Is Your Relationship With Your Dog Dysfunctional?

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Many people have a dysfunctional relationship with their dog and frankly are not even aware of it. Our relationships can be off-balance and unequal. This inequality creates conflicts between us and can actually build a barrier that prevents us from achieving a true friendship. Kenzoku, the Japanese word for ultimate harmonious and empowering friendship, can only occur between two fully functioning, equal individuals. True friendship can never grow on uneven ground.

I know that the basic assumption of everyone who owns a dog is that we (humans) need to be in charge. This is so ingrained into our culture that to speak otherwise borders on blasphemy. It goes against the grain of everything we’ve learned.

In truth, the assumption that we must always be “in charge” is a distortion of how it was in the beginning with our dogs. Humans and dogs started out as equal partners around 30,000 to 40,000 years ago. We helped them and they helped us. We respected each other’s unique skill sets and this partnership soon developed into a friendship. When and where this friendship became so distorted that it developed into a “master/subservient” relationship, I’m not sure. Maybe it just was part of the must control everything attitude that we human beings hold on to. And yet, this is our present mindset.

Speak with any trainer, whether they are of the “positive reinforcement” method or the “dominance” (really just negative reinforcement) method, and the one thing they can agree upon is the we need to be the boss, the leader, the master. I find this is destructive to the connection that we can all have with our dogs. In fact, equality is the second principle of the Path of Friendship™: Regard Each Other as Equals.

To be clear, when I speak about “equality,” I am not confusing it with “sameness.” I realize that human beings and dogs are vastly different from each other. This is what makes our relationship so special. However, instead of viewing these differences as if one is superior to the other, we should be celebrating and embracing how they complement each other.

We are like two pieces of one puzzle. Our brains are designed to see the “big picture”. We are great at abstract thought and thinking many steps ahead of dogs. A dog’s brain is skilled at detail work. They are much more tuned into the present moment. In fact, as humans and dogs evolved together, our brains adapted to accommodate each other. The part of our brain that had specialized in detail work shrunk by about ten percent because we had dogs to do that thinking for us. The part of a dog’s brain that specialized in seeing the “big picture” shrunk by about twenty percent, because they had we humans to do that for them. We became two halves of one whole.

In spite of the common mindset, I think that most of us still yearn for this equal partnership and friendship. We still feel that we and our dogs share a special bond that becomes diminished when we see ourselves or our dogs as superior or inferior. This is evident from the stories in popular books and films about dogs who joined us in this friendship without us trying to take control. Marley and Me, Old Yeller, Call of the Wild, are a few that come to mind. Many will say that believing in equality between us is anthropomorphizing dogs, as if we are trying to make them into humans. Absolutely not. As I said, we should celebrate the differences. However, neither of us is superior to the other. As much as dogs can learn from us on how to live and thrive in our world, we have as much to learn from them as well. We can guide them with our ability to see far reaching consequences of actions, such as chasing a squirrel into the street can result in getttin them killed by a car. They can guide us to find joy and wonder in each moment, so that our lives won’t pass by so quickly. We are different, but equal. Specifically, there is no boss, no master; only good friends that trust and respect each other.

Our own feeling of inequality with our dogs can be revealed by discovering where we fit on what I call the “Inequality Triangle”, which is is based on Stephen Karpman’s “Drama Triangle”. Karpman was a student on Dr. Eric Berne, who was the father of Transactional Analysis, an idea that gained popularity in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I think his model of conflict in relationships is very fitting when discussing the relationship we have with our dogs.

When there is inequality in our relationship with our dogs, we usually fall into one of these three roles:

The Inequality Triangle

The Victim feels powerless with their dog. It’s often the “poor me” attitude when the dog does not act in a way that’s respectful or cooperative. Victims often feel persecuted by their dogs. They take their dog’s behavior personally, as if it were done with the intention of getting even or for spite. They often ask the question, “Why are you doing this to me?” It puts your dog above you in power, and the result is an unequal partnership.

The Rescuer sounds like that would be a good thing to be, but it’s not. Rescuers are often enablers. They feel the relationship has value only when the dog needs them. If the dog becomes confident and healthy they no longer feel needed. The rescuer gets an enormous ego boost from their position of superiority as long as the dog remains a victim and that they are the ones to “save”. Rescuers often project their own needs onto the dog, assuming that they always know better. “Kindly let me help you or you’ll drown”, said the monkey putting the fish safely up a tree.

The Controller (called Persecutor in the original Karpman triangle) always needs to
be in control. The Controller is in charge and the dog is not. Period. It is not a partnership, it’s a dictatorship. Whether she achieves this through dominance (intimidation) or positive reinforcement (manipulation), the idea of being the Controller remains the same. They see the human as supreme leader and the dog as lowly follower. There is no equality, therefore a true and deep friendship can never grow.

Regarding yourself and your dog as equals is really the key to achieving a fully functioning and healthy relationship. It is only in this place of equality that mutual trust and respect can grow and flourish. As long as we appreciate and respect our differences and learn to harmonize them, we can enjoy our relationship the way we were always supposed to: as friends, partners and kenzoku.

“Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead. Just walk beside me and be my friend.”
~ Albert Camus



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Author: Path of Friendship™

Corey Cohen is an animal behaviorist, mindfulness and emotional intelligence instructor with over 33 years of helping people connect to their dogs on a deeper level. His unique Mindfulness-Based Animal Behavior Therapy™ and his Path of Friendship™ programs are inspiring alternatives to standard dog training. His mindfulness seminars for individuals, universities, wellness centers, and top corporations has helped reduce stress and anxiety and given people a fresh perspective on life. He is the owner of A New Leash on Life Animal Behavior Services in Northeastern PA and Northern NJ. He’s also the owner of Awakenings Meditation in Northeastern PA.

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