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”.

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. 

Wisdom or Obedience? For Friends, the Choice is Clear.

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“Where wisdom reigns, there is no conflict between thinking and feeling.”
~ C.G. Jung

 

From the New Oxford American Dictionary:
 Wisdom: noun
the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise.
Obedience: noun
compliance with an order, request, or law or submission to another’s authority.

 

Would you rather teach your Dog wisdom or obedience?  

There is too much emphasis on training Dogs to be obedient, and to conform, and not nearly enough on helping them to become wise and have insight.  The differences between obedience and wisdom are vast, and defines the difference between ownership and friendship in our relationship with our Dogs.  

When Humans and Dogs (Wolves) first found each other, we became partners and friends. (Schleidt, Shalter, 2003We shared each other’s skill sets and learned from each other — first by observation, and then through collaboration.   We shared our wisdom.  At some point in our history, our Human desire for ultimate control and conquest took over, and the relationship we had with our canine partners changed from friendship to ownership.  Somewhere along the way we were no longer interested in what we could do for them; we only focused on what they could do for us.  We confused utility and amusement with genuine friendship.  The millions of abandoned, abused and neglected Dogs that exist are a stark reminder of this fact.  If we are to truly see our Dogs as friends then we are obliged to share our wisdom with them so they can become fully functioning, self-realizing individuals, rather than mere obedient “pets”.

What then, is the difference between obedience and wisdom, and how do we teach our Dogs (and perhaps ourselves) the latter?   

The dictionary defines “wisdom” as: “a quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” However it requires much more than that.  Wisdom is grounded in knowledge and experience, which needs a high degree of awareness of one’s self and surroundings.  This is something that our Dogs excel at naturally.  Their neuroanatomy is designed to be tuned-in to what is happening at this moment, instead of being lost in memories or thoughts, the way our Human brains operate.  Their ability to detect movement, high frequency sounds, and their incredible sensitivity to chemical compounds (scent) is legendary.  We have used (exploited?) these abilities for centuries for our own benefit, but we can help our Dogs use their natural talents to make wise judgements and choices, too.

Wisdom means also being sensitive to the feelings of others, and having a high degree of empathy.   It is widely believed that our Dogs have “mirror neurons”, which are neurons that fire not only when our Dogs act, but also when our Dogs observe the same action by another.  In other words, that part of their neural network “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the Dog observing were itself acting.  We can help our Dogs use this empathic ability to make wise judgements that will help them become happier, and be better friends. For example, rather than just getting our Dogs to obey us, we communicate to them how their actions effect us so they have an intrinsic desire to help us be happy.  This is much different than extrinsic rewards or punishments to shape behavior.

How do we help our Dogs utilize their natural talents which are so conducive to wisdom?  Since wisdom is based on knowledge and experience, we must allow our Dogs to learn and experience their world.  This means giving them the freedom to explore, discover and participate in life and not to micro-manage everything they do.  We should support their autonomy and encourage them to be self-determined.  This does not imply they are to be completely independent of us.  They live in a world of cars, people, and other dangers.  Our job is to guide them and help them discover their limits as well as their freedoms.  Autonomy and freedom are not the same as total independence.  I am free to drive the type of car I want, free to go to the destination I choose, and free to choose the route to get there, however I still have limits. I cannot go through stop lights, drive too fast or cross a double yellow line without suffering consequences.  These limits are in place not only for my safety, but for other’s safety, so they may enjoy the same freedoms that I do.  Total independence is a disregard for these limits.   Autonomy is freedom that is integrated with concern for the well-being of others.

We must share and effectively communicate our wisdom with our Dogs so they gain the experience and knowledge of the dangers and the pleasures of their world, then step back and trust in their intrinsic ability to make wise choices.  Wisdom requires this autonomy.

Now contrast this with that of obedience.  The dictionary defines obedience as: “compliance with an order, request, or law or submission to another’s authority.”  This is the opposite of freedom and autonomy.  This is blind obedience to authority, regardless of the Dog’s preferences or desires.  Anyone who is familiar with experiments done by Stanley Milgram will see how dangerous to the well-being of an individual this can be.   Obedience, whether achieved through coercion or the so-called “humane” methods of Skinnerian manipulation, only serves to satisfy our desire to control our Dogs, rather than to help them become fully functioning, self-realized, free and genuinely fulfilled beings.   As much as we spin it as “love”, it is no more than an iron fist in a velvet glove.  It comes from a relationship of owner/pet rather than that of true friendship and is self-serving.  True friendship is the sharing of wisdom and communicating with compassion for the betterment of the other.  It is selfless.

These are the differences between Obedience and Wisdom:

Wisdom:

  • Intrinsic; internal.
  • Dynamic, always growing.
  • Self-reinforcing.
  • Dialectic.
  • Collaborative.
  • Autonomous.
  • Empathic.
  • Sensitive.
  • Focused on: “What can I give?”

Obedience:                                                                

  • Extrinsic; external.
  • Static; lifeless.
  • Must be externally reinforced.
  • Didactic.
  • Authoritative.
  • Controlling.
  • Indifferent.
  • Mechanistic.
  • Focused on: “What can I get?”

It is an incredible privilege to share our lives with Dogs.  It is a friendship that goes back tens of thousands of years.  As Humans and Dogs (wolves) “grew up” together, we learned from each other how to be safe, successful and happy.  It was a relationship based on equal respect and trust, yet somewhere along the way we lost our way.  Control and obedience replaced connection and wisdom.  As a result, many Dogs suffer abuse, abandonment, and neglect.  We owe it to ourselves and to our Dogs to revive that relationship that was built on an equal friendship.  

The good news is that this is easily achieved.  By sharing wisdom with each other, and treating each other with dignity and respect, our friendship will be renewed.  The truth is, it has never left.  It has only been obscured by the desire for obedience and control.  However, our pursuit of ultimate control is simply a exercise in futility.  Trying to create a friendship with our Dogs through obedience is the same as chasing our tails — our friendship will constantly elude our grasp.  However, wisdom teaches us that by simply walking the Path of Friendship together, friendship will follow us everywhere..

…The Bombs Bursting in Air…

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“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance.  It’s the illusion of knowledge.”
~ Stephen Hawking

Its that time of year again — outdoor celebrations, picnics, and, of course, fireworks.  It’s a festive time for Americans, but for many, especially for those with four legs, it can be a time of anxiety, stress and fear.  

Loud noises cause stress.  You may call it various names, like ligyrophobia, acousticophobia, sonophobia or phonophobia.  Whichever name we choose call it, the effects are the same.  When our dogs are exposed to sudden loud sounds, there is a release of adrenaline and an increase of the hormone cortisol, as well as changes to their amygdala, hippocampus, and parts of the frontal cortex of their brain.  In other words, brains change as a result of loud, anxiety producing noise.  Our dogs are especially vulnerable to this effect during the summer months when thunderstorms prevail and during Fourth of July celebrations, where fireworks are set off in some neighborhoods all day and night.  

 I see advice from well meaning “experts” about how to help your dog if they suffer from noise anxiety that may actually cause more fear and stress, negatively effecting your dog’s well-being.  Advice such as, “Don’t allow your dog to hide”, or “Don’t coddle or comfort them.”  The reasoning behind this is that doing so will supposedly “reinforce” their anxiety, and thus increase it.

The archaic idea that “comforting your dog when they are stressed will reinforce their feelings” is an outdated, Skinnerian, mechanistic approach that views dogs as one-dimensional machines, rather than complex, multi-dimensional, fully conscious beings that strive for self-realization.

Study after study show that allowing our dogs to “tough it out” and endure their stress can create the above-mentioned neurological changes that may lead to PTSD or PDSD.  Much of this stems from the old and outdated Watsonian/Skinnerian ideas that have been proven, based on evidence from modern neuroscience, to be damaging to babies, such as allowing them to cry and not responding to their needs.   In addition, denying your dog comfort in these situations may create insecurity in their relationship with you (Bowlby, Ainsworth, Schore) that can lead to a vast array of more anxiety issues, such as separation anxiety, confinement/barrier anxiety, and further noise anxiety.   In short, to withhold your love and kindness when they need it most will not solve the problem, it will exacerbate it.  

 I’ve also read a few suggestions that advise you to “Take your dog outside during the fireworks” in order to get them used to it.  This machismo attitude is extremely risky and can often destroy any sense of security your dog will ever have.  It borders on cruelty.  I have also heard the suggestion of putting your Dog in a crate.  This will only work if your Dog feels that this is a safe place and it is their choice.  Otherwise it will have the effect of making your Dog feel trapped and unable to escape.  This is unspeakably damaging to your Dog’s sense of safety and security.

The best thing we can do for our friends when they are stressed is to allow our dogs the dignity of choosing their own coping strategies that will help them, as long as they aren’t harming themselves.  Our Dogs are intelligent, self-determined beings that can find coping strategies to help them deal with fearful situations and regain a sense homeostasis.  We don’t always know what’s best for them. (“Kindly let me help you or you’ll drown”, said the Monkey putting the Fish safely up a tree.)  We should also make sure our Dogs know that we are there for them — to comfort and protect them, and most importantly acknowledge their concerns, and not disregard their feelings.  

We can help our Dogs cope with the noise by distracting them with play, providing we don’t add additional stress by attempting to “train” them.  If we can interest them in chasing a ball, or a game of tug without coercion, it may help them shift their focus away from the noise and towards play.  That will change their emotional state, as what they pay attention to determines how they feel.  That said, if it becomes a “training exercise”, we may be adding more stress to the situation.

One of the best ways we can help comfort our Dogs is through touch. Gentle, easy massage is a great way to stimulate oxytocin, which is a natural antidote to adrenaline.  Technique is not that important. It’s just the close, loving physical contact that helps.  This is precisely what those “compression shirts” on the market attempt to simulate, but they can’t come close to the genuine experience of your actual loving touch and connection — one living being to another, as friends. 

Another great way to help your Dog through these tough times is Shared Mindfulness.  This is something I highly recommend all year long, and not just under stressful conditions.  It is a wonderful way to deepen the connection between you and your Dog, and you can learn more about this great experience here.

Although this time of year can be difficult for you and your Dog, there is a bright spot.  When you connect with your Dog by putting into practice some of the suggestions above, you may find that sharing this experience brings you a closer, more trusting relationship.  By helping each other through this tough time, you further deepen your friendship.

So, the question arises, why limit this connection to the Fourth of July?  Our friendships with our Dogs need to be nourished every day of the year so we grow deep, connected roots.  And, if the roots grow deep, even the strongest storm can not do us harm. 

No Room At The Inn

 

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“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
~ Mahatma Ghandi 

 

Take a trip to your local animal shelter and you’ll soon notice that there are very few, if any, empty cages.  You might see Dogs and Cats in makeshift pens and crates stacked up in corners, hallways, and lobby areas, too.  It seems that space for unwanted animals is a rare commodity. 

Before we explore the reasons for this, let me begin by saying the solution to this problem is unequivocally and absolutely NOT to kill animals to make more room.  The outright murder of healthy, conscious, self-aware beings, no matter how it’s spun with words like “euthanasia”, or “mercy killing”, is a shameful and inexcusable act of violence.  This is not the point of this article.  I am simply asking the question: “Why are there so many unwanted Dogs and Cats?”  According to some research, it’s simply a matter of dissatisfaction with the relationship (Collison, 2015).  However, there are specific reasons that contribute to relinquishment.  What follows is an incomplete list of these possible reasons why, and my hope is that it will begin to get you thinking more about our relationship with non-humans. 

  1. Too Many Dogs and Cats.

This seems an obvious point.  However the question is why are there so many?  The answer is simple:  We continue to create them.

Whether it’s the deplorable practice of puppy and kitten mills that mass-produce animals in the cruelest and most vile conditions, just to make a profit – or the elite show-Dog or Cat breeder that exploit their animals for fame and money – all breeding must come to an end.  It is morally reprehensible to “manufacture” conscious life for amusement and profit.  Unfortunately, organizations such as the American Kennel Club continue to promote “responsible breeding” (whatever that means) for the sake of maintaining the integrity of the breeds.  These are not automobiles, where continuing to build Volkswagen Beetles is a nostalgic undertaking.  Most of the breeds that have been manufactured are no longer serving their original intended purpose.  We have created Dogs with strong predatory drives that are no longer based on hunger, and therefore live with constant frustration from an itch they can never scratch. We’ve genetically constructed Dogs and Cats with distorted faces and skeletal structures that create chronic health issues (just look at a bulldog or a munchkin cat),  Dogs have been genetically manipulated to behave in ways that are not acceptable in our (uptight) culture, such as herding Dogs or livestock guardians.  This is not the fault of the Dog, we made them that way, and then we set up the rules in opposition to the very drives we installed in them in the first place. We make more and more and more – and at the same time there are so many discarded lives in need.  All for our own use and pleasure.

2. The “Disneyfication” of Dogs and Cats.

Turn on your television at any moment, and you’re sure to see a commercial for Dog food, Cat litter, or some other pet related product.  Do the animals in those commercials really behave that way?  Probably not.  Sure, the manufacturers of those products would like you to believe if you buy their product your own Dog will become that way – just as the Marlboro Man image was used to sell cigarettes (and we all know how that worked out).  This imagery paints an unrealistic picture of living with animals and creates unrealistic expectations.  When reality hits, we give up on the animals.  It’s the same with popular movies, books, TV shows, etc.  They present Dogs and Cats, even when they are mischievous, in an unnatural way (Beethoven, Marley and Me, That Darn Cat, etc.).  To me, this is disrespectful.  If we love Dogs and Cats, then we should love them as Dogs and Cats, not as caricatures.  

3. Ego-Centric Animal Shelters.

Where I live, in Northeast Pennsylvania, there are two animal shelters within close proximity, and like Charles Dicken’s  ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.  One shelter is run smoothly, efficiently, and most importantly, compassionately.  They put the needs of their animal guests first, and the egos of the staff and management last.  They are True Friends to the animals.  

The other one has been riddled with problems.  It is run by leadership that has, at times,  put control over compassion and procedure over purpose. 

Running an animal shelter is not an easy task.  I lived it – I was the Director of Operations and Behavior for five branches of the Pennsylvania SPCA for a few years, and spent the past 35 years consulting to shelters across the Northeast U.S.  It take a tremendous amount of time and dedication, and it means being selfless – always putting the mission of the shelter above your own needs.  Therefore, when a shelter is not managed in a compassionate and effective way, the animals suffer.  Fewer adoptions are made and morale of the staff, volunteers and the animals sink.  It becomes a vicious circle that ends in misery for everyone.

4. Speciesism.

I’m going to tread lightly here, as this topic deserves a much more in-depth discussion, but I will express a few relevant points.  Speciesism is: “the assumption of human superiority leading to the exploitation of animals.”  When we feel that our lives matter more than that of our Dogs and Cats (or any sentient being), we have no problem “disposing” of them if our relationship with them isn’t perfect.  Our society doesn’t value Dogs or Cats as much as people.  

Statistically, the number one reason animals are surrendered to shelters is economics,  where someone’s living situation has changed and they can no longer afford to keep the animal.  We don’t give up our children, spouses or family members in these situations, yet our culture views Dogs and Cats as less important, so the available financial help is non-existent.  This is putting one species above another.  It has been shown that the relationships between a human and and animal is just as emotionally binding as that as human to human (Smolkovic, Fajfar, Mlinaric, 2012) , yet our politicians, landlords, etc. don’t see it that way or they just don’t care.  Therefore, when tragedy strikes, once again it is the Dog or the Cat that suffers, and in many cases, the Human suffers just as much.  

5. Avidya.

Avidya is a Sanskrit word that can be translated as “ignorance”.  “Vidya” (the root of our word vision) means “to see”, and the prefix “A” means “non”.  So Avidya literally means “not to see”.  So what is it that we don’t see that contributes to the over population of unwanted animals?  

As I eluded to in the previous section: Speciesism.  We don’t see Dogs or Cats or any non-human as our equals.  When we see them as pets, or tools, and when we see ourselves as owners instead of friends, then we devalue their lives.  We separate ourselves from them and lord over them.  We have traded connection for control.

Some of this perception comes from the dominion mandate, but that concept has been debated even among theological scholars.  All life, whether it’s life that we “manufactured” (domesticated), or wild life, is part of, and has, as Henri Bergson describes, an “Elán Vital”; a Vital Spirit or Life Force.  Every living creature that walks, swims, crawls or flies – has consciousness (The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness).  They may be different in how they manifest that consciousness, but it makes it no less important than our own.  Suffering is suffering is suffering. 

So, what can we do? 

1. First, STOP ALL BREEDING!  I know this is a lot to ask, especially with the multi-billion dollar pet industry that benefits from the mass production of “pets”. It begs the question, Is the money worth the suffering?   “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36)  We need to devote our energies to caring for the ones that are already with us, and stop making more and more.

2. Enjoy watching the movies and television shows that present Dogs and Cats in an unrealistic light, but remind ourselves that it’s not reality.  Give our Dogs and Cats a hug and tell them we love them ‘Just the way they are’.

3. Support animal shelters and rescue groups that really care about the animals.  There are so many that need help.  Do Your Homework!  Adopt, Foster, Donate, Volunteer.

4. Patronize those business establishments that are welcoming to animals.  Enlighten and educate those who are not.  Try to refrain from using animal products, and avoid those companies that test on animals.  Send a message that their lives are as important as ours is.

5. Lets end our obsession with control, and strive for connection.  Rather than trying to forcibly thrust away the darkness, all we need to do is bring in the light.  If we truly open our eyes and see that non-humans are equal to ourselves – that they suffer, aspire, love, feel, and think; that they are self-aware and self-determined – then the lives of millions and millions of Dogs, Cats, Horses, Birds, Cows, Pigs, etc, etc. will be greatly improved.  And since we are all connected – we are all part of a great interrelated continuum – our own lives will be improved as well.  Then, perhaps, animal shelters will become only a distant memory, because everyone will have a home.

 

 

The Friendship Scale

 

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Have you ever thought about where are you and your Dog are on the Friendship Scale?  Followers of my blog know that the ultimate relationship with our Dogs is that of friendship and not ownership.  However, there are varying degrees that can take us from Ownership to Friendship, and beyond.  I call it the Friendship Scale, and it can be a useful guide help you and your Dog navigate the Path of Friendship together.

OWNERSHIP GUARDIANSHIP PARTNERSHIP FRIENDSHIP KENZOKU

Ownership:

In this relationship, the Dog is a something rather than a someone.  The Dog is a possession, and the owner is in total control.  The sole purpose of the Dog is to serve and please the owner.  This relationship is one-directional, and there is a great separation between owner and Dog; almost no integration.  All communication is limited to lectures and monologues from the Owner.

Guardianship:

Here, the guardian has a minimal understanding that the Dog is an individual, but still feels that the foundation of the relationship is control.  Often, this manifests itself where the Dog is thought of and treated as a Human child, and the Guardian feels as if they are the Dog’s”parent”.  There is love and care for many of the Dog’s needs, to be sure, but the Dog is often not permitted to be a “Dog”, and the Guardian sees things only from their own perspective. The respect for the Dog just being a Dog is not always present. This is also a one-directional relationship, but there is less separation and more integration.

Partnership:

This relationship is based more on mutual benefits to both the Human and the Dog.  There is a sense of both give and take, although it is more akin to a business relationship than a personal one.  The level of respect for the Dog is increased, and she is seen more as an equal, in that her point of view has equal consideration.  This relationship is bi-directional, and both partners maintain a level of dignity.  Here, there is more integration in the relationship and although there is still a feeling of separation, there is a beginning sense of unity.  Communication begins to become a dialogue, rather than a monologue.

Friendship:

This is the most natural relationship between Humans and Dogs.  Here, the lines of separation are porous, and there is a real feeling of unity.  The focus is mostly on how to help each other and make each other happy, and far less on personal gain.  It is a fully integrated relationship where collaboration, respect, trust, compassion and equality are the ingredients.  Communication is a dialogue.  It is a selfless relationship, and there is no sense or need for one to control the other.

Kenzoku:

This is what we strive for with our Dogs.  It is a relationship where there is no separation, only a fully integrated and unified connection.  The relationship becomes its own entity.  Here, there is no need for control or no need for manipulation.  You and your Dog are one “being”.  Communication is often unspoken, where you and your Dog just “know” what the other wants.  This is the ultimate, fully functioning relationship.  This takes time, and may not be possible with every relationship.  However, when you’ve achieved Kenzoku with your dog, then real growth for both of you takes place.

Relationships are never static.  Like a flower, they are either growing or withering.  To help the relationship grow, all we need to do is to provide fertile soil, nourishment, and abundant light.  This is simply a matter of removing the barriers that prevent growth.  Devotion, Appreciation and Compassion create the environment for fully a functioning relationship.  Cooperation and collaboration rather than Skinnerian manipulation, holism instead of reductionism,  focusing on what we can give and not on what we can get – these remove the obstacles to growth.  And if we can learn to be friends with our Dogs, we may find we can be better friends with ourselves, too.

Treating Our Dogs With Dignity

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“Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, men are defined not by themselves, but by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live.”
~ Laura Hillenbrand

The other day I was hiking with my dogs Bhakti and Bodhi, when we came upon a mountain biker riding toward us.  I called the Dogs off the trail and had them sit while I waited for the biker to pass.  He stopped and exclaimed, “What good dogs!”, and then he rode off.  I was struck by the idea that to many of us, when it comes to Dogs, “good” has become synonymous with “obedient”.  

Every day, social media is filled with photos and videos of Dogs being obedient, but I often wonder, who is this for?  Is it for the Dog’s benefit or the Human’s?  The answer seems obvious – it’s for the Human.  We love to show off to the world how much control we have over our Dogs.  We feel proud of ourselves when we can make our Dogs “sit”, “give paw” and “roll-over”.    We use our Dogs to boost our egos.  We are filled with what psychologists and sociologists refer to as “B.I.R.G.” – Basking In Reflective Glory. 

“Roll-over” is the perfect symbol for what we are actually doing to them.  We are making them subservient and submissive. yet we call them our “Best Friends”.  If a person treated me that way I certainly wouldn’t consider them a friend at all.  

Organizations that make millions of dollars from the promotion of genetic manipulation and production of Dogs, such as the American Kennel Club, have contests that showcase how much Humans can make Dogs conform. An example is the AKC Good Citizen Award. I wonder if Rosa Parks or Ghandi had been these “good citizens” what our world would be like today?

 Entire industries and professions exist for the sole purpose of canine conformity. I’ve witnessed this for 30 years as a former professional dog trainer and an animal behaviorist.  The tools and techniques, especially the Skinnerian behavior modification “brainwashing” methods, are all designed to achieve blind obedience, like something out of a George Orwell novel.  Again, I ask the question: For who’s benefit?  

There are many who will rationalize that it’s “good for the dogs – it keeps them safe.”  I used that line myself for many years.  However, turning your dog into a mindless subservient robot is a steep price to pay for this safety, especially when there are more respectful and effective ways to help our Dogs live happy, productive and self-determined lives. 

Instead of teaching them to conform, our goals with our Dogs should be to empower them.  That’s what friends do.  We need to be respectful and not coercive.  We must strive to be friends and not owners.  Rather than ask our Dogs to be obedient, we should work together in cooperation and collaboration.  To help them to be “safe” we should share our wisdom with them and build a friendship based on trust and respect.  As the educators Jean Piaget and John Dewey suggested, learning is best when it is the sharing of ideas.   Our focus should be on creating well-being, not performance.  This is treating our dogs with the dignity they deserve. 

Donna Hicks, Ph.D., an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, speaks of the “Essential Elements of Dignity”, and when they are violated they can destroy relationships.   These elements should be applied to our Dogs every day.  The following are her10 Essential Elements of Dignity.  Although Dr. Hicks is referring to Human to Human dignity, we can include Dogs (and every non-human) in these ideas:

  1. Acceptance of Identity: First thing you need to do when you want to honor peoples’ dignity is to accept that they are neither inferior nor superior to you. By virtue of being a human being, we all have the same inherent worth and value and the same human vulnerability. Everyone should feel free to express their authentic self without fear of being judged negatively. When you have an interaction with others, start with the orientation that no matter who they are, or what their race, religion, gender, class, or sexual orientation, it is your obligation to humanity to accept them as your spiritual equals and to do them no harm.
  2. Acknowledgment: People like to feel that they matter. Acknowledgment can be as simple as smiling at others when they walk by to formally recognizing them for something they have done for which they deserve credit. It is especially important to acknowledge the impact of your actions on others when you violate their dignity, instead of trying to save face by diminishing or ignoring the harm you have caused.
  3. Inclusion: No one likes to feel left out or that they don’t belong. When we are included, we feel good about who we are. When we are excluded from things that matter to us, we feel an instant reaction of self-doubt. What is it about me that I wasn’t included? This is an affront to our dignity at all levels of human interaction, from the political, when minority groups feel left out of the political process by the majority, to the interpersonal, when we’re not included in the decision-making that directly affects us.
  4. Safety: There are two kinds of safety that are important to dignity: physical and psychological. Physical threats need no explanation but psychological threats are more complicated. Honoring others’ psychological safety means not shaming, humiliating, diminishing, or hurtfully criticizing them, especially, but not limited to, violations that are public.
  5. Fairness: We all have a particularly strong knee-jerk reaction to being treated unfairly. If we want to honor the dignity of others, we need to ensure that we are honoring agreed upon laws and rules of fairness—both implicit and explicit—when we interact with them.
  6. Freedom: A major dignity violation occurs when we restrict people and try to control their lives. Honoring this element of dignity requires that people feel free from domination and that they are able to experience hope and a future that is filled with a sense of possibility.
  7. Understanding: There is nothing more frustrating than to feel misunderstood, especially when you are in conflict with others. Extending dignity means that you give others the chance to explain themselves, actively listening to them for the sole purpose of understanding their perspective.
  8. Benefit of the Doubt: Treating people as though they were trustworthy—giving them the benefit of the doubt that they are acting with good intention—is honoring their dignity. This is, paradoxically, especially important when people are in conflict with one another where the cycle of mistrust is difficult to break. Treating others as though they were trustworthy, as difficult as it is, often interrupts the negative expectations, creating opportunities for a change in the relationship.
  9. Responsiveness: We all want to be seen and heard. Treating people as if they were invisible or ignoring them by not responding to their concerns is a violation of their dignity.
  10. Righting the Wrong: When we violate someone’s dignity, it is important to take responsibility and apologize for the hurt we have caused. It is a way for us to regain our own dignity as well as acknowledging the wrongdoing to the person you violated.

Donna Hicks
Weatherhead Center for International Affairs Harvard University
January 30, 2009

When we treat our Dogs with dignity, and view them as someone rather than something, not only will our friendship grow beyond our expectations, we will grow as individuals as well.  Then, and only then, will we be able to truly say we have “good Dogs”.