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.
“Life is ten percent what you experience and ninety percent how you respond to it.”
~ Dorothy M. Neddermeyer
This is a tense time for all of us. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, the stock market is in free fall and everywhere you turn there is division and discord. We seemed to be gripped in fear, and the panic is going viral. And even though we diligently wash our hands, avoid crowds and practice “social distancing”, we are still contagious and can infect our dogs – not with a virus, but with anxiety.
Our feelings and emotions, and how we express them, can directly trigger similar feelings and emotions in our dogs. When we become excited and happy, our dogs tend to become excited and happy along with us. When we are anxious and stressed, our dogs can “catch” those feelings from us as well. The closer our relationship is, the more contagious we are. This phenomena is known as Emotional Contagion, and is defined as the: “tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally.”
These days when we are all on edge, we have to think about how we’re effecting, or infecting our dogs.
This hit home for me the other day when I was sitting on the couch watching the news with my dogs Bodhi and Bhakti. I was paying attention to the “talking heads” on television and their gloomy report, when I noticed that Bhakti jumped off the couch and went upstairs. Now, the only time she really does this is when there is tension in the room, such as when my wife and I engage in lively discussions, so I wondered why she did this when I was the only person there. I looked over at Bodhi, and he had a worried expression on his face. My first thought was that they had heard a noise outside that disturbed them, but as I got up to look out of the window, I noticed that Bodhi was fixing his worried gaze on me, as if I had done something to make him anxious. I realized, in fact, I had. I was agitated and upset while engrossed in the news report about the corona virus pandemic, and Bhakti and Bodhi became “infected” by my agitated state. It was a clear case of emotional contagion.
I immediately turned off the television, sat down and took a few deep, mindful breaths. This is like hitting a reset button and I felt much more relaxed. I smiled at Bodhi, who was still a bit unsure. After a few moments of talking to him and rubbing his chest, which he loves, he calmed right down. A moment after that, Bhakti came back into the room with her “Is everything alright?” look, and she calmed down as well. I gave them both a hug and we all went outside to play.
I have always depended on my dogs to help ease my own stress, and now it’s my turn to do the same for them. I making every effort to spread good feelings in order to infect my dogs with love and calmness, and taking specific actions every day to maintain this, even as the world’s chaos surrounds us.
First, I limit my exposure. Not just to crowds and large gatherings, but to the news and social media. I only read the latest updates and then close my computer. Period. I use this time to connect more with my dogs by taking a walk together, playing in the yard, or simply sitting on the couch with them while watching Netflix.
Finally, I practice reverse social distancing and engage in random acts of affection – they get hugs and kisses often throughout the day, even more than usual. This affection seems to be going viral, as I’ve seen them spread this amongst each other. I even witnessed Bhakti give my cat Rocko a kiss, which she never does.
I’m confident this crisis will be over in time, and that our lives will return to a state of normalcy. Until then, my dogs and I will be certain to fight this viral infection with viral affection – and from that, hopefully, we will never recover.
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.
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 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.
“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:
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.
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.
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.
“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?