I Learned to Parent ADHD — From My Dog Trainer

Parent ADHD

I believe in dog training for dog owners, much like I believe in parent training for parents. Let’s be clear, it’s not really the dog that needs the training. It’s the owners. So often the same is true for parents!

I got a new puppy a few weeks ago. Not really a puppy, so much as a young dog. It’s like starting out parenting a 4th grader. This new rescue dog is more skittish than any we’ve ever had before. My husband wanted to call him “Glue Stick,” because he sticks to my legs wherever I go. He’s shy — on steroids.

But Bob Moorefield of Alpha Academy works his magic, and our new pup is coming out of his shell. Bob has trained every dog we’ve ever brought into our family over the last 23 years. Mostly, he has trained us. We can see slow, steady progress as we set consistent expectations and limits for the dog, work with him, train him. It works like a charm every time (and Bob is very pleased with the humans’ progress!).

Each time I have the opportunity to work with Bob, I learn something new about life. This time is no exception. Bob’s life lessons tend to come under the header of managing anxiety, confusion and distraction. Can you understand why I pay close attention?

3 Key Life Lessons

So here are the 3 key life lessons I’ve taken away, this time, from dog training with Bob. And as always, they provide perfect lessons for parenting, as well.

Anxious Paralysis

Anxiety is not exactly new for me. Not only have I lived with that all of my life, but every member of my family is impacted by it to some degree. It shows up in different ways for each of us. And it’s always there — lurking.

Perhaps that’s why I always go for rescue dogs – they tend to be anxious animals, and I have plenty of compassion for them.

Now our newest rescue has clearly spent some time on the streets. When we first got him, he was terrified of noises – any noises. Cars, construction, even other people on the street. Frankly, other people at all. At the slightest noise or movement, he would head for the hills (or between my legs!).

Bob explained that when a dog is anxious, he’s scared. And when he’s scared, he is not able to respond to training. It’s like that with people. When we’re scared, the amygdala hijacks the brain and we can’t think or make rational decisions.

In dog language, that means the dog won’t respond to commands, even if there’s a treat involved. In human language, that means our children won’t do what they’re asked, even if there’s a reward involved.

Bob was thrilled with my dog’s improvement when he could follow instructions and take treats around the clanking and banging of a nearby construction site. Serious progress!

Parenting Lesson: If a child is feeling anxious, don’t expect to be able to use rewards, treats or bribes to get results. You gotta reclaim the brain before you step into action.

Confusion Freeze

Anxiety and confusion are bosom buddies, or maybe more like Siamese twins. It’s often hard to find one without the other.

It’s almost as if paralysis is one response to anxiety, and confusion is another.

When a dog is getting multiple commands, or inconsistent commands, he does not know how to respond – so he does nothing. As the routine reminders are put in place, he slowly begins to respond – to the tone of voice, the words, the hand gestures that tell him whether to sit, or stay.

I watched my pup the other day as I gave him a poor instruction (remember, I’m re-learning this, too). I made a mistake and used the wrong combination of command and hand gesture. He stood there, looking at me, as if to say, “Well, which is it, mom? You want me to sit or come to you? You gotta be clearer!”

I laughed at myself, made a correction, and he responded immediately. He just wanted to know what I really expected of him. My mixed messages were confusing and leading him to freeze in his tracks.

Parenting Lesson: A confused mind freezes. Sometimes our kids may seem to “choose” confusion (see anxiety above), but whatever causes the confusion, the impact is the same: you need clarity before you can step into action.

Distraction Happens

In our last lesson, Bob had the whole family on the driveway and was teaching the kids how to work with the dog when the mail truck drove onto our street. I laughed out loud when he said, “Distractions are part of life.” Don’t we know it!

And it’s so true. We can’t eliminate life’s distractions – frankly, for those of us with ADHD, life is a CONSTANT distraction (and that’s not always a bad thing – it’s fascinating!).

So we need to learn to minimize the distractions, re-direct ourselves and stay on task despite them.

It’s not easy. But if my dog can do it, then my kids probably can, too.

But like my dog, they need to be taught HOW to ignore distractions, or re-direct them. They need to be taught distraction management!

Parent Lesson: Distraction is going to happen, so management is key – first by us, and ultimately by our kids. Sometimes the hardest action we take with an ADHD brain is to constantly re-direct ourselves to what’s important at the moment.

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