I have previously written about Neave’s swimming lessons before, and today I attended a session after a long break. I have written in detail of the strategic and layered approach to teaching and how each behaviour was broken down and explained, how games were used to teach and explain.
Even I, was taken aback by the progress I could see in Neave and her confidence grown from a few months earlier. She has always enjoyed swimming but at times had a few sessions where she was clingy or reluctant to engage. And even when she was initially submerged under water, how she was then reluctant to do so again, in the same session.
This was 6weeks of no swimming. She was so full of confidence and couldn’t wait to get in the pool! She did all the tasks and games with ease. She was happily and confidently jumping into the water, time after time with total joy. We shared the session with another parent, whose child was a bit younger the Neave.
She had clearly been before, but there were some tasks that she wasnt totally confident with. The instructor/teacher advised the parent accordingly and was about to achieve progress, even though there were moments when she was definitely unsure. The parent handle it brilliantly, you could see there was a conflict between parental instinct, and the advice given. However, again you could see that the instructor understood this and remained calm, gave clear directions, whilst being supportive and showing great leadership.
I know from Neave’s learning curve, that she has grown in confidence and now absolutely loves her ‘swimming sessions’, she bounds up the steps to the pool with joy and a smile across her face! She waits intently watching the other children, and gets animated when we start to get ready. Everything about her demeanour says how much she loves this time!
However, along the process, she experienced both stress and frustration, and yet she LOVES to swim! How so?
If we parallel this to dog training and the ever changing opinions that are being shared, there is a train of thought that advices against creating or allowing any form of stress and frustration in your dogs learning. Stress and frustration are often being perceived as ‘dangerous’ and even damaging to your dogs health and well being. However, if I can taken this approach to Neave’s swimming, she would never be where she is, and she would probably be sitting at the edge of the pool, being reinforced for looking at the water a year later!
Now let me clarify before people take umbrage at my comments.
Neave has had moments where she wasn’t sure, had a unpleasant experience and even a fright. Some would say she was stressed and some would say she was frustrated. And yet she has learnt from those. And ultimately gained in confidence because of how the moment was handled.
If we look back at the instructor in todays lesson, as an example and parody that with dog training.
Firstly she observed the childs body language and facial expression. The child’s speech was as to be expected for a baby, and she probably wouldn’t be able to convey her inner emotions or exact feelings, so it was down to the teachers observation to gauge whether she was comfortable or uncomfortable with the tasks. Similar to a dog, there was no opportunity to converse about what the participant was feeling. It had to be based on observation of those non-verbal communication signs.
The teacher engaged her in the activity and made it ‘fun’. This was the dog training equivalent or raising your dogs arousal level to an appropriate point, where they are engaged and animated, yet not over stimulated and hysterical.
She was positive, clear and showed distinct leadership when she engaged with the child. She didnt pacify them unnecessarily, or verbally check if they are ok repeatedly in a anxious manner, or talk in a manner which would convey concern or apprehension. She took control, but in a way that conveyed confidence.
She observed and monitored throughout. She was able to make decisions and adjust what she asked of the child. She was being receptive and constantly evaluating body language, facial expression etc.
She made the experience a game. She conveyed that everything would be fine, and she conveyed joy and celebrated the small successes, in a big way!
I am fast learning that there are many gifts you can give your children, and none of them revolve around the latest touch screen gadget! At the top of that list of ‘gifts’ is, Confidence.
Confidence is the asset that can get you to conquer the world, and climb the highest mountain, sail the seven seas or take a trip around the world! The same can be said of our dogs.
A lack of confidence, can manifest itself into fear, anxiety, relativity, displacement etc. But avoiding stress and frustration doesn’t mean that you are building confidence, in fact you could be diminishing it.
The key, like all things in life… is balance. Balance between too much and not enough.
For example, if you expose your dog or child to stress and frustration constantly or don’t monitor their reaction, you are not building confidence but merely testing it, and potentially eroding it. In the same vain, not allowing to come through situation which has caused them stress and frustration and celebrating their achievement will not grow their confidence. There is no greater sense of achievement then overcoming a struggle!
Neave’s confidence has grown over time, and with patience. It isn’t an over night solution or quick fix. Confidence takes time to develop. When she showed those signs of anxiety and apprehension, I could have taken a very different path. I could have reduced the challenge or took her away from it. I could have pacified her or allowed her to approach the water or have the water level lower etc. I could have even medicated her.
All these are options, and in certain cases absolutely the correct decision. If the level of experience could be deemed as traumatic, then a more conservative approach would be the wiser path. However we are talking of extremes. If Neave had shown an extreme level of fear or apprehension, because she had fallen into a pool previously, or had a strong and profound experience that caused her a long lasting issue, then the above would be absolutely appropriate. But not for a slight concern or minimal level of apprehension. Overcoming these minimal doses of stress and frustration, will ultimately create an abundance of confidence and resilience, which will allow either a dog or child, to face challenges and struggles in a manner which doesn’t incite stress and upset.
I protect my dogs confidence at all cost, and proactively aim to build it and also create opportunities for them to struggle and succeed. This may be in a training environment or a life lesson. If they panic and show signs of fear, I adjust my training and exposure accordingly… I may create distance or reduce the distraction, but I dont avoid them. I give them confidence and I create in them, resilience.
Like children, at crucial developmental stages, I am more aware of the fragility of their confidence and I may be more mindful of the experiences they have. These are times, when there may be hormonal changes, or a fear period, or adolescence where boundaries are being tested. Negative experiences can greatly affect the eventual temperament or behaviour of your dog/child if not handled correctly. When I worked with young offenders in my previous vocation, you would see this pattern consistently. Behavioural issues created due to impactful experiences at key points in their developmental stages. Sometimes, we can get ‘lucky’ and a potentially contentious situation at a crucial developmental stage, can be brushed off with no long lasting affect. However being proactive can helped build confidence. For example, at adolescence, I am vigilant and proactive with my dogs experiences. However, I utilise situations that can be stressful or frustrating. Create learning experiences for your dogs and use reinforcement, be it from the environment, experience or you, to build their confidence. I know that when i was a teen, my parents were proactive in getting us to engage in activities where there was always a responsible adult around, be it a sports event, socialising with peers or activity. They didnt hide us from the world and create a false environment for us to exist within, but were vigilant, proactive and invested. The same if my female dog is due in season and her behaviour randomly changes, I make a note of it and monitor it. I dont over react or implement some in-depth process or protocol to deal with it, I let nature take its course and I allow common sense to prevail.
Now, we could start a whole other conversation about ‘genetics’ and the affect this has on resilience to stress and frustration however this is a case of adjusting the exposure accordingly. I have had countless dogs in for training, that have come with major confidence issues, and in a very short space of time, have shown a total transformation lately from follow the same pattern of behaviour that Neave’s swimming teacher used. I observe body language, give direction and confidence whilst remaining positive and observant.
The use of stress and frustration, in appropriate doses can actually create resilience, tenacity, determination, joy, exhilaration and ultimately confidence! This will ultimately create a dog that is well balance, well adjusted and confident! And I am sure, the same can be said of people.