Lessons from a Border Collie

Animal Experience, Therapeutic/Clinical, Treatment 101 | 0 Comments

When I am working with a student or family in therapy, I often try to come up with metaphors to illustrate various concepts. I have found that creating a visual example of a concept is often more easily understood and remembered than simply using words. Most of the metaphors I come up with are not very “deep,” but I hope they are effective enough to help in the learning process.

Many of the metaphors I come up with involve animals in one way or another. All of those who work with me at New Haven know that I am a little obsessed with animals and that I see most everything in terms of how it relates to horses, dogs, cats, etc. (Yes, I admit that it is a bit of an addiction, but it is an addiction that I believe enhances my life…is that denial? 🙂 ).

Anyway, recently I was talking with some parents about the concept of healthy boundaries and balanced relationships with their daughter. I was trying to help them understand the idea of finding the middle ground between enmeshment and disassociation. It can be a difficult concept to understand; on one hand we tell parents to have boundaries and clear expectations for their daughter while on the other hand we encourage them to have emotional sensitivity and deep connection. Sometimes these things can feel like opposites.

I wanted to share with you a brief metaphor that popped into my head while I was talking with these parents. I have two border collies and have done a little sheep herding with them in the past. I love seeing my dogs engage in their instincts and do what they are genetically geared to do. There is nothing quite as amazing to me as seeing a dog fully engaged in its “job.” Anyway, when you start to learn about sheep herding, it can be really confusing for both yourself and your dog. It is true that border collies are hard-wired for herding, but they still have to learn how to “read” each sheep’s body language and how to respond effectively to the handler’s cues.
The basic idea in herding involves the dog working to keep a herd of sheep together in a group and to then move this group of sheep to various places that the handler needs the sheep to go (such as through a gate or into a trailer). The dogs do this by circling out behind the sheep, gathering them together, and bringing them near the handler without pushing them past the handler. Frequently a young or inexperienced dog will race at the sheep causing them to scatter in all directions. (I call this sheep “bowling” rather than sheep “herding”) Often this type of dog is constantly moving back and forth or around the sheep trying to keep them all in line through intimidation or nipping. The problem though is that the more the dog races around trying to control the sheep in this way, the more the sheep try to escape the pressure of the dog and end up breaking away from the flock. As the dog tries harder and harder to control the sheep by force, the dog gets increasingly worn out. Some young or inexperienced dogs will get so tired doing this that they give up and leave the sheep altogether. Even though these dogs have great instinct for herding, they lose the desire to herd because of exhaustion and repeated failure.

A more experienced border collie will have learned how to find the correct balance in his proximity to the sheep. He has learned that standing too close will cause the sheep to move away whereas standing too far away will have no influence on the sheep. Ideally this experienced border collie will be able to lay in one spot and simply watch the sheep as they graze in a group. If a sheep begins to stray from the herd, the dog gets up and calmly circles behind the sheep, approaching it just close enough to cause the sheep to move back to where it is supposed to be. Once the sheep is back in the group, the dog backs away and lies back down. If the handler asks the dog to move the herd to a new area, the dog is able to put just enough pressure on the sheep to get them walking in the right direction but not so much pressure that they run away.

And here is how all of this relates to people. The dog who is constantly racing around the sheep trying to control them through force reminds me of an enmeshed relationship where parents and daughters are very reactive to each other’s emotions. This type of relationship is often full of tension as well as ongoing attempts to rescue each other from distress. The dog who has become so exhausted from trying to control the sheep that it stops wanting to herd reminds me of a disassociated relationship where parents and daughters become so tired that they emotionally pull away from each other out of self-protection. This type of relationship can also be full of tension that is dealt with through avoiding each other. The more experienced dog who has found the balance point in their proximity to the sheep (i.e. being close enough to have influence on the sheep while not so close as to cause them to move away) reminds me of a balanced relationship where daughters and parents are emotionally connected while still being able to respect each other’s boundaries.

I hope this metaphor will make sense to someone besides me. But in case it doesn’t and all you got from this was a little introduction to sheep herding, I will leave you with the “take home” message: When parents are working on healing their relationship with their daughter, it is important to find and maintain a healthy balance between being so emotionally connected with your daughter that you are continuously reactive to each other while also not being so distant from her that you have no connection and thus no influence. May we all try to harness our “inner border collie” and find just the right spot to stand.

Karolee with her border collie “Jessi”