De-escalation Tip of the Day: Choose Wisely What You Insist Upon

September 27, 2017
Two pairs of hands clasped together.

A favorite story in our household is recounting the time that my mother-in-law made a special holiday dinner for Bisquick, our first family dog. Bisquick is a miniature dachshund, and like all small dogs, she dreams of being mighty. Unfortunately, since she is only about five inches tall, these dreams will never come true. One Thanksgiving, my mother-in-law made a beautiful Thanksgiving dinner for her family, and then thought it would be cute to make a miniature, yet equally beautiful, Thanksgiving dinner for Bisquick.
Nancy, my mother-in-law, is a lovely person inside and out. Her home is as elegant as an Architectural Digest photo; her cooking as sumptuous as anything Julia Child ever whipped up on PBS. And the plate that she fixed up for her son’s tiny dog? No exception.
Bisquick’s Thanksgiving meal was served on the good china. In miniature portions reflective of what the humans were eating, Nancy arranged a dachshund-sized serving of everything on a little saucer. A tiny wedge of a yam. A trio of peas. A postage stamp of cornbread. A small pipette of mashed potatoes. All daintily arranged around the pièce de résistance: a single slice of turkey with a perfect, petite dollop of gravy.
That’s when Bisquick began to lose her Rational Detachment.
“Now, Bisquick,” Nancy said, completely oblivious to the fact that the dog she addressed was becoming utterly undone with desire at the sight of an entire tray of human food. “I want you to eat this little meal very nicely, okay?”
Bisquick wasn’t hearing it. A) Bisquick is a dog, and her grasp of English is questionable at best. But B) this turkey was an immediate trigger. It was the most succulent of forbidden pleasures, since Bisquick does not normally get table scraps. This little hound was now escalating into crisis mode, and all she cared about was how rapidly she could connect with that fragrant protein my mother-in-law was holding, so temptingly,  just out of reach.
“I’m going to set this down on the kitchen floor,” Nancy said, beginning to crouch. “And I just want you to be a nice little doggie and not make a mess.”
Bisquick didn’t look as though she was very serious about complying. As the plate came ever closer to the tiles, her lips parted, her mouth foaming with rabid hunger, her teeth bared as if she were being gradually possessed by some demonic force.
The moment the plate connected with the floor, Bisquick, fully convinced that this must be some strange trick, grabbed the turkey from the plate and bolted for the furthest destination from the kitchen with her score.
This remote hideout was the living room, which had recently been adorned with brand-new white carpeting.
“Bisquick! No!” Nancy shrieked, giving chase.
Panicked, Bisquick did the only thing she could—she froze in place, pressed her face to the rug and bore down on the gravy-soaked meat as furiously as she was able. Growling and snapping as she gobbled up her treasure, her primal wolf brain took over, splattering a sizable radius of the pristine rug with brown gravy and fat.
Nancy didn’t know about Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training back then, otherwise she might have used this top CPI de-escalation tip: Choose wisely what you insist upon.
Is a rule negotiable or not? Would exhibiting a bit of flexibility head off an altercation, or does insisting on something lay the groundwork for a power struggle? Can you afford the carpet cleaning that might ensue if you needlessly stick to your guns?
Keep your eyes on the big picture—remember to see the individual behind the challenging behavior. Bisquick was acting like Cujo, but in truth, she was just a dog who was out of her element—confused, hungry, and reacting out of anxiety. Perhaps insisting that she eat like a lady was a rule that could have been waived. Perhaps skipping the formal porcelain and putting the food in a dog bowl, and letting Bisquick chow down on the back porch like the scruffy little wildling she is—perhaps these few accommodations could have prevented her escalation. In retrospect, these are all insights we gleaned as a family. Unfortunately, they came too late, and at the cost of Nancy’s tasteful décor.
But then again, if we'd been proactive, we wouldn’t have this wonderful family story.
Not all crises are adorable. Not all messes respond well to steam-cleaning. But CPI training really does work, and that’s why “prevention” is our middle name.

De-escalation tip #8

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