More Play and Less Nay: Leadership Lessons from a Working Dog

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Beth Killough

We’re standing on the expansive hills of Zamora, California, and I have an earpiece dangling on the side of my head, stuck in my hair. I can’t seem to get the damn thing to stay in my ear, although I’m still able to hear Bill’s voice in spite of that. There’s too much dog and sheep action to stop and fix it, so I carry on as best as I can. I’m here with my yearling border collie, Georgie, and we’re taking her sheep work to the next level. It’s a far bigger space for us, with more hills, and a sizeably larger flock than we’ve ever worked.   Fortunately, I have help, the trusted guidance of an accomplished and well-respected sheepdog trainer, Bill Berhow. I haven’t worked with him for a while and this is his first time seeing my young dog. The landscape is a quirky combination of Scottish hills and unknown planet, endless green with no trees in sight. When the north wind picks up in these hills, the gusts can be relentless. 

I was forewarned that Georgie might reveal a different side of herself in this new and exciting environment. It’s only the second time she’s been off our ranch to work sheep and young dogs are likely to blow a gasket with the novelty and stimulation of it all. So far, it’s going well, even better than at home. Bill’s been offering direction and helping us set things up so we can see where she is in her learning. He’s told me a couple of times not to correct her. I hear his words, yet find myself puzzled. I call Georgie’s name when she seems to have given up her focus and has become consumed, almost enamored, by the speed of her own body. I shout “Hey!” when she’s rushing the sheep. Is that a correction? Am I a corrector? I ponder judgmentally. Bill keeps telling me to give her direction. He says she’s further along than I realize and comments about how nice she is, how capable, how willing. Georgie is a daughter to one of his beloved dogs so I can hear his joy in watching her work. I find myself gloating in the praise as if it’s about me. I can feel my ego invested. And then he stops us and says we should take a break and talk. 

I walk along the steep ravine toward Bill and happily struggle the earpiece from my tangled hair. As I approach, he says, “You don’t have to correct a dog like Georgie. In fact, you don’t want to correct a dog like her much at all.” I think, How the hell am I going to train her if I can’t correct her? What else am I supposed to do? Then he adds, “When you correct a dog, you leave it up to them to figure out what you actually want. All you’re doing is telling them what you don’t want. It’s a dead end. There’s so much value in giving her commands.” And there is the triggering word: COMMANDS. I hear it and know immediately what I’m up against. The long Ms hit me in the gut and linger as if the word has a thousand of them. This is my issue. It’s everywhere. “I haven’t wanted to give commands because I don’t want to over-pressure the relationship before she’s ready.” Bill smirks a bit and says, “Pressure is inherent. It’s just a matter of what kind of pressure you want to introduce and what kind of partnership you want.” Right. What kind of partnership do I want? 

I’ve spent a decade trying to uncover and recover some semblance of female leadership in its purest form, not the bastardized and misguided female imitation of male leadership. I see women miss the mark on what is possible when we allow our natural leadership and more innate roles to guide us. It’s been hard to find role models in the human world. So I’ve taken to studying horses, to watching my mares as they commit and maintain a stable matriarchy. It’s been so pleasurable that I’ve collected more mares over the years and even refer to my herd as Mareadise, as their culture has a safety like nothing I’ve ever known. Sometimes, I just spend an afternoon grazing with them to take in and become part of the energy they transmit. It’s serene but it’s also fiercely powerful, sensitive, responsive. They have a feedback system that so clearly communicates each other’s desires and needs. They are wholly honest and direct.

As my first border collie bitch, Georgie has been helping me see the female leadership commonalities in the dog pack and the similar roles we play as females in the world of mammals. Georgie is a dynamo. I could see it early on, feel it in her intense eye and the precision with which she moves through the world. When she stops, she lays her body down so fast and hard that she sometimes rolls herself like a ballplayer sliding into homebase a millisecond before the ball reaches the catcher’s mitt. She’s the kind of dog that wants to please. She thrives with a job well done, pauses to revel for just a moment, and then asks for another task. She is an eager and attentive listener and she loves to learn. But she wants the lesson once. And only once. I suppose you could categorize her as a perfectionist or an overachiever. I know nothing about these personality traits. Sigh. She’s a border collie and these characteristics aren’t unusual for the breed, but some dogs are turbo-charged and super-powered. Georgie is one of those dogs.

I have admired the exquisite mix of fortitude and sensitivity in Georgie, and I’ve been committed all along to respecting her leadership, giving adequate space for her to find herself. But now I find myself standing on a hillside struggling to cross the threshold into my own fully embodied and committed leadership. I need to give commands. I need to set direction. I need to tell my dog what I want. Why is this so hard? Why do I hold back? What the hell am I doing with my vision and my leadership? I know what I want. My vision is clear. But I judge it as bossy and controlling. I’m too much. I’ll create a shadow that others will get lost in. I put ten percent out into the world and stuff the rest. Things unfold. And then I correct or quietly sit in disappointment. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

“You do that enough times and a dog like Georgie will start to tighten up and get twitchy.” I’m listening. And I know. I can immediately track the dozens of scenarios and relationships that I’ve impacted with correction instead of command. He must see the stress on my face as I dread that I’ve damaged my connection with Georgie. “Beth, you guys are just getting started. Switch gears. It’s simple. Tell her what you want.” I can see it. I can visualize the path forward and it’s like a rush of possibility and freedom pulsing through my veins. My own body has more energy. My mind is racing. I’ve had no idea how bottle-necked I’ve been. The connections are lighting up, and I can see all of the places in my life where I’m holding back in fear of micromanaging others or impeding their freedom. I remember a post-it note I used to have hanging above my desk. An incredibly helpful therapist worked with me for a couple of years on the difference between disappointment and desire.  The note read: That which I see that I don’t like. Or, what I am wanting in this moment.

I’ve been watching Georgie wade around in the water trough cooling herself and drinking. The late afternoon clouds begin to mute the vibrancy of the sun. I zip up my vest and put my hands in my pockets, as if to gather up my body and my spirit for what comes next. I call her to me and we head through the gate for another go. This time I know what is needed, for Georgie, for myself, for our partnership. With a focused awareness, I am able to see exactly what I’m wanting. The commands are rolling off my tongue like the words of a favorite song, second nature and full of joy. Georgie is on fire, her body moves with more ease than ever before. She listens like her life depends on it and we’re entirely connected. The more I open up to my desire, the better I can read her. Our feedback loop gains its own momentum and becomes a dance. I begin to feel the playfulness in it. More play and less nay. In these gentle hills, I begin to explore more of me, to own and claim a missing element of my own maturity, like a rock that I’ve been clumsily kicking down the road.

When is it in our lives, in our stories, that it becomes unsafe or painful to want? When do we begin to curb our desire?  We take our dogs to the big hills because it opens them up, widens their perspective. The geography and natural contours teach them scope better than any human lesson can. You can literally watch their bodies change, extend and expand, as they navigate the terrain and feel their own power. I take myself to these same hills to learn alongside my dog and to begin to trust the power of my desire, to feel the freedom of it. I imagine that when you watch us, you see the change in me too. 

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