“Ideas are clean. They soar in the serene supernal. I can take them out and look at them, they fit in books, they lead me down that narrow way. And in the morning they are there. Ideas are straight- But the world is round, and a messy mortal is my friend.
Come walk with me in the mud…..”
In my last two blog posts, I shared ways for you and your dog to truly know each other. First, we talked about how the over use of classification, labeling and categorizing our dogs creates not only a deep chasm between us, but prevents us from really seeing each other for who we are. I also suggested adopting a “beginner’s mind” with our dogs; viewing them without preconceived ideas, prejudices or expectations; seeing them as ever changing, in constant flux and unique. Today, I’ll talk about the final and most effective way to truly know each other: Participation. If you want to truly know your dog, you must be more than an observer, you must be an active participant. True friendship is not a spectator sport.
In order to have a fully functioning and fully connected friendship with our dogs, we must strive to remove the artificially imposed barriers between us. In the beginning, humans and dogs shared a mutual domestication (Schleidt, Shalter), and we enjoyed a participatory relationship. We were hunting partners, companions and friends. It was an equal and horizontal relationship, rather than a top down, dog-serving-human relationship.
We had an intersubjective connection. Intersubjectivity is defined as: “The sharing of subjective states by two or more individuals.” (Scheff). In other words, participating in shared attention, emotional attunement and shared purpose. This is precisely what we want to experience with our dogs, but popular models of human/dog relationships fail to recreate this experience. Even some professionals who have attempted to move away from traditional dominance based-relationships still fall far short of achieving true friendship.
Much has been written about “reward-based” training and becoming aware of your dog’s feelings, and while that sentiment is on the right track, it is being exploited and distorted in order to “gain control” of our dogs. It is, in a way, what con-men do to gain trust; still nothing more and nothing less than manipulation. This is not what we should be doing with our friends. This is not participation.
Participation with our dogs is not simply taking them to the dog park and watching them play. Nor is it engaging in activities such as Agility training, where we set the rules and “train” our dogs to comply. True participation is joining in with your dog and making the rules together. It is seeing the world through your dog’s eyes, and having her see the world through yours.
There are a few ways we can begin to get a feel for who our dogs really are with some basic participatory exercises. The first is quite simple. Just spend a few hours doing exactly what your dog wants to do. Rather than you always calling the shots, let your dog be “King or Queen for a Day”. If they nap, then you nap with them. If they want to go outside, follow them out and explore where they explore. If they want to play, let them make the rules. We have become obsessed with always being in control, but true friends share experiences. Try not to judge their behavior, and be open to the new experience. This can sometimes lead to unexpected benefits. Once, while I was participating in my dog Cosmo’s explorations (following him in the woods), I found a platinum ring that I still wear to this day.
Another way to actively participate with your dog is Shared Mindfulness, especially awareness of the breath, called “anapanasati”. I have written a blog post about this and how to do it here.
This was recently the subject of an article in the New Jersey Bergen Record.
The best and simplest way to join with your dog is to have a attitudinal shift. Rather than assuming we are superior to our dogs, we need to always remind ourselves that although we are different, we are still equal. Equality removes all barriers. A great exercise to help with this is the “Just Like Me” exercise that was created by the buddhist monk Pema Chodron, and that I learned from my time at Karme Choling Meditation Center in Vermont. Although it is designed to help people have more empathy for one another, it can equally be applied to our dogs. It has been established in the scientific community that dogs (as well as every other non-human) have a full spectrum of feelings and emotions. By looking at your dog and saying to yourself, “Just like me, my dog is feeling sadness….”, or “Just like me, my dog is experiencing joy…”, we can attune our affect (emotional state) to theirs, and thus participate in their inner most domain: how they feel.
Full involvement in our dog’s lives can bring a whole new dimension to our friendship. It brings us face to face and heart to heart, and doesn’t allow room for self-serving relational models. Participation is the only path to a fully functioning and deeply connected friendship. It is the only way to Kenzoku.