Meet Sheepdog Response Instructor Sarah Dunston

Sarah Dunston knows a thing or two about being a Sheepdog.

An Army combat veteran with more than 12 years of active service, she conducted felony investigations as a Criminal Investigation Command Special Agent in both the U.S. and overseas. She also supervised tactical policing operations in combat environments and worldwide executive protection operations for senior Department of Defense officials.

A passionate advocate for promoting prevention through empowerment, Dunston is also the driving force behind Sheepdog Response’s new Women’s Self Defense course.

What led you to create the Women’s Self Defense course?

Approximately one in three women have experienced sexual trauma in their lives. I want to give women the tools to successfully deal with these issues as well as provide them with a community they can turn to for ongoing support.

The challenge, however, is getting women to attend a realistic, intensive, hands-on self-defense course. These courses can appear intimidating to women, especially if all they see are male instructors and students in the promotional materials.

Another challenge is trusting unknown males. Good self-defense classes will make you go hands-on with people you don’t know. Women who have experienced any type of sexual trauma or domestic abuse will not be enthusiastic about getting that close to strange men when it comes to grappling.  A lot of negative stuff can resurface and that will stunt the learning experience.

I think it has to do with the sense of vulnerability, almost bordering on intimacy, that comes with grappling. You are intentionally putting yourself in a vulnerable position and trusting your partner to provide you with a good learning experience without injuring you.

How do you overcome that fear?

That fear comes in many forms. It’s fear of being judged. It’s fear of being hurt. It’s a fear of feeling ashamed. It’s fear of not living up to what you think the standard should be. Ask any woman about what it’s like to go to the gym. Nearly every woman will have stories about men coming approaching them unsolicited training advice. Men don’t do that to other men, do they?

Some men just assume women don’t know what we’re doing when it comes to fitness. Now translate that mentality to a self-defense course and compound it. No one wants to go come to a course and feel ashamed because they are not strong or because they don’t have any martial arts or shooting experience.

At Sheepdog Response, we understand that no one was born a self-defense expert. We all started from nothing, and we are all lifelong students. That’s why it’s much easier for a woman to train with another woman. A woman-only course reduces those fears about being judged. It also increases creates a safer training environment.

That being said, the women’s curriculum is not any different from the mixed-gender class of Sheepdog Response Level 1 course. Women cannot learn, and train, isolated in a bubble from reality.

What makes Sheepdog’s course different?

There needs to be a reality check when it comes to teaching women self-defense and Sheepdog Response provides that.

There is so much wrong information out there where women are bombarded with horrible tactics from instructors and courses that promote five secret moves. They are doing women a disservice. At best, they are expensive gimmicks. At worst, they will get women hurt.

If effective self-defense were as simple as learning a couple of secret moves, there wouldn’t be so many assaults on women. Like everything else in life, getting proficient at something takes time. It takes consistent practice. And it also requires that you learn from the best.

Everything our instructors teach, we’ve used in real life against people who have been trying to hurt us. Our instructors know there is no easy path to empowerment. It takes hard work and commitment, and we will push you to understand that. But we are not there to intimidate you. We are there to help you.

How did your military law enforcement background help shape the curriculum?

I’ve always felt a need to help victims and the oppressed. Whether it was patrol work earlier in my career with the Military Police Corps or the felony investigations when I became a Criminal Investigations Special Agent, I was always fascinated by my job and the positive impact I could make.

With drug, fraud, and murder cases, there is a certain amount of gratification at the end of the process. When you do your job right, there will be a sense of victory and closure when you get the conviction. But working with children and sexual assault victims? There is no winner. The convictions are harder to get, and lives are destroyed.

Even if you can rescue a child from abusive parents, she still ends up in foster care and is scarred for life. Or in the case of a sexual assault or domestic abuse victim? The damage is already done. You can’t erase that trauma.

I wanted to do something that could empower people and give them the tools to prevent them from becoming victims in the first place. That ultimately led to my work with Sheepdog Response. It’s my way of helping women use empowerment as a prevention tool for victimization.

What do you want women to get from the course?

We need to empower women by making them feel more confident. Women need to know they have the right to defend themselves with words, and when necessary, with physicality. Consistent and challenging training, like unarmed combatives, increases confidence and helps you cope with past mental and physical traumas.

Through training, I’ve not only dramatically improved my self-confidence and physical fitness, but I’ve also been better at processing my own experiences with sexual trauma. There was a small-scale study about the positive affect jiu-jitsu training had on those experiencing Post Traumatic Stress (PTS). With jiu-jitsu, even though your brain knows you are safe, your body thinks otherwise.

You can see the look of panic in a new student’s eyes when she realizes there is a 200-lb. man pinning her to the mat and she can’t move. It’s a fear of helplessness that can turn into panic because blood is being shunted away from her frontal cortex — where logical thinking takes place — to her core organs and limbs.

Researchers found that consistent jiu-jitsu training dramatically reduced those symptoms. Over time, you learn to slow down and breath. You start getting that frontal cortex engaged again and begin thinking your way out of the current problem. The only way to inoculate yourself against that kind of stress is through lots of repetition with realistic training.

This is why those gimmick self-defense classes are dangerous. They can’t replicate those stressors, and they definitely don’t give women the tools to continue their training, let alone a community of like-minded women to train with. Having experienced how beneficial that kind of training has been in my own life, I wanted to find a way to share that knowledge with others. Helping PTS and sexual trauma victims regain their confidence has become my driving force.

This class is just not about self-defense, is it?

It’s much more than learning how to defend yourself. I want to help create more Sheepdogs. To me, a Sheepdog is a woman or man who is trained to prevent trouble when possible and when necessary, react to it. We are not out actively seeking trouble nor are we shying away if it arrives on our doorstep.

I want our students to walk away from our course feeling confident and empowered. Not cocky. I want them to feel inspired to continue their training and never stop improving. I also want them to feel like they belong to a community that supports and empowers one another.

Our classes develop a sense of camaraderie because students have completed something that has challenged them and made them aware of their limits. We have also shown them what they need to do to surpass those limits. When all is said and done, I want our students to hold themselves accountable. At a minimum, we want Sheepdogs to accept responsibility for taking care of themselves and their families. That in of itself makes them a better part of the community and demonstrates a lot of social responsibility.

What first steps should someone take to become a Sheepdog?

You can’t grow if you don’t challenge yourself and take risks. The only way to improve is to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. You have to take risks — even if you suck. Everyone has to start somewhere. Just don’t give up. I think an important first step is actually to take the first step. Don’t talk about it. Don’t plan it. Just do it.

For example, there is so much talk about social responsibility these days without people actually equipping themselves to be socially responsible. Posting about your issues on social media is not sufficient. You have to put your words into action. What are you doing, as an individual, to make the world a better place?

I’m not talking about fixing huge issues here. Just start with the little ones where you can actually have a positive impact. For instance, if you’re in a restaurant and a baby begins choking, can you help? Or do you panic and wait for someone else to step in while you watch the baby turn purple? It all goes back to the Sheepdog Response mindset: Are you an asset or a liability? I want our students to be assets.

I think that just being able to attend our Women’s Self Defense course and getting through it is something that goes a long ways toward building a woman’s self-confidence. Completing that course creates such a strong sense of accomplishment and pride. Making it through something you suck at gives you a far greater sense of accomplishment than breezing through an easy course. And perhaps more importantly, students need to understand that completing our course is just the beginning. It’s the tip of the iceberg. Their training has to continue. It’s a lifelong path.