Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Seven Steps To Learning - Wisdom from a Dog

Sir Makone of Knarlwoods joined our home this past week, all fifty empty brained pounds packed into still to grow folded skin. He was already the size of Bonnie our two-year-old standard poodle. Beki, our sixteen year old had died five days earlier and Bonnie had not eaten since her death, refused to ride in the car that never returned her mother and moped around the house trying to fit into her role as the only dog critter. Already her bones protruded from her skin and the bounce and light was fading. I understood her feelings, those feelings were the very reason she had originally joined our home.
Bonnie arrived two years ago as Liz, eighteen and full of the wonder of the world had ventured off into adulthood carrying the burden of FASDs and the belief that “when you’re eighteen you can do anything ‘you’ want.” Watching her transverse chasms and be drawn into trauma, I needed something to hang onto as both my daughter and the old dog she left behind skittered often close to death. Bonnie brought into my home of sadness and worry the joy and laughter of puppy antics and I claimed her and trained her with the same neuro skills Liz had taught me to help her brain grow while our old girl Beki claimed the little ragamuffin as her puppy and taught her dog manners. Bonnie had become a sanctuary for me when Liz fell again and again into difficult life experiences, her fur had soaked in oodles of tears as she had licked the salty water off my cheeks and cheered me on with dog ideas to make me feel better. She was a faster learner than I and a good teacher.
To see Bonnie, now almost a big dog pining for her adopted mother broke my heart. We had all survived the treacherous journey and learned much – Bonnie could play the piano with her nose and Liz could ride the metro from one side of the city to another without getting lost or picking up a “friend” who needed a place to stay. Timid Bonnie had learned to meet and greet strangers in polite doggie style and Liz had learned to keep her home a private place of refuge. I had learned that the five year brain training program we had set up for Liz didn’t stop her need to explore the world filled with coldness and stress and miscommunication and human predators. Her need for self-experience to find herself and understand the limits her brain injury placed on her was a journey she had to make on her own without the controls and structure and safety we had provided.
Makone “Mak” is peacefully sleeping by my feet as I type this article in my up”stairs” office. At nine months old he had no idea two days ago how to get up any of our steps. He was afraid of the steps to the kennel and the steps to the car and the steps to the studio and the steps to the basement. Some were carpeted and some were yellow wood and some were brown wood and some were concrete and some were painted white.

They were all steps – simple steps.

And yet Mak came to teach Karl and I a very important lesson for our daughter who has finally settled into her own home of safety and sanctuary. Mak came to teach us that even though he looks full grown he is a baby and babies need a lot of love and guidance to grow. Mak came to teach Karl and I that each step is a new learning experience and each step is different. He came to remind us that his heart wants to do each step but sometimes his mind doesn’t know how. He came at this moment to show us that some steps he could go up and some steps he could go down, but some steps he isn’t ready to touch at all. Maybe someday, maybe someday when he is a big dog. With Mak we expect accidents and piddles along the way as he plods curiously and innocently into each life experience. Liz has learned much in her two-year life experience college of hard knocks. Karl and I have learned as much as Liz has grown.
Mak backs up and spreads his gangly feet in all directions to protect himself from each new steps – Liz in her own way does the same - she loves and hates learning.. Mak came to remind us that just as we had taught Liz in our home, we needed to move to teaching her out-of-our home with the same love, compassion and expectations – step by tiny step finally gradually handing her our controls and respecting that they can become her controls.

Today we implement a seven-step process in exploring or teaching her a new skill.
1. REVIEW - We review the options of how to teach so we have a backup plan. We make the initial calls, visit the site and discover the details.
2. WATCH We tell Liz what she is going to learn and take her through the process to accomplish the task. In this first step she is the observant participant with us – we do not require learning.
3. WATCH-EXPERIENCE We repeat the experience with her contributing pieces of the learned task.
4. EXPERIENCE – WATCH We repeat the experience with her contributing more pieces of the learned task and we begin to step away.
5. EXPERIENCE – SHOW – She tells me what to do and I laugh and become a partner in “her” learning.
6. SHOW – LET GO – She shows me as I watch and then let go.
7. I CAN – She skillfully and a bit fearfully completes the process, while I sit in a parking lot waiting or stay close to the phone to guide. I Can, can take a while and when learning is mastered we move on to the Next Step in our adult journey.

For a while we will keep Mak leashed to our side because he does not have the skills to be independent and unknowingly could be injured or killed.
We keep Liz tethered to us with the line of love - the same line of love that invited us to a homemade turkey dinner, with gravy and mash potatoes, stuffing and cornbread. I stopped by to demonstrate getting the neck out of the turkey and putting the big bird in the oven. I left her to do the rest herself. I came back to read the recipe for stuffing to her, while she prepared it herself and I demonstrated cooking the giblets. Then Karl and Bonnie arrived to join her and her boyfriend at her “own table” in her “own kitchen.” Her Christmas tree glowed red and green and white in an organized living room. It had been a long journey to get to this place and the journey will continue.
Mak came to remind us of the management of that journey – kindness, compassion, clear simple direction – and only one step at a time.