Early Morning Reflections

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It’s early morning, about 10 minutes before sunrise. As I’m lacing up my hiking shoes, Bhakti is anxiously whining in anticipation of the morning’s hike. I call her over and put on her collar and orange vest. She patiently lifts each paw up for me as I apply Musher’s Secret to protect her feet, while Bodhi watches from the other room. I call Bodhi to me and he hesitantly comes over, excited about what’s to come, but not too happy with the preparation. He stands still while his collar and vest go on, begrudgingly allowing me to apply the Musher’s to his paws. I explain to him that it’s important to take these precautions, and that I want him to be safe on the trail. With a look of reluctant acceptance, he abides. I fill the water bottle, grab the leashes, my backpack and my walking stick and we head out the door into the brisk morning air.

Hiking with my dogs is one of my favorite ways to connect with them. I have been an avid hiker for many years, starting when I trained my St. Bernard Oliver for search and rescue work in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, many years ago. These days my hikes are not as ambitious, but I cherish each one, even though waking up before sunrise is not always fun. The experience of walking on the peaceful morning trails with my two best friends is enough to motivate me to drag myself out of a warm bed.

It’s a short drive to the trailhead. I’m fortunate to live in a community located in the Delaware State Forest of Pennsylvania, so access to a variety of trails is only minutes away. The dogs sit quietly in the back seat, waiting to arrive and begin our walk.

Once we’re on the trail, the dogs get a burst of energy. Bodhi does his “trail dance,” as I call it, where he rubs his butt on every branch, rock and tree stump that he can find. Bhakti, on the other hand, immediately puts her nose to the ground and tracks the most recent visitor to the trail — a squirrel, rabbit, deer or bear. After the first few minutes of walking the trail, the dogs are usually a few paces ahead of me. They constantly look back to see where I am, and I feel they’re saying to me, “Hurry up, human, there’s so much to discover!” or “Don’t lag behind!” I tell them to slow down a bit, that I have only two legs and they have four. Soon, though, we all start to settle down into a steady rhythm together.

During the hike, I like to close my eyes for a few moments at times to listen to the symphony of sounds that surround us: The wind that blows through the branches, the crunching noise from each step I take, the birds calling out to each other and the trickle of a tiny stream. The sounds are ever changing, shifting with the current weather conditions and time of year. I will hike in just about any weather conditions except for sub zero cold, (which is not pleasant for my dogs), heavy rain, strong gusty wind, or heavy ice and snow. Other than that, seasonal changes and the different conditions make each hike new and interesting.

Each time we are on the trail, it seems that for Bhakti and Bodhi it is their first time there. They never seem to have a “been there, done that” attitude. They meticulously explore every inch of the path as if they were asked to write a descriptive essay about the trail when they get home. They spend up to a full minute engrossed in some obscure scent on the end of a leaf, or stand motionless, ears perked, as they look into a dense thicket of trees. It’s during those times that I stop and follow their lead. Very often they’ll spot a deer or a bear that I wouldn’t have seen if not for their superior abilities for scent and sound. I’ve been alerted to many beautiful and sometimes scary creatures by deferring to my dogs’ more advanced senses. One time, what I though was a tree stump, was a large black bear. I would have walked right by him if my dogs hadn’t frozen in their tracks and stared at him. Fortunately, he was uninterested and walked into the woods. Sometimes, the dogs find a skull of an animal; usually a deer. When I see it, I feel a bit sad — the final destination of that animal’s life, I think, recalling the sentiment from Tom Brown, Jr.’s wonderful book about the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, “The Tracker.”

We usually hike between four and five miles, and when we’re finished, it seems like Bhakti and Bodhi can go ten miles more without hesitation. For me, I’m usually satisfied and look forward to getting into a nice hot shower, resting, and eating a big breakfast.

For Bhakti and Bodhi, our hikes immerse them in a world I can never be a part of. My world is from my human perspective, where I’m always thinking ahead, trying to be safe and planning my hike so I can get home in time to begin my day’s responsibilities. For them, they are simply connected with the ground beneath their feet, the scent of the forest in their nostrils and the melody of the wind through the trees. I try to take time to become more mindful of these experiences, but compared to my dogs, I’m just scratching the surface. Our time together on the trails is something I cherish deeply. I learn so much from my two friends on our morning treks, and try to carry it with me through the rest of my day. I don’t know where our future trails together will lead, but wherever it takes us, we will always be learning, living and loving together on the Path of Friendship.

I Love All Dogs, But Pure Breeds at Westminster Break My Heart

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One of my fondest memories of when I was just starting out in my career as an animal behavior consultant was when I attended the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. I remember spending hours backstage, where all the Poodles, Pomeranians and Portuguese Water Dogs were getting ready for their time in the ring. Seeing all those breeds and interacting with them up close and personal was a thrill for an up-and-coming behaviorist.

This wasn’t my first foray into the show dog world. I used to go every year to Lyndhurst Mansion in Tarrytown, New York, where they had a dog show on the beautiful grounds of the estate. Even before that, when I was just 10 years old, I attended a dog show in New Jersey, and although I competed in obedience, I have memories of seeing all the different breeds of dogs parading around the ring, vying for best in show. It was an amazing experience that I’ll always cherish.

I have loved dogs — all dogs, pedigreed or pedestrian — my entire life. I love their individual personalities and the way they seem to exist in the present without worrying so much about what happened yesterday or what may happen tomorrow. I grew to respect their outlook so much that I turned dogs into my full-time career, working with show dogs, law enforcement K-9s and animals with extreme behavior problems. My present focus is dogs suffering from emotional trauma and fear.

But when I happened to see a Facebook post the other day that asked, “Should individual dog breeds still exist?” I had to answer with an emphatic “No!”

Now, I usually don’t reply to these things on social media, because I don’t like getting drawn into online debates. But with so many dogs sitting on cold concrete floors in animal shelters waiting for homes of their own, I felt compelled to answer.

I explained that there are too many dogs abandoned and dying in animal shelters for more to be continually “manufactured” by breeders. Besides, most purebred dogs are no longer used for their original purpose. When was the last time you saw a Bulldog baiting a bull? Or a Great Dane or Shar-Pei hunting wild boar? For the most part, we have specific breeds now just to satisfy our own desires for “style.”

This got an angry response from several Facebookers, who accused me of being naïve and ignorant. One said I should go “kiss a mutt,” which I actually did, since my mixed breed Bodhi was sitting next to me. Normally at this point, I would have logged out of Facebook and gone about my day, maybe taking my dogs for a walk (and kissing a mutt many more times). But for some reason, I decided to fight this one out.

“What is the purpose of breeds in this day and age?” I asked. “Who does it benefit — us or the dogs?”

I continued: “Genetically manipulating dogs for profit to serve the whims and pleasures of humans is a selfish and anthropocentric thing to do. It is essentially eugenics, and reminds me of the scene in the film ‘Gattica,’ where the parents are discussing with their doctor how to ‘create’ a genetically superior child. Many of the breeds are genetically predisposed to physical problems, like breathing issues with some English Bulldogs and skin issues with Chinese Shar-Peis, to name a few. So why do we feel entitled to perpetuate this indifferent suffering of our supposed best friends?”

As I waited for the responses, I’m pretty sure that I heard the sounds of knives and daggers being unsheathed somewhere off in the social media cyberspace. Then the comments came — and came.

— “Why do you hate dogs so much?”
— “You are an idiot — there are many excellent breeders that care for their dogs a great deal!”
— “These breeds have been with us since the dawn of time, and they need to be preserved.”

I obviously had struck a nerve.

First, dog breeds have not been with us from the beginning. Specific breeds, documented with written pedigrees, probably began with the English Foxhound, around the 17th century. Before that, dogs were more “types” than pedigreed breeds, like sight hounds, scenting dogs, comfort dogs and others. The truth is, humans and dogs have existed for thousands and thousands of years together without the need for genetic manipulation. We were equal partners, and people didn’t feel superior or entitled to control every aspect of a dog’s existence, like character and physical appearance.

As far as preserving specific breed standards, there are many breed registering organizations, and each one has a slightly different breed standard. Other than the American Kennel Club, there’s the Canadian Kennel Club, Fédération Cynologique Internationale, and United Kennel Club, just to name a few. The AKC standard for a German Shepherd is 22-24 inches at the withers and the standard from the FCI is 23.5-25.5 inches. If each has a slightly different standard, “will the real breed please stand up?”

Also, if you were to look at the same breeds as they exist now, compared to 50 or 100 years ago, there are often striking differences — so what exactly are we preserving?

After I made that point on Facebook, someone chimed in, “It’s natural.”

“Oh really?” I snarked. “If you put German Shepherds, Labradors, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Pointers and Standard Poodles together, would the same breeds only mate with the same breeds? I think not. If we have to interfere and control, then there’s nothing natural about it, it’s all man-made.”

Besides, how natural is a Pug? Or a Poodle?

At this point, Bodhi was looking at me a bit concerned — I was becoming agitated. I kissed my mutt again and continued:

“As for me being a ‘dog-hater,’” addressing the other comment, “I think you are confused about what love and hate really mean. If we love dogs only for how they can serve us, and satisfy our selfish desire for fashion or utility or status, then that is not love at all. Breeds exist solely for the purpose of serving us humans, it does nothing for the dog.”

Authentic love, as Simone de Beauvoir said, must be “reciprocal and non-exploitative,” and where each member is free. Genetic manipulation is control and exploitation, pure and simple. As Aristotle described, the purest form of love and friendship is not based on how we can benefit from the relationship, it is unconditional love.

In my own practice working with dogs for over 35 years, I have seen many purebreds suffer from chronic frustration and stress because they cannot do what their DNA wants them to do, like hunting or herding; it’s like having an itch they can never scratch.

I asked on Facebook, “Is it worth putting dogs through this just so we can enjoy a particular size or color?”

No response. I took the opportunity to continue…

“I realize that many breeders care deeply for their dogs, and go to great lengths to keep them healthy and provide them with loving homes, but what about the ones that don’t meet expectations? Are they disposed of the way a grocer disposes of subpar fruit?”

Many people get a certain breed with the anticipation of how the dog will look and behave, and if the animal turns out to be different, it is often given away or neglected. I was witness to this on a daily basis during my years as branch director of behavior and outreach for the Pennsylvania SPCA.

I looked at Bodhi, but he decided to take a nap. I probably should have done the same. I waited for the barrage of responses — I was not disappointed.

Response after response came — fast and furious. I realize that many people have a large emotional and financial investment in keeping breeds going; the pet business is a multibillion-dollar industry, and there is a lot at stake.

As I read through the mostly angry comments — telling me I “didn’t know what I was talking about,” and how I should probably “never have a dog of my own because I am too dumb” — I was struck by one thing: not one person was able to rebut my position that breeding is solely and selfishly for humans, and does nothing to help dogs.

I wondered if these people were just being too emotional in their responses, and that later on, when they had time to reflect, they might think otherwise. Then I remembered what Mark Twain said: “No amount of evidence will ever persuade an idiot.” Of course, they would say that about me, as well.

I had had enough at this point. As I closed my computer, I couldn’t help thinking about the millions and millions of dogs that are given up to shelters every year. The argument that continuing breeding is good for dogs should be revised to say that it’s good only for some dogs. The more dogs we create, the less chance a dog in a shelter who needs a loving home will actually find one. The truth is, we have breeds because it pleases us. When we see a dog only in terms of its breed, then we only know them conceptually, and not as individuals. That’s not loving dogs.

Yes, the dogs at Westminster are glamorous and the excitement of competition can be compelling. But when the stage lights go off and we’re back home again, what do we really want to connect with? An avatar image or a living, breathing, imperfectly perfect dog? For me, I prefer to just kiss my mutt.

When Can We NOT Afford to Save Our Dogs?

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It was a horrible time for me and my German Shepherd Cosmo. He desperately needed perineal surgery in order to survive, and I was not in the best financial position. The surgery costs thousands. I had just renewed my friendship with him, and I couldn’t let him die… he was my friend…

This harrowing situation is all too common. I know many people struggle emotionally and financially with difficult decisions like this. Can we really put a price on our dogs lives? Fortunately at that time, I had been putting single dollar bills into an old water cooler jug for a couple of years, and when I broke it open I had enough to cover most of Cosmo’s surgery. I was lucky, but many are forced to make a gut-wrenching choice.

Society primarily regards dogs as possessions and chattel, and assigns a dollar amount to them. But with compelling new research on the depth of the human/canine bond, often rivaling or surpassing human-to-human bonds, we should rethink how we deal with our dogs’ health care costs and perhaps subsidize our dogs’ health.

Veterinary care is not inexpensive. Treatments for cancer can run up to $15,000, according to CareCredit.com, and injuries and emergency treatments can run just as high. Pet insurance is available, but the process can be so cumbersome. I recently had a lump surgically removed and biopsied from my dog Bodhi, and filing a claim with my pet insurance company was not pleasant. I had to pay up front, and getting my claim approved was tedious and frustrating. I am still waiting for my reimbursement. The best part of the ordeal: the mass was benign.

Recently, you may have heard about Scout, the seven-year-old Golden Retriever mascot from WeatherTech commercials. He was diagnosed with cancer. His owner, David MacNeil, the founder of WeatherTech, took him to the University of Wisconsin at Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. Luckily, his treatments seem to be working. In fact, in Super Bowl 54 this year, there will be an ad from WeatherTech asking viewers to donate money to the University of Wisconsin at Madison School of Veterinary Medicine to fund more cancer research.

This is a great cause, but how many of us could afford to give our own dogs that same veterinary care? I worry about the future when my own beloved friends may need extensive veterinary care, and I might not be able to afford it — even with insurance.

I don’t fault veterinarians for the high costs involved. Compared to human physicians, veterinarians earn much less, yet they deal with the same life-and-death issues on a daily basis.

The question then is, should dog’s veterinary care be subsidized or tax credits given for those whose income levels are below a certain level? I know, we have enough problems right now in this country with our own health care, but since our dogs are essentially family members, there should be a better way to ensure that money is not making the decision for us whether our dogs live or die.

The problem is that in spite of so much research to the contrary, we do not value dogs as equal members of the family. I think this stems from our culture’s idea that dogs are ultimately replaceable — that they are simply pets. Maybe it’s because their life spans are shorter than ours, or they are not as intellectually advanced. Yet we don’t deny a senior citizen, a physically or intellectually disabled human the medical care they need. We value all human life equally (at least I hope we do), so why not add our beloved friends, our dogs to the equation? I think seeing them as lesser beings reflects an anthropocentric view where humans deserve more than any other species. That is a sad commentary on us as a society. I learned many years ago that all life is sacred. When it comes to our dogs, that is especially true.

Realistically speaking, I don’t see any subsidies or tax deductions happening for veterinary care in the near future. We have to work through our own human health care costs first. In the meantime, there are a few ways we can prepare for any emergency that may arise with our dogs, so that we are not put in a difficult position:
1. Explore pet health insurance options. While not inexpensive, they can help pay for many high veterinarian costs. Make sure to shop around, speak to those who use it and read reviews.
2. Start your own pet health savings account. Put money away each month in a separate savings account so when and if the unthinkable happens, you’ll be prepared.
3. Look for low-cost veterinary clinics in your area. Speak with your local animal shelter and rescue organizations for more information.
4. Ask for help online. Places like GoFundMe and others can be a way to help you get the money you need to help your dog. Many people have big hearts and really want to help.
5. Take out a line of credit. Places like CareCredit.com and even your own credit cards may help you get out of a jam. Of course, these don’t come cheap because you’ll be paying interest if you don’t pay back the full amount quickly.
6. There are charitable organizations, like The Pet Fund and the Brown Dog Foundation, that can help you out if you are eligible.

We all wish our dogs would stay healthy and be with us forever. The fact that most of us will at some point need to say goodbye to our friends is something we don’t want to think about. We can keep our dogs healthy by feeding them high quality food, giving them exercise, and spending quality one-on-one time with them. Unfortunately, this will still not guarantee that the unthinkable won’t happen. If it does, our bank accounts should not be a deciding factor on our dogs’ lives.

“The bond with a true dog is as lasting as the ties of this earth will ever be.”
~ Konrad Lorenz

The Whispers of the Gods

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When Emerson wrote so beautifully in his essay on Friendship: “Let us be silent – that we may hear the whispers of the Gods,” he probably wasn’t thinking about Dogs.  Yet, if we are to have a true friendship with our Dogs, then we must first learn to listen to each other.  This doesn’t imply obeying each other, rather it means being quiet enough to actually listen and hear each other’s ideas, concerns, needs, and feelings.  It means following Stephen Covey’s excellent advice to “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  (7 Habits of Highly Effective People).

Listening is a skill that needs to be developed and cultivated.  Our culture is becoming increasingly self-absorbed and self-centered.  We care more about seeking the spotlight for ourselves and less about shining our light of attention on others, except when it serves our own interests.  We love to hear our own chatter – and we chatter in so many ways.  Social media has become a Mecca for our narcissistic voice.  Texting and emailing enables us to talk without having to listen to the response.  When responses do come, they have been reduced to a few symbols and emojis.  This begs the question: If we are all doing the talking, then who is left to listen?  

Covey goes on to say, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand.  They listen with the intent to reply.”  How sadly true this statement is.

“Talk, talk, talk: the utter and heartbreaking stupidity of words.”
~ William Faulkner (Mosquitos)

Perhaps all our talking is another way of trying to be in control, which our culture is obsessed with.  But, as I said earlier, if we want a genuine and deeply connected friendship with our Dogs we must learn to let go of control, step back from ourselves, and simply listen.  This act of letting go and listening is an act of faith – faith in our Dogs, faith in ourselves, and faith in our friendship.

“Sitting quietly, doing nothing, Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.”
~ Zen poem 

Listening means silence.  It is following Will Roger’s sage advice to: “Never miss a good chance to shut up.” This results in being completely and wholly receptive to our Dogs.  It is in this silence that connections are forged and where friendships grow and flourish.  

“In silence there is eloquence.  Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves.”
~Rumi

Only through silence can we listen, and listen we must.  To truly know our Dogs we must silence the endless chatter.  We must silence the voices that try to tell us how things should be.  We must silence those voices of the “experts” that try to define our Dogs, without ever stepping foot into their space – their sacred space reserved only for those who’s mind and heart are open to receive.  That space is for us and our Dogs alone, as friends and as equals. 

“Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.”
~. A. A. Milne

This sacred space requires us to have empathy, humility, acceptance, trust, faith, and especially presence.  Our complete attention to each other provides the sunlight where our friendship can grow.  Without it, our friendship will whither and die as a flower planted in the shade.  

“The greatest gift you can give another is the purity of your attention.”
~ Richard Moss

Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900 – March 18, 1980), the humanistic and social psychologist and philosopher wrote in his book, “The Art of Listening”, that there are six basic principles to listening.  I’d like to list them here, and under each one I will offer my own interpretation of how it may be applied to our friendship with our Dogs.  

Fromm’s six principles:

  1. “The basic rule for practicing this art is the complete concentration of the listener.”
    (This is focus, attentiveness, presence and mindful awareness of each other.)
  1. “Nothing of importance must be on his mind, he must be optimally free from anxiety as well as from greed.”
    (The goal must be understanding, not what we can gain or lose.)
  1. “He must possess a freely-working imagination which is sufficiently concrete to be expressed in words.”
    (We must have a “beginner’s mind, and not analyze everything.)
  1. “He must be endowed with a capacity for empathy with another person and strong enough to feel the experience of the other as if it were his own.”
    (We must feel how our Dog feels, and embody their experience.)
  1. “The condition for such empathy is a crucial facet of the capacity for love. To understand another means to love him — not in the erotic sense but in the sense of reaching out to him and of overcoming the fear of losing oneself.”
    (This is transcending the self, having faith, and letting go.)
  1. “Understanding and loving are inseparable. If they are separate, it is a cerebral process and the door to essential understanding remains closed.”
    (This is unconditional love and acceptance.)

Although it may feel uncomfortable at first, this type of listening with our whole being creates a safe space for our Dogs and ourselves.  It is the fertile ground, the terra firma, where our friendship will grow and bloom.  It is where we “embrace each other’s souls”; what the Aztecs called “apapacho”.  For true friendship is silence.  It doesn’t need a string of words to bind us together.  Constant talking separates us.  It as Kahlil Gibran so eloquently put in The Prophet:  “For without words, in friendship, all thoughts, all desires, all expectations are born and shared, with joy that is unacclaimed.”

It is only in this silence, that we can truly communicate, connect and heal one another.  

Prickle or Goo, which one are you? And is your Dog one, too?

When I was a child, one of my favorite television shows was Gumby.  There were two characters on that show that I really enjoyed.  One was a yellow dinosaur named “Prickle”, and the other was a blue mermaid called “Goo”.  Although they didn’t appear in many of the episodes, I remember them better than any other characters from the show.  Later on in life, while I became immersed in my studies of psychology, philosophy and eastern thought, they surprisingly showed up again in a lecture from Alan Watts.  When it comes to our Dogs and the people who care for them, Prickle and Goo are not kid’s stuff.  

It turns out that Art Clokey, the creator of Gumby, once attended a lecture of Alan Watts, where he first learned of the the concepts of “prickles” and “goo”, and subsequently named his claymation characters after Alan Watts’ conception of the “interchange of two personalities” in the fields of art, philosophy and poetry.   Prickle is precise, rigid, mechanistic; where goo is flexible, organic and abstract.  Prickly people are always concerned with plans, formulas, recipes and algorithms, whereas gooey people are more spontaneous, flexible, creative and sometimes vague.  The prickly people accuse the gooey people of being too nebulous and too etherial whereas the gooey people call the prickles skeletal, with no meat; knowing the words, but not feeling the music.  It’s a quarrel that’s as old as time, with no definitive winner in sight.

I find this comparison exactly describes what happens with many people involved with Dogs.  There are those who are concerned mainly with behavior – how a dog acts moment to moment.  They have certain rigid criteria about what a Dog “should” be like, and try to fit each Dog into this narrow box of conformity.  These folks believe Skinnerian behaviorism is the answer to all the problems, having precise formulas, reinforcement schedules and inflexible boundaries as if their Dog was a mechanism that had a set of exact operating instructions.  These Dogs appear machine-like in their behavior, but one look in their eyes and you see they lack an inner light.  The people who care for these Dogs are prickly.

Then there are those who give no boundaries to their Dogs.  Who offer no guidance or direction, and believe that Dogs should be 100 percent free to do as they want.  They feel as if their Dogs should have total liberty, disregarding any concern for their safety or the feelings of others.  These Dogs are the ones who are always soiling on the neighbors property, and unfortunately are the ones who get lost or hit by cars.  The people who care for these Dogs are gooey.

The truth is that neither of these extremes contribute to our Dog’s sense of well-being.  The best way, and the way that most of us are, is to be as Alan Watts said, “gooey prickles or prickly goo”.  Using elements of both styles is the best way to help our Dogs have emotional wellness.  

This idea, then, begs the question: do our Dogs possess the same attributes?  Are our Dogs prickly or gooey?  I think they are.  In fact, with all the so-called evaluation processes that are being used for Dogs, I think that knowing if you have a Prickle or a Goo is the most valuable.

Your dog is a prickles if she is very routine driven, bossy, always on alert, and likes to have her own way.

Your Dog is a goo if he is laid back, very adaptable, has very few concerns, and goes with the flow.

Of course, just like us, most dogs are a combination of both.  

I think the most difficult cases I’ve worked with are when there’s a prickly Dog and a gooey Human, or a gooey Human and a prickly Dog.  That’s often not a great match, and the two never usually get to what I call kenzoku, the ultimate relationship between people and their Dogs.  If you feel that you and your Dog are on opposite sides of this spectrum, there are a few things you can do to make the relationship better. 

First, if you are gooey and your Dog is prickly, get in touch with your prickly side; if you are prickly, then get in touch with your gooey side.  As I mentioned, all of us have both in us, and if we are open to it, we can see the benefit of being the other way.  Second, look for the opposite in your Dog, and help them get in touch with their other side.  Finally, remember that a great relationship is when we can learn from each other, so use the differences to your advantage.  Friendship is prickly goo and gooey prickles.  

I tend to be rather gooey.  I believe this stems from my holistic, relational and humanistic view of the world rather than a reductionist, transactional and mechanistic view of things, especially when it comes to dogs and their relationship with us.  It’s not that I don’t have my prickly side, however.  When I hike with my Dogs, I am a stickler for safety protocol, such as keeping within line of sight, not chasing the wildlife, and not pooping on the trial.  My Dog Bhakti is definitely gooey.  She tends to go with the flow and be spontaneous, while my Dog Bodhi is much more prickly.  He thrives on routines and rituals, and can can become stressed when the unexpected arises.  Interestingly, Bodhi follows everything Bhakti does, so that begs the question: Is a gooey Dog more confident than a prickly one?  Maybe we’ll explore that in a future essay.

Ok, so this article may be a bit tongue-in-cheek, but there’s still some truth to it.  Just like us, our Dogs have distinct styles and characters, and if we are to truly connect with them, we must know what they are and learn from them.  It’s not always about changing who our Dogs are, nor is it always about changing ourselves.  An empowering friendship is based on a harmonious interplay between personality types and a deep appreciation for each other as individuals.  And that’s not kid’s stuff.

When Are You Coming Home…?

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“Attachment is a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space.”
~ Bowlby & Ainsworth

“It’s tearing my world apart.”, said Kim, speaking about her 2 year old pit-bull mix, Tank.  “I can’t leave the house to go to work without coming home to a disaster.”  “I don’t really care about the stuff he destroys, I’m just worried that he’ll injure himself again.”  “I’ve had him to the vet several times because he’s cut his paws and mouth on stuff, and I’m afraid for his safety.”

This is an all too common scenario I’ve encountered over the years.  Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD), is a frustrating and potentially dangerous problem that adversely effects relationships between Humans and Dogs.  The ironic thing is that the problem itself is relational, and prone to the snowball effect: the more troubled the relationship, the more SAD is experienced, the more SAD is experienced, the more troubled the relationship.  

According to the DSM, “Separation anxiety disorder is the inappropriate and excessive display of fear and distress when faced with situations of separation from the home or from a specific attachment figure.”  And while the DSM addresses issues involving Humans, this definition is equally relevant with our Dogs.  It often manifests itself in destructive behaviors, such as scratching or biting at doors and windows, tearing up shoes, pillows, books, carpets… really any object that may have an association to the Human.  It can also manifest itself in depression, which can display as the refusal to take treats or toys or to acknowledge petting and other signs of affection.  And it can show itself as excessive “neediness”, where the Dog cannot seem to get enough attention and is constantly asking for more.

Popular methods to help with this issue have been focused on distraction, such as filling a toy with peanut butter.  Another way is confinement and caging. Other methods utilize calming devices such as compression shirts and essential oils, and there is even the pharmacological approach, using drugs such as such as alprazolam (Xanax), fluoxetine (Prozak), clomipramine (Clomicalm) or, more recently, cannabis extracts.  While these methods have had some success, they fail to get to the root of the problem, which is relational.

Rather than approaching this issue from a behavioral perspective, I have found far greater success when I have used a theory from evolutionary psychology, called “attachment theory”.  Attachment theory originated In the late 1950’s from the work of  Dr. John Bowlby and was expanded in the 1970’s by Dr. Mary Ainsworth.  They both successfully disputed and contradicted the popular behavioristic theories that attachment is simply a learned behavior, which states that a child becomes attached to the mother simply because she feeds the infant.  Bowlby showed that attachment can be understood within an evolutionary context, in that the caregiver provides safety and security for the child.  A secure attachment increases the child’s chances of survival.  As this applies to our Dogs, when we develop a relationship with them, they become dependent on us for survival and need to develop secure attachments with us as well.  Separation anxiety is often caused by insecure attachments. Creating a friendship that is a secure base (as Bowlby stated) is the best way to permanently help this situation.

When we use a behavioristic approach, such as distraction, we are trying to substitute a solid and secure friendship with a treat-filled toy.  When we use confinement, that only serves to bring about a state of “learned helplessness”, where our Dogs essentially just give up, or often exacerbates the situation by stacking one stressful situation on top of another. Compression shirts are a poor substitute for a genuine physical connection, and are reminiscent of the controversial experiments done by Harry Harlow with Rhesus monkeys.  And finally, drugs will calm your Dog down, but as in all of these other behavioristic approaches, it serves only to temporarily alleviate the symptoms, and never gets to the root of the problem.  The root of the problem, as I have stated, is relational.  We need to develop a secure friendship with our Dogs to help them feel safe when we are not with them.

There are a few ways to prevent and heal the disconnect with our Dogs that leads to separation anxiety:

First:

Never make your love contingent on good behavior.  This is something that I see so many trainers do, and it makes me furious!  In a traditional Skinnerian behavioristic approach, we are told to only reinforce “good” behavior with petting, affection and treats, and to ignore “bad” behavior.  In other words, what these trainers are suggesting is that we tell our Dogs,  “I’ll only love you if…”, If you behave the way I want you to, if you stop acting like a Dog, if you conform to arbitrary standards and become a “good citizen”, etc.  When we dole out our love as if it were a commodity that our Dogs are only worthy of if they behave in a particular way, then we are driving a wedge between us, creating an insecure base where our Dogs live in a world of uncertainty and doubt.  This makes them always anxious about doing the “right” thing.  Techniques that use “love withdrawal” as motivation are holding our Dog’s hearts and souls hostage, and will greatly damage the relationship.

The best way to create a secure base and have our dogs never doubt that they are safe in our friendship with them is to love them unconditionally.  This means we show them that we love them, regardless of how they are acting.  We may want to change their behavior, but that should be an act of compassion and guidance without using our love as a bargaining chip.

Second:

Use calming exercises to help with anxiety.  One way is to use Shared Mindfulness and other calming exercises, which connects you and your Dog on a deep level.  Another way is to massage your dog.  There is an abundance of information out there on various techniques that can help.  My only suggestion is that you do this with your Dog, and don’t send him to someone else.  This is a bonding and calming experience between the two of you, and it loses that value when someone else is doing it.  Of course, for therapeutic massage to help with physical ailments, it’s always best to see a specialist.

Finally:

Practice Stay, not Wait.  Many people confuse these two different exercises we try to teach our Dogs, and all too often its the Wait that is emphasized.  I witness trainers and behaviorists teaching Dogs to stay by using a treat, telling them “Stay”, and after a few minutes releasing them where the Dog runs back to the person and gets a treat.  This is a classic example a tension building exercise.  The longer your Dog “stays” in this situation, the more tension and stress is created.  This is akin to stopping at a red light a block before your final destination.  When you’re at the red light, you are “staying” there, but what happens as that red light drags on?  Do you feel more relaxed, or more tense and anxious to continue?  The answer is obvious.  

When we work with our Dogs in Stay, the message should be clear: “Stay here and relax until I come back for you.”  The more our Dogs understand this, the more secure they will be when we are absent, and the better they will be able to relax when they are by themselves.  In order to communicate this to our Dogs, we have to refrain from any extrinsic motivation such as a food reward, or punishment.  It is a matter of gently and persistently helping our Dogs to relax (using one of the techniques above), telling them Stay, and moving away from them.  Then, coming back to them to show them that it’s ok to be without us for a moment.  As we gradually increase the time and distance, they will become confident that although we are gone, they are safe.  This creates a secure connection and safe attachment.  This can then easily translate into “staying” at home securely when we leave, and waiting confidently for us to return.

Helping our Dogs overcome the anxiety and stress they feel when they are home alone is never an easy task.  It takes time, patience and commitment to the friendship to ensure success.  Fortunately, when we create a secure attachment with each other, and a deep and connected friendship, our Dogs and ourselves will never feel alone, even when we are miles apart.

The Mindful Connection

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“Love, the magician, knows this little trick whereby two people walk in different directions yet always remain side by side.”
~ Hugh Prather

Achieving a true connection with our Dogs is standing eye to eye and experiencing the present moment in the same way each other experiences it.  In spite of how much affection we may have for each other, if our worlds are not aligned, we cannot share a genuine connection.  

Establishing this connection with our Dogs is not always an easy task.  Humans and Dogs put a different emphasis on conscious attention.  We tend to focus on the past and the future, while our Dogs are focused primarily on the present.  This complimentary difference is what makes us so successful as companions, and at the same time it makes it very difficult to form a solid connection with each other, because we experience the world on different planes.  Mindfulness is a way to overcome this obstacle.

Mindfulness has been defined as “nonjudgemental, present moment awareness”.  Our Dogs are far more skilled at this than we are, at least the “present moment awareness” part.  If we are to connect fully with our Dogs, we must join with them on their playing field, so we can share this “present moment” experience.

I began my journey into mindfulness when I was in my late teens.  Wanting to see the world the way my Dog saw it, I immersed myself into the study of consciousness, awareness and mindfulness.  Because I knew that as a human, I was more skilled at “big picture” thinking, and that my Dog was more skilled in present moment, “detail” thinking, I studied and practiced (and taught) mindfulness to train my consciousness to experience what my Dog would experience.  It wasn’t until many years later, with the help of my Dog Thor [read more here], that I finally had the breakthrough.  Since then, my relationships with my Dogs have been deeper and more connected.  I now teach this connection in my C.A.L.M. class, with excellent results.  

C.A.L.M. stands for:

Connection + Appreciation + Love = Mindfulness

In other words, mindfulness with our Dogs is the integration of present moment connection, nonjudgemental appreciation, and self-transcending love.  

 

Connection:

As I mentioned above, to be connected with our Dogs we need to join them in the “Now”.  When we are with them, our attention be completely present, and not be distracted by random thoughts of what we must do later, or persistent memories of what happened to us earlier.  These thoughts will fragment our attention, making us unable to form solid and whole attachment with our Dogs.  To achieve this connection, it is useful to have “anchor points”, such as focusing our attention to our breathing, our Dog’s breathing, or slow petting our Dogs.  Each time our attention wanders, we bring it back gently to the anchor points.  [Read more about this here.]  This puts our awareness on the same level as our Dog’s awareness, and establishes our connection and alignment of experience.

 

Appreciation:

What often gets in the way of deepening our connection with each other is our constant practice of evaluation and judgement.  When we focus our attention on something we always think, “Is this something good, or is this something bad?”  We do this with our Dogs, as well.  In fact, an entire industry has been built on doing this to our Dogs, in the form of Dog training.  It is rare when we can accept our Dogs just as they are, and not try to constantly make them into something else.  This disconnects us from the present, and further distances us from our Dogs.  When we attempt to create a relationship with our Dogs predicated on them pleasing us and meeting our approval (as with traditional obedience training), it shows that we don’t really value our Dogs for who they are.  Our goal becomes manipulation rather than appreciation, and control rather than connection.  To help us to respect and value our Dogs for the amazing beings they are, adopting what is known in Zen as “shoshin”, or Beginner’s Mind, is enormously helpful.  This means that we suspend our judgements, opinions, and pre-preconceived notions about what should be, and only focus on what is.  We see our Dogs they way a small child would see them, with wonder and openness.  Einstein once 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.”  We can easily replace the words “live your life” with “see your Dog.”  This is where true friendships happen – beyond petty judgements.  As Rumi said, “Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.”

 

Love:

Of course we all love our Dogs, but what kind of love do we really have for them?  Is it love based on what they can do for us?  Or is it a selfless, self-transcendent love?  Too often, we base our love for our Dogs on their usefulness to us.  Once they no longer please us, our love ends.  You only have to go to your local animal shelter to see this. This is because we view our Dogs as “pets”, which are disposable objects created for our own amusement, and not as true, equal friends.  These animal shelters are filled with pets; there are no friends there.  This is because a true friendship is a relationship based on selfless love, not selfish love.  Pets are loved with conditions – that they behave they way we want them to.  Friends are loved unconditionally – just for being who they are.  In today’s culture of “selfing”, this is often a difficult concept to grasp.  It begins by seeing our Dogs as truly equal in value and as beings that are deserving of the same considerations that we are.  When we exploit and use our Dogs to feed our own egos and lust for control, we don’t really love them, we only love what they can do for us.  Rabbi Twerski has a wonderful explanation of this on Youtube, where he describes what he calls “fish love”.  To help us move past our own self-absorption, and to have a truly “horizontal” connection with our dogs as opposed to a “vertical” one, doing shared “metta” meditation, as described here, can be very enlightening.  We also need to work on our empathy skills, and sense our dogs experience as if it were our own, moving beyond our “optical delusion of separateness”, as Einstein said.

 

Connection, Appreciation, Love and Mindfulness is a journey we can share with our Dogs together on the Path of Friendship.  The more we walk this path, more faith we have in each other and the closer we become.  When we have forged this connection with each other, we always remain side by side regardless of where the path will lead us.

Greed, Fear or Friendship… What Motivates You and Your Dog?

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“A friend is what the heart needs all the time.”
~ Henry van Dyke

Sharing our lives with a Dog fills a void that cannot be filled elsewhere.  Perhaps it is somewhere deep in our genetic code, or a part of our vast history together on the planet.   Whatever the reasons might be, having a friendship with a Dog makes us more human. It is this connection that inspires us to invest the time, money and emotion into finding the right Dog for us, and building our relationship together.  In all of my years working with people and Dogs, and asking the question: “Why did you decide to bring a Dog into your life?”, the answer is invariably the same: for friendship and connection.

 Somewhere along the way, however, the desire for control surpassed our need for connection.  We hire professional trainers, read books, and watch television programs – all which promise to give us a “better” behaved and more controllable Dog.  We may even enter them into contests to prove our ability to control them, and earn certifications so we can “use” our control skills with our Dogs in various venues.  Even if our aspirations are not as grand as winning the first place ribbon, our life with our Dogs often becomes a relationship of “puppeteer/puppet” or that of “master/subordinate”.  So, what happened to the friendship?   Unfortunately, it got lost amidst the overwhelming motivation of greed and/or fear.

A great lie has been put on us:  that in order to have a “good” Dog, the Dog must be trained; that we must be in control of them at all times.  That unless a Dog is trained and under control, they will run amok and be disruptive, aggressive and a menace to society.  That we must be good “owners”.   To this I say, respectfully, nonsense!  If we are are to live with our Dogs in a harmonious, successful and deeply connected way, then we must strive to be their friends, not their owners.

According to the dictionary:

Greed: The intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power or food.

Fear:  an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.

Friendship: a state of mutual trust, respect and support.

Here’s how each of these effect us and our Dogs:

Greed:  

Currently, the most common philosophy in Dog training is based on Skinnerian behaviorism and positive motivation.  In other words, we reward our Dogs for behaving the way we want them to with a treat or a toy.  We tell our Dogs, “If your behavior pleases me, I will give you a “goody”.  This activates our Dog’s drive system and is fueled by the neurotransmitter Dopamine.  This method is often touted as the “humane” way to control our Dogs, but in reality it has a sinister component, and can have a detrimental effect on creating a true friendship with our dogs.  When used too much, it can create the desire for more and more reward, as this can lead to greed and addiction.  This will weaken the connection we so desire to have with our Dogs.  I once even heard a professional trainer boast how he made his Dogs into “treat junkies”.  It treats our Dogs as puppets, and not as friends.

Studies have shown that reward-based behavior can kill initiatives and intrinsic motivation.  It can actually be a form of punishment if your Dog expects a reward and it doesn’t materialize. (learn more…)

Would you continue working at your job if the paychecks stopped coming at the end of the week?  When we overuse rewards, our Dogs develop a “what’s in it for me?” attitude. 

What about us?  When we are greed motivated, we tend to want more and more control over our Dogs.  We boast and show off how we can manipulate every aspect of our dog’s actions.  Social media is full of disgusting videos showing how people can exert control over their supposed friends – their Dogs.  The competitions of control are even worse.  I know this because I, myself, was heavily involved years ago in competitive Dog sports – Schutzhund, Ring Sport and AKC tracking.  I rationalized my obsession for this by telling myself that it was “good for my Dogs”, when after all it was only a greedy addiction for trophies and status.  It becomes all about our own egos, and we become swept away by what psychologists call B.I.R.G. (Basking In Reflective Glory).

 

Fear:

Often disguised as “natural” or “pack oriented” training, fear-based training has been around since the beginning of human/dog dyads.  It basically says to your Dog that unless you “do this”, you will be severely punished, or worse… ignored.  Pack theory is often cited as the justification for this, however it is lack of understanding of pack and group animals that is the culprit here.  Punishment raises cortisol levels in Dogs, and when used, it can have profound effects on their overall sense of well-being. 

This is not to say that our dogs don’t need to learn limitations or boundaries.  After all, roses have thorns and fire is hot – both very useful to keep us safe.  It is when the idea of the relationship deteriorates into a master/slave model for the sake of control that fear becomes incredibly damaging.  In fact, for there to be a friendship, there can be no fear at all.

With us, when we are motivated by fear, we are often thinking about how others will judge us.  I see this all the time at the Dog park.  People become very harsh with their Dogs when they jump, bark, etc. because they fear the scorns and scolding of others.  They allow the opinions of other people influence their relationship with their Dog.  To me, this is very sad.

We also become fearful for the welfare and safety of our Dogs.  This often leads to being overprotective and micromanaging everything our Dogs do.  As well meaning as this is, it speaks very loudly to the fact that we do not trust our Dog’s judgement or capabilities.  This is no way to build a friendship.

 

Friendship:

Trust, respect, acceptance, compassion, support, freedom, autonomy, devotion, empathy, forgiveness, gratitude, communication, wisdom, commitment, faith in each other… these are just some of the ingredients of a genuine and deeply connected friendship.  What should motivate us and our Dogs is the idea and deep conviction that true friends want each other to be happy.  It is not a “What’s-in-it-for-me?” attitude, but rather a “What can I do for you?”  I want my Dog to be motivated, not by greed or fear, but by friendship and love.  This is based on the neurotransmitter Oxytocin, a neurotransmitter released in a loving and comforting friendship – a relationship that is a mutual sanctuary – free from stress. 

 This is what motivates me every time I am with my Dog.  As friends, we enjoy great rapport, and we learn together to respect one another and try our best to act in ways that make each other happy.  We share our wisdom with each other in order to help each other navigate through life’s rough spots.  We support each other’s autonomy, and accept and love each other for who we are, not what we can train each other to be.  This requires open and honest communication.  It’s a shared motivation, not a selfish one.  It is when, as Martin Buber famously said, “Relation is reciprocity.”   It is a relationship of collaboration and cooperation, not bribery or threats.  

The more we try to control our Dogs, the further away from connection we get.  We cannot have a meaningful friendship if it is based on a one-sided, top-down relationship.  It is an on-going dialog, not a monologue or lecture.  It’s easy to forget why we chose to bring a Dog into our lives when we become distracted by the lust for control.  The good news is that our Dogs never forget. 

It Takes A FISH To Be A Friend

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“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:

Flexibility.

Integrity.

Sensitivity.

Humility.

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.

FLEXIBILITY:

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.  [Learn more].

INTEGRITY:

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. [learn more].

SENSITIVITY:

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 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.

HUMILITY:

“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. [learn more].

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”.