Alone, Together

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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 such ideas 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.): 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.  
  8. 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.  

Early Morning Reflections

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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.