“A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.”
~ William Shakespeare
In my professional life, my focus has been helping people who are dissatisfied with their Dogs. Most often we lay the blame at the Dog’s feet. The common thought is that “lack of training” is the cause, and that is why my clients initially seek out Dog trainers, behaviorists, and other professionals. Whether they look for the so-called “positive only” trainers (which is really a misnomer) or more traditional dominance-based trainers, or behavior “modification” trainers, the truth is that they are barking up the wrong tree. Focusing on the Dog’s behavior and taking a reductionist rather than a holistic approach is the problem, not the solution. The truth is, the problem lies in how we relate to each other, not in how our Dogs behave.
Furthermore, it is obvious that traditional mechanistic approaches to behavior have failed. Yes, there are many “trained” Dogs out there, but at the same time the animal shelters and rescue organizations are overflowing. Many of the Dogs that are surrendered are also well-trained, yet they suffer and die in these shelters every day. In addition, there are an untold number of neglected and abused Dogs that go unreported in homes that once had high hopes for a successful relationship.
What we need is a new paradigm. We need to grow our friendships organically and naturally, rather than attempting to manufacture them artificially. The Path of Friendship is a naturalization of this important relationship. It grows the friendship from the inside-out, organically, as a fruit tree grows from the ground. From seed to fruit, our friendship with our Dogs develops inherently and naturally.
As in all growth, we begin with a seed. This is the seed of Faith. It is faith in our Dogs, faith in ourselves, and faith in our friendship, which has been a part of Human/Dog existence for tens of thousands of years. It is the unshakable belief that our relationship with our Dogs will grow to its fullest, in spite of any obstacles that may arise. This is different than hope, which contains a bit of uncertainty. Faith has no room for doubt and uncertainty. With out this faith, the relationship is doomed before it even begins to sprout.
The ground in which we plant this seed of faith must be firm and rich. This is our Commitment to our relationship with our Dogs. Commitment is the “terra firma” in which the friendship grows, with the emphasis on “firma”. All growth will face difficulties and obstacles. If we give up when problems arise, we will never enjoy the sweet fruit of a successful friendship. Our commitment to our Dogs and our friendship must be unshakable. “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” should be our mantra. When we walk the Path of Friendship with our Dogs, the ground beneath our feet must be firm and true. Otherwise, we can never progress along the path.
A tree cannot survive a storm unless it has deep roots. This is our unconditional love and acceptance for our Dogs. When we make our love for our Dogs contingent on “good behavior” (whatever that means) or obedience, we create insecurity, anxiety and detachment. Techniques such as love withdrawal, time-outs, and other Skinnerian-based manipulations may serve to gain control, but do so at the expense of connection. When we tell our Dogs, “I’ll only love you if…”, if they obey our commands, if they behave they way we want them to…, then our Dogs learn that the friendship is not with who they are, but only with what they do. This destroys their spirit, and prevents us from experiencing a relationship and a friendship that is deep and nourishing to our souls. As friends, we must strive to be each other’s sanctuary.
From these strong roots, a tree grows big and strong, provided it has the space to grow. When we micro-manage our Dogs behavior we never allow them the freedom to be who they are. We must support their autonomy and give them the room to grow and become themselves. All life strives for self-determination and self-realization. If freedom is restricted, we create an atmosphere of oppression, divisiveness and depression. As Leo Buscaglia once said, “Nothing can grow in the shade.” Our Dogs must be free to make their own choices and to be themselves in most situations. If we only want to share our life with a Dog to feed our lust for control, we’d be better off buying a robot. Of course, when their safety or happiness is in jeopardy, we can guide them on how to be safe. But they must also know that they are free to make choices. When our Dogs feel constantly manipulated and controlled by us, resentment, fear and insecurity arise. Autonomy is not capricious individualization. It is the freedom to be one’s self in the context of cooperation with others. Which brings us to the next part:
If we are to grow deep and meaningful friendships with our Dogs, we must live in an environment of collaboration and cooperation. We must respectfully integrate with each other. As our Dogs are enjoying the freedom to branch out and be themselves, we must also be able to enjoy the same freedom. Therefore, we need to communicate boundaries and limits to each other. There will be times when each of us must say “No” to something. Teaching our Dogs to respect what is important to us, AND learning to respect what is important to our Dogs is essential if we want our friendship to grow. We must help each other become good friends, and learn to be sensitive and receptive to each other’s needs. This is based on equality, rather than a top-down, “I am always the boss” relationship. If there is no equality, there is no true friendship. When the relationship is unequal, what we may call a “friendship” is really “ownership”. Setting limits and boundaries are what enables us and our Dogs the freedom to be ourselves within the context of a friendship. If we are equal partners, we must respect and integrate with each other.
Our Dogs and us have very different skill sets. Although we are equal members of our friendship, we are not the same in terms of understanding and ability. This difference is why we fit together so well, and have enjoyed an inter-species relationship for thousands of years. When we share our wisdom and learn to give each other compassionate guidance, we nourish this friendship so it can grow and thrive. Our motivation for this must be for the benefit and growth of the other, and not for our own selfish desires. Trusting each other’s abilities is essential. We must aim to help each other self-actualize and become fully functioning individuals. If my Dog does not understand that a speeding car is dangerous, then as a friend I will share my wisdom with her and give her guidance on how to be safe. In turn, when I become lost on a backwoods trail, I will trust my Dog’s wisdom and take her guidance on how to find my way home. This is what true friendship is all about. It is not about obedience, compliance, and self-serving/selfish desires. It is about two individuals helping each other thrive and become fully functioning individuals..
When we have a seed of faith, plant it on the soil of commitment, have the roots of unconditional love and devotion, allow the trunk the freedom to grow, integrate with branches of respect, nourish each other with leaves of wisdom and compassionate guidance, the our friendship will grow to fruition and we will enjoy the fruit of kenzoku, which is the Japanese word for a deep, connected and self-transcendent friendship. This organically grown friendship is not always free from difficulties and problems, but those obstacles are never the cause of despair. We learn to join with our Dogs to work through those difficult times together, as friends. The goal becomes to deepen the friendship, not to control each other. This is what being true friends really means. And each time we savor the fruit of our relationship, we find that it continues to deepen and grow as we walk the Path of Friendship with our Dogs together.
“If control is your goal, you’ll empty their soul; but if love’s what you nourish, their spirit will flourish.”