The copilot syndrome

I recently thought about my habit of being ready to take over responsibility from others. The classical situation is when I’m with one or more people in a car and I am in the passenger seat. I call it the “copilot syndrome”.

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In this situation I feel I have to be alert and ready to help: I check the road signs, the directions, the weather ahead, I ask the driver if they’re tired or thirsty. The funny thing is that I would not be able to take the wheel: I stopped driving in 2010 and am too scared to try again, especially without preparation. So I am in the funny position to feel a lot of responsibility but be unable to actually do much. At the same time I can’t relax and for example simply look outside of the window, or sleep. I have the fear that I would not notice something important and that it would be my fault, that I should have paid attention; as if there were a responsibility chain and I am always the next in line, and all others (except the first in line) come after me, and even worse: none of them would step up if I don’t act.

Source: lupineandruby‘s pinterest

The other, maybe more important, funny thing I finally noticed is that it’s rarely necessary that I pay so much attention, or that I feel this copilot burden at all. It doesn’t mean not caring about how the car trip is going, or be passive if doubts or problems arise – it’s more about feeling a more reasonable amount of responsibility and not waste energy and attention being fully alert while the situation is well under control.

I can understand how my readiness to step up has often been seen as great resource and a cool fallback for the group of people I was part of, because others were reassured that I would take care of glitches before/instead of anyone else. But it’s a disaster for me, when this means that I have to constantly feel in charge: this indeed happened on a couple jobs, that I luckily managed to leave before they drained all my energies.

I have a few hunches on how I learned to feel this obligation to pick up responsibilities. The important thing now is that I have a plan to get rid of this habit. My current strategy is to pick situations where actually nothing serious can happen if I don’t pick up the lead, and see what indeed happens. The experiment is ongoing and it’s early to tell if this approach would work in more critical situations; but I can already say that I feel more relaxed, and even reassured that I’m making progress.

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Dog-sitting: on responsibility and needs

My dog-sitting is getting more and more interesting, as I am getting better in understanding what is happening in the communication and interaction with the little dog I’m taking care of.

(Warning! Long post ahead. Have a funny dog picture!)

Daisy flieg!

One thing I read in Karin Actun’s book is that we can map dogs’ roles as “higher status” and “lower status”. She doesn’t identify a pyramid hierarchy because she observed that dogs interact only in pairs (themselves and another dog), so there is no “boss” of the whole pack, but rather a dog who shows its higher status to any other dog in one-on-one encounters. Her explanation is more complete but I hope this summary is good enough.

The important thing that she underlines is that “high status” doesn’t mean “I can use my force against you, I can make you comply to what I want”. It’s more about “I can use space and resources as I need, and if you are in the way you will make room for me”.  But not only that: the crucial part for me comes now. So far I thought of authority just like this: someone who can decide something I can’t contradict. But her observations on dogs brought another important point: who has a high status has also the responsibility to make sure the ones with lower status have their needs met. A good example is parenting: parents and other individuals who take care of younger ones should make sure that these have food, water, rest, protection, play, challenges and so on. If they don’t, their authority is hollow and dangerous for the younger ones, and it’s better that they start to take care of themselves on their own – most likely against the will of the authority.

In my case, as dog-sitter I am responsible for the dog if I make sure he gets food, fresh water, movement, interesting activities, interaction with other dogs, cleaning and brushing, and that I notice when something is wrong and he could be ill. I could not claim respect or obedience if I forget about one or more of these things. That would be the reason for the dog to think: “She is not noticing that I have this need! I must take care of that myself. I will not listen to what she tells me about it, because my needs could not be met and it would be the worst thing ever.” and… he would be right!

I notice quite clearly when he needs movement and fun, as he prompts me to throw his favourite ball by pushing it towards me with his nose and barking at me. I almost see him saying: “I really need to move! I really need to play with you because I was so bored this morning all alone at home!” and I can’t tell him to be quiet in that precise moment, because I see that the need is strong and that he wants to make sure I get it. I’m almost sad that he is telling it so strongly, as if I could not understand. I could work on making myself respected by starting with making clear that it’s my decision when he can run and jump, but it implies that I know when he has played enough, and I have no experience of that. What I’m doing is to give him many chances to satisfy his needs, so that he knows I am actually taking care of them, and in some occasions I decide otherwise – and he will likely be fine with that. I am new to dog-sitting so I need to learn to take responsibility in steps.

I started practising this when we go out for a walk and he needs/wants to sniff and mark at almost every tree. What he used to do is to run as far ahead as the leash allowed, then stop square at some interesting scent and refuse to move on until he was done. I was first pulled by him, then I was pulling him and forcing him to go on – and it was becoming unpleasant for both. What I do now is to be the first to walk towards a nice tree or bush, and stop there for a bit. I make sure to stop in a lot of places, because I am not so good in picking the ones with nice scents! I now see him following me, come to the tree, sniff around intently, marking, and then look at me as to say “Where do you want to go next?”. Sometimes I pick an uninteresting tree and he just looks at me like “We can go on, pick another one” – but he doesn’t rush ahead anymore, he is more relaxed now that he doesn’t have to take care of the sniffing all on his own and even against me.

While focusing on the interest in scents I got the bonus effect that he follows me more often than he walks ahead of me, and he doesn’t pull that much on the leash either. He is even OK when I tell him to go on when he finds a nice scent on his own, he just trots towards me when I call him because he likely trusts that I will give him another occasion soon. I could have got there by using force or punishment, but I would have ignored the need of inspecting scents that is important to him, and I would have given the message that I don’t care about them. I would have become a strong but awful boss!

At this point I am talking of needs as a whole and I don’t know if some are true needs or just habits, whims or anything else. My point now is to show him that I can take care of his basic needs, that I want to listen to him and his requests, and manage them for him. I am learning too! I can’t expect the dramatic changes that an experienced dog owner would obtain in this situation. It’s not even my goal. What I need is to sample as much information as possible and make sure I learn a little bit at every step, while not hurting the dog in the process.

Dog-sitting: first week’s impressions

A friend of mine asked me to take care of her Yorkie for one hour every day of the week, as she started working longer hours and was worried that the dog would feel lonely or need anything while alone in the house. I accepted, and started at the beginning of June.

You have to know that I never had a dog before, and the few times I met dogs was not a great experience. My uncle used to have huge herd dogs at home, and every time we visited I was completely overwhelmed by them! I was a tiny girl and they were for me as big as horses. My family never wanted dogs and I haven’t thought about getting one myself, as I am aware that it’s a big responsibility, for which I never felt ready. Dog-sitting sounds much more feasible (not my own dog, only few hours per week)… so I accepted the challenge.

I wanted to catch up a bit before starting to interact with the dog, so I browsed the library’s pet section and picked up these two books (in German):

I found them fascinating. Karin Actun wrote two unconventional guides on how to establish a good partnership with dogs, focused on observing and developing the inner feeling of respectful leadership, instead of giving exercises or rules and focus on making the dog comply. The second book I read, “Hunde Orientierung geben”, moved me really deeply. Karin’s words made me realise that I could become a good reference person for the dog by setting boundaries, asking and giving respect, all by clear communication, without using force or fear, or letting the dog be the leader. I never saw the way so clearly. I also realised how hard it is for me to make my own boundaries clear to others – both dogs and people. I actually stopped reading anything else and examined a lot of my past, and found so many matches with the situations explained by Karin.

Then I started taking care of this little dog, and it made for a very interesting set of experiences. It is clear that he is used to lead and to take care of himself, and to ask for what he needs or likes. It will take a while for him to realise that he can delegate a few things to me, and that I’m good at taking care of them. For example when we go out he is on high alert, as any other dog could harm us: when one comes round the corner he makes himself big, growls and barks. I have to show him that I can defend both of us in case of need (for sure from small dogs!), and that he can stay quiet – and it starts working, he is calmer every day đŸ™‚ On many other occasions I can understand what he wants to tell me. It’s fascinating to see how he start trusting me and how he is trying his best to understand what I want to communicate. I’m glad I got so much information from these books, and from the videos and explanations on Karin’s website, because I can process a lot more information than I would do by simple trial and error. What I see is that there is as little frustration as possible between me and the dog, and I find it incredibly reassuring, and promising, for both.

Stay tuned for more posts about this dog and what I’ll observe during our mutual respect building!

 

Refusing to jump – reflections

Picture credit: Tom von Kap-herr, of backhomeinbromont.com

While watching a couple videos from 2012 London Olympics, specifically the ones of the riding part of Pentathlon, I saw several horses refusing jumps, many more than it happens in dedicated jumping competitions. Why so? The horses themselves were experienced jumpers or eventers and the difficulty of the jumps in that competition was reduced. The differences are two: first, the rider is an athlete that only dedicates part of his/her time to horses and riding, and second, he/she meets the horse only around half an hour before the competition.

The result is that the horse and the rider could not have enough time to adapt to each other, and the horse is more often required to mask the rider’s insecurities or mistakes, or even abort a jump if it doesn’t feel it will be able to clear it safely. I can very well imagine that it’s rarely a matter of disobedience, more often a lack of coordination. On the other hand, it was amazing to see how some horses decided how to approach the jumps, independently from the riders’ advice, sometimes carrying the rider along without paying much attention.

Then I noticed how differently the riders reacted when their horses refused to jump a given obstacle. Some of them tried again with a better preparation and balance, others hit the horse, or at least clearly wanted the horse to obey. Not all riders thanked the horse after the end of their run. I find hard not to disapprove the lack of closeness between rider and horse, but at this level of competition there is so much stress and tension that I can understand why that happens.

That made me think about  leaders in general. I witnessed a wide range of reactions when their team is not willing to go on, or would prefer to avoid an obstacle. If there is pressure of various origins, there is probably no time to understand why the team is not complying. Still, I would suggest to check how crucial is the goal in question, if it is worth to push the people through at any cost, or not. If it is not, cancel the jump yourself, don’t let the team struggle. I have been myself in the position of not having the possibility to refuse to jump and I have very few other memories of such an acute mental pain. Seeing the refusal coming is a big help. Learn to see worried faces, well before anyone talks to you, that would likely be too late anyway to abort the jump. Praise the team afterwards, especially if it has costed much in terms of stress and energy. And for next jump, improve the approach and the balance.

 

 

 

On leadership mindset

Love Bite -- by Chad Hanson

Lately I collected many hints on how a good leader should be: at my kindergarten, at riding lessons and by music rehearsals. At the same time I thought about how it takes to be a good team member.

In the past I had my strong opinions on some topics and would not accept any other, even from people who expected me to conform. I used to fight back, first with explicit force, then more softly but still very firmly. I was not especially good at leading because I was not so good at presenting my ideas and getting feedback from others, on any level. I was sometimes a difficult musician in my orchestra: the more I was pushed to play in a way I didn’t like, the more unmanageable I became.

Since then I understood many signs, or maybe, I got older and I don’t cling that desperately to my opinions anymore. It was an interesting lesson with the horse I ride: I have to communicate clearly and show a calm, focused mind, in order to be accepted as leader by an animal that is many times bigger, heavier, faster than me. I can occasionally bluff and play calm, even if I am not, as it is usually a safe thing to do – opposed to be scared by default, scare the horse and create an actual dangerous situation.

It is almost the same with children. They have marked personalities and clear ideas on what they want, but also rely on adults for guidance and exploration of the unknown world. When I feel that I am teaching something new to them, I am like a mountain guide, walking in front, showing where I put my feet, leaving the freedom to walk in another path when I consider it safe too; I check often with them to see if the way is manageable for them, if they are tired, happy, scared,curious. I learned in these last months how to pay attention to small signs that help me understand how another person feels, even if his/her words say otherwise. It happened too often that people answered “No thanks, how nice of you that you offer help, but I don’t need it now” and I saw on their faces that they needed that help so badly. Then it’s another diplomatic game to play, how to help them without patronisation.

And on this fine tuning, I exercise my leadership skills and my team member skills, usually by trial and error in real world situations. Sometimes I manage to make my tests with people who have much to teach me on this field: it is a real enjoyment to know that I can practice with the confidence that I am in a playpen, in a sandbox where I don’t have to worry that I could hurt somebody in order to learn my lessons.