“The only way to have a friend is to be one.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
O.K., lets get the jokes out of the way. This is not about finding your “sole” mate, nor am I writing this just for the “halibut”. This is about the qualities and character traits we should cultivate in ourselves if we are to have a genuine friendship with our Dogs. Too often, the focus is on changing and controlling our Dogs, yet the “fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves”, as Shakespeare so eloquently said. And what I mean by this is not our lack of skilled technique. Anyone can easily learn the correct way to hold a leash, have the correct timing to offer a treat, etc. Although many Dog trainers claim superiority in finessing these, it is easily mastered by everyone. What I’m referring to is more about who you are, not what you do. The wisdom of Emerson’s words could not be more appropriate. If we want our Dogs to be good friends with us, and everything that entails, then we must first be good friends with them.
Back when I studied Eastern philosophy, mindfulness and martial arts in the 1990’s and early 2000’s with a Taoist and Zen priest, he would always tell his students: “If you want to have equanimity and connection of mind, body and spirit, you must be a FISH”. His acronym stands for:
Throughout my life and my work I have tried to live up to his teachings, most recently applying it to my relationship with my own Dogs. As you know from reading my blog posts, the highest ideal anyone can achieve with their Dog is that of a deeply connected friendship. This is more valuable than machine or puppet-like control that many professionals attempt with coercion or through manipulation. In order to cultivate this kind of friendship, we have to cultivate these qualities in ourselves – we must be a FISH.
This means to be open-minded, accepting and creative in our relationship with our Dogs. If we take the stand that “one-size-fits-all”, then we do a great disservice to our friends. Each Dog is unique and special; they don’t all act, think, nor feel the same as if they were mass-produced on an assembly line. Genetics will play a role, but only so far as experience and how those genes are turned on and off by experience – not just from the Dog herself, but from the experiences of her mother and father. The growing science of epigenetics is a fascinating look at what can influence an organism’s behavior, appearance, health, etc. without alterations to their DNA. In other words, just because you have a German Shepherd, does not mean he will act the same as every other German Shepherd. That’s just putting your Dog in a box and not really knowing your Dog.
This has several meanings. First, it means being honest with your Dog and not resorting to manipulation or “tricks” to get her to cooperate. When we try to fool our dogs, such as when we call them to us using a treat so we can stuff them into a crate, we destroy any trust they have in us. Eventually, everything we say will become a case of “crying wolf”.
Integrity means also being true to our mission of growing a friendship between us that becomes a mutual sanctuary. We must never lose sight of this goal, especially when the lure of quick control is before us. We must remember to never sacrifice connection for control. Integrity is total commitment, unconditional love, and complete devotion to our Dogs and to our friendship.
If we are to achieve a deep connection with our Dogs, then we must be keenly aware of both our feelings and behaviors and our Dog’s feelings and behaviors, moment by moment. A friendship is about creating a dialogue where both friends are fully heard, validated and acknowledged, and not a monologue or a lecture. This requires constant feedback and stepping out of our own way on occasion to put ourselves in our Dog’s “shoes”. Sensitivity is having an empathic relationship. Our Dogs are pre-wired for this, and we must cultivate this in them as well as in ourselves. Exercises such as Shared Mindfulness can help with this.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the experts mind there are few.” These words, by the great Zen scholar Shunyru Suzuki, clearly define the principle of Humility. All too often we take the stance that we always know what is best for our Dogs. We micro-manage every aspect of their lives, not allowing them to fully be themselves. We are influenced by social media, movies and even so-called professionals who preach that in order for our Dogs to be “good citizens”, they must behave and feel a certain pre-determined way. This is utter nonsense, and at times it can be cruel and abusive. Our Dogs are sometimes wiser, more sensitive and often have better judgement that we have. If we are to have a true friendship with our Dogs, we have to step back and allow them to be themselves at times. We must realize we don’t always know what is best for them. We must give them respect and support their autonomy. Dogs are not empty-headed blank slates, or “tabula rasa” as the philosopher John Locke stated. Nor are they just puppets to be manipulated as many Skinnerian behaviorists and trainers claim. They are multi-dimensional, thinking, feeling beings that strive, (just as we do) for self fulfillment and realization. Humility is accepting our Dogs for the amazing creatures that are, and not always looking to change them. We don’t have all the answers, and we don’t need to always be in control. That is not what a friendship is. Friendship can only grow in an environment of collaboration and cooperation. Sometimes, the best way to move forward in a friendship is to be humble enough to take a step back.
A true and fully connected friendship can only occur between two fully functioning individuals. As we strive to help our Dogs become better friends to us, we must equally strive to become better friends to them. This means cultivating the qualities in ourselves that will help us to realize that goal. Humans and Dogs have a unique relationship, one that is unparalleled in the history of the universe. It is a precious connection that should be cherished and developed, and never taken for granted. And that’s no “fish-story”.