“I am because we are.”
– Ubunto philosophy
Rather than giving our dogs a Time-Out when they act up, we should give them a Time-In.
When our dogs have a continued experience of attachment that is secure, they will change their basic “operating system” from Fear, (of not being in control, of relational severance) to an operating system of Faith (faith that things will be safe, faith that we will always be there for them). This is what friends do for each other. This is how we can help our dogs feel safe, secure, happy and loved, and as a result help them behave in a calm and confident manner.
A very common piece of advice many dog trainers and behaviorists give to their clients when the dog is acting up is to put them in a Time-Out. They suggest removing the dog from our presence by putting them in a crate, closing them off in a separate room, or simply banishing them from our presence in order to punish or control the dog.
In psychology, this is what’s know as a technique of “love-withdrawal”, and studies have shown this can damage confidence, drastically increase stress and stress hormones (such as cortisol), and have long-term detrimental effects on the relationships.
Advice like this basically says to our dogs: “You’re not worthy of my love you when you act this way, and I will only love you if you behave according to my standards.”
For many dogs, especially rescue dogs and dogs from shelters, this is particularly harmful to their psychological well-being, as these dogs have already suffered a number of severed relationships and relational trauma.
The goal of a Time-Out is to calm the dog down, and although it can have the effect of subduing the dog, they are far from being calm and relaxed. Instead of creating calm, it creates anxiety in the dog. The fear of losing the relationship they have with the person is too hard to bear, so they often just simply surrender. This is what psychologist Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness”. This feeling of having no control at all leads to anxiety and depression, especially with repeated instances. In many cases, it can put the dog into what’s known as “dorsal vagal shutdown”, where they basically give up. As a result, we have a seemingly calmer dog, but in reality we end up with a dog who has just “cried Uncle”. This is not how friends treat each other.
A better approach is based on the African philosophy of Ubuntu, which means “shared personhood” (shared humanity). It states: “I am because we are.” This is a philosophy of equality and inclusion; that we are in this together as friends, not as a hierarchical, punishment or reward based transaction.
With Ubuntu, when someone does something wrong, rather than punishing them by rejecting them and withdrawing love, love is given in abundance. They are taken to the center of the village and reminded of how valued and wanted they are, and of all the good things they have done. This helps them feel safe, secure and loved. Their disruptive behavior is recognized as a cry for help, and they are reminded that they will always have the village’s support. This is precisely what a Time-In is.
In the lingo of polyvagal theory, we must help our dogs change their [behavior] patterns of protection into [behavior] patterns of connection. When our dogs behave in a way that is disrespectful or inconsiderate, our job is to help them feel safe, secure and loved. We must remember that our dog’s behavior is really a symptom of an underlying problem – most often a feeling of insecurity or unsafety. Shunning them will only add to their fear and anxiety. We want to stay with our dogs, and remind them they are valued and accepted.
To facilitate this, stay with them and involve their Social Engagement System, consisting of tone of voice, eye contact, facial expression and touch. This sends the message that our dogs are safe and loved. We must calm them, not through fear, but through safety and acceptance. Take the time to sit with them, speak softly and comfortingly to them, make eye contact and smile – our dogs are very adept at reading even the subtlest of our facial expressions. Gently pet them or give them a massage; make them feel accepted, wanted, valued and that they belong. Shared Mindfulness is a great way to enhance this experience.
We must remember that our dog’s behavior is only a way of expressing and communicating an underlying feeling or emotion. Most so-called “bad behavior” is a result of stress and the arousal of the sympathetic nervous system. When we help our dogs reconnect with us, we will help them feel calmer and more secure. This is when our dogs need us the most – not through separation from them, but by being with them.