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Feeling Safe, Together.
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It’s a “Tale of Two Cities” when it comes to our dogs. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. On one hand, they are revered and put on a pedestal. Go into any pet store and you’ll find exotic, $200 bags of dog food and luxurious beds fit for royalty, as well as a myriad of toys: from simple rubber balls to intricate food puzzles to plush squeaky animals that would make any child jealous.
We send them to day care centers for them with big screen televisions, private rooms with heat lamps and spa experiences, clothing that rival any emperor’s wardrobe… I even have a friend who arranges private, one on one play dates where each dog is picked up by a limousine with a fully stocked treat bar.
We admire their heroics in law enforcement, military and other forms of service. We rely on our dogs to be our alarm systems, hunting partners, baby sitters, confidants. We idolize dogs on the big screen and in the stories we read… They have been written about and exalted by everyone from Lord Byron to Chaucer to John Steinbeck to Elizabeth Taylor. Our culture has a love obsession with our dogs – they are so integrated into our culture that a world without them is unfathomable.
In spite of this love affair with our dogs, at this very minute a dog is being killed – or as a representative from a well known SPCA once told me, “not killed, only gently euthanized”.
When I worked for the Pennsylvania SPCA, I witnessed first hand the rampant abuse, neglect and abandonment of our supposed “best friends” that our Humane Officers had to address on a daily basis. Animal shelters are full – approximately 6.5 million companion animals enter U.S. animal shelters nationwide every year. For each one adopted there are so many more who are killed, or spend their lives on dark, cold, cement floor prisons – with their only crime that they were no longer wanted.
Yet we breed, breed, and breed. Every year we hear of new fashion breeds, and there’s always someone ready to capitalize on the latest trends and set up a new puppy mill where trauma is rampant and enduring. There are dogs who are subject to unimaginable cruelty in the laboratories and product testing facilities. We sentence them to a life of hard labor at the racetracks, in the fighting pits and on sled teams.
So is treating them like royalty the answer? Is treating them like children a good way to go? When we impose our own values and beliefs on our dogs, concepts such as “sharing”, or “must get along with everybody”, or even so-called “good manners” – we take away their authenticity and their autonomy. We dress them up, make them pose constantly for photos to be posted on social media, and live vicariously through them when we use them as status symbols. There’s a term in psychology for this – BIRG, Basking In Reflective Glory. Does spoiling them justify taking away their dignity? Dogs are not children, dogs are dogs. Many would much rather play in the mud than have a $200 pedicure.
So, is more training and more control the answer? Would that end the cruelty and neglect?There has never been a point in history where we have so much easy access to information – especially about training and controlling our dogs. There are television gurus, social media, podcasts, you tube, countless books and videos – the number of professional dog trainers has experienced an incredible surge in the past 20 years – and yet these problems still persist. Dogs are still suffering, dying, being abused, neglected, abandoned. So, I’m skeptical that more control or better training is the answer.
What our dogs need is more healing, and less heeling. Our goal for our dogs should be the same goal they have for themselves: To feel safe, secure and whole. This requires us to step down off our hierarchical pedestal and be on an equal level with our dogs.
Here is where the Platinum Rule needs to be applied. This is very different than the ubiquitous Golden Rule. The Platinum Rule says, “Do unto others as they would have done unto them.” In other words, understand what they want from their perspective, not ours.
A monkey saw a fish splashing about in the stream. He quickly scooped him up and put him “safely” up a tree to save him from drowning.
That is an example of the Golden Rule, which assumes everyone wants what we want. The Platinum Rule is how we need to relate with our dogs. Do they want to be dressed up like children? Do they want to be forced to perform tricks? Do they want to be bred over and over and over? Probably not, as these are things that make us happy, not them.
Our goal, as our dog’s caregivers, should be to help them feel safe, secure and whole. This means that we appreciate them on their level so we can understand their wants and needs, give them freedom and autonomy so they can be their dignified, authentic selves, and attune to and resonate with them in order to deepen our connection together.
Our dogs don’t need more control, they need more connection and compassion. This is the difference between healing and heeling. By doing what is best for our dogs, not just for ourselves, maybe we can reduce or possibly end the suffering that many of the unfortunate victims of our own desires endure on a daily basis. Our dogs are always here for us, it’s time we are here for them.
It was late November, about a week before the Thanksgiving holiday, when Oliver, my 10 month old St. Bernard and I went hiking up Mt. Lafayette in New Hampshire. It took us a few hours to get to the Ridgeline, when the wind started picking up and it began snowing heavily.
“Time to go!” I shouted to Oliver, who was standing about 100 feet away. It was getting hard to see in all this blowing snow, and I wanted to head home quickly before it got too bad.
Oliver wouldn’t budge.
“C’mon, let’s go!” I shouted again, but he still just stood there. Now I became angry. I trudged my way over to him, ready to grab his collar and give him a tug, when I saw something that instantly changed my anger into humility.
Oliver was standing in front of the trail marker. He was waiting for me to come to him, because he knew the way down the mountain.
I made my way back to where I originally stood. I discovered that what I thought was the trail was really the top of a steep ravine that I could have easily fallen down. I was confused by the snow, but Oliver was not. I apologized to him profusely, and we made our way safely down the mountain, thanks to Oliver.
That brief rupture in our relationship lead to a deeper and more profound connection between us. My arrogance turned to respect, and Oliver seemed to feel that. We repaired our fracture with gold, and it was more beautiful as a result. This is the art of Kintsugi.
Kuntsugi is the ancient Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold. The unique patterns created adds a dimension of uniqueness and individual beauty that is better than the original. It is the perfect metaphor when we are in conflict with our dogs.
Friendships are never always smooth sailing. There will be conflict from time to time, but if we see that friction as an opportunity to grow, it becomes traction to move the relationship forward.
Many of my clients over the years have been concerned with being the “perfect” friend to their dog. They become stressed when they feel they’ve made mistakes, and often lament that they’ve ruined the relationship. I reassure them that they have nothing to worry about, that it’s the repair that matters, not the rupture. I help them by explaining the simple art of Kintsugi:
Step 1: Collect the broken pieces.
Rather than obsessing about what caused the fracture, focus on the problem itself. This is not a time for blame, its a time to collect your thoughts and objectively see the problem. For myself and Oliver, I didn’t trust him and I wanted to be in control.
Step 2: See how the pieces fit together.
Here is where we use our empathy and understanding skills. We need to see the problem from our dog’s perspective. Oliver knew the correct way down the mountain, and he knew I wanted to leave. He wasn’t being stubborn – he was being caring.
Step 3: Clean off each piece.
This is where forgiveness becomes crucial. If we don’t forgive, it leaves a residue that will interfere with the broken pieces fitting back together. I definitely forgave Oliver for not coming to me, and I think he forgave me for being so arrogant and commanding.
Step 4: Prepare the gold.
This is where we change our mindset from wanting to be “right”, to seeing the bigger picture and the value of the friendship. When I remembered what was really important – and put my friendship with Oliver first – it became easy to move forward. It become the glue that held us together.
Step 5: Connect the pieces and join with gold.
The act of reconciliation and repair strengthens our friendship, and adds to its resilience. Forgiveness is not about forgetting, it’s about remembering that we came through a difficult time and are stronger and more connected as a result.
Whether we disagree on what is acceptable to chew on, feel stressed out and accidentally lose our temper, or don’t see eye to eye about barking at the neighbors, the inevitable conflict between us and our dogs is bound happen. We need to look at that as an opportunity to grow and learn. We don’t want to hide the scars the fracture may have left – we want to display our scars proudly. When we repair them with gold, often the repair is better, stronger and more beautiful than the original.
“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.
Our dogs look up to us to assess how things are – literally. A dog’s ability to read emotions and feelings from our faces is second to none, and it is the main way that they communicate with us. Our expressions and micro-expressions tell a much richer and more complex story than our words ever will. In fact, the closer the relationship we have with our dogs, the harder it is to deceive them – they read us better than the world’s best poker player.
When our faces are covered up, like during Halloween, our dogs can become stressed because they find it harder to tell how we feel. It becomes more difficult to get information from us about the state of life at that moment. I often get phone calls the first week of November about dogs who were acting either unusually fearful or aggressive because of the anxiety they felt during Halloween with everyone wearing a mask. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic, wearing masks may become more commonplace, and our dogs may have a hard time to adjust to the potential “new normal”.
Once we begin emerging from this lockdown and we bring our dogs out in the public, there may be issues with them acting out, possibly due to everyone’s face covered up with masks. Even more upsetting to them is not being able to read our own faces because we’ve hidden them. How will they know how we feel when they cannot easily read our expressions?
There are a few things that we can do to prepare our dogs for this:
The world has changed since this virus reared its ugly head, and it has many of us feeling stressed and anxious. It may be a while before we can all go back to normal. Our dogs feel our stress as well through emotional contagion. Getting them comfortable with seeing ourselves and others covering their faces will help ease their anxiety, and subsequently ease our own.
During this time of social distancing and isolation, there is one bright spot. We can learn to be closer with our dogs and enrich our friendship. The quiet, snuggle times that we have with our dogs usually fit neatly into our daily routines, without much thought. But now that most of us are sequestered in our homes, our routines have changed. We can take advantage of this time to connect more deeply with our dogs. We can also take this time to work on any problems we see in our relationship. This is a time to focus on connecting, which brings us closer, and not controlling, which further distances us.
A great way to do this is through what I call C.A.R.E.S., which stands for Companion Animal Relationship Enrichment Strategy. Based in part on trans-species psychology and ideas such as polyvagal theory and attachment theory, it asserts that most of the problems we experience with our dogs, and much of the fear and anxiety our dogs suffer, can be be more effectively healed through enriching our relationships and not through training and behavior modification. I have used this approach for more than 30 years, and have had great success with it. This period of social isolation is the perfect time to put this approach into action.
The eight dimensions of the Companion Animal Relationship Enrichment Strategy (C.A.R.E.S.):
This pandemic will ultimately end and there will be a return to normalcy. If we use the time we now have with our dogs to enrich our relationship, we’ll get past this time of social distancing and become closer together as friends — the way we are supposed to be.
“Life is ten percent what you experience and ninety percent how you respond to it.”
~ Dorothy M. Neddermeyer
This is a tense time for all of us. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, the stock market is in free fall and everywhere you turn there is division and discord. We seemed to be gripped in fear, and the panic is going viral. And even though we diligently wash our hands, avoid crowds and practice “social distancing”, we are still contagious and can infect our dogs – not with a virus, but with anxiety.
Our feelings and emotions, and how we express them, can directly trigger similar feelings and emotions in our dogs. When we become excited and happy, our dogs tend to become excited and happy along with us. When we are anxious and stressed, our dogs can “catch” those feelings from us as well. The closer our relationship is, the more contagious we are. This phenomena is known as Emotional Contagion, and is defined as the: “tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally.”
These days when we are all on edge, we have to think about how we’re effecting, or infecting our dogs.
This hit home for me the other day when I was sitting on the couch watching the news with my dogs Bodhi and Bhakti. I was paying attention to the “talking heads” on television and their gloomy report, when I noticed that Bhakti jumped off the couch and went upstairs. Now, the only time she really does this is when there is tension in the room, such as when my wife and I engage in lively discussions, so I wondered why she did this when I was the only person there. I looked over at Bodhi, and he had a worried expression on his face. My first thought was that they had heard a noise outside that disturbed them, but as I got up to look out of the window, I noticed that Bodhi was fixing his worried gaze on me, as if I had done something to make him anxious. I realized, in fact, I had. I was agitated and upset while engrossed in the news report about the corona virus pandemic, and Bhakti and Bodhi became “infected” by my agitated state. It was a clear case of emotional contagion.
I immediately turned off the television, sat down and took a few deep, mindful breaths. This is like hitting a reset button and I felt much more relaxed. I smiled at Bodhi, who was still a bit unsure. After a few moments of talking to him and rubbing his chest, which he loves, he calmed right down. A moment after that, Bhakti came back into the room with her “Is everything alright?” look, and she calmed down as well. I gave them both a hug and we all went outside to play.
I have always depended on my dogs to help ease my own stress, and now it’s my turn to do the same for them. I making every effort to spread good feelings in order to infect my dogs with love and calmness, and taking specific actions every day to maintain this, even as the world’s chaos surrounds us.
First, I limit my exposure. Not just to crowds and large gatherings, but to the news and social media. I only read the latest updates and then close my computer. Period. I use this time to connect more with my dogs by taking a walk together, playing in the yard, or simply sitting on the couch with them while watching Netflix.
Second, we practice more Shared Mindfulness and metta meditation together. This helps reduce our stress and bring us closer together as friends.
Finally, I practice reverse social distancing and engage in random acts of affection – they get hugs and kisses often throughout the day, even more than usual. This affection seems to be going viral, as I’ve seen them spread this amongst each other. I even witnessed Bhakti give my cat Rocko a kiss, which she never does.
I’m confident this crisis will be over in time, and that our lives will return to a state of normalcy. Until then, my dogs and I will be certain to fight this viral infection with viral affection – and from that, hopefully, we will never recover.
Last week I wrote about loving and losing our non-human friends. It was a difficult essay for me to write because of the recent losses my family and friends endured. It also opened some old wounds when I had to say goodbye to my dog Cosmo, just four short years ago this month.
When Cosmo died, I was devastated. I wasn’t sure how I would continue to function on a daily basis, especially since my work is helping people and their dogs live happily together. How would I be able to council someone on developing a great friendship with their dog when my own beloved friend was now gone from my life?
After he died, I didn’t want to leave my house without my best buddy riding next to me as he did for almost 12 years, and yet I didn’t want to stay in my house either – the void was just too great to bear. It was even more difficult when I’d see my other dog Cecil, watch the door, waiting for his friend who would never come home again.
Struggling with my loss, I swore up and down that I would never replace him. Not only did I not want to endure the pain again, but that getting another dog would be a dishonor to him and his memory. Besides, I told myself, I’d always compare another dog to him and that wouldn’t be fair to the new dog. No, I thought firmly, I will never betray my friend Cosmo.
Three days later…
I wasn’t strong enough to bear the emptiness. I needed bring another dog into my life. I decided that since Cosmo was no longer with me, I’d give another dog in need a chance at life. Of course, that dog would never replace Cosmo.
My wife and I took a ride to our local shelter. We looked at many dogs there, all of them in such desperate need of a home of their own, but I needed to give more thought to bringing another dog home so soon. That evening, I looked at some photos that a friend who runs a rescue had posted online. One picture grabbed me.
I can’t say what it was about her picture that made me pause and really look deeper. The dog in the photo wasn’t exactly the type of dog I would normally look at. I had a preference for larger dogs and this one was small to medium. Yet there was something about her that prompted me to inquire further. I messaged my friend and we set up a meet and greet a few days later.
Vanora, what the rescue was calling her, was nothing like the type of dog I was partial to. First of all, she was a she, and I always had a preference for males. Secondly, she was smaller than I usually liked and was brindle-colored, which I didn’t really care for. Meeting her didn’t go so well, either. She never really looked at me – she kept shifting her gaze to the squirrels and chipmunks that were running around in the field we were in. It’s not that she didn’t want to engage with me, but she preferred viewing the wildlife more. How could I ever connect with this small, distracted, brindle female?
I’m happy to say that Vanora, now named Bhakti (which means devotion in Sanskrit), has been the light of my life for the past four years. She is different than any dog I’ve ever had the privilege to share my life with. We have a connection that is on the same level that I had with Cosmo.
In the beginning, I struggled with the thought that I had somehow betrayed Cosmo by loving Bhakti. It felt almost like I was cheating on him, and that he would be jealous. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wasn’t betraying Cosmo, I was honoring him. I remembered a line from my all-time favorite film “Harold and Maude”. In a scene where Maude was dying, Harold tearfully said to her, “Don’t die, Maude, I love you!” Her response was the most profound message I ever heard when it comes to loving and losing: “That’s wonderful! Now go and love some more.”
There is a quote that is credited to the Buddha which says: “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” I believe this is true with love, too. When our beloved friends leave us, sharing our love with another dog does not diminish our first love, it only strengthens it. Our friends will always occupy unique places in our hearts; nothing can ever replace them. By adding more love to our lives with another dog who needs us, we greatly honor the memory of our departed friends. Not just tucked away in our hearts, but in the daily expression of love we give the friends that are with us.
“When one person is missing the whole world seems empty.”
– Pat Schweibert
This has been a tough few weeks for my friends and family. My daughter unexpectedly lost her cat, Tiggy. A friend of mine had to say goodbye to several of her non-human friends she cares for at her sanctuary, and another friend lost her dog. It seems as if the Universe is reclaiming its precious jewels all at once.
Most of us know that when we choose to share our lives with a dog or any non-human friend, the day will come when we will ultimately part ways. Our dogs and other animal friends become so woven into our lives. We calculate with confidence that we have years before we must say goodbye to them and we store it into the far recesses of our minds, taking comfort in the fact that it’s not imminent. We avoid thinking about how delicate and fragile these threads of friendship are that hold our world together. Yet, as much as we push this thought away, it persistently and stubbornly surfaces on occasion to remind us that the fateful day will come soon enough.
I often wonder why our dogs live only a fraction of the time we do. It would seem that a friendship that’s been thousands of years in the making would last both our lifetimes. Then I remembered what a friend once told me long ago that brought me comfort during a difficult time when one of my dogs passed. Dogs live shorter lives than we do so that they don’t have to endure the pain of losing us. We care for them, protect them and nurture them through the entirety of their lives. They depend deeply on us and we become their whole world. Losing us would be devastating for them, so it stands to reason that by them leaving before we do, they are spared that pain. That is our burden to bear.
We should have no regrets for our dogs when they leave us. They live each moment of their lives to the fullest – not because they do any grand or ambitious thing, but rather because they are completely engaged in the present, and don’t look away from it. Dogs extract every moment from life, whether it is 15 years or 15 days. Their ability to be totally present means they are complete and full, with no residue of regret or unfulfilled dreams. As the philosopher Michel de Montaigne put it:
“The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man [dog] may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you. It depends upon your will, and not upon the number of days, to have a sufficient length of life.”
To lose a friend is a painful and traumatic event. They are a part of us; a piece of our tapestry that is torn away, only to leave a gaping hole. As much as we try, that hole will never be repaired completely. The scar will always be there. But is this a reason not to become friends in the first place? Or is it, as Tennyson said: “’Tis better to have loved and lost, Than never to have loved at all.”
Our friends are never replaceable, nothing will ever fill that void. But to avoid friendships because we fear the pain of losing them will only create deeper voids. How empty and hollow our lives would be if we never had the privilege of sharing a piece of it, however brief, with our dogs. At least when we remember the friends we have lost, for that moment the hole is filled; the empty space is lined with love. It becomes a testament to them and how they’ve changed our lives for the better. If we were never friends in the first place, we’d still be hollow, but that hollowness would always remain empty. The gaping hole in our life’s tapestry would still be there, but we wouldn’t be aware of it. It would be a small, but persistent feeling of emptiness that we would never be able to identify, like a vague itch that can never be satisfactorily scratched. Yes, it is better to have loved and lost.
As we love, so we grieve. We will have good days and bad days, and that will stay with us always. Through the years I have lost many friends. Some were expected, some were not, none were easy. Sometimes, when I least expect it, a memory of a long gone friend will arise and bring a sharp pang in my heart, but always with a subtle sweetness to it as if to say: “I’m still here. I’m still with you.” The writer Elizabeth Gilbert put it so perfectly: “Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted. It comes and goes on its own schedule. Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants. In that regard, grief has a lot in common with love.”
As I write this, I see the photographs on my wall of the dogs I had the privilege to share my life with. I look at the dogs who are with me now, sleeping peacefully on my bed, and know that I wouldn’t trade the love or the pain for anything. Because I have both, I am blessed.