Dog Quest: Impulse Control

Amos hates having his claws clipped. He has good reason to hate this.

He had his claws clipped too short by the breeder as a puppy (7 weeks old) – to bleeding point – and then by the vet nurse (9 weeks old) – also to bleeding point – and, sadly, when he got older, by me. Within the critical socialisation period, he learned multiple times that “claw clippers” mean “big ouchies with blood.”

He yelped. He cried. Poor fellow!

While he no longer yelps and cries, he does get very tense and upset.

To be fair, it’s almost impossible to see the quick on his claws, since they are black. He therefore freaks out about having his claws clipped because he expects it to be painful, but we can do it. Husband stands there to give him treats, to try and show him that good things happen when the clippers show up. At the same time I show Amos the clippers, and let him sniff them, so as not to surprise him.

(note: taking the cats by surprise for claw clipping is necessary, otherwise they will scamper under the bed. It doesn’t matter how many treats I offer Jabba. His priorities are different. Taking a 40+ kg Rottweiler by surprise with something he is scared of is a bad idea and, I think, a violation of trust. I show him the clippers so he knows that I am not going to ambush him)

He grumbles, and I take the paw, and I rest the clippers on the claw until he stops dragging his paw away. Then I clip. His head – his giant, wedge-shaped, flat rottweiler head – comes cruising towards the clippers, and then you can see it.

You can actually see it.

The magical moment.

Impulse control.

He sees my hand on the clippers, and apparently thinks something along the lines of, “oh, crap, it’s Mum!”, grumbles, and puts his head right back where it was. It’s amazing to see. Honestly. It’s extraordinary.

Here’s what’s happening: he wants to bite at the source of the discomfort and the fear. That’s instinct. He moves his head forward, and he sees that the clippers are attached to my hand.

He sees that the source of the discomfort is me. His human. So, he reigns in the urge and pulls back. That is impulse control. Do I think it’s perfect? No. I don’t know that it can ever be perfect. But given how scared he is of having his claws clipped, I think it’s pretty damn good.

I’ve told this story to people who aren’t that into dog behaviour – and they are horrified at the very idea that my rottweiler might have even a momentary impulse to aim his muzzle at me. We have this idea that all dogs are perfect dogs, that never have a thought in their wee canine brains about biting, and the only dogs who ever consider biting are bad vicious dogs, and honestly, that idea has to go. It’s simply not true, and not fair. For Amos, because of his experiences as a puppy, he actually is genuinely super stressed out by the clippers. He’s not just throwing a tantrum. He’s actually frightened. That’s why his head actually moves. But the desensitisation over time is working – he no longer hides when he sees the clippers. It’s just a long road.

I’m going to let you in on a secret: biting is a strong instinct for dogs. It’s not just self-defense: a soft bite, or mouthing, is part of playing, too! Nipping is a big part of doggy communication. If you wrestle playfully with any dog, chances are the mouth is going to open; the impulse for them to mouth at you is right there. You can see it.

And they stop – mostly, unless you’ve taught your dog that it’s acceptable to mouth at you when wrestling or in play, and as a person who owns rottweilers I view that practice with deep skepticism. I want a dog’s personal bite inhibition to be very, very strong. I want dogs to feel confident in their judgement to never bite. I don’t want the possibility of a misunderstanding – “I thought we were playing!” or “But that really hurt!” – to cost a human in injury and, in all likelihood, to cost a dog their life.

I’m okay with the fact that all dogs will think about biting from time to time – when they’re scared, or really riled up in play – as long as they don’t actually do it. There are exceptions to that rule: any dog can slip up if they are in serious pain or a state of stark terror. It doesn’t make them bad or dangerous dogs. It means they’re acting out under stress.

It’s our job to make sure that doesn’t happen, and that’s why we teach impulse control.

Bite inhibition itself is learned from the puppy’s mother, long before the pup should be going to their eventual loving home. This, by the way, is why puppies should stay with their mothers for the full eight weeks. It cuts into their socialisation period as per their new lifestyle, meaning that the first four weeks with their new owners are going to be packed with new experiences (the first twelve weeks are the critical socialisation period), but it’s important nonetheless.

There are a few ways to teach impulse control.

  1. “Gentle.”

This is just part of teaching the dog to be gentle with their mouth around you. Abby is getting better. Amos is a champion, but to be fair, we’ve been teaching him “Gentle” since we brought him home. It just means that, if I give him a treat, he’s not allowed to lunge for it. He has to bring his mouth to my hand slowly and carefully. I want to know that he’s being careful when he puts his teeth – even the tiny puppy teeth he had back then – near my hand. So if he comes for the treat too fast, I take it away. Then I try again, saying gentle in a calm and quiet voice. The more calm and quiet I am, the easier it will be for him to be calm and quiet. They can learn this quite quickly. Abby will always go for the treat pretty quickly – she was underfed – but she is very careful, and she wasn’t that careful when we first got her. Basically they’ll learn that my hand – the hand that provides treats, and pats, and ear-scrubbles – won’t come near their jaw unless I know they will be careful of their teeth.

  1. Do not let teeth touch skin

My favourite game to play with my dogs is tug. I have a giant tug rope that is large-dog-sized, and I can have two dogs on it at once. One thing I like to do is hold the rope up in the air, get the dogs into a sit or a drop, and once they’re in the appropriate command, say “Yes!” which means they are allowed to jump for the rope.

This can be very exciting for them, a high energy sort of game. When dogs are riled up and excited, they can be careless. So we get to play the game a lot, but the minute they “miss” – i.e., if a tooth so much as brushes my skin, even if it’s an accident and doesn’t hurt – the game stops. I put the rope down, and I ignore the dog responsible. I may even put them outside, especially in the early days with either dog, to make it clear that this is an unacceptable error. I cannot be forgiving, because there is simply too much at stake. I am always, always aware of what happens when a big dog makes a mistake with a human, and the price that dog will pay.

(I will not yell or otherwise be scary. I want dogs to think, not be frightened. I only yell at my dogs when they are so riled up that nothing else is cutting through)

The last time Amos missed was probably over a year ago, probably the first time he’d missed in about a year before that, and it was so very slight, but he knew instantly what he had done. He immediately dropped his body flat on the ground and whined a little. I put the rope down – I have to be consistent – but I didn’t ignore him. He’d gotten too excited, and he’d forgotten to leave his brain switched on, but he knew what had happened.

Abby is a bit more tricky. When we first got her, she loved to groom people. If you’ve seen dogs groom themselves and each other, you know this can involve a certain amount of nibbling. She does it for approval, and for attention, and when she is very anxious she may still revert to this. It’s a nurturing instinct for her, and it comes from a different place than other sorts of mouthing, but all the same, I can’t let it slide (also it does pinch human skin). So she gets told off. Put off the couch. Ignored. Put outside, depending on the circumstances. Again, I have to be firm, but not too fierce; because it’s an anxiety response, making her more anxious will only make her less able to think. And she has learned very, very quickly.

A side note here: dogs learn more from positive reinforcement than negative reinforcement, so I do have an exception. If I say “No,” or “Leave” and Abby stops the grooming the first time I ask, she gets lots of praise and cuddles and pats. I want to teach her to be aware of what she is doing, instead of just running on instinct and ending up outside. Both approaches work fairly well, as I don’t like to train solely based on a corrective model.

In the interests of full disclosure, I allow one slightly unfair inconsistency on this: Amos is allowed to nibble-groom my ears. He usually does it when I’ve been crying a lot, as a way of showing concern, and I’m so immensely touched by the impulse that I let him get away with it. Since Abby would nibble-groom every damn exposed inch of skin if she could get away with it, I can’t make that call for her.

  1. Engagement training

Our trainers are really big on this, and it’s a pretty awesome idea. It’s best done with one dog at a time, so if you have two dogs like I do, clear the decks. Basically the idea is to get your dog super riled up. Maybe that involves a bit of wrestling (if you do that safely with your dog. I don’t like wrestling; misunderstandings can happen too easily; but for some people it’s a key part of how they play with their dog). Maybe it involves jumping around with the tug rope, or running away from them and then chasing them.

Get your dog into stupidly playful mode.

Then give them a command. “Sit” is a good one, since it’s one of the first commands that dogs learn, so it’s one they are more likely to respond to. Remember to give it in your usual tone of voice, with the usual hand signal if necessary (especially if your dog is new to this sort of training), just to help them out. Otherwise they might not recognise the command in their riled-up state.

Reward them as soon as their butt hits the ground. Reward them, release them very excitedly, and keep playing. Do this as many times as your combined aerobic fitness and attention span can sustain. Eventually, you can add in more complex commands, like “drop” or “stand” or “heel”.

Why do this?

This teaches your dogs that, even when you’re mucking about and they’re super excited, they still have to listen to you and respond to you. It teaches them to keep a part of their brain switched on, because, like anyone, dogs switch their brains off when they get excited, and it’s how stupid mistakes get made. Engagement training teaches impulse control in the sense that their impulse is “Keep playing! Keep jumping and chasing!” but their control results in them actually doing what they’re told. It teaches them that it’s rewarding to maintain self control, and actually more fun than losing their shit.

It’s also really fun for your dog, and really good for bonding with them.

Stick with these methods, and they will work. Sometimes I’m amazed at how well they work. Sometimes I deliberately hold the tug rope over Amos’s head in a very awkward position, and say “Yes.” I do this because it’s quite amazing to watch him.

He looks at the rope. He tilts his head. He checks it out from all angles, to try and work out how to get at it without getting my hand. And sometimes he ends up balancing on his hind legs and leaning his head forward to take the rope, because that’s the only way he can play the game without teeth touching skin.

And in those moments, I’m so proud that he’s thinking. It’s the same with the clippers. He’s in a state of high emotion, and he’s still thinking and making his own decisions about what to do.

When we talk about teaching dogs independence of thought, this is what we’re trying to teach them.

Waiting for the rope.

Patiently waiting for the rope game to begin.

TUG! And you can see Abby’s teeth quite well in this shot.

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Why so verbose?

I like to think I’m a reasonably good communicator, particularly when it comes to the written word, but it’s true that I am not pithy. I am probably one of the least pithy people you will ever meet. It’s a good thing words are a renewable resource otherwise I would have run stone dry by the age of twenty, using up a lifetime’s store of words in two decades, and that’s counting my preverbal years.

I am extremely verbal. Pathologically so.

This causes problems with word counts in essays and economy of expression in scientific papers. My rule of thumb is generally to write a paper, and then go back and reduce it by about a third. Some of it is expression; my sense of humour lends itself to a sort of dry over-expression, a way of using more words to craft something into an obvious understatement (and yes, I grew up on BBC comedies, particularly Blackadder, the Young Ones, and Red Dwarf. You may recognise some of my turn of phrase). Some of it is simply that I love description – why use one adjective when I could use five? (and yes, my editorial policy on my fiction writing is to go through and remove a bunch of adjectives)

But when it comes to blogging about topics I care about, it gets extreme. For the most part, people tend to prefer short and punchy blog posts that are easy to follow, and here I am churning out up to 4,000 words, with a bunch of parenthetical side notes and weird conversational subheadings.

Why is that? Do I not understand what economy of expression is?

Of course I do, but believe it or not, there’s a good reason I write the way I do. It’s far from the only way to write, but it’s the way I get my position across and tell stories.

I sort of see blog posts as something between a conversation and a story, a narrative that artificially cuts out a chunk of reasoning and life experience and tries to infodump it in one place at one time, somehow complete with all the contributing context. Sometimes I picture it as though I’ve removed an organ – here, have a liver, don’t mind all the blood vessels dangling everywhere and the ducts that connect it to the rest of the body. And uh, okay, those ducts are important and they connect to important parts, and you’re not really going to understand liver unless we get stuck into that too… hey, let’s talk kidneys. And bladders. And before you know it, somehow we’ve ended up with the whole digestive and excretory system.

It happens in face-to-face conversation too. Husband repeatedly tries to steer me back on track because I regularly get lost in tangents (the parenthetical “side notes” we find in a lot of my blog posts), and it’s one of the reasons my blog posts have slowed so dramatically lately. I have a lot to say, that’s still true, but the things I want to tackle are increasingly complex, and I find it’s hard to share my opinion without actually making it clear how I came to that opinion, and then it sort of segues from an opinion piece to a personal experience piece. I end up doubting that anyone is going to read the whole thing from start to finish.

Context matters. Context can be everything. There are some things you can take out of context and they’re still the same, but they’re not common. My opinions aren’t – can’t be – separate from my own experiences and concerns. Nobody’s opinions are separate from their own experiences and concerns. Can’t be.

It just doesn’t work like that.

There’s more. When I make an argument, I imagine the rebuttals to that argument, and so I figure, why wait? Let’s just answer those objections now. It saves time. Keto was a perfect example: there are so many objections to keto that are based on very, very common misinformation that it just makes sense to tackle it head-on, i.e., “No, fat isn’t going to kill you.”

Then there’s the feminism posts. As much as “notallmenning” makes me want to stab myself in the eye when I see it, I’ve seen so much defensive behaviour when discussing feminism that it’s just easier to tackle that head-on as well. It is much easier to have a disclaimer to make it clear what I am not saying as to focus on what I am saying, because I can’t assume that people will be clear on what I am not saying.

(For example, and here’s a side note for you: people who start crying about censorship when you say you don’t like some of the problematic representations of women in popular culture. It’s almost worth saying in big bold letters I am not saying we should ban stuff, I am saying we should think about stuff, because thinking about stuff is important. I once had a conversation about how treating women like shit for breastfeeding in public is bad because it makes people feel shitty and that’s not fair, and then got a sneering response about how well that stands up in court. How the hell did we get from “don’t be a tool” to “legal defense”? Since when does court matter when we start talking about how to treat people decently?)

There is so much room for misinterpretation and misunderstanding. I have a genuine horror of being misunderstood. It’s actually slightly nauseating and leads me to avoid a lot of debates. It’s one of the reasons I am so blunt, but it’s also one of the reasons that I add in all the disclaimers, all the context, all the extra information. The more information I can provide, the less likely it is that I will be misunderstood.

I always believe that the more information you have, the better the information you have, the better the decisions you can make. Maybe everyone has a right to an opinion, but I will respect an opinion derived from knowledge over an opinion derived from made-up horseshit. So to speak.

Then there’s my own stories: I add in personal experience (the much-maligned “anecdata”) because that’s where the humour and the passion comes in. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the interesting bit. Not my stupid stories about my life and my body and my pets, but what those stories have done to change my perspective. I am quite happy to read a cultural critique of a piece of pop culture (it’s like brain candy. I read quite a lot of it), but at the same time, I also want to read personal stories. I want to know how people relate to the world around them, and how they respond to these problems, and where these opinions come in.

I am constantly editing my own opinions based on my own experience and based on the stories I get from other people. I am constantly cutting in other people’s experiences, adding in things I might have missed, changing the patterns and rules for interaction, trying to aim for maximum truth, maximum fairness. I fall short a lot.

I suppose I want to make it clear that even apparently abstract ideas… aren’t really abstract. They have impacts, down the line. They affect people’s choices. They affect people’s opportunities. They make changes. Something that might seem fine in the abstract will have terrible consequences in the real world. Something that might seem completely irrelevant in the abstract to you personally might have incredible implications for someone else’s lived experience. That’s why the personal stories.

And of course I want to explain – if I know – why things happened. That sets up a chain of cause and effect that can go a long way back indeed, and I can’t always easily figure out where that needs to stop. I’m never sure when that cause and effect becomes irrelevant, in a non-linear story.

Because here’s the thing that stumps me: opinions and ideas and experiences are all non-linear. None of them are products of one simple chain of cause and effect. They’re a big foggy fractal network of events and ideas and exposure to concepts and learning and changing. Everything is coming at you from all sides, all the time, and the challenge – as I see it – is to somehow make it linear without missing anything.

It’s to somehow try and translate this ideological, experiential chaos into something that follows a comprehensible timeline. When you do that, you lose bits in the editorial process. It’s like turning a book into a movie: you’re translating from one medium into a very different medium and trying to tell the same story. Something is going to be lost in translation, and you have to decide what stays, and what can’t be effectively translated, and what pieces of the story you can’t afford to lose.

My choice is always to cut less, because I’m never sure I’m cutting out the right thing. What if I’m cutting out the one thing that will make sense to someone?

Or to put it another way, it’s probably a good thing I’m not a surgeon.

Morning Coffee Feminism: “No, it’s okay. I can do it.”

The front brakes on my bicycle were busted, and close examination suggested that I needed to take them apart to fix them. It’s not that I used my bike for commuting – I was thirteen, and I caught the train to school. I did, however, use it for rollicking around the park and getting exercise and having fun, and I wanted it working, so this was a priority for me.

I went inside. “Mum, where do we keep our screwdrivers?”

“Our what?”

“I need a Philips head screwdriver to fix my bike.”

My mother looked puzzled. “We don’t have any screwdrivers.”

It was my turn for a blank, flabbergasted expression. “That’s really stupid,” I said, being an outspoken, slightly bratty, introverted thirteen year old with a very limited grasp of keeping your temper when your parents say things that don’t make sense. “How are we going to fix things?”

There was a lecture about rudeness, but it did not address the fact that it was just stupid to not have your own screwdrivers.

Here’s the background: my parents had been divorced for a year or so at this point. (formally or informally, I forget when the paperwork went through. I don’t think this was something either of them felt the need to tell me about, and that’s quite fair). They had a pretty traditional division of labour back in the early days.

But I grew up with a father who spent most of his free hours mucking about happily in the garage with old motorbikes and other various engineering projects. The idea that I lived in a house without any tools was honestly bizarre. It was as though I’d been told we didn’t need oxygen, we’d just get it from Mal next door. I’d assembled my mother’s gigantic brass bed with only a firm grip and my own double-jointedness, and it occurred to me at this point that a shifting spanner (that’s a wrench to you Americans) would have made the process a little simpler.

(please note that, due to this problem, in my early adolescence I once assembled a bookshelf using one of Mum’s high heeled boots from the 80s as a hammer. I had no personal transport or cash to go and buy tools, and I wanted my bookshelf, damn it, and even IKEA flatpacks tend to assume you possess a hammer)

I called my father and complained that we didn’t have any tools, so how was I supposed to fix my bike?

My fourteenth birthday came around, and my Dad gave me a present.

It was – ta-da! – a set of tools, appropriate for a fourteen year old who had limited applications for them, but perfectly sensible for fixing bicycles (I later learned that they were not really appropriate for disassembling computers, but to be fair, I had taken apart and reassembled my computer case about eight times, including removal and replacement of CD drives, RAM, hard drives and floppy drives, before I finally managed to completely strip the screws and learned that it was important to have a selection of sizes in screwdrivers). One flat-head screwdriver, one Philips-head screwdriver, one set of bull-nosed pliers, one set of needle-nosed pliers, and a small claw hammer.

My mother looked at the tools when I proudly brought them home from my birthday visit with my father, along with the AD&D second edition Monstrous Manual, and then looked at me, and said dryly, “He does know you’re a girl, doesn’t he?”

If any of y’all wonder where my feminism comes from, look ye no further.

My mother did not believe in fixing things, or fiddling with technology. I’d been moved out of the house for about four years before she stopped calling me and asking me to come over and reset the clock on her VCR, and I suspect that’s only because she replaced the VCR with a DVD player, and by that time I had a boyfriend she could ask for help instead (see below).

I played the role of “man of the house” for my mother. I absolutely did not mind. It was more important to me to get things done, and I thought the gender shit was stupid.

As the years went by and I progressed into puberty, my mother would get wistful and start talking about how we should build a collection of perfumes and cosmetics for me to play with. I had literally zero interest in this, to the point where a close friend got really, really insulted because I pointed out that expecting women to wear make-up – and not applying that expectation to men – was sexist (she actually sulked. Quite possibly it came across as me judging her for being interested in cosmetics, and quite possibly she was right, and I was judging her, because I freely admit that at that age I lacked nuance on these issues. It mostly came from the fact that I had no interest in that stuff and I was sick of being made to feel weird for it).

(my eventual curiosity about make-up made more of an appearance much later. Amateur classical theatre had a lot to do with it)

At fifteen, I hosted a sleepover for my friends. One of those friends was a guy. He was not particularly burly (on account of being fifteen), and this wasn’t anything I’d ever really paid attention to. I was hauling the spare mattress into the lounge room so we could all sit around and talk teenager crap in a shared space, when my mother saw me and said, “Kate!”

She sounded quite shocked. Horrified, even. I’d say embarrassed.

“What?”

“Shouldn’t you let [male friend] do that?”

I exchanged a glance with my male friend in question. We both suddenly felt very awkward. Not being attracted to each other – a fortunate thing in a high school hetero-friendship – we pretty much ignored the fact that we happened to be different sexes. He suddenly shuffled and looked as though he were about to offer to take the mattress, and I think I gave him the sort of look that promised evisceration if he tried.

“No, that’s okay,” I said calmly, “I can do it myself.” I actually prickled. Like a spiny hedgehog.

I feel like “No, that’s okay, I can do it myself,” is the catch-cry for my life and for my feminism. And here’s the thing: my mother was perfectly happy for me to pick up the slack, carry heavy things, reassemble complicated pieces of furniture and machinery, handle any necessary computing and the like. This worked for her, entirely, because it got her off the hook and to be fair she had other things to do. She was comfortable with it and, if we’re honest, she sometimes seemed a little proud of me for it (when she wasn’t busy being defensive about the fact that she couldn’t or wouldn’t do it herself).

Unless there was a male around. At that point, it all went to hell, and she began to worry that I wasn’t feminine enough; that there was a pattern of social expectation and that I was not following it. She see-sawed between wanting me to be an independent sort of woman and wanting me to follow the sort of pattern she could relate to and recognise. I think it was hard for her.

But Mum never mowed a lawn if she had a male neighbour she could ask to do it for her.

(I once confided to her that I was considering asking out a boy I liked. She was horrified. “No, Kate,” she said. “You wait to be asked.” I thought about all the boys I knew and how they were just as anxious and shy and nerdy as I was, and I thought I would be waiting a very long time for that to happen. There were no more confidences after that)

The minute I entered an adult long term relationship, it wasn’t me who was being asked to set clocks or repair things – it was my boyfriend. If I was the only one around, sure, I would do, but I was a second choice.

Now, again, to be fair: this no doubt had a lot to do with how she was raised. But the way I was raised clearly taught me that if I waited around for a guy to show up and do things for me, I’d be waiting a long time, and nothing would get done, because we didn’t have any guys at the house. QED. It also taught me that I was perfectly capable of lifting and hauling and carrying and building and, incidentally, reading the freaking instruction manual (RTFM, people). It taught me that these are not things that are demarcated by gender.

The message I got from my mother was this: I was allowed to do things for myself, and I was capable of doing things for myself, unless there was a guy around, in which case I should ask him to do it for me, because reasons. Because I should pretend I couldn’t do it, so I could ask him. Because I should pretend to be less than I am in his presence.

I took her logic – such as it was – to its obvious conclusion, and I didn’t like that conclusion. It pissed me off. It still pisses me off today.

If you’re reading this, and you’re a man, and you have ever wondered why a perfectly innocent offer of help with physical labour has been poorly received by a woman, this is why. There’s a context and a history there.

I’m not saying don’t offer. I’m not saying you’re a bad person for doing it – quite the contrary! I offer to help people as well when I see they are having difficulty. It is nice when people offer to help (true facts). It is true that in terms of muscle mass there is a common female disadvantage, and I have occasionally had to accept that what is a gruelling trial for me will be a minor effort for the bloke who has just offered to give me a hand, even if he doesn’t work out (mutter mutter so unfair mutter). It does still feel like failure to accept that hand, but occasional exhaustion has forced me to do so, with graciousness (because he wouldn’t have offered if I hadn’t been visibly struggling, so kudos).

But if you are offering to help a woman lift something because she is a woman and not because she appears to be having difficulty, you won’t always get a polite response. You might get a very strained, clenched-teeth reply of “NO THANKS, I AM FINE,” because that woman has been raised to pretend she can’t do things, to contribute to a culture that thinks that woman can’t do certain things, to maintain a façade – a legal fiction – that makes no freaking sense, and that is not a good feeling. It is kind of a dirty feeling, and not in a fun way.

If you are offering to help a woman with something technical or mathematical because she is a woman and not because you are personally familiar with the gaps in her personal skill set, that’s a problem, not a kindness. I was in the nerd class with all the other nerds, and there were plenty of girls who were super awesome at maths, so coming out into a world where guys – any guys – would assume I was not able to do maths or science or technical things was a bit of a shock for me, and completely at odds with my experience. It was amazing how quickly I started to buy back into it, too, but that’s another story for another time.

Now, most of us receive these messages about what it is and is not possible/appropriate/normal for you to do as a woman (and there are some pretty toxic messages about masculinity floating around as well, I’m not even kidding). But not all of us get these messages reinforced at home, or by our peer groups, or our schools, or any of the places where we get these messages and ideas and roles imprinted on our brains as a kid.

I felt like a lot of the messages I was receiving were amazingly conflicting. I was reading – as referenced previously – Anne McCaffrey and CJ Cherryh and Patricia C Wrede books where women were kicking arse and taking names. And I was reading Conan and various problematic fantasty novels where women were only existing as temptresses or princesses (so to speak; the virgin/whore dichotomy). I was watching movies were women mostly needed to be rescued and were mostly only relevant if they had a romantic interest. I was watching TV shows where women would constantly get men around to “fix” things, because that was an option for them, and I was playing computer games where, if women appeared, they were usually prizes (80s, early to mid 90s), with very few exceptions (honestly, the first even faintly well-rounded female character that appeared on my radar was Rebecca Snoot, from Return to Zork. I was a PC gamer, remember).

So when it comes to those of us who grit our teeth, and say “No, that’s okay, I can do it,” and have trouble asking for help – it’s easy for people who haven’t felt those conflicting influences, who haven’t had their presumed ineptitude and weakness reinforced at home with weird stereotypes, to say, “But it’s not like you’ve got something to prove, is it?” and mutter about egos and chips on shoulders (sigh).

But sometimes, yes, we do have something to prove – not to you, the observer, but to ourselves. Because those imprints last, and there are still little voices in the back of our heads that are saying, “You should get a guy to do that.” And it doesn’t matter that intellectually we know that’s bullshit; we’ve internalised it at a young age, and it sticks like glue from that point, and now I prove it to myself, over and over, easier each time and with a little glow of pride, that yes, I’ve got this, and I don’t need a guy to do that. It makes it hard to ask for help because that little glow, that little “I proved it again!” victory, and the opportunity to smack that gender-norm-reinforcing voice in its stupid metaphorical face – those things are good, and they feel good.

They feel empowering.

And by the way, I did fix my bike, and I do still have those tools. I treasure them as recognition from my father that sometimes you just have to get shit done, and you can’t wait around for someone else to do it, regardless of gender.

“He does know you’re a girl, doesn’t he?”

He does. And he knows I’ve got this.

O Bendy Gymster: The Range of Motion

The younger student held up a rack of tubes. “So should I give these a quick spin in the centrifuge?” she asked.

I counted. Five tubes. “Nah. Just a quick vortex to mix them, and then just give them each a flick.”

She frowned. “A flick?”

“Yeah, like this.” I picked up a tube, and flicked it with my wrist twice until the liquid settled cleanly in the bottom. I do use the centrifuge for things that really need to be spun – i.e., separating out layers, separating out supernatant, pelleting DNA – but if I’ve just given something a quick rattle on the vortex and want to make sure no liquid has been flung up into the lid, I just flick the tube.

(NB for non-lab types: You need to make sure there’s no liquid in the lid before you open the tube, because otherwise you’ll lose your reagent/sample/whatever when you open it, and then you may cry. Also, flicking the tube does not work for the really titchy 200ul tubes)

The student, who was both a hard worker and a quick study, picked up another tube and attempted to replicate my movement. Her wrist moved very slowly, like she was waving a pom-pom. The liquid in the tube didn’t shift in any appreciable or useful way.

I blinked. “Maybe a quick spin in the centrifuge,” I agreed.

Later, I turned to a colleague. “Do you flick your tubes?” I asked, curious. “Like this?” I picked up one of my samples from the bench and demonstrated.

My colleague gave me a blank look for a second, and then laughed. “No. How do you even do that?”

It wasn’t until a year later when my first physiotherapist bent my feet inwards…

“Tell me when it hurts.” “Sure.” “…no, really, tell me.” “But it doesn’t hurt.” “Aha!”

…that I discovered I was hypermobile and that my joints exhibit an extraordinary range of motion.

For the most part, that’s a bad thing. Being hypermobile means a greatly increased risk of injury (all the local physios know me well). It means it’s easy to overstretch. It’s easy to accumulate connective tissue damage which means it’s more likely that you will strain, sprain, wear and tear at that point in future. It means you don’t move right, and things hurt more, and most activities are far more tiring than they are for most people. Sometimes it means orthostatic issues with blood pressure, gut cramps (because there’s collagen in your intestines too, and that has consequences), and other less predictable effects.

But it’s not all bad.

I just got back from an extremely excellent field trip. On the last day, my foot slipped while descending a step-ladder from the top deck of a boat. Ironically, I’d been about to brace myself so someone could pass me a drum.

My foot slid out from under me, but I gripped the handrail; my flailing shoulder popped forward a little bit (little subluxation, but not full dislocation), yanking at the tendons; my weight landed on my wrist, which was hyperextended; the shoulder snapped back in, aching like a bastard; and I held.

If I wasn’t hypermobile, I probably wouldn’t have been able to catch myself before going arse over tit down onto the mid deck, doing myself far worse injury.

If I wasn’t hypermobile, the shoulder probably wouldn’t have stretched enough to go out and in again the way it did. It’s bad – in a broad sense – that this happened, and it’s probably done some unseen damage to the complex bits and pieces that make up the shoulder joint; but my shoulder is fine. It was fine within about ten minutes, and that’s held.

The wrist, though, turned out to be an injury, and I won’t be flicking any tubes for a while. It’s a very minor injury, but it’s where the muscle attaches to the ulna, so it will take longer to heal than it would if it had torn near the belly of the muscle.

The moves I have to avoid in order to allow healing?

Hyperextension in the rotation of my wrist.

What I’m learning now – and what I didn’t know before this latest injury – is how much I deliberately hyperextend my wrist.

Flicking tubes is just one thing.

I also use wrist hyperextension to increase the leverage when I open jars (I work in a museum. I open a lot of specimen jars).

When I’m driving, I use wrist hyperextension to get the wheel to turn further in a single movement (especially when backing down our literally mountainous driveway).

When I put my backpack on, I swing it around my wrist to get it on my shoulder.

It turns out I use that extra wrist rotation to help fold fucking laundry.

So yes, this is all a bit of an adjustment for me. I’m not even kidding. I even have to be careful when doing cross stitch that I try to hold the needle with my wrist in a neutral position. In addition to all the recruitment exercises that target my hips, glutes, core, calves, arches, and shoulders, I now have exercises to target my wrists – all things designed to increase my proprioception and awarenss of my joint position so I can avoid over-extending.

There’s just one problem: over-extending my wrist is useful. I’m not sure it’s possible to teach myself not to do it. I’ve taught myself not to lock my joints, not to hunch all the time, to consciously engage my postural muscles – all difficult things – but they didn’t involve much sacrifice (although locking joints is useful when you have underdeveloped postural muscles).

So the journey of the bendy gymster acquires another layer, another problem joint, and another exercise for maintenance.

Mostly what I learned from this is how much I actually use my hypermobility for extra leverage, without even being aware of it.