Read Part One here: Woman’s Best Friend: Women in Space – Part One.
Later that evening, in my last lesson of the day, I coached another woman, Rachel, in the same leash walking exercise with her dog Pepper, that I showed Susie in Part One. Pepper hadn’t yet been taught to walk at Rachel’s side on a loose leash, so we started in with training the dog to do this.
I coached Rachel to simply make an abrupt turn into her dog to change direction when her dog started to get ahead of her, after being asked to walk at her side in a “right here.” The point of this exercise is not the changing of direction, that isn’t what matters. What is effective in this technique is what you are communicating with your body, by cutting in front of the dog.
Remember, the most effective way to communicate with your dog is to speak the dog’s language, which is everything except the words. Moving forward into your dog communicates to her to back up. When you tell your dog “right here,” to walk at your side, then you can follow through with that expectation by correcting the mistake with your body. As your dog is walking nicely at your side with the leash loose and her shoulders are lined up with your legs, you tell her “good right here, good right here.” As soon as she starts to get ahead, or you feel like you need to start speeding up to maintain the position, then you abruptly cut your dog off, walk right in front of her in a way that gets her attention.
If you did this to another human, it would probably be considered rude. But the dog just understands that you are communicating, “Pay attention,” and “back up.” Usually, after a few repetitions, you’ll see your dog starts looking up at you and acknowledging that you are, in fact, the one leading the walk and you’re not just a weight at the end of the leash to drag around.
I like this technique so much because 1 – it works very well in most cases, 2 – you are speaking your dog’s language by using your body to communicate, and 3 – you are not relying on the leash to do the communicating for you, which doesn’t generally work well anyway. Leashes, collars and harnesses don’t exist in nature, but bodies do. In this case, the leash is kept loose as much as possible, rather than being the whole focus of the exercise.
It is no wonder why dogs have so many problems with being on leash! We put the leash on and then focus all our attention on the leash without being present to how we are moving. I don’t know about you, but if every time I was put on a leash I experienced being held back, pulled, yanked, steered, or dragged, I’d build a level of anxiety or frustration that I associated with the leash, too!
Rachel had a very hard time at first with this exercise. Pepper, an adorable black lab mix, is a pretty sensitive dog, and it doesn’t take much to get her attention. The little bit of physical presence it took for Rachel to generate to be effective with her dog was hard for her to come by. She wasn’t practiced in this way of being. Rachel couldn’t wrap her brain, or her body, around the idea of moving her dog out of her way, physically. Her relationship to her body and the space and animals around her was very yielding and hesitant. I could see why the dog was pushy with space in other areas. For example, if you tried to sit on the couch, Pepper would jump up next to you and crowd your space, almost climbing in your lap. All the dog was doing was taking up the space given to her. There were no boundaries. Pepper had no reason to think twice about her actions, because Rachel wasn’t correcting her.
Pepper was all over the place while walking with Rachel. After a while of practicing, I gave Rachel a break and had her husband, Scott, take a turn. He took the leash, said clearly to the dog “right here” and started moving intentionally forward. When the dog started to lose focus and get ahead, he sharply turned into her and changed direction by cutting in front of her. When the dog adjusted to his side, I reminded him to praise her and let her know what a good job she was doing for him, and she walked on a loose leash at his side the rest of the time.
This is where the expression “dog training is really people training” comes to mind. Two different handlers, and what seemed like two different dogs, when it was the same “Pepper” both times.
Scott handed the leash back to Rachel who was able to muster up one semi-abrupt turn into Pepper to communicate that she needed to be aware of where she was in space around her. Because Pepper is a particularly sensitive dog and easy to set boundaries with, she made drastic improvement from just that one motion and Rachel got a taste of victory, which helped her continue to make progress with this technique.
I found the contrast between the Rachel and Susie striking, and I started to think about our relationship to ourselves, and the space we take up, and also with the people (or dogs) we share it with.
Women aren’t encouraged to take up a lot of space, or at least our fair share. It isn’t “lady-like” to be a large presence. I was on red-eye flight to the east coast and witnessed a woman correct her four-year-old daughter for sprawling out in the airplane chair while she watched a movie on her tablet.
“Sit up,” she said. “That isn’t lady-like.”
I thought to myself, “Geez! She’s a little girl and we’re on a red-eye! How we females are restricted from such a young age to be physically self-conscious and reserved!”
Men and boys get to sprawl out and sit with their legs wide open and take up a ton of space, women and girls are expected to sit up straight, keep their legs crossed and hands in your lap, be polite and smile.
I thought about how girls are conditioned by culture and parents to not take up much space, and how this impacts their ability to generate a powerful presence as adult women. Our relationship with ourselves, and the world around us, becomes one of hesitance rather than authority. We believe it is feminine and therefor female to yield our space to others. Feminine: to be delicate, submissive and in need of help. In the corporate world, women are being encouraged to “sit at the table.” Show up. Be there. Speak up. “Lean in,” as Sheryl Sandberg wrote.
We need to acknowledge and appreciate all the factors at play that make it challenging for women to step up in this way. Doesn’t mean we can’t do it, but we’ve been conditioned for thousands of years to NOT get in the way, to NOT speak up and to NOT assert our own agenda over the needs of others. It is going to take some encouragement and practice for women to be comfortable speaking up and taking up more space, and I think it is important to acknowledge that we need some support, especially from each other, in this endeavor.
So, I supported Rachel. Watched how she struggled and focused when I could on when she made improvements. By the next lesson she was turning into Pepper and moving her out of her space like a pro. The hesitant physical movement turned into fluid certainty of direction, and even I was surprised by how much she had transformed her relationship with her body and the space she shared with her dog.
The cool thing is that this doesn’t have to be done with flagrant movements and posturing. You don’t need to beat your chest and become someone you aren’t. Sometimes it is simply the difference between moving out of your dog’s way, versus moving your dog out of your way. You don’t have to be mean about it, but you do need to do it, in order to convey to your dog that he needs to respect your space.
If you want your dog to wait on the other side of the door to let you pass through first, then step up into him and block him with your body when he tries to pass through, before invited. When you use your body correctly to communicate with your dog, there is no translation.
If you want your dog to walk at your side and have some level of awareness that you exist on leash outside of the house, then cut in front of her by turning into her when she forgets about you. Step across her nose and then change direction, or turn back and keep walking. When you do this effectively, you’ll see your dog notice you, look at you, and give you her attention, at which time you can let her know how much you like that. “Good right here!” or “Good Heel,” depending on what cue you use for walking at your side.
For thousands of years it hasn’t been safe for women to draw attention to themselves; especially in a way that is in disagreement with others in their environment. We fear being considered unattractive, or a “bitch,” or we fear for our safety. This is still the case in much of the world today.
“Cover yourself up and be silent in the world.”
“Speak only when spoken to.”
“Your needs don’t matter. Your pleasure doesn’t matter.”
“You only exist to serve others.”
Susie and Rachel experienced challenges with their relationship to taking up space in two different ways. Susie viewed herself as “too big” and was afraid to assert herself for fear of being destructive and “too much,” Rachel seemed to have no physical authority at all. It was very hard for her to move her dog out of her way by simply walking in front of her. What they both had in common, though, was conflict about themselves in relationship to the space around them.
Neither woman was comfortable being powerfully present. One because she thought she was too big, and the other because she thought she was too small.
Some people are just naturally a bigger presence than others. There are differences in temperament and personality to account for and no all people are motivated to lead large groups of people. I don’t know what these women experienced in their childhoods. I don’t know what their family life was like; what the messages they got from their relatives and environments were. But what I do know is that they live in the same world I do. A world where women are generally still considered second-class citizens. We still live in a patriarchal society; a society that values men more than women.
As you move through your life, and certainly as you occupy space with your dog, start noticing how you move in relation to others.
How do you hold yourself?
How do you relate to yourself in the presence of others?
How you feel in the space you are in will be advertised by your body language.
That is why I recommend first becoming aware of how you feel, rather than focusing on just empty body posture. It isn’t easy to fake how you feel with dogs. They can probably smell how you really feel, whether your shoulders are back, or not. Until you value yourself enough to feel like you deserve to take up your fair share of space, others around you will continue to push you around; either literally, or emotionally.
Practicing this way of being with your dog first can be a step for you to practice this in other areas of your life. Get more comfortable being directive, with your dog. I’m not saying to be a drill sergeant; I’m just saying have some authority. Think of yourself as your dog’s Queen. When you have the conviction to move in one direction or another, don’t automatically yield anytime you are challenged. Don’t let someone else throw you off course. We must believe in ourselves and not wait to be given permission.
Your dog wants you to be an authentically strong presence: strong in nurturing, and strong in setting boundaries. Be here, now, and live in that balance. Don’t apologize for your existence. Take up the space you were born to occupy.