“A tree with strong roots laughs at storms.”
~ Malaysian proverb
Great relationships are not made, they are grown. They are not an assemblage of various replaceable parts, but rather an organic and holistic process where each part contains the whole. Our friendships with our Dogs grow the way a Tree grows: with roots of devotion, a trunk of respect, branches of understanding and leaves of compassion to bear the fruit of true friendship, or what is known in Japanese as Kenzoku. In my next few blog posts, I will be discussing what anchors our friendships together: the Roots of Devotion.
There are four roots of devotion:
1. Devotion of Heart.
2. Devotion of Spirit.
3. Devotion of Mind.
4. Devotion of Time.
This essay will focus on the first root: Devotion of the Heart.
We all love our dogs, no doubt, but how much of that love is actually experienced by our dogs? Devotion of heart means unconditional love. This means loving your dog for who they are, not just what they do. Our dogs need to have a secure attachment with us that is not dependent on them behaving in certain predetermined ways. That is conditional love, which has been shown to increase stress and anxiety in children, and most certainly the same will apply to our dogs. Conditional love, or what has been referred to as outcome love sends the message that who our Dogs are is not worthy of our acceptance and affection. That their natural impulses and behaviors are inadequate, and only when they act according to our expectations will we accept them and love them. That is not deep and genuine love; it is merely surface approval. Conditional love is a barrier that separates us from our Dogs. It only serves as a tool of manipulation and creates emotional hunger. When love is doled out as a reward like a biscuit, I have seen it create everything from separation anxiety to an extreme “addiction” to control. The Dog feels as if she must constantly seek approval from her owner in order to feel safe and secure. Unfortunately, many popular Dog training methods utilize this behavioristic/mechanistic approach. They tout “positive motivation” as the only humane way of controlling a Dog’s behavior. What they don’t see, however, is the emotional toll it is taking on the Dog, and how it may create anxiety and it’s resultant behaviors problems.
Maggie is a two year old Labradoodle with extreme separation anxiety and is very manipulative and controlling of her owner, Beth. When I first arrived at the home, Maggie would stand back from me and bark, and when I would reach out my hand she would back away and attempt to hide.
After some time, and allowing Maggie to investigate me on her own terms, she allowed me to pet her. At that point, when I would stop the attention, she would sit in front of me and bark. If I ignored this, she would jump on me and paw at me, demanding my acknowledgement. This was exactly the behavior she would exhibit to Beth on a daily basis.
During my discussion with Beth, I had discovered that Maggie had attended a local Dog training class that promoted only showing affection and love when the Dog would perform specific tasks. Otherwise, Beth was instructed to ignore Maggie.
Maggie learned her Sit/Stay’s and other obedience commands well. However, Maggie developed an insecure attachment to Beth who would only be loving during training exercises, as instructed. Therefore, Maggie learned that in order to receive love, she needed to perform. This led to her “pushing” her control to Beth every time she wanted reassurance and attention, and when faced with an unpredictable encounter, i.e. a stranger, she would become anxious because she was unsure how to perform for them. In addition, when she was left alone and not in control, her anxiety level would skyrocket – she would feel very unsafe without the constant reassurance she needed from Beth. Maggie had learned that Beth’s love was conditional, and she felt she had to continually prover herself worthy of it.
Fortunately, this situation can be reversed, and Maggie and Beth are well on their way to becoming secure friends.
Unconditional love is not just an idea or a feeling. It is action. It is showing our Dogs affection without expecting anything in return. It is petting them, kissing them and looking into their eyes (which has been shown to release oxytocin, the “love hormone”) and smiling at them (it has been shown that Dogs understand Human facial expressions.) It is talking to them, giving them a treat – not because they did anything for us, but just because they are. We can remind our Dogs daily that they matter deeply with our gestures, expressions and actions. This love-without-condition binds you and your Dog together as friends. As Buckminster Fuller said, “Love is metaphysical gravity”.
Of course, unconditional love is not the same as absolute permissiveness. As friends, we need to mentor each other and share our individual wisdom. That will be discussed in an upcoming post. However, without a strong foundation rooted in unconditional love, that wisdom becomes purely cognitive and the emotional security is absent. In other words, if the emotional roots are not deep, the tree will topple over even from the slightest storm. But if the attachment is secure, than even a hurricane can not uproot the friendship. This requires a strong commitment from the human. It requires a Devotion of Spirit, the second Root of Devotion which we will discuss in the next blog.