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.