Alone, Together

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During this time of social distancing and isolation, there is one bright spot.  We can learn to be closer with our dogs and enrich our friendship.  The quiet, snuggle times that we have with our dogs usually fit neatly into our daily routines, without much thought. But now that most of us are sequestered in our homes, our routines have changed.  We can take advantage of this time to connect more deeply with our dogs. We can also take this time to work on any problems we see in our relationship. This is a time to focus on connecting, which brings us closer, and not controlling, which further distances us. 

A great way to do this is through what I call C.A.R.E.S., which stands for Companion Animal Relationship Enrichment Strategy.  Based in part on trans-species psychology and ideas such as polyvagal theory and attachment theory,  it asserts that most of the problems we experience with our dogs, and much of the fear and anxiety our dogs suffer, can be be more effectively healed through enriching our relationships and not through training and behavior modification.  I have used this approach for more than 30 years, and have had great success with it.  This period of social isolation is the perfect time to put this approach into action.

The eight dimensions of the Companion Animal Relationship Enrichment Strategy (C.A.R.E.S.): 

  1. Regard your dog as an equal.   This may seem like a radical idea, especially since we’ve been told by trainers and behaviorists that our relationship with our dogs is hierarchical, with humans being on top of the ladder.  However, nothing distances us more than inequality. When we view our dogs as subordinates, whether as a pet, a “child” or a tool, we eliminate the possibility of a true friendship from ever forming.  This is because true friendship, as Plato and countless other great minds have expressed, can occur only between equals. 
    Equality is not “sameness.”  Our dogs are different from us in many ways. Our differences are complementary, and that is precisely why we have developed a friendship over tens of thousands of years.   Although our dogs are not the same as us,  we are of equal value – just as our hearts and our lungs are not the same, but are of equal value.  We cannot exist without either; they complement each other and therefore give us life.  This is what the concept of being equal with our dogs suggests.
  2. Have complete faith in your dog.  Our dogs are perfect creatures, even if they don’t act that way all the time.  The truth is, neither do we.  When we have complete faith in them, we send them the message that we believe in them and we are committed to them. The more we have faith, the closer we are.  The more we doubt, the further apart we become.
  3. Un-cage your dog.  I am speaking metaphorically here.  When we attach labels to our dogs, such as “aggressive,” “shy,” “wild,” etc., we are putting them in a box and don’t see them for who they are in the moment.  Our dogs are not one-dimensional, fixed objects that never change; they are ever-changing, multi-dimensional living beings that are completely unique moment by moment.  When we recognize that and see them as they are in the present moment, our friendship will deepen and flourish.
  4. Love and accept your dog unconditionally.  When we put conditions on our love for our dogs, we greatly increase the distance between us.  If we tell them, “I’ll only love or accept you if…” you obey me or you stop chewing up shoes or you don’t jump, etc.,  we communicate to them that we don’t love or accept them for who they are.  This message will destroy our relationship and add tremendous insecurity and anxiety to our dogs.  A friendship cannot survive if it’s based on “quid pro quo.” 
    This love is not only a feeling; it must also be an action.  Never withhold affection for your dog or hold back on tenderness because they may not be behaving the way you expect them to.  Love shouldn’t be rationed as if it’s in short supply.  The more you give your love freely, the more you will receive it.
  5. Let go of control and support your dog’s autonomy.  When we make control a priority with our dogs, we lose the very foundation of our friendship.  Love is not how much we can control them, it’s how deeply we connect with them.  Our dogs are unique, self-determined individuals and we must respect that.  As equals, they deserve the same freedom of choice that we do.  When we micro-manage everything they do, we send them the message that they are incompetent and inferior.
    This does not imply that dogs have “carte blanche” to do whatever they want.  As friends neither of us is entitled to that.  It means that we support their decisions and choices and don’t stand in the way of the freedom for them to be themselves.
  6. Resolve conflicts with your dog with compassion and empathy.  When problems between you and your dog inevitably arise, if we respect each other’s needs and wants and use compassionate communication in finding mutually beneficial solutions, these conflicts will ultimately strengthen our friendship.  On the other hand, if we see ourselves as the “boss” and don’t take our dog’s feelings and needs into consideration by attempting to “train” them, then we further distance ourselves from them.  This requires tapping into and expanding our capacity for empathy.  As friends, we should focus on win-win solutions to our difficulties.
  7. Learn from each other and share wisdom.   We have complementary skill sets and can learn a great deal from each other.  We can help each other be happy and flourish.  As humans, we have an incredible capacity of prediction and the ability to see the “big picture.”  Our dogs have an equally incredible  ability to notice the present moment in astonishing detail.  When we tap into this harmony between us, we create a synergistic relationship where we become better together than we’d be separate.  When we ignore our dog’s input so we can be the “boss,”  we damage our connection.  
  8. Prioritize spending time connecting with your dog.   The more time we spend with our dogs, the closer we become.  I realize that this is not always possible, so the time we do have with them should be spent on connecting, not controlling.   If our precious moments together consist entirely of manipulation and training, we have lost time together that we never recover.  Instead of teaching useless “tricks” to show off to the neighbors, spend time in activities that enrich and enhance our friendship.  This can include, but is certainly not limited to: shared mindfulness, queen for a day, mindful walking, hide & seek, massage, hiking, playing ball, and more.  When we do this in the spirit of equal friendship, rather than of owner and pet, we decrease the distance between us and remove the barriers that block the bond between us.

This pandemic will ultimately end and there will be a return to normalcy.  If we use the time we now have with our dogs to enrich our relationship, we’ll get past this time of social distancing and become closer together as friends — the way we are supposed to be.  

Honor or Betrayal?

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Last week I wrote about loving and losing our non-human friends.  It was a difficult essay for me to write because of the recent losses my family and friends endured.  It also opened some old wounds when I had to say goodbye to my dog Cosmo, just four short years ago this month.

When Cosmo died, I was devastated.  I wasn’t sure how I would continue to function on a daily basis, especially since my work is helping people and their dogs live happily together.  How would I be able to council someone on developing a great friendship with their dog when my own beloved friend was now gone from my life?  

After he died, I didn’t want to leave my house without my best buddy riding next to me as he did for almost 12 years, and yet I didn’t want to stay in my house either – the void was just too great to bear.   It was even more difficult when I’d see my other dog Cecil, watch the door,  waiting for his friend who would never come home again.  

Struggling with my loss, I swore up and down that I would never replace him.  Not only did I not want to endure the pain again, but that getting another dog would be a dishonor to him and his memory.  Besides, I told myself, I’d always compare another dog to him and that wouldn’t be fair to the new dog.  No, I thought firmly, I will never betray my friend Cosmo.  

Three days later…  

I wasn’t strong enough to bear the emptiness.  I needed bring another dog into my life.  I decided that since Cosmo was no longer with me, I’d give another dog in need a chance at life.  Of course, that dog would never replace Cosmo. 

My wife and I took a ride to our local shelter.  We looked at many dogs there, all of them in such desperate need of a home of their own, but I needed to give more thought to bringing another dog home so soon.   That evening, I looked at some photos that a friend who runs a rescue had posted online.  One picture grabbed me.  

I can’t say what it was about her picture that made me pause and really look deeper.  The dog in the photo wasn’t exactly the type of dog I would normally look at.  I had a preference for larger dogs and this one was small to medium.  Yet there was something about her that prompted me to inquire further.  I messaged my friend and we set up a meet and greet a few days later.

Vanora, what the rescue was calling her, was nothing like the type of dog I was partial to.  First of all, she was a she, and I always had a preference for males.  Secondly, she was smaller than I usually liked and was brindle-colored, which I didn’t really care for.  Meeting her didn’t go so well, either.  She never really looked at me – she kept shifting her gaze to the squirrels and chipmunks that were running around in the field we were in.  It’s not that she didn’t want to engage with me, but she preferred viewing the wildlife more.  How could I ever connect with this small, distracted, brindle female?  

I’m happy to say that Vanora, now named Bhakti (which means devotion in Sanskrit), has been the light of my life for the past four years.  She is different than any dog I’ve ever had the privilege to share my life with.  We have a connection that is on the same level that I had with Cosmo.  

In the beginning, I struggled with the thought that I had somehow betrayed Cosmo by loving Bhakti.  It felt almost like I was cheating on him, and that he would be jealous.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wasn’t  betraying Cosmo, I was honoring him.  I remembered a line from my all-time favorite film “Harold and Maude”.  In a scene where Maude was dying, Harold tearfully said to her, “Don’t die, Maude, I love you!”  Her response was the most profound message I ever heard when it comes to loving and losing: “That’s wonderful! Now go and love some more.”

There is a quote that is credited to the Buddha which says: “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”    I believe this is true with love, too.  When our beloved friends leave us, sharing our love with another dog does not diminish our first love, it only strengthens it.  Our friends will always occupy unique places in our hearts; nothing can ever replace them.  By adding more love to our lives with another dog who needs us, we greatly honor the memory of our departed friends. Not just tucked away in our hearts, but in the daily expression of love we give the friends that are with us.

Our Dogs: Family or Friends?

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“A friend is a single soul dwelling in two bodies.”
Aristotle

I read an interesting statistic from animalsheltering.org the other day stating that 80% of people felt their pet was part of the family.  At first, I was encouraged by that statistic, but the more I thought about it, the more it troubled me.  

One of the first things I noticed was the wording of the question.  It seems to be asking if you consider your pet to be a family member.  The dog was given the category “pet” first; “family” seemed to be a subcategory. The assumption is that the dog is a pet, and you are the owner.  I don’t know of anyone who really believes they “own” their family members, with the exception of some archaic and machismo concept of “king of the castle” control freaks.  People don’t own each other, and that includes family members.

The second, and more important thing that jumped out at me was the assumption that being a family member meant the two of you have a great connection. But that’s not always the case with families.

 When we say our dogs are part of our family, it doesn’t speak to the quality of the relationship.  I have family members who love and would do anything for, yet I certainly wouldn’t want to hang with them!  This sentiment is probably experienced during uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinners in many homes.   There are many instances where families have a deep love for one another, but rarely spend much time together or have any other bond aside from being a blood relation.  This is certainly not the way most of us feel about our dogs.  Family members love one another, but that does not automatically mean that they will be close, or enjoy the company of these relations.  This is why I prefer to use the term “friend” rather than “family,” because it more accurately describes the type of relationship and its qualities.  

When we speak about a loving family or loving our friends, we are often speaking about love as a feeling and a noun.  I’m speaking about love as an action and a verb.  Sometimes, we treat our friends differently than our family members.  We love our family members, and we connect with our friends.  

“True friendship can only exist between equals,” as Plato famously said.  Very often, we don’t consider our family members equals.  For example, when people say their dogs are “family,” they usually consider them as their children, as the term “fur baby” is becoming increasingly popular. However, this doesn’t accurately describe the relationship. When we look at the relationship between parents and children, it becomes clear.  As parents, we want our kids to listen to us and obey our wishes.  We do this out of love and concern for them, because our job as parents is to protect our children and prepare them for adulthood and independence.  This is a very different relationship than we have with our friends.  We are not preparing our friends to go off and become successful and independent adults.  We may advise and council our friends, especially if we possess certain skills or wisdom, but it is not a command, nor do we insist that our friends obey us.  We treat each other as equals, and respect each other’s differences.  

I think the family relationships most analogous to friendship are spouse or sibling.  In these cases there is more of an assumption of equality, although it doesn’t guarantee that siblings become friends, or even that spouses like each other and want to spend time together.  One only has to look at the rate of divorce in our culture to see what I mean.  

The relationship we have with our dogs is healthiest when we consider each other, and treat each other, as friends.  This means we live together without hierarchies, conditions and contingencies.  We respect each other for who we are, and do not resort to manipulation or coercion to get our way.  When we are faced with a conflict, we work it out together with cooperation and collaboration, and never entertain the concept of “winners” and “losers” or blame each other.  As friends, we respect each other’s autonomy and independence, and offer guidance and advice with compassion and concern, yet never force or bribe.  It also means we are open to receive guidance as well.  As friends, we spend time together and enjoy each other’s company, not just with structured activities. We find peace and comfort just being in each other’s presence.  We have undying faith in each other and are completely committed to our friendship, through good times and bad.  This is unconditional love and acceptance, and the only way our friendship will grow and flourish.  

The love we feel about those we consider our family is deep and unshakable.  It is written into our genetic code.  We will often go to “the ends of the Earth” to help our our family out.  The love we feel for our friends is equally profound.  We see our friends as part of ourselves, and reflections of our souls.  With our dogs, the ideal relationship to strive for is to be both friend and family.  We must love them as family, and treat them as friends.

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

Let Go, and Let Dog.

Let go and let dog.
Path of friendship.

“The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings.”
~ J. M. Barrie, The Little White Bird

If there is lack of faith in a friendship with your Dog, the friendship doesn’t really exist.  Every day, Dogs are being abandoned, surrendered to animal shelters, and even abused because we don’t have faith in our friendship, faith in our Dogs, or even faith in ourselves.  Faith is the seed from which every successful friendship grows.  Without it, skill, information, and effort will only produce a facsimile of a genuine friendship. With faith, even a tiny bit, there is no obstacle too large, no chasm too wide, and no task too difficult to prevent the deep connection needed for a pure and true friendship to grow.  Yet, we live in a culture that ridicules faith as being too precarious, too opaque and too idealistic. Instead, control has become our obsession.

This obsession with control is precisely what creates barriers between us and our Dogs, and prevents us from growing a genuine friendship.   Although many professionals, books and social media discuss the idea of friendship, what they are really describing is ownership, and therefore rather than achieving a deep connection, they are just promoting control and exploitation.   

Ownership clings, friendship lets go.  

When I think about how how I learned what faith is, I am often reminded of the time I went skydiving.  I didn’t really want to go, as I had a fear of heights, but it was a case of “open mouth, insert foot”.  I was dating a girl who’s brother was a paratrooper, and while we were talking together one day, I mentioned that I would love to go skydiving.  My ego was on the line, standing next to this brave, macho brother of my girlfriend.  Of course, I never expected to really jump out of an airplane.  However, when her brother said, “I know a great place you can do that, and it’s on me!”, I couldn’t back out.

It was very sunny at the small airfield in southern New Jersey, where myself and two other nervous first-time jumpers would spend the next three hours preparing for our jump.  We learned about our parachutes, how they were packed, what a drogue is, and the way they the chute would be opened. We also spend the bulk of the time learning how to fall, by jumping off a platform.  If we landed wrong we could injure or possibly break our legs.  Looking back, this was the first lesson of faith I had, although I was not aware of it.  We learned not to look at the ground when landing, because we may reach for it by stretching and reaching out our legs in order to control the fall.  Instead, we were told to look at the horizon, and to have faith in our chute and our newly learned ability to land safely.  

The time came for the plane to ascend.  There were three students, including myself, and our instructor in a small propeller plane with worn out seats and a musty smell.  I knew what I was supposed to do, yet I didn’t know if I could actually go through with it.  The door opened and we were expected to stand on the outer step, hold onto the wing and wait for the instructor’s signal to let go.  The first guy was called up. I never saw someone turn so pale and frightened.  As he held on to the wing, I could almost hear his heart beating.  He let go, and was gone.  Next was my turn.  I stepped out of the plane onto the platform and gripped the wing so tightly that I though my fingers would break off.  All the preparation I did earlier had come down to this moment.  I still had to just have faith and let go.  I heard my instructor say “now!”, but his voice was distant and seemed unreal.  A second “NOW!”, and I let go of the wing.  

The experience was incredible.  I never felt so free and peaceful.  As I was gently floating towards the earth, and steering towards a large bullseye on ground (by pulling down right and left levers on the chute), I wondered what I tried so hard to hold on to.  Not just on the wing of the airplane, but also to my fear of heights and to my desire for constant control.  I landed on my feet, looking at the horizon as I was instructed to, but my heart and soul were still flying free.  

I had my skydiving experience over 35 years ago, but I still think about it every day.  

In trying to describe what faith is, I find it useful to contrast it with what it is not:

Faith vs. Fear:

When we try to control our Dogs, it is often based on fear.  Fear that they will misbehave, fear that they will hinder our peace, fear that they will embarrass us, and even fear that they will harm themselves.  Too much of this fear will lead to controlling every aspect of our Dog’s lives, and that leaves them no room for their own lives.  If we truly love our Dogs, then we must love them and have faith in them as Dogs, and not as puppets or machines.  We need to have a healthy balance between fear and faith, and trust that our Dogs are perfect just as they are.

Faith vs. Hope:

Hope is a hollow uncertainty.  When we hope for something, we desire a specific outcome, yet we are not sure we will get it.  There is a strong element of doubt in hope.  Faith is certainty – not about a future outcome, but about a present moment perfection.  “In the whole universe, not one blade of grass is out of place.” – Chuang Tzu

Faith vs. Belief: 

Belief and faith are polar opposites.  Belief is tightly grasping an idea or a concept.  Faith is letting go of fixed ideas and concepts.  Faith is having a beginner’s mind. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities.  In the expert’s mind there are few.”- Shunryu Suzuki

When we let go of preconceived notions and assumptions about what sharing life with our Dog is, then we are free to experience all the joys, nuances and textures of the relationship. True friendship can never stand if it is forced, and when our fear of falling causes us to grip so tightly, we lose the very friendship we seek in the first place, we find, paradoxically, that only by letting go, can we fly.

Open Heart “Mergery”

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“The greatest asset you could own is an open heart.”
~ Nikki Rowe

There is a wonderful story about a young scholar who asked a Rabbi, “How should we keep the Torah?”

The Rabbi said, “You should always keep the Torah on your heart.”

“On your heart?” asked the scholar. “Why not in?”

The Rabbi replied: “Because when your heart is closed, its teachings are not available to you. It is only with an open heart that you can receive the teachings of the Torah.” 

 

Along with my 35 years as an animal behavior consultant, I have been a mindfulness practitioner for close to 40 years, and an instructor of mindfulness practices for over 30 years.  Of the many different types of mindfulness practices, the “Metta Bhavana” (Pali) or “Maitri” (Sanskrit) is one of the best ways to enrich compassion in ourselves.  This is a compassion and loving-kindness meditation that opens our hearts to ourselves and to the world around us.  Metta originates from Buddhist tradition and is translated as loving-kindness and friendliness.  By sharing this practice with our Dogs, we can increase their levels of compassion as well.  When we do this, our connection with each other will grow deeper than we could ever have imagined.  Our Dog’s behavior, as well as our own behavior, becomes motivated by compassion and love, rather than greed (as what happens with typical Skinnerian reward-based training) or fear (which is what happens with dominance-based training).  When we connect and merge at these deep levels of compassion for each other, we become two sides of one coin.  Our focus is on helping each other to be happy, rather than looking for how we can please only ourselves.  It is essential to do these practices on a regular basis to enrich our relationship with each other.  Love, therefore, is not only a “noun,” but is also a “verb”- meaning we must make the effort to connect if we are to achieve the highest level of friendship with our Dogs.   It is fortunately a labor of love – literally.  

To begin, find a time where you and your Dog can both sit quietly and undisturbed.  This is not a time for distractions so turn off the phone, television, computer or anything else that will be competing for your attention.  This is a special time for you and your Dog to share together.  

Begin by asking your Dog to sit next to you, and start to gently and calmly stroke his fur from the bridge of his nose and continue all the way down his back.  By stroking directly across his eyes, you will help him to relax.  Remember to do this slowly.  My teacher once told me, “Go slowly enough so you can count each strand of fur beneath your hand.”  If this seems to bother him, then just start from the top of his shoulders.  Speak softly to him, use lots of eye contact and smile – your Dog can absolutely read your facial expressions.  Continue this for a while until you feel your Dog is more relaxed, and you feel more relaxed as well.

At this point, you are going to begin the practice of Shared Mindfulness with your Dog. (To learn more about Shared Mindfulness click here.) Place your hand gently on his ribcage near his heart and notice the rise and fall of his chest as he breathes.  Focus all your attention on this.  You may want to count his breaths, if that helps.  Count “one” for each out breath up to ten, then start at one again.  

As you do this, your mind will begin to wander.  You may become distracted by sounds, or you will begin to have various thoughts come into your mind.  Once you notice them, don’t try to push them away.  Instead, gently bring your attention and awareness back to your Dog’s breath.  Be gentle with yourself, and don’t try to force anything.  Continue for a few minutes. 

After doing this for a little while, expand your awareness to include your own breath. Notice how your breath and your Dog’s breath have begun to synchronize a little.  Don’t force anything, just allow the harmonious breathing to happen without judgment or criticism.  Continue with this for a while until you both are feeling relaxed and calm.  

Now you are going to begin the Metta Bhavana together.  Leave your hand on your Dog’s heart, and place your other hand over your own.  Begin to say to your Dog, either softly out loud or to yourself: 

 “May you be happy.”  

“May you be peaceful.”  

“May you be free of suffering.”  

As you say this, try to feel your love and compassion going directly to your Dog’s heart from your own.  Say these phrases a few times, feeling each word as you speak them.

Next:  Say these words to yourself:

“May I be happy.”

“May I be peaceful.”

“May I be free of suffering.”

This is where we practice our self-compassion, which is essential for this process.  We cannot have compassion for our Dogs unless we have it for ourselves first.  Continue for a few minutes.  

Next, imagine your Dog saying these words to you:

“May you be happy.”

“May you be peaceful.”

“May you be free from suffering.”

I have no doubt that our Dogs feel this way about us, so although we are saying the words for them, their intentions are there.  Feel the love and compassion coming from your Dog’s heart directly to your own.  Repeat this several times.

Finally, say these words together:

“May we be happy.”

“May we be peaceful.”

“May we be free from suffering.”

End this session by going back to Shared Mindfulness and rest in the awareness of you both breathing together.  Experience the deep connection between you and your Dog, and savor this moment as long as you both desire to.

By doing Metta meditation with your Dog at least once or twice a week, the level of compassion in both of you with grow substantially, and your hearts will become more open to receive love.  This merging of your hearts will lead to a more peaceful, harmonious and stress-free relationship.  Isn’t that what true friendship is all about?

 

One Size Does Not Fit All

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop Texting Your Dog!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awareness/Appreciation:

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

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

Respect:

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

Trust:

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

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

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