Gates, doors and crates can separate us from our dogs, but often the greatest barrier between us is how we think about them.
“Barrier frustration” is a term used by dog trainers and behaviorists that describe the tension and stress a dog feels by being separated from what he wants to investigate and connect with. This often creates aggressive behaviors and can lead to anxiety issues for both the dog and their human friend. But there’s a bigger issue here. This very principle could describe how many people and their dogs go through life together, missing the incredible joys of a great relationship.
The Path of Friendship is devoted to helping people and their dogs achieve “kenzoku”, the Japanese word for a deeply connected, barrier free friendship. Kenzoku is the connection of two living beings on the deepest level; the natural relationship between humans and dogs, free of obstacles.
In my early years as a trainer and behaviorist, I unknowingly contributed to creating divisions between people and their dogs through traditional obedience training. And although it helped many people resolve some of the problems they had with their dogs, it never really opened up the lines of communication or connected them on the deepest of levels. It was only when I was faced with the life or death of my dog Cosmo that I learned how to remove those barriers, and began to see the truth of what a real friendship is. [read full story here]. Even now, with all the new research on animals and their connection to human beings, there are still popular beliefs about dogs which create barriers that block us from achieving kenzoku. The good news is that this connection is always present and we can remove the issues that get in the way, just as when there are clouds in the sky but the sun still shines behind them.
The first barrier that gets in the way of achieving kenzoku is the lack of complete commitment to each other. I am amazed at how many well-meaning people would give up their dogs if they didn’t behave “right”. While that attitude has kept me in business as a behaviorist for over 30 years, it actually sets up the relationship for failure. No wonder there are so many homeless animals. To remain committed, our friendship with our dogs must be a priority. Our dogs have to know that no matter what, we will still love them – even if they don’t conform to certain artificial standards on how a dog “should” behave. The security of knowing we love and accept them for who they are, and that we will never abandon them, can help turn a troubled relationship into a successful one.
The second barrier is the idea that somehow dogs must always be subservient. Many popular training models say the human is the boss and leader, while the dog obediently follows. While on the surface this may sound logical, I have discovered that this sets up a disconnect that creates more problems than it solves. As friends, there is no boss. It is a partnership where each member has their own set of skills, and trusts the guidance and advice of the other. Dogs are very adept in their ability to see, hear, smell and feel what’s around them. Many people trust their life and livelihood to their dog’s skill set and allow them to lead the way. Law enforcement dogs, search and rescue dogs, and even farm dogs all take the lead with their particular expertise. Only when we relate to each other with equal respect and compassion can we tear down this barrier that keeps us apart.
Regarding our dogs in a superficial way is another wall that needs to come down. It’s easy to label our dogs as “aggressive”, “fearful”, etc. However, this “box” we put them in is the biggest barrier of all and is a superficial understanding of who our dogs really are. It’s like confusing the description on a menu with the actual meal. We need to connect at the deepest level – the level of feelings and experience. Certainly, our dogs are much more than a name or a label. Dogs have similar feelings that we have, and they experience emotions in much the same way. Sharing feelings with our dogs and connecting on an empathic level and you will bring us one step closer to kenzoku.
Something else that keeps us apart is not allowing the other the space to grow. Micro-managing, manipulating and over-training our dog’s every behavior creates a rift in the friendship by stifling the innate need to become a whole and complete individual. We do this out of love and the desire to protect them. However, allowing our dogs the freedom to learn and explore life with our gentle guidance will give them the confidence they need to become fully-functioning beings. This will develop their character, not simply control what they do. As Leo Buscaglia once said, “Do not smother each other. No one can grow in the shade.”
Finally, one of the greatest barriers to kenzoku with our dogs is distraction. How often do we see people walking their dogs while scrolling through their social media posts on their smart phones, or absent-mindedly petting their dog while watching the latest miniseries on television? I admit I am guilty of this at times. Remarkably, our dogs are completely present each moment of their lives. When they are with us they are not thinking about anything else. They are connected to us at this very moment. This is something we can learn from and reciprocate. Our dog’s time with us is very limited, so being totally present with them is essential to achieving a deep friendship. Distraction is the biggest barrier to overcome, yet it is also the easiest one. I practice mindful breathing with my own dogs, talk to them often and take the time to listen to them. It is truly a joyous experience to be completely present with them, as they are with us. Kenzoku cannot happen without this present moment connection.
Walls and barriers create problems. Any time we separate ourselves from others (and especially our dogs) we create tension. Barrier frustration is not a new concept. It has been discussed by minds much greater than mine for centuries. There are two books I recommend taking a look at. In the first book by the mathematician G. Spencer Brown called “Laws Of Form”, he shows that by creating a single distinction and barrier, all the laws of science, philosophy, psychology and sociology flow out of it, along with all their associated problems. Another book, called “What Are You Doing In My Universe?” by Chuck Hillig, explores this duality and division from a more spiritual angle. Both these books are two examples that show how duality and separateness creates difficulties in life and with relationships. I believe this applies to the problem and frustration in many relationships between people and their dogs. It is easy to conclude, then, that by removing these divisions it will help us and our dogs achieve a deep level of connection and deep level of friendship. It will create kenzoku.
When we think about our dogs as an extension of ourselves and not an object that is separate or inferior, many of the problems with dogs will begin to disappear. The more we separate ourselves from them and see dogs as creatures that must to be controlled, the more we will be frustrated in our relationships with them. The Upanishads, a collection of ancient Hindu texts, say “Tat Tvam Asi”, which means “That art thou”. This is how I think about my own dogs, and is a relationship free from walls, barriers and division. It is the only path to kenzoku – the relationship our dogs and ourselves deserve.