Truly Know Each Other, Part 1: The Limits of Classification


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

Ms. G. contacted me about her dog, Max. “I’m at my wit’s end,” she said. “I’m about to surrender him to the shelter. He keeps biting me.”

I sat down with Ms. G. and asked her to tell me about her Dog. She had previously worked with a Dog trainer and then with an animal behaviorist, and proceeded to share a litany of classifications that they had told her Max “is”:

“He’s a Schnauzer mix, he’s a male, he has fear aggression, separation anxiety and resource guarding. He is also shy, sneaky and spiteful. I also think he is stupid. His name is Max.”

As I looked down, sleeping peacefully under my chair was Max. He was lying there quietly and seemed to be completely oblivious to the boxes he had been put in.

I gave Ms. G an exercise that I often have my clients do. I had her print out a photograph of Max, then with a felt-tipped marker write every name, label and classification she had for Max right over his photograph. She agreed. Once she was done, we both looked at the result. Neither of us could see Max anymore, just the words and labels she had given him.

I then turned her attention to the small, sleeping Dog lying at her feet. “Point to the resource guarding,” I said. “Show me where the fear aggression, separation anxiety and hyperactivity is on Max so I can remove them.”

“He’s not being that right now,” she said. “He’s only that way sometimes.”

To have a deep friendship with our Dogs, to achieve Kenzoku, we have to know and understand each other on the deepest of levels. However, sometimes our understanding never gets beyond the surface and we miss the opportunity to have that deep connection.

In Buddhism, it is said that there are three levels of wisdom:

    1. sutamayi panna (wisdom that is only heard).
    2. cintanmayi panna (wisdom gained by thinking, analyzing, pondering).
    3. bhavnamayi panna (experiential wisdom).

I have slightly modified these three types to better reflect the way we connect with our Dogs, and to help us to become better friends and achieve kenzoku. My revisions of the three types of wisdom in the Path of Friendship are the Three Levels of Understanding:

    1. Classification (names, labels, categories).
    2. Observation (what we see and hear without judgements, purely empirical).
    3. Participation. (empathy and affectation, shared experience).

Each level brings us closer to and more connected with our Dogs. This article will focus on Classification – its benefits and its shortcomings.

Many of us love to put labels on everything. It helps us to categorize, classify, and control our environment. It is a very useful tool for communication, but unfortunately it also can create the walls and barriers that separate us. There is the tendency to confuse the symbol with the actual substance and so we often have only a one-dimensional perception of our world. Our descriptions defy our experience. It’s like reading a menu — no matter how well the meal is described, it will never come close to the actual experience of tasting the food in our mouths.

When it comes to our Dogs, being able to classify and label them may make us feel a bit better or smarter for the moment, but it does nothing to help our relationship with our Dogs. After all, our Dogs aren’t classifying or naming things the way that we do. They are simply experiencing their lives without trying to fit it into neat, predetermined categories.

When Ms. G. was telling me about Max, she wasn’t really seeing him at all; only the labels she had assigned to him. This prevented her from achieving the relationship she really wanted with Max, that of a close and connected friend. Her labels only served to keep them apart.

I asked Ms. G. to describe what Max was actually doing during the times she had issues with him. I also asked her how she thought Max was feeling, and how she felt during those instances. After a lengthy conversation, we both agreed that Max was not being fearful at all, but she was feeling anxious. We then set up situations that were “problematic” between Ms. G. and Max, and watched what he did without the filter of these predetermined labels. I observed as Ms. G. saw Max for the very first time, with an open mind, without the prejudices and assumptions she previously had. After a few minutes, Max began acting differently. He was looking at her more and was asking for attention, where he previously would turn away and growl. “That’s the Max I know and love!” exclaimed Ms. G.

What had changed? Did Max finally feel as if he was being seen for who he was, rather than the labels that were upon on him? Perhaps. Was this the answer to all the difficulties? No, not at all. Ms. G. and Max still have a long way to go. However, this is an excellent beginning. Now that they have removed the labels and Ms. G. had taken Max out of the boxes she had put him in, they could begin to work toward a connected and fulfilling friendship.

I am not advocating the complete elimination of classification and categorization. They can be very valuable in determining the right course of action at times. However, when we see only the labels and don’t see our Dogs as ever-changing, multidimensional and complex beings — like ourselves — then we won’t really see our Dogs at all.

In part two, we will discuss the next level of knowing each other: Observation.

It's only fair to share...Share on Facebook
Tweet about this on Twitter
Share on LinkedIn
Share on Reddit

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.

One thought on “Truly Know Each Other, Part 1: The Limits of Classification”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: