How Well Do You Really Know Your Dog?

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“To truly understand your dog, you must go from the level of the observer to becoming a participant in the experience.”

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.”
~ Helen Keller

Someone called me the other day and asked, “Do you work with German shepherds?”
“Of course!” I said, “I work with all dogs.”
“But shepherds are different,” she insisted.

This woman was falling into the trap of thinking only about names and labels, and failed to really know her particular dog. She was under the assumption that all German shepherds were exactly same, as if they had been mass produced in a factory with strict quality control guidelines. She wasn’t able to see beyond the packaging and the labels and get to understand the individuality of her own dog.

This is a trap many of us fall into. We spend endless hours reading and researching and we love to categorize, compartmentalize and label behaviors such as “aggressive,” “shy,” “fearful,” “alpha.” I could go on and on with the list of nouns I have heard people, even dog professionals, use to describe their dogs. Although this labeling system can be a useful tool, often it is misused. This is lazy and disrespectful to your dog. It puts him or her in a box where there is no escape. Your dog is much more than a word; a noun. If all you know about your dog is a list of nouns, then you don’t truly know your dog at all.

“The map is not the territory; the word is not the thing.”
~ Alfred Korzypski

A better way to understand your dog is to observe their actions. Put the labels and boxes away for a moment and see how they behave. Rather than say that your dog is “aggressive”, describe how they are acting. Use verbs rather than nouns. This is what I do when I meet with a client and their dog. I spend time interviewing them and trying to get past the labels and boxes they put their dogs into. When they say that their dog is aggressive, I ask then to be specific and describe exactly what happens. It often goes something like this:

Me: “Tell me about Ranger.”
Client: “Oh, he’s aggressive.” (Noun)
Me: “Tell me what you mean by that, describe specifically what he does and when.”
Client: “When I’m playing with him, he’ll sometimes bark and jump on me.” (Verb)

So, is Ranger aggressive, or is he acting aggressively during play? The mere fact that he’s making growling noises and jumping does not mean that he is an “aggressive dog.” Watch any two dogs play together and observe how they act. I doubt their are playing a quiet game of chess.

Describing how your dog acts gets you much closer to knowing who they really are. It goes beyond the surface, shallow labels and “bumper sticker” descriptions. My mother always used to tell me that “actions speak louder than words”, and when you want to really know your dog that wisdom still speaks true. However, if you want to achieve a deeper and more connected level of understanding, you must get to know your dog on an empathic level.

Using nouns and verbs to know your dog is not a fully accurate representation of their true self. The word, “re-present” describes exactly that. You are still only an observer of your dog, re-presenting what you experience with them to yourself in the form of symbolic language. Your dog is so much more than that. Words are static, lifeless and unchanging. You dog is a dynamic living being that changes moment by moment. The words only point the way; they are not the real experience. As the Zen saying goes, words are: “A finger pointing to the moon.”  If you only watch the finger, you’ll miss the moon.

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“Words are a finger pointing to the moon. If you only watch the finger, you’ll miss the moon.”

To truly understand your dog, you must go from the level of the observer to becoming a participant in the experience. Learn to experience not just who they are or what they do, but how they feel. This is the deepest and truest understanding you can achieve. This is how they know us. Studies, such as one done by Natalia Albuquerque, an ethologist who studies animal cognition at the University of São Paulo, have shown that dogs do have the ability to have emotions and empathy the same as we do. Our dogs are tuned into our feelings, not just our actions or labels. We can connect with them on their level of understanding with a bit of practice.

The first thing you can do is when you are with your dog is try to empathize with what they are feeling at that moment. Don’t be concerned with accuracy, or if you are right or wrong. Just use your imagination skills and try to feel their feelings. If you begin to label what those feelings are, such as “happy”, “sad”, “nervous”, etc, you are missing the point of the exercise. Simply try to feel as they feel. It will help bring you more into their realm of existence. Once you use symbols to describe the feelings, you are no longer a participant. Symbols are not reality. It’s like when you listen to music. When you are listening to music, it’s an experience. Once you try to describe it, no matter how accurate you may be, you’re only dancing around the edges, you’re not immersed or involved. Another example is trying to describe your favorite meal. The description can never be the same as eating the food and merging with the tastes, textures and smells. So, when you try to feel as your dog feels, forget all the nouns and verbs and try to get beneath the words to the reality of the experience. The more you practice this, the better you’ll become and the more connected to your dog you will be. This realm of experience is how they live day to day.

Another great way to connect with how your dog feels and truly know their real self is to practice Shared Mindfulness with them. Sitting quietly with them and sharing a meditative moment a few times a week will align your feelings with theirs unlike anything else. You can learn more about Shared Mindfulness with your dog by clicking here.

When you want to have a deeper friendship with your dog, you have to move past being a spectator and a commentator, and become actively and emotionally connected. This only occurs when you become an empathic participant. The bond of true friends goes far beyond words; far beyond just watching each other. It’s an unspoken merging of feelings and connecting heart to heart. This is Kenzoku, and this is the third principle of the Path of Friendship: Truly Know Each Other.

“Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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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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