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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Are You Coming Home…?

IMG_4618.jpeg

“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.