The Control Myth

We are desperate for it, seduced by it, deceived by the illusion of it.  But, we can never really have control.  We struggle, and grasp at it.  We even celebrate the lie that sometimes we have it, that we’re in it.  It’s okay.  I’ve got this.  And then we don’t.

It comes up for us dog trainers all the time.  We’re notorious control freaks.  In all honestly, we’re also in the business of selling control.  Clients beg us to make their dogs stop doing this and that.  He’s out of control.  They want him back in control, their control.  We oblige, but often miss the truth.  This isn’t control, but something else altogether.

In her book, Living Beautifully with Uncertainly and Change, Pema Chodron speaks about our human quest for solid ground, certainty, and predictability.  Control.  We want life to fit our storyline, the narrative we create.  But, it rarely does.  We fight and we suffer, and grapple for more solid ground, and suffer more.  Life is moving, changing, and exciting unstable ground.  It does not have transitions; life is transition.  It terrifies us or exhilarates us; the decision is ours.  But there’s no controlling it.  Not really.

Our life with dogs is a window to this truth, a microcosm of our life in total.

We’re drawn to our dogs, and love our dogs, and tremble at the thought of their deaths.  When death comes, we weep and memorialize them.  It is messy and unpredictable, all of it.  Unstable ground.  But for those of us who are “dog people” it can also be exhilarating bliss.  Those of us who train our dogs with compassion find even more joy, the glimmer of life’s meaning, connectedness.  It’s an open line of communication, and relation to another being that transcends.

Chodron writes about the Tibetan word: Bodhicitta.  It means having an open mind, and an open heart for all living beings.  It’s the core of enlightenment.  Buddhists seek it gently, without struggle.  They embrace the uncertainty of life, the unstable ground.  It “is not a process of building ourselves up,” Chodron writes, “but of letting go.”

Which brings us back to our dogs.

When clients come to us trainers they are often carrying heavy burdens of shame, burdens they’d be better off letting go.  They have not been a good leader; they haven’t been their dog’s “alpha.”  They’ve let things get out of hand, failed their families, and failed their dogs.  Things are not perfect, not as they should be.  Their dog’s out-of-control behavior has somehow become a reflection of their own self worth.  They want control, when all the while their vain attempts are what’s causing their suffering.  Brene’ Brown is a sociologist who researches shame.  In her book, Daring Greatly, she writes eloquently about how we try to protect ourselves from shame with perfectionism, control, and putting people (and animals) in their places.  The results are almost always disastrous, resulting in a cycle of more shame and suffering.

It’s time for us to let go.

Shame and our poor defenses against it distance us from each other.  We need only look at our dogs to see it.  We seek help from trainers who often shame us more.  They take our money and tell us to dominate our dogs, to jerk their leashes, to spray and slap and shock them.  We’re told to hurt them in the hope that we will feel better, less ashamed, and more solidly planted on stable ground.  What we get is an illusion at best, a dog who is compliant in the service of avoidance.  We feel in control but still disconnected.  It’s the worst possible glimpse of a life in total.

Chodron and Brown both write about the undeniable ambiguity of being human.  We are enigma, all of us.  Brown writes about her own work “leaning into the discomfort of ambiguity and uncertainty, and holding open an empathic space so people can find their own way.  In a word – messy.”  I think that’s our calling as trainers too.  We all live on unstable ground, and our life with dogs is messy indeed at times.  But, that is not a hopeless message.  We have information to share and empathy that can relieve of our clients of shame, and the need for compulsion.  We can help their dogs, and free them at the same time.

The challenge for us trainers is to be courageous.  Courage requires vulnerability.  Being real.  Having the strength to let go of our own need for control, and to find our own compassion.  Brown calls this “the core, the heart, and the center of meaningful human experiences.”  It’s the antithesis of shame.  She calls it “Wholeheartedness.”  It’s Chodron’s Bodhicitta, an open heart and open mind connecting with all living things.  Dogs and their people.

What do we want, control or connection?  A dear friend and business advisor once told me not to mention “relationship” when selling my dog training services.  Clients want results, not relationships. I have to disagree.  We may not see at first what we really want.  The illusion of control is alluring.  But connection, a real bond with another living being – that’s the stuff.  That’s the stuff.

Take a breath and notice that the ground is moving and life is transition.   Notice too that we matter and our actions have meaning.   That’s important for our clients and us trainers to remember.  We may not have control – not really.  But, we can and we do learn to communicate with our dogs.  We set the stage for them and help them find a path for their own actions.  We can even respond to those actions, reinforce the behaviors, hope for more of all the good we see in our dogs.  That’s not control.  It’s choice.  How we choose to act.  How our dogs choose to act.   There is a connection between the two.  I sometimes tell my clients, “We’re not controlling our dogs.  We’re teaching them self control.”  We’re helping them make good choices.  And isn’t helping dogs so much better than controlling them?

We can achieve great things with our dogs, or we can find greatness in the simple things with them.  Even the dogs who seem to be out of control have a place with us.  Chodron was speaking about our fellow humans when she wrote, “Be grateful to them; they’re your own special gurus, showing up right on time to keep you honest.”  I think we can apply the wisdom here to our dogs as well.  Who’s teaching whom?  It’s hard to tell.  Maybe not knowing makes the joy even greater.  For those of us who are “dog people” it is exhilarating bliss.  Mindful connection.  The relationship that doesn’t sell, but that we wouldn’t give up for a million bucks.

Take a breath and notice your dog.  How beautiful.  How nice when the look is returned, softly and honestly.  That moment of quiet sharing.  Free falling through time, but linked together.  What happens next?  And who cares really?  Such a clear window into what life in total could really be.

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10 Responses to The Control Myth

  1. maria blasko says:

    Truth. Beautifully written and with such compassion. Thank you, it made me cry.

  2. Sarah Owings says:

    WOW! Michael, this post moved me on a very deep level. Your writing is a gift, gorgeous, lyrical, yet also succinct and down to earth. Your thoughts are profound and right to the essence. Thank you for bringing not just advise, tips, training jargon, and opinion to the discussion of how to best live with and understand our dogs, but true wisdom. With great respect, Sarah Owings

  3. Joanne Singer says:

    I was astounded by this article…it is the unvarnished truth. I have shared this with many friends. It is a jewel of wisdom. Thank you.

  4. A lovely article and real food for thought.

  5. Right on! Well said. I always remind clients that behavior is fluid, stay flexible and allow some lee way as we do in our human relations. Ridged control will always fail, as behavior is influenced by the environment and once humans “let go” and think process not results, stay open and focus on their behavior, amazing results do in fact occur. Glad you are a voice out here for trainers, dogs and humans! Keep up the good work!

  6. Susan Putt says:

    I love the message here! I am editor of the Noble Newf, monthly newsletter for Great Lakes Newfoundland Club, a regional Newfoundland club for Michigan. I would love to reprint this article for our membership. May I have your permission to do so? Thanks!

  7. Beautifully written piece. If all people understood life and embraced the reality that nothing is perfect, and built relationships instead of trying to force a specific behavior, that would indeed be heaven on earth.

  8. Kathleen says:

    Wonderfully written and brilliant article!

  9. Julie Cook says:

    Excellent!

  10. Pingback: What do we want, control or connection? - Pet Forums Community