One Size Does Not Fit All

 

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“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Our Dogs are distinct, one-of-a-kind individuals, not one can ever be duplicated in the history of the universe.  They are as unique as snowflakes – no two are ever alike. Therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach to our relationship with them would be unfair and disrespectful.  Then how is it that so many “professional” trainers and behaviorists try to fit our Dogs into specific categories and boxes, and subscribe to“canned” answers to behavior problems?  A single technique is applied because they are not seeing our Dogs as friends and equals that we need to connect with, only as pets and property that need to be managed and controlled.

We live in a culture that expects instant gratification and immediate solutions to problems.  We “google” our way through troubles and difficulties, usually settling for lowest common denominator solutions and quick-fixes.  Many Dogs are abandoned, surrendered to shelters, abused and neglected because we attempt this pre-packaged approach with them.  We create expectations based on pages in a random book, or what some “expert”, who often only only sees our Dogs in specific situations and for a very brief period of time, says we should.  These expectations not only blur our vision, but they often prevent us from seeing all the great things about our Dogs, because we filter our vision through these limited expectations.  Our Dogs, as with other living creatures, must be seen for who they are – without prejudging them on their breed, gender or history.  If we are to achieve the connection with them that we really want – as friends – then we have to have an open mind, be flexible in our approach with them, and understand completely that the Dog in front of us is not just a statistic in some book, but a living, breathing, thinking and feeling miracle.

It all begins with appreciating, accepting and loving our dogs for who they are, not just what we want them to be.  It means seeing them as an “objet trouvé”, (art that is found as it is) as opposed to “objet d’art” (created art).  This defines unconditional love and acceptance – not contingent upon any behavior or action that we desire.  This is the root of any meaningful and deep friendship, what Aristotle called “friendship of the good”, the highest form of friendship as opposed to friendship based on contingencies and conditions.

True friendship continues by allowing our Dogs to be themselves as we support their autonomy so they can grow to their fullest potential – what true friends would want for each other, as opposed to a “what-can-you-do-for-me” attitude.

This also requires effective and compassionate communication, what I call the “effectiveness zone”, which is different for every Dog, and in every situation.  Here’s how it works:

Picture two horizontal lines, one above the other.  The top line represents the upper limit of effective communication and the bottom line represents the lower limit.  In between the lines is where our communication with our Dogs is most effective and most compassionate.  It’s like the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  We want to find what’s “just right”.   Here’s an example:

If our Dog was about to run into the street when a car was approaching, obviously we would need to communicate to her that this would be a dangerous thing to do.  If we become too emotional and too extreme, (above the upper line), then she may not get the message and become panicky and fearful, possibly running into the path of the car.  If we are too laid-back with our communication, (below the line), then she wouldn’t get the message either and might run into the road.  We need to be somewhere right in between.  This is also true for positive communication, not just negative ones.  If we have asked our Dog to “sit” instead of jumping on us when we walk through the door, then too little praise, (below the line), will not be enough to tell him we appreciate his action.  If we over-praise and get him too excited and worked-up, (above the line), then he will likely jump up again.  

So how do we know when we are communicating in our Dog’s effectiveness zone?  We need to be sensitive to the feedback they give us at that moment, and not blindly follow some technique or method we read in a book or a “professional” trainer told us.  We need to connect and look at our Dogs and see if they understood what we were trying to tell them.  It’s the same thing we would do with a friend.  If we communicated with our friend, we might ask, “Did you understand?”, in order to know if we need to say it in a different way.  If we see that our Dogs did not get the message in the way we intended, we must change our approach.  This is how friends act with each other, an organic and not a mechanical process.

I always begin work with my clients by helping them understand that working with their Dog is a dialog and a conversation – not a monologue and a lecture.  It’s a respectful and compassionate back and forth “dance” where each partner has a say and where we share the role of leadership.  If we want a deep and vibrant connection with our Dogs; if we want to live with them in harmonious resonance, then we must treat each other as friends and equals, not as owner/pet.  We must see beyond the artificial and one-dimensional labels and boxes we put them in.  Only when we have removed the barriers of inequality and categorization can we effectively communicate with our Dogs, and fully connect with each other.  This requires us to appreciate each other for the individuals we are, and therefore “custom make” our friendship.  We can’t find that on the “one-size-fits-all” rack.

National Dog “Equality” Day?

There are no friends in animal shelters – only pets.

 

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“Friendship is a serious affection; the most sublime of all affections, because it is founded on principle, and cemented by time.”
~ Mary Wollstonecraft

Today is National Dog Day, a commemoration that increases awareness of Dogs that need to be rescued.  It also is a celebration of how Dogs throughout history have helped Humans lead happier, healthier and safer lives.  The day brings attention to the “plight of animals”, yet it falls short in bringing awareness to the fact that although we call Dogs our “best friends”, our relationship has been one of owner/pet rather than true friends.

Today is also Women’s Equality Day commemorating the nineteenth amendment to the constitution in 1920 prohibiting states from denying women the right to vote. This celebrates the equality of all humanity regardless of gender (as if that ever had to be questioned in the first place).  

 National Dog Day should take a page from Women’s Equality Day to encourage genuine and equal friendships between Humans and Dogs.  The founder of National Dog Day, Colleen Paige, speaks about why so many Dogs are surrendered to shelters and given away: 

“Millions of dogs are killed each year because they’re simply unwanted, says Colleen Paige, founder of National Dog Day. They’re unwanted because no one realized how to properly care for the demands of the breed. They’re unwanted because they were bought as a Christmas gift for a child that didn’t keep their promises about caring for the dog…unwanted because they shed too much…unwanted because they bark too much. UNWANTED…simply because someone changed their mind…”

Although I agree in with her in part, she’s missing the bigger picture.  She’s describing  the symptoms and NOT the disease. The root cause of Dog surrenders is that Dogs are seen as less important than Humans.  Their lives are seen as less valuable, less deserving, and less equal.  Yes – we call them our friends, but do we walk our talk?  Friends never abandon friends. 

There are no friends in animal shelters – only pets.

By exploiting Dogs for our own selfish amusement and utility, they may become manipulated, dominated, neglected, abandoned and sometimes abused.  That is not how friends treat each other.

We selectively breed our supposed “friends” for physical abnormalities that can shorten their life and cause suffering, e.g.: bulldogs, great Danes, teacup poodles, etc.  We “install” behavioral drives that create perpetual frustration. For example, we breed in strong predatory drives not based on hunger, which can never be satisfied, so the dog is condemned to live with an itch that can never be scratched.  We perpetuate “fashion” breeds to suit the whims of people who want to own the newest creation.  Being true friends with our dogs means ending the genetic manipulation and breeding for our own pleasure and nostalgia.  Most purebreds are never involved in the tasks they were originally “designed” for, and are being bred now because of our desire for a specific “style”. This serves our pleasure alone and does nothing to serve the Dogs.  (Shame on you AKC). 

If we are to truly respect and honor Dogs, as so many claim to, then we have to treat them with equal consideration.  In other words, we have to walk our talk and treat them as friends.   This does not mean only babying them or indulging them with fancy beds and tons of toys.  That stuff is great, but does not replace treating them as equals with respect, appreciation and dignity.

This also means putting an end to coercive tactics and “dominating” our Dogs.  We are not a pack of wolves; we are friends.  Humans and Dogs evolved together and helped to domesticate each other. Our relationship began as equal friends and partners and not as master and slave.

 In addition, we also need to end our lust for control and stop micro-managing and manipulating our Dogs solely for our own enjoyment, even under the guise of “humane” training.  Would you treat your friend as an object and use manipulative Skinnerian “puppeteering” to get your friend to “obey” you?  Of course not.  If you did, you would not be a friend.  

As a society we need to open our doors to Dogs more, and allow them to accompany us to more places such as stores, National parks, restaurants, and other locales that discriminate based solely on species, and NOT on behavior.  Landlords need to recognize that Dogs can be good tenants, and be more accepting of them in rental properties.   There should be a universal code of conduct in public places.  If everyone adhered to this code of conduct, then it wouldn’t matter if they were Dog, Cat, Human… if they violated the code of conduct they would be asked to leave instead of basing it only on species.  I have been many places where the Dogs were fine, but the Humans were acting inappropriately.  This does not mean simply being a “good citizen”.  That implies blind conformity and obedience – Rosa Parks was not considered a good citizen, yet she she was one of the greatest influencers of freedom in history.  It means being respectful, accepting, and tolerant of others as equals.

I’m amazed that we Humans actually need an amendment to our constitution that gives one gender the same rights as another gender.  It boggles my mind that equality is something that has to be legislated.  It’s even more boggling that even today, this equality is still something that has to be fought for.  The idea that one person is less “equal” because of their gender, culture, religion, race, or even economic status is a shameful commentary on the collective consciousness of many Humans.  Sexism, racism, and class discrimination are symptoms of self-absorbed, self-serving and ignorant minds.  So is speciesism.  We are better than that.

 I am advocating for Dogs to be treated as equal friends, and not as pets.  Friends in the truest sense, as in Aristotle’s highest form of friendship: the “friendship of the good”.  It is only between those who can give each other equal consideration and not put themselves above or below the other, that a true friendship can form.  If the relationship is unequal, one-sided, and based on utility or amusement, then it is not a true friendship, it is ownership.  This requires continuous attention to our own actions and feelings, in addition to our Dog’s behavior, to ensure this equality.   Mary Wollstonecraft, a pioneer of feminism once said: “Friendship and domestic happiness are continually praised; yet how little is there of either in the world, because it requires more cultivation of mind to keep awake affection, even in our own hearts, than the common run of people suppose.”

With all we know and understand about non-human consciousness, it’s hard to grasp the fact that we treat animals as less deserving of consideration than us, simply because they are a different species. This includes Dogs.  I had a spiritual teacher who always said, “All life is precious.”  I couldn’t agree more.  Our Dogs, who have stood side-by-side with Humans for tens of thousands of years, deserve to be treated with equal consideration.  They deserve (as do all non-humans) to be treated as equal friends – not just in words, but in actions.  When that day comes, National Dog Equality Day will also be a day worth celebrating. 

An Organically Grown Friendship

 

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“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.

SEED: 

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.

SOIL:

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.

ROOTS:  

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.

TRUNK:

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, deviousness 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:

BRANCHES:

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.

LEAVES:

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..

FRUIT:

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.”

Stop Texting Your Dog!

EE366B26-8BE1-4BF9-A6B4-42401496982C“We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.”
~ Albert Schweitzer

Schweitzer’s words, written over 60 years ago, ring truer today than at any other time in our history.  In our age of endless social media, texting, Skype, and emails, we have lost the art of physical and intimate connection.  We’ve replaced genuine laughter with “LOL”, a pat on the back with a “thumbs up” symbol, and our authentic emotional responses with smiley faces, sad faces, and a cacophony of emojis.  Symbolism is beginning to overtake reality as we become more and more separated from each other.

  Our Dogs can be the antidote for for this disconnected and lonely way of living.  By connecting with our Dogs, we can relearn how to better connect with each other.  

When was the last time you sat next to your Dog and pet her?  I’ll bet it was rather recent.  When was the last time you recall sitting and petting your Dog, without the television playing in the background, or your smart phone turned on?  Probably a lot longer.   In fact, I’m willing to wager that more often than not, we physically engage with our Dogs while we are distracted by other things such as watching television, checking our emails, or seeing how many “likes” we got on our photo of last night’s dinner plate we that just posted.  When we do this, we are missing one of life’s most precious gifts: the ability for two living beings to connect with each other.   

The benefits of a one-to-one connection are too numerous to count.  Touching helps our brains produce the neurotransmitter oxytocin, with is a natural antidote to stress.  Physical contact allows for the bi-directional flow of feelings. We get immediate feedback from another living being when we touch, as opposed to a one-way output via a smiley face emoticon and a “thumb’s up” response.  Even talking to our Dogs and having a conversation with them where we can look into each other’s eyes is more engaging, more satisfying, and more complete than typing on a plastic keyboard and staring at a glass or plastic screen.  (Recent studies have shown that talking to our Dogs is a sign of intelligence.)

There is an an art to this, and it is fast becoming a lost art.  We can use the the acronym A.R.T. To help guide us through the process and help us remember what we knew when we were children. A time when a “tweet” was the song of a bird in a tree.  

A.R.T. Stands for:   Awareness/Appreciation — Respect — Trust

Awareness/Appreciation:

If we remember that our dogs are constantly changing, dynamic individuals like us, then awareness and appreciation will come naturally.  Living things are not static.  Our dogs are different moment to moment, and to look away is to miss the miracle of the moment.  Einstein said:  “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”   This is exactly the way we must look at our Dogs.  If we are to fully connect with them, we must see them as a miracle in each moment.  The practice of Mindfulness is a great way to enhance our view.  Mindfulness is simply experiencing and engaging with the present moment without judging or evaluating.  It is not a “means to an ends”, but the ends themselves.  When we are with our Dogs, our attention should not always be on what to achieve with them.  It should be pure awareness of them right now. This will allow us to appreciate the miracle.  It’s like listening to a symphony — there is no goal but the enjoyment of the music itself.

The next time you are with your Dog, be aware of all the little things you may have missed because you were distracted.  Notice how their fur feels under your touch.  Pet them slowly so you can, as one of my teaches used to say, “feel each individual strand of fur.” Look into their eyes when you talk to them.  Do their eyes change?   As you touch them, notice any spots that make them tense up, or that make them melt into relaxation.  Listen to the sounds they make, smell their scent, feel their feelings.  A great exercise to do is Shared Mindfulness, and you can learn more about that here.

Respect:

As Aretha Franklin said, a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T goes a long way in creating a solid connection.  This means we are never going to force our dogs to sit with us and engage with us.  Dogs are self-determined beings and must be treated with the same respect we would want for ourselves.  If our Dogs do not want to be touched, then we don’t touch them.  If our Dogs want to chew their bone, nap, or get involved in another activity rather than sitting with us, that is their right and we are not to interfere.  When we are with them, we must be sensitive to the places they are not happy being handled.  If they don’t want their feet or face or ears, etc. touched, then we avoid doing that.  We should always ask the question, “Do we have our Dog’s consent?”  This respect is the foundation of trust. 

Trust:

As we become more present with our Dogs, and connect deeper, then trust will grow.  Trust is not something that can be forced, it is an organic process, and any forcing will surely kill it.  We wouldn’t pull on the stem of a flower to force it to grow faster.  The more we are aware and appreciate our Dogs in each moment, the more they will feel appreciated and validated.  Like us, they have the desire to be recognized and accepted.  The greater our respect is for them, and the less we act as owners and more like friends by allowing them their freedom and space, the closer they will get to us.  Trust is something sacred to all life.  The greater the trust, their deeper the connection.  It should never be taken for granted.  We must always be honest with our Dogs.  We should never use our moments of connection as a “training” exercise, or to try to cut their nails, etc.  Connection is never to be used for the purposes of control.

Trust, once broken, is difficult to repair.  Fortunately, our Dogs are much wiser than we are when it comes to trust, and are pretty forgiving.  That is a truly amazing gift they have, and one we must cherish and never abuse.

Modern technology has been a great benefit to us in so many ways, but it is a double-edged sword.  And as with anything, extremes can be damaging. We have to balance the digital world of instant gratification with the intimacy of a one-to-one connection.  Our Dogs are a great way to help us find this middle way.  We all know how to do this, we just need to be reminded.  Our Dogs are willing teachers.  We must make the time every day to truly connect with our Dogs, our Human friends, and the world around us.  This way, the next time we hear a “tweet”, maybe instead of staring at our phones, we’ll close our eyes and listen to the birds.

What Makes Your Dog Sing?

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I was at a dog park in New Jersey the other day with my friend Carla, as we watched our dogs play together. We were discussing many dog related topics, and I brought up the idea of “Ikigai” – a Japanese concept that means “reason for being.” I suggested that every dog has an Ikigai, and that one secret to achieving a great friendship with our dogs is to help them find their own reason for being. After some discussion, and my usual long-winded streams of thought, Carla, who has a great talent of cutting through the hodgepodge and getting to the point said, “You mean, it’s what makes your dog sing.”

Every dog has an inner song, and one mission of the Path of Friendship is to help us bring it out so that it can be sung loudly and proudly. Unfortunately, finding it is not always so easy. It requires us to step outside of ourselves and set aside our preconceived notions about how things ought to be; what we think our dogs should be. We can only help them to find their song when we allow them to be who they truly are. Continue reading “What Makes Your Dog Sing?”