Training our Inner Sheepdog

Suddenly every horse was down, kicking and grunting helplessly in the mud. They lost their heads. They seemed to like to jump off into the ponds. We tugged, hauled, kicked at the brutes; unpacked the sacks, lugged them to shore, pulled on tie ropes, tails; battered heads, poured water down nostrils till they hissed like serpents. One was out, another was down. Oh, our beautiful oaths! Hot, hungry, dizzy, insane with mosquitos, we struggled waist-deep in yellow muck, unsnarling slimy cinches, packing, repacking shivering, exhausted beasts. It was endless.
— Robert Dunn, Shameless Diary of an Explorer

The Shameless Diary of an Explorer is a tale about the first ascent up Mt. McKinley. What is most striking about the book is how very hard this trip was —but not just hard from a high adventure standpoint, but hard from it being really hard, messy, relentless work. One of my favorite parts of the book is that they had to buy pack horses to pack their gear across Alaska and into the mountain range. But they didn’t buy pack horses because you couldn’t. They had to buy wild horses and train them to be pack horses.  And if you know anything about wild horses, they are not very keen on being tame, especially when trained by people who have never trained horses. The outcome of all of this is that the expedition party would set out walking miles with their horses, through mud and muck with horrible biting flies and mosquitos. Then the horses would freak out and break loose and run away, all the miles back to where they had started the day. Not liking the packs on their backs, they would roll and rub off the packs—containing all the food and gear, into the wet bogs. And the expedition party would have to walk all the way back to where they had broken camp that morning, picking up their lost gear, drying out food and clothes and rounding up the horses. They would have lost all the ground they had gained, and have less gear to show for it. This happened repeatedly.

I loved this description because I have lived there. I knew exactly what it felt like to have my inner, frightened wild horses break loose and run back to base camp. I knew how frustrated I was to have to walk all the way back to get them, picking up my gear along the way.

For most people who have lived through long term trauma, the story comes out in bits and pieces. There is an odd paradox that you can feel like you have so much to tell, and then when you try, it feels like all you have is the same story over and over. Some stories seem to stand for the whole. Sometimes it can take so much courage to say one sentence and in saying it you feel like you have told the whole story, and really, all you have given was the headline: I thought I was going to die. Often you  come out with different sentences and feel like you have all of this emotion and you aren’t saying anything at all. It can feel so disorganized.

The Blue Hill Fair takes place for three days over every labor day weekend in Blue Hill, Maine. There are horse pulls and oxen pulls and pie eating contests. There is a midway with rides and King and Queen French Fries. From atop the ferris wheel you can see out over the Blue Hill Bay.  I loved this fair long before I ever attended it in person because it is where Charlotte the spider saves Wilbur the pig in Charlotte’s Web. The fair can feel like a pilgrimage for a child self who wants to believe there is goodness in the world—that there really is ‘some pig!’  My favorite reason to go to the fair is to watch the Northeast Sheepdog trials. Sheepdog trials have three key players: the dog handler, the sheepdog and the sheep. The handler must use the sheepdog to shepherd the sheep through an obstacle course in a predetermined path. The sheepdog and the handler work together to try to get the sheep through the course. The sheep are always consistent—they are terrified and disorganized. And the sheep tend to make each other more frenzied and anxious. The sheepdog is often torn: Do I want to please my master or do I want to act like a wolf and go after the sheep? Follow my training or follow my instinct? You can almost watch the inner conflict of the sheepdog as it both follows and then ignores its handlers, it’s muscles twitching. The handlers are all really different. Some use whistles, some yell commands. Some are quiet and some sound angry.

Your brain on trauma looks a lot like the sheep. Your thoughts can get away from you, running around, bumping into each other—with a wild look in their eyes. As you begin to get your story out—your words and feelings can feel a lot like the sheep---the sheep come out of the pen and begin to try to find the path through, but the sheepdog—the part of your brain that will help you talk and think and trust— is young and untrained. At first, the sheepdog is almost afraid of the sheep—and chases after them. The handler works on getting the sheepdog to listen to the most basic commands, but while the sheep dog is learning the commands, the sheep run amok. It’s all you can do to get them back in their pen at the end of the day. This is another reason I am keen on a solid preparation phase for healing. If the sheepdog can learn some of the commands before the sheep are let loose, it’s easier to use the sheepdog to shepherd them.

Other days, it can feel like the sheepdog is a wild maniac who won’t even let the sheep out of the pen—instead—it sits in front of the pen, tensely growling at you and growling at them and everything feels stuck and anxious. The sheepdog wants to make sure that no one ever sees the sheep or hears from the sheep. That’s the thing about healing—it never feels in balance, it never feels smooth. The sheepdog trials are the culmination of years of work between handler and dog. So much patience. So much care. So many missteps. So much love.

The thing that can catch you off guard or the thing that can make this phase of healing feel like punishment is that it begins because you feel good. For the slightest moment you give up your vigilance, or your mistrust, or your cynicism, or your need to control, or whatever you favorite form of protection is—and you lean on someone or something. You let go and for a moment you feel something else. I can’t say that the experience is positive or negative—it’s new. It is new and it shakes up the system. It is both the wild sheep feelings and the new experience of handler and dog working together. You get the new because you risk the old. You get the new and something changes.

This past summer when I was watching the sheepdog trials, the man whose job it was to watch the sheep who were waiting to go in wasn’t watching so carefully. So during one round there was a dog and the handler in the ring, and the four sheep. The dog and the handler started their round with the sheep--moving them along the course, over a bridge, through a gate. And then suddenly, four more sheep broke through the barrier and jumped in the ring. Which is just what it can feel like when you are healing and get overwhelmed. You had a plan, you were figuring it out. You were moving things along, and suddenly, there are four more sheep with eyes full of terror. 

The handler looked lost, as did the announcer of the event. But not the dog. He completely took it in stride. He looked around, and if he could have spoken, he would have said, “I’ve got this.” He immediately went to move the extra four sheep through the elements of the course.

Because it was a competition they had to stop the round. But the dog had already shined, had already taught us all a wonderful lesson. He didn’t lose his head. He didn’t do anything special. In a bad situation he just took what he knew and put it in to practice. He looked to his handler, he reined in the sheep. And most of all he looked around and said with every fiber of his being, “I've got this.”