Early Morning Reflections

IMG_7199.jpg

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

DSC_3760.jpg

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.

Open Heart “Mergery”

IMG_7458.jpg

“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 can 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 only please ourselves.  It is essential to do these practices on a regular basis in order 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 sit both 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 you facial expressions.  Continue this for a while until you feel your Dog 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 judgements or criticism.  Continue with this for a while until the both of you 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, your 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 friendships are all about?