Sometimes we try very hard to control things and it only makes matters worse. This is particularly true when working with beings who have a streak of wildness running through them, like myself for example.
This has recently been drawn more tightly into focus with three wild souls I am working with — Zip, Jimi and my son Harrison.
Zip is an Australian Cattle Dog. These dogs are descendant from wild dingos from Down Under that were bred with English herding dogs to become what we know today as “heelers.” We typically keep Zip on a leash because he tends to run wild when off it. However, the more we keep him leashed, the more he wants to run free.
Then there’s Jimi, a burro foaled in captivity from a wild Bureau of Land Management jenny. He’s larger than most burros and spent a lot of his early existence in the open at a mustang sanctuary, and was initially “handied” in a round pen. Now he views any open range as an opportunity to bolt.
And then there is my son Harrison, The Blur. He’s my son, so the wildness is built-in. But since he’s neurodiverse — he has autism — we’ve had to keep a very close eye on him since he was very young. Since his behaviors can be quite random and range wildly, and it’s difficult to know what’s going to happen next in any given situation, we tend to hover over him, and also help him maybe too much with simple tasks.
With all three we’ve set up situations in which we’ve taught them what they can do by showing them what they can’t do. In our minds, it’s all about safety, but it’s also about control, which is really an illusion — we really don’t have as much control over things as we think we do, if any at all, and eventually the dog is going to get loose, you need the burro to be dependable out in the open, the Blur is going to be in social situations on his own, or need to complete his school work.
Here are some tips that I’ve learned from others and from my own experiences. They may be helpful in working with dogs, burros and people:
- You need to have more time than they do. Get yourself in a hurry or a frantic rush and you are setting yourself up for disastrous results. Plan ahead and start early if you absolutely have to be somewhere on time (I’ve been known to start the night before). Or be prepared to be late — I often stop, take a deep breath, and drive Harrison in to school late if I feel his getting ready on his own is more important than being there on time. Is that time on the clock just another illusion
- Make it easy to do the right thing and hard to do the wrong thing. For example, in the video above you can see Jimi trotting along a road with no fenceline on the right. The rope is clipped to the halter not the bridle and he’s traveling in a straight line. However, to get this to happen, he is pointed toward home, it’s on an uphill where he can’t easily get away, and there is a very steep sidehill on the right. It’s easier for him to just run home in a straight line at my pace than it is to turn and bolt up that hill.
- Find some way to make them think the correct behavior was their own idea. It’s difficult to get Harrison to do his school work, but he is very much fascinated with clocks these days. The other night he came home with a writing assignment about clocks, a stroke of genius on behalf of the staff at school. He did this work without any encouragement — even his handwriting was neat.
- Positive reinforcement goes a long way. I’ve been “rewiring” Zip to run off-leash. For this, I take him over on the trails on nearby Bear Basin Ranch which is a safe environment.When I let him off the leash, I keep him in “referencing distance by sometimes whistling. Occasionally, I stop and call him. When he returns I pat his head and scratch behind the ears and praise him. This way he gets the idea that coming when called does not mean he is automatically back on the leash. He’s still a long way from running off-leash out on the county road but this goes back to the long-term version of our first point about having more time than they do. I’ve also been experimenting with taking him along with one of the burros. Having a burro along appeals to his stock dog instinct and makes him want to stay close.
In fact, yesterday when returning from the ranch I removed the lead rope from another donkey I’m training, Teddy, and used it as a leash for Zip. Then I let Teddy run free back here while Zip herded him along on the line. Advanced animal training — they both seemed to think it was their idea.
For more insights about the parallels between helping animals and autistic people achieve triumph in life, check out my book, Full Tilt Boogie.