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.):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
“A friend is a single soul dwelling in two bodies.”
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.
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.
“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.