I became more fully human and more connected with my dog the day I stopped seeing him as my dog and began my seeing him as my friend. When I gave up being my dog’s leader, master, and trainer and started treating him as my equal, all the challenges we had between us quickly resolved. We understood, respected, and trusted each other on a whole new level. It was as if a barrier between us had been removed.
When I was a child I was fortunate to grow up with dogs in my life. My folks were dog lovers who always included a dog or two as part of our family. My dogs were my playmates and best buddies. It wasn’t as if I didn’t have human friends growing up, but the bond I had with my dogs went much deeper. They were my trusted confidants and kindred spirits. I never felt the need to “get control” of my dogs. As friends, we related to each other in the spirit of respect, cooperation and trust. Although we were different, we saw each other as equals, and our friendship was natural and effortless. I thought this was the way everyone and their dogs related to one another.
Eventually, I grew up and began learning the so-called “correct” way to see my dogs. Many of my teachers at that time advised me to put away “childish thoughts” and adopt a more popular and acceptable view of the dog/human relationship. Even though it felt wrong, I carried this mindset into adulthood and eventually made it my career. Fortunately, years later I rediscovered the simple and empowering relationship with my dogs that I had when I was younger. I ultimately rejected the idea that dogs need to be manipulated or dominated, and that just being a “dog” wasn’t good enough. I returned to my childhood roots with dogs and loved them for who they are – not just what I wanted them to be.
My education in psychology and my professional career as an animal behavior consultant for the past 33 years has helped me understand many of the challenges of the human/dog relationship. Throughout my long career I have studied and worked with the gamut of behavior theories and have explored all the different models and latest “fads” of training, from pure dominance to pure positive reinforcement. However, in all that time I always felt that something was missing. All the techniques and theories seemed to fall short of that pure and natural connection I had with my dog when I was a child. What I discovered was that all of these models had the same goal: control. They may talk about friendship, but their doctrines don’t reflect their rhetoric. They focus mostly on technique rather than relationship, and instead of bringing you and your dog closer together, they build walls and create greater distance between you. These theories often put you in opposition to your dog and reduce your relationship to methods of manipulation. Controlling your dog becomes a higher priority than the friendship, and that pure and natural connection is nowhere to be found. I knew there had to be a better way.
Although I spent over three decades working with people and their dogs’ behavior, it’s my 40 years as a student of Eastern thought, and as a mindfulness teacher to corporations, universities and individuals, that has brought me face to face with the true nature of dogs and our relationship with them. Mindfulness is the present moment awareness of feelings, thoughts, emotions and surroundings. It provides insight into thought processes, emotional states and habitual behaviors. It takes us from our symbolic representation of world to a moment by moment experience. Rather than becoming lost in what was or what might be, we find ourselves immersed in what is. This is precisely how a dog understands her world. She lives in the here and now. She is greatly aware of each moment’s experience and doesn’t live in the world of constant thought as we do. It is precisely this difference in perception that make humans and dogs such natural and trusted friends.
As human beings, we are skilled in seeing the “big picture” and our dogs are equally skilled in noticing the detail. In fact, according to evolutionary psychologist Colin Groves, both our brains and our dogs’ brains have evolved together to support each other’s worldview.* We fit together like two halves of the same whole. The Path of Friendship is a synergistic union of my two life’s paths as an animal behavior consultant and a mindfulness teacher that supports and expands on this idea.
The Path of Friendship, which is more of a lifestyle than a method or technique, removes the artificial barriers we create between us and our dogs. It helps us grow as individuals and grow together with our dogs in a deeply connected and self-transcendent relationship. Rather than focusing only on behavior modification and obedience training, Path of Friendship opens the lines of communication so we can experience and harmonize each other’s perspective. It is a relationship that is simple and effortless. It’s a connection with our dogs where our values are aligned and our differences respected. There is no need for bribery or coercion, just mutual respect and trust. We develop total faith in each other. We see that we are really two parts of one whole and we become kindred spirits. The Japanese have a word for this type of relationship: “Kenzoku”. The goal of Path of Friendship is Kenzoku.
This is the way it was always supposed to be. Every child knows this – and I believe that when we look into our dog’s heart and soul, we will rediscover this natural connection. It is a part of who we are as human beings and who our dogs are as dogs. I can honestly say that the deeper my friendship is with my dogs and the more we see each other as equal partners on the Path, the more fully human I’ve become.
In the weeks and months to come, we will explore this path more completely. We’ll discuss the principles of the Path of Friendship and how it can bring you and your dog to a closer and more empowering relationship. I look forward to walking the Path with you and your dog, and I hope to help you and your dog become Kenzoku.