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Come, Sit, Stay: Mediation Lessons from Dog Training

Come, sit, stay are the basics of dog training. I believe they are also central to mediation.

Meet Ziggy and Chela, amazing border collies who have been two of my best mediation trainers. Both came into my life as rescue dogs. Ziggy’s calm soul touched the hearts of many in her ten years. We started obedience right away as I was an inexperienced dog handler with much to learn. Now I am a senior obedience instructor helping people to develop a better relationship with their dog for companionship or sport. The results are well mannered, high performing dogs.

After Ziggy died, we brought Chela, at approximately 18 months old, to her fourth and final home. She is a challenging, highly anxious dog. Three years later, through our team work, she earned the 2015 “Super Heel Down” award, the highest obedience honor within our dog training club. Her spirit, focus, and energy are amazing!

Below are some mediation lessons Ziggy and Chela have taught me, plus a bonus of a few dog training tips. Take note of a familiar training adage, “Whatever goes wrong is a function of the training, not the trainee.”

COME: The importance of a good relationship and reinforcement.

The game of chase is a natural dog behavior. The come command (or cue) is built upon the dog’s natural instinct to run. Treats and praise help to reinforce the cue and build a positive relationship. Demonstrate the behavior you want the dog to learn by reinforcing each attempt toward the goal. It is good information – “Do more of this.” For example, if you pet the dog in several places when it comes to you (reinforcement) the wanted behavior (come) becomes more and more reliable.

Only call the dog to come for fun such as food, ball tosses, play, smiles, or a belly rub. The dog will learn that good things happen when they stop whatever they are doing and run to you. Another helpful tool to encourage the dog to come is to kneel down and be soft and wiggly like another puppy since it is more appealing to the dog. When I call come, Chela will stop on a dime and come to me with great speed, even when chasing a rabbit. Because of our relationship, she knows it will be good. If you want the dog near you for less pleasant reasons such as abandonment (when we are going to work all day), or to cut toe nails, please go to the dog instead of asking the dog to come. Meet the dog where they are. Reserve “come” for the good stuff!

People in conflict (and the professionals) often want others to come to them. Come to my solution, come to my reasoning, come to my needs. When they have turned towards the other person in the past, they may have experienced put downs, unacceptable options, and negative feedback. It has not been pleasant! Asking or even expecting another person to make the shift to turn toward us for possible pain isn’t reasonable.

As mediators we (hopefully) assist in the shift from come to my way to going to other people. We go to people when we ask clarifying questions to clear up a misunderstanding. We go to where the other person is and ask genuine curious questions. We paraphrase where they are and attend to the emotions and values heard. We help people to state their needs and priorities so they can come to resolutions of their own making. Please be mindful of when you ask people to come, good things happen, and when the relationship is being built or is rocky, go to them. Be sure to provide the “good stuff” when they do come such as being fully heard including an acknowledgement of their feelings.

SIT: Settle in for clear communication

Ziggy loved to sit on the front lawn and watch the world (and squirrels) go by. Every dog can sit. The goal in dog obedience is to have the dog attentively sit at your left side known as the “heel position.” The position helps the dog to settle into their body and prepare for whatever will come next.

It takes awareness and effort by both the dog and the handler. Does the handler accept a sloppy crooked sit? Does the handler move to mask the fact that the dog was crooked? Ideally, the dog handler effectively communicates clear rules for behavior by rewarding the correct behaviors as they occur and preventing undesirable behaviors. When the dog moves into the desired position good things happen like smiles, petting, a happy “yes!”, a treat, or the start of a fun activity. Keep your interactions with the dog positive. Set doable expectations. Give the dog clear information, then focus on the incremental positive changes. It takes teamwork.

Mediation clients sometimes feel that coming to mediation is forcing them to once again experience being shamed or a target for the other person involved in the dispute. In addition, some mediators lecture people how they should think or act or even what they should want! Why would anyone want to sit for that? For both people and dogs, reprimands cause upset and sometimes draw attention to “mistakes” so they don’t go away. Positive training is about drawing attention to what is working.

As people enter the mediation room, take a moment to sit. Your calm centered presence matters. Allow people to settle into the room and into their bodies. The mediator’s presence sets expectations that change will happen and provides the safety to risk new behaviors. Help them to prepare for what may happen and build confidence in their ability to meet their needs by listening intently to them and asking helpful questions. Throughout the mediation, take moments to quietly sit so people can tune into their self-interests and their behavior or goals.

People need safety and confidence that their needs will be met as they explore possibilities for resolution. They can build a sense of mastery as they interrupt the natural fight or flight response and continue to sit. They may offer new behaviors such as listening or developing options. The level of discussion has now moved beyond the activated survival instincts to where people can be both rational and relational. Mediators model how people in a dispute may communicate with one another. Stay focused on the desired behavior, disengaging from the unwanted behavior. Then when a person in conflict gives the gift of moving toward the other person with attention, a request, or an offer, help it to be seen. Highlight the moment! A reinforced behavior is more likely to occur again. Focus on the incremental positive changes.

STAY: Shaping desirable behaviors

Ziggy and Chela knew that if they held their stay, they would soon be released for a moment of celebration or the opportunity to run and jump on the agility course. To train a dog to stay, start with short stays with you very close by and no distractions. Then release the dog on your cue. Celebrate! If the dog gets up before your release, gently place them in position again until the goal is met. Did you set the expectation at a level where the dog could be successful? Many short stay successes mean lots of celebration (reinforcement) and therefore training is fun for everyone. VERY slowly increase either the distance between you and the dog or the time that your dog is to stay. Shape the desired behavior one small step at a time. Reinforce progress!

We need to make stay worthwhile to conflicting parties. If it is too distressing, the instinct to fight or flight takes over. Old behaviors resurface. Mediators can help people to stay in the conversation. Ask a compassionate, curious question to help them to pause and get out of their habitual conflict dance. Watch them slowly shift their own patterns of behavior. Reinforce the changes by making note of how people are interacting and the impact of the changes on themselves and others. The desired behaviors produce successes and reinforce the hard work of staying. People previously caught in the grips of old behavior patterns learn a new way to interact that become self-reinforcing when the unwanted behaviors cease to happen.

Resolution is not being forced into a corner or punished. Resolution is finding a new reason to come, sit, and stay. It is a life skill. No dog (or mediator) is ever too old to learn a few tricks!

Please let me know how your dogs or hobbies inform your mediation practice.


Sue Bronson

Sue Bronson M.S. is a mediator, trainer, and psychotherapist in private practice in Milwaukee, WI since 1983 mediating family, elder, and workplace disputes. Sue has over thirty years mediation experience helping people engage in quality conversations.  Sue teaches mediation at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee School of Continuing Education. Sue… MORE >

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