I’ve been influenced greatly by a blog post I’ve referenced multiple times in various conversations, and this post goes along with it. That post is https://annablakeblog.com/2014/11/28/being-grateful-for-things-you-dont-like/, and I encourage you to read it as well!
The Gift of Testing
This is a realm I see a lot of, both as a parent and as a dog trainer. Testing is independent of species- it’s dependent on learning and confidence. Here’s the thing I’ve learned over my years of dealing with testers (both dogs and humans): testing is an amazing opportunity for communication. I’ve also learned that many people loathe testing- very few things can get a person so very upset as being tested.
I love testing (although admittedly not all the time). So many options open up with the creature I’m working with says “No” or “Not right now” or tests me in some other way. While yes, it takes a measure of respect for the creature to obey you, it also takes a measure of trust for the creature to test you. A creature who tests you is confident enough to have a separate sense of what they want from what you want, and is able to trust you not to overreact.
When a tester tests me, they can be saying so many things. Sometimes it’s, “I trust you not to go ballistic on me”. Sometimes it’s “I really need to get out my frustration/over excitation/anger/impatience/etc.” They might be experimenting to find out if what I said is actually how things are, or how far they can push the limits. They might be testing their own understanding of the situation. All of this is communication, and it’s all communication based on a sense of trust that you are not going to shut them down.
That doesn’t mean the answer isn’t still no. That doesn’t mean you let them get their way for fear of breaking their trust- that only erodes trust. No boundaries means nothing to push against and see it still standing. No boundaries means polite interactions are out the window. No boundaries means no need for trust. Why trust that you’ll still be sane when they mess up if they can’t mess up? It doesn’t make sense. And oh boy, if you’re testing me in a dangerous way, that No will be firm. As firm as it needs to be to get through to you, and no firmer. And then, when the danger is past, we continue, as gentle as I can be with you while keeping you and everyone else safe. I’d always rather have mind and body working with me, not just body. If you force compliance against the other’s will, you don’t get true obedience.
So absolutely, when I am being tested, I will hold firm to the rules. I may make it easier if I see the tester is having a hard day, but the rules stay the same. For instance, if I’m working a dog and the dog is having a tough time but I tell the dog to Sit, the dog had better Sit. They can’t break the Sit without consequence just because they’re having a hard time. However, I will likely ask them to Sit for less long or at an easier difficulty, and challenge them when their mental state is more resilient to the challenge. If it’s my kids and they’re having a hard day, I’m not going to change my mind on a ruling unless they have a very good argument for why I need to change my mind. “I want it” is not a good argument. However, if we’re going through the grocery store, I may pick them out a snack (my kids are NUTS when they are hungry) or shorten the trip a little if possible to help them out. Just because they woke up on the wrong side of the bed doesn’t mean they get the cool new toy they see or every sweet thing imaginable. It doesn’t mean No still doesn’t equal No. But I’ll make things easier on them if I can while maintaining the rigor of the rules.
It’s admittedly easier when dealing with a dog testing me- they don’t talk back nearly as much. Plus, the dogs who test me are not my own, so they go home with their owners after a bit. But I love that testing phase dogs go through around 9 months to 18 months or so (depending on breed and training). It’s my favorite age range to train, because I’ll out-stubborn any dog I handle. Yes, it requires a ton of patience (especially if you happen to be living with the tester in question). Yes, it can be hard and sometimes you don’t want to do it. But if you maintain the rigor of the rules without overcorrecting, you end up with a fantastic, confident companion who majorly respects you. That’s someone you can depend on throughout their adult life. Yeah, they’ll test you occasionally as adults, and yes, you’ll have to refresh training occasionally, but it’s much less than the dog who gets to run amok when they begin testing, or the dog who is shut down so hard for testing that they never question again. My own dogs hardly ever test me anymore, because at 9 and 10 years old, they’ve lived long enough to know that Sit means Sit and No means No, and they trust me to both make sense and be predictable.
I don’t honestly know if the testing phase in kids ever ends, but I’m guessing not. Still, the philosophy seems to hold. I don’t want my kids to blindly obey me. I want them to think about things and act intelligently. Yes, it irks me when they decide the intelligent course of action is not the same as what I think, but then I have a choice: if it’s important, I get to impress on them WHY, and if it’s not, I get to let them flex their independence. After all, I don’t want them living here forever- they have to be themselves, not whoever anyone else wants them to be! Teenagers especially need to flex that independence, as I understand it, as they decide who they are as people. This means pushing back, questioning, and testing. And this phase is important!
Testing and questioning can lead to a fantastic conversation if you’re open to it. If you’re attentive to your dog, you’ll find some times when they are more likely to question you or test you than others. Reading body language can help you figure out why. You might learn that your dog prefers waiting for you on grass, or that sitting on gravel hurts them. This isn’t something you learn if you over-correct your dog, and it costs you very little. Yeah, sometimes your dog doesn’t get to exercise their preference, but if they can depend on you to take it into account, I find they are more likely to obey even when they are asked to do something they prefer not to do (assuming it’s safe and they understand what you’re asking). A dog who questions me and tests me and embarks on this conversation with me is a fantastic training partner and my favorite kind of dog to work with, because we get to learn so much about each other and the respect grows like a weed.
When it’s a kid questioning or testing, the conversation is exponentially more vital and intriguing, because THEY CAN USE WORDS! All you need to do is listen and explain! And here’s the kicker- a kid who’s used to their thoughts and ideas being accepted and valued by the adult will still often obey in an emergency situation, because they trust and respect you enough to understand that if you are telling them something, it’s not likely just for kicks! That listening, that attention, that value you give to them, it only aids in the growth of a adamantium bond of trust and respect between you.
Yes, it’s hard. Yes, you’ll fail sometimes.
Yes, it’s worth it.
So, the next time you find yourself or your authority being questioned, I urge you to put aside your pride and don your patience. The conversation has just begun!