Our Dogs: Family or Friends?

IMG_7540.JPG

“A friend is a single soul dwelling in two bodies.”
Aristotle

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.

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.

When Can We NOT Afford to Save Our Dogs?

DSC_4313.jpg

It was a horrible time for me and my German Shepherd Cosmo. He desperately needed perineal surgery in order to survive, and I was not in the best financial position. The surgery costs thousands. I had just renewed my friendship with him, and I couldn’t let him die… he was my friend…

This harrowing situation is all too common. I know many people struggle emotionally and financially with difficult decisions like this. Can we really put a price on our dogs lives? Fortunately at that time, I had been putting single dollar bills into an old water cooler jug for a couple of years, and when I broke it open I had enough to cover most of Cosmo’s surgery. I was lucky, but many are forced to make a gut-wrenching choice.

Society primarily regards dogs as possessions and chattel, and assigns a dollar amount to them. But with compelling new research on the depth of the human/canine bond, often rivaling or surpassing human-to-human bonds, we should rethink how we deal with our dogs’ health care costs and perhaps subsidize our dogs’ health.

Veterinary care is not inexpensive. Treatments for cancer can run up to $15,000, according to CareCredit.com, and injuries and emergency treatments can run just as high. Pet insurance is available, but the process can be so cumbersome. I recently had a lump surgically removed and biopsied from my dog Bodhi, and filing a claim with my pet insurance company was not pleasant. I had to pay up front, and getting my claim approved was tedious and frustrating. I am still waiting for my reimbursement. The best part of the ordeal: the mass was benign.

Recently, you may have heard about Scout, the seven-year-old Golden Retriever mascot from WeatherTech commercials. He was diagnosed with cancer. His owner, David MacNeil, the founder of WeatherTech, took him to the University of Wisconsin at Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. Luckily, his treatments seem to be working. In fact, in Super Bowl 54 this year, there will be an ad from WeatherTech asking viewers to donate money to the University of Wisconsin at Madison School of Veterinary Medicine to fund more cancer research.

This is a great cause, but how many of us could afford to give our own dogs that same veterinary care? I worry about the future when my own beloved friends may need extensive veterinary care, and I might not be able to afford it — even with insurance.

I don’t fault veterinarians for the high costs involved. Compared to human physicians, veterinarians earn much less, yet they deal with the same life-and-death issues on a daily basis.

The question then is, should dog’s veterinary care be subsidized or tax credits given for those whose income levels are below a certain level? I know, we have enough problems right now in this country with our own health care, but since our dogs are essentially family members, there should be a better way to ensure that money is not making the decision for us whether our dogs live or die.

The problem is that in spite of so much research to the contrary, we do not value dogs as equal members of the family. I think this stems from our culture’s idea that dogs are ultimately replaceable — that they are simply pets. Maybe it’s because their life spans are shorter than ours, or they are not as intellectually advanced. Yet we don’t deny a senior citizen, a physically or intellectually disabled human the medical care they need. We value all human life equally (at least I hope we do), so why not add our beloved friends, our dogs to the equation? I think seeing them as lesser beings reflects an anthropocentric view where humans deserve more than any other species. That is a sad commentary on us as a society. I learned many years ago that all life is sacred. When it comes to our dogs, that is especially true.

Realistically speaking, I don’t see any subsidies or tax deductions happening for veterinary care in the near future. We have to work through our own human health care costs first. In the meantime, there are a few ways we can prepare for any emergency that may arise with our dogs, so that we are not put in a difficult position:
1. Explore pet health insurance options. While not inexpensive, they can help pay for many high veterinarian costs. Make sure to shop around, speak to those who use it and read reviews.
2. Start your own pet health savings account. Put money away each month in a separate savings account so when and if the unthinkable happens, you’ll be prepared.
3. Look for low-cost veterinary clinics in your area. Speak with your local animal shelter and rescue organizations for more information.
4. Ask for help online. Places like GoFundMe and others can be a way to help you get the money you need to help your dog. Many people have big hearts and really want to help.
5. Take out a line of credit. Places like CareCredit.com and even your own credit cards may help you get out of a jam. Of course, these don’t come cheap because you’ll be paying interest if you don’t pay back the full amount quickly.
6. There are charitable organizations, like The Pet Fund and the Brown Dog Foundation, that can help you out if you are eligible.

We all wish our dogs would stay healthy and be with us forever. The fact that most of us will at some point need to say goodbye to our friends is something we don’t want to think about. We can keep our dogs healthy by feeding them high quality food, giving them exercise, and spending quality one-on-one time with them. Unfortunately, this will still not guarantee that the unthinkable won’t happen. If it does, our bank accounts should not be a deciding factor on our dogs’ lives.

“The bond with a true dog is as lasting as the ties of this earth will ever be.”
~ Konrad Lorenz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let Go, and Let Dog.

Let go and let dog.
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.

When Are You Coming Home…?

IMG_4618.jpeg

“Attachment is a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space.”
~ Bowlby & Ainsworth

“It’s tearing my world apart.”, said Kim, speaking about her 2 year old pit-bull mix, Tank.  “I can’t leave the house to go to work without coming home to a disaster.”  “I don’t really care about the stuff he destroys, I’m just worried that he’ll injure himself again.”  “I’ve had him to the vet several times because he’s cut his paws and mouth on stuff, and I’m afraid for his safety.”

This is an all too common scenario I’ve encountered over the years.  Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD), is a frustrating and potentially dangerous problem that adversely effects relationships between Humans and Dogs.  The ironic thing is that the problem itself is relational, and prone to the snowball effect: the more troubled the relationship, the more SAD is experienced, the more SAD is experienced, the more troubled the relationship.  

According to the DSM, “Separation anxiety disorder is the inappropriate and excessive display of fear and distress when faced with situations of separation from the home or from a specific attachment figure.”  And while the DSM addresses issues involving Humans, this definition is equally relevant with our Dogs.  It often manifests itself in destructive behaviors, such as scratching or biting at doors and windows, tearing up shoes, pillows, books, carpets… really any object that may have an association to the Human.  It can also manifest itself in depression, which can display as the refusal to take treats or toys or to acknowledge petting and other signs of affection.  And it can show itself as excessive “neediness”, where the Dog cannot seem to get enough attention and is constantly asking for more.

Popular methods to help with this issue have been focused on distraction, such as filling a toy with peanut butter.  Another way is confinement and caging. Other methods utilize calming devices such as compression shirts and essential oils, and there is even the pharmacological approach, using drugs such as such as alprazolam (Xanax), fluoxetine (Prozak), clomipramine (Clomicalm) or, more recently, cannabis extracts.  While these methods have had some success, they fail to get to the root of the problem, which is relational.

Rather than approaching this issue from a behavioral perspective, I have found far greater success when I have used a theory from evolutionary psychology, called “attachment theory”.  Attachment theory originated In the late 1950’s from the work of  Dr. John Bowlby and was expanded in the 1970’s by Dr. Mary Ainsworth.  They both successfully disputed and contradicted the popular behavioristic theories that attachment is simply a learned behavior, which states that a child becomes attached to the mother simply because she feeds the infant.  Bowlby showed that attachment can be understood within an evolutionary context, in that the caregiver provides safety and security for the child.  A secure attachment increases the child’s chances of survival.  As this applies to our Dogs, when we develop a relationship with them, they become dependent on us for survival and need to develop secure attachments with us as well.  Separation anxiety is often caused by insecure attachments. Creating a friendship that is a secure base (as Bowlby stated) is the best way to permanently help this situation.

When we use a behavioristic approach, such as distraction, we are trying to substitute a solid and secure friendship with a treat-filled toy.  When we use confinement, that only serves to bring about a state of “learned helplessness”, where our Dogs essentially just give up, or often exacerbates the situation by stacking one stressful situation on top of another. Compression shirts are a poor substitute for a genuine physical connection, and are reminiscent of the controversial experiments done by Harry Harlow with Rhesus monkeys.  And finally, drugs will calm your Dog down, but as in all of these other behavioristic approaches, it serves only to temporarily alleviate the symptoms, and never gets to the root of the problem.  The root of the problem, as I have stated, is relational.  We need to develop a secure friendship with our Dogs to help them feel safe when we are not with them.

There are a few ways to prevent and heal the disconnect with our Dogs that leads to separation anxiety:

First:

Never make your love contingent on good behavior.  This is something that I see so many trainers do, and it makes me furious!  In a traditional Skinnerian behavioristic approach, we are told to only reinforce “good” behavior with petting, affection and treats, and to ignore “bad” behavior.  In other words, what these trainers are suggesting is that we tell our Dogs,  “I’ll only love you if…”, If you behave the way I want you to, if you stop acting like a Dog, if you conform to arbitrary standards and become a “good citizen”, etc.  When we dole out our love as if it were a commodity that our Dogs are only worthy of if they behave in a particular way, then we are driving a wedge between us, creating an insecure base where our Dogs live in a world of uncertainty and doubt.  This makes them always anxious about doing the “right” thing.  Techniques that use “love withdrawal” as motivation are holding our Dog’s hearts and souls hostage, and will greatly damage the relationship.

The best way to create a secure base and have our dogs never doubt that they are safe in our friendship with them is to love them unconditionally.  This means we show them that we love them, regardless of how they are acting.  We may want to change their behavior, but that should be an act of compassion and guidance without using our love as a bargaining chip.

Second:

Use calming exercises to help with anxiety.  One way is to use Shared Mindfulness and other calming exercises, which connects you and your Dog on a deep level.  Another way is to massage your dog.  There is an abundance of information out there on various techniques that can help.  My only suggestion is that you do this with your Dog, and don’t send him to someone else.  This is a bonding and calming experience between the two of you, and it loses that value when someone else is doing it.  Of course, for therapeutic massage to help with physical ailments, it’s always best to see a specialist.

Finally:

Practice Stay, not Wait.  Many people confuse these two different exercises we try to teach our Dogs, and all too often its the Wait that is emphasized.  I witness trainers and behaviorists teaching Dogs to stay by using a treat, telling them “Stay”, and after a few minutes releasing them where the Dog runs back to the person and gets a treat.  This is a classic example a tension building exercise.  The longer your Dog “stays” in this situation, the more tension and stress is created.  This is akin to stopping at a red light a block before your final destination.  When you’re at the red light, you are “staying” there, but what happens as that red light drags on?  Do you feel more relaxed, or more tense and anxious to continue?  The answer is obvious.  

When we work with our Dogs in Stay, the message should be clear: “Stay here and relax until I come back for you.”  The more our Dogs understand this, the more secure they will be when we are absent, and the better they will be able to relax when they are by themselves.  In order to communicate this to our Dogs, we have to refrain from any extrinsic motivation such as a food reward, or punishment.  It is a matter of gently and persistently helping our Dogs to relax (using one of the techniques above), telling them Stay, and moving away from them.  Then, coming back to them to show them that it’s ok to be without us for a moment.  As we gradually increase the time and distance, they will become confident that although we are gone, they are safe.  This creates a secure connection and safe attachment.  This can then easily translate into “staying” at home securely when we leave, and waiting confidently for us to return.

Helping our Dogs overcome the anxiety and stress they feel when they are home alone is never an easy task.  It takes time, patience and commitment to the friendship to ensure success.  Fortunately, when we create a secure attachment with each other, and a deep and connected friendship, our Dogs and ourselves will never feel alone, even when we are miles apart.