagement is a common but devastating form of behaviour that we are most likely to turn to when we feel overwhelmed, exhausted, financially or emotionally depleted. Feeling empty we find solace in a tribe, vent on social media, blame others, gossip with friends, look around for a new project.

Working with and helping people with their dogs is tough work. We care so much about these animals that have no voice and little choice. Our job is to channel our help through people who may have very different values to us and even appear not to like their dog very much. We meet tired people, frazzled people, sad people, angry people, people at the end of their tether. We deal with all this, apply practical help, manage a business and juggle a ‘normal’ life away from dog training – phew! Is it any surprise we risk losing ourselves, our compassion and stop investing?

I have learned that feeling confident about boundaries can foster deep connection between dogs and people. I constantly assess and manage my own behaviour and take the opportunity to model boundary setting behaviour whenever possible.

For me, being unable to set boundaries often had its roots in fear e.g. my dog will not like me, the client will go elsewhere, I will get a bad review, the client will have the dog euthanised etc. Many of you reading will empathise, yet I left these fears unspoken and unacknowledged. By refusing to talk about or reflect honestly on these fears, I lost the opportunity to assess their validity.

As a professional trainer I understand about the value of consequences when teaching. However, setting consequences and being clear about boundaries with my clients or helping the clients set boundaries in their home lives with their dogs, requires some planning. Being clear about what you will and will not do, write it out if possible, will give you a point of reference when you are faced with difficult choices, such as when clients or colleagues:

· Take advantage of us – emotionally, mentally or physically

· Cancel appointments without notice or good reason

· Refuse to pay us

· Avoid learning or changing their behaviour

· Neglect to credit for influencing or teaching

· Make choices for their dog that are not in line with our ethics

· Behave in ways that are not consistent with our core values and beliefs

These days I work with a system of ‘red flags.’ The following ‘red flags’ indicate that I have usually let down my own boundaries:

  • Packed diary with no ‘off’ time

  • Blaming or venting

  • Pushing through tiredness

  • Lack of time for preparation or reflection on lessons and consults

  • Absence of study

  • No training or playing with my own dogs

In these instances, the only behaviour that requires questioning is mine. None of the above reflect the values that are important to me.

Connection underpins everything that we do, without connection we cannot do the work with dogs that we desire. We cannot be the people we want to be with our clients or colleagues.

Without connection our passion will diminish. Without connection we will no longer be giving our best selves to our clients and the dogs. If you feel tired, discouraged or close to burnout I urge you to take some time to plan, evaluate your values and get some honest feedback from people who care.

It isn’t easy, it takes some time but worth it, oh so worth it.

Further reading and articles on connection

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