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 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.): 

  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.  

Honor or Betrayal?

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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.

As We Love, So We Grieve

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“When one person is missing the whole world seems empty.”
– Pat Schweibert

This has been a tough few weeks for my friends and family.  My daughter unexpectedly lost her cat, Tiggy.  A friend of mine had to say goodbye to several of her non-human friends she cares for at her sanctuary, and another friend lost her dog.  It seems as if the Universe is reclaiming its precious jewels all at once.  

Most of us know that when we choose to share our lives with a dog or any non-human friend, the day will come when we will ultimately part ways.  Our dogs and other animal friends become so woven into our lives. We calculate with confidence that we have years before we must say goodbye to them and we store it into the far recesses of our minds, taking comfort in the fact that it’s not imminent. We avoid thinking about how delicate and fragile these threads of friendship are that hold our world together.   Yet, as much as we push this thought away, it persistently and stubbornly surfaces on occasion to remind us that the fateful day will come soon enough. 

I often wonder why our dogs live only a fraction of the time we do.  It would seem that a friendship that’s been thousands of years in the making would last both our lifetimes.  Then I remembered what a friend once told me long ago that brought me comfort during a difficult time when one of my dogs passed.  Dogs live shorter lives than we do so that they don’t have to endure the pain of losing us.  We care for them, protect them and nurture them through the entirety of their lives.  They depend deeply on us and we become their whole world.  Losing us would be devastating for them, so it stands to reason that by them leaving before we do, they are spared that pain.  That is our burden to bear.  

We should have no regrets for our dogs when they leave us.  They live each moment of their lives to the fullest – not because they do any grand or ambitious thing, but rather because they are completely engaged in the present, and don’t look away from it.  Dogs extract every moment from life, whether it is 15 years or 15 days. Their ability to be totally present means they are complete and full, with no residue of regret or unfulfilled dreams.  As the philosopher Michel de Montaigne put it:

“The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man [dog] may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you. It depends upon your will, and not upon the number of days, to have a sufficient length of life.”

To lose a friend is a painful and traumatic event.  They are a part of us; a piece of our tapestry that is torn away, only to leave a gaping hole.  As much as we try, that hole will never be repaired completely.  The scar will always be there.  But is this a reason not to become friends in the first place?  Or is it, as Tennyson said:  “’Tis better to have loved and lost, Than never to have loved at all.”  

 Our friends are never replaceable, nothing will ever fill that void.  But to avoid friendships because we fear the pain of losing them will only create deeper voids.  How empty and hollow our lives would be if we never had the privilege of sharing a piece of it, however brief, with our dogs.  At least when we remember the friends we have lost, for that moment the hole is filled; the empty space is lined with love.  It becomes a testament to them and how they’ve changed our lives for the better.  If we were never friends in the first place, we’d still be hollow, but that hollowness would always remain empty.  The gaping hole in our life’s tapestry would still be there, but we wouldn’t be aware of it.  It would be a small, but persistent feeling of emptiness that we would never be able to identify, like a vague itch that can never be satisfactorily scratched.  Yes, it is better to have loved and lost.

As we love, so we grieve.  We will have good days and bad days, and that will stay with us always.  Through the years I have lost many friends.  Some were expected, some were not, none were easy.  Sometimes, when I least expect it, a memory of a long gone friend will arise and bring a sharp pang in my heart, but always with a subtle sweetness to it as if to say: “I’m still here.  I’m still with you.”  The writer Elizabeth Gilbert put it so perfectly: “Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted.  It comes and goes on its own schedule.  Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes.  Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants.  In that regard, grief has a lot in common with love.”

As I write this, I see the photographs on my wall of the dogs I had the privilege to share my life with.  I look at the dogs who are with me now, sleeping peacefully on my bed, and know that I wouldn’t trade the love or the pain for anything.  Because I have both, I am blessed.

Our Dogs: Family or Friends?

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“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.

Stop Texting Your Dog!

EE366B26-8BE1-4BF9-A6B4-42401496982C“We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.”
~ Albert Schweitzer

Schweitzer’s words, written over 60 years ago, ring truer today than at any other time in our history.  In our age of endless social media, texting, Skype, and emails, we have lost the art of physical and intimate connection.  We’ve replaced genuine laughter with “LOL”, a pat on the back with a “thumbs up” symbol, and our authentic emotional responses with smiley faces, sad faces, and a cacophony of emojis.  Symbolism is beginning to overtake reality as we become more and more separated from each other.

  Our Dogs can be the antidote for for this disconnected and lonely way of living.  By connecting with our Dogs, we can relearn how to better connect with each other.  

When was the last time you sat next to your Dog and pet her?  I’ll bet it was rather recent.  When was the last time you recall sitting and petting your Dog, without the television playing in the background, or your smart phone turned on?  Probably a lot longer.   In fact, I’m willing to wager that more often than not, we physically engage with our Dogs while we are distracted by other things such as watching television, checking our emails, or seeing how many “likes” we got on our photo of last night’s dinner plate we that just posted.  When we do this, we are missing one of life’s most precious gifts: the ability for two living beings to connect with each other.   

The benefits of a one-to-one connection are too numerous to count.  Touching helps our brains produce the neurotransmitter oxytocin, with is a natural antidote to stress.  Physical contact allows for the bi-directional flow of feelings. We get immediate feedback from another living being when we touch, as opposed to a one-way output via a smiley face emoticon and a “thumb’s up” response.  Even talking to our Dogs and having a conversation with them where we can look into each other’s eyes is more engaging, more satisfying, and more complete than typing on a plastic keyboard and staring at a glass or plastic screen.  (Recent studies have shown that talking to our Dogs is a sign of intelligence.)

There is an an art to this, and it is fast becoming a lost art.  We can use the the acronym A.R.T. To help guide us through the process and help us remember what we knew when we were children. A time when a “tweet” was the song of a bird in a tree.  

A.R.T. Stands for:   Awareness/Appreciation — Respect — Trust

Awareness/Appreciation:

If we remember that our dogs are constantly changing, dynamic individuals like us, then awareness and appreciation will come naturally.  Living things are not static.  Our dogs are different moment to moment, and to look away is to miss the miracle of the moment.  Einstein said:  “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”   This is exactly the way we must look at our Dogs.  If we are to fully connect with them, we must see them as a miracle in each moment.  The practice of Mindfulness is a great way to enhance our view.  Mindfulness is simply experiencing and engaging with the present moment without judging or evaluating.  It is not a “means to an ends”, but the ends themselves.  When we are with our Dogs, our attention should not always be on what to achieve with them.  It should be pure awareness of them right now. This will allow us to appreciate the miracle.  It’s like listening to a symphony — there is no goal but the enjoyment of the music itself.

The next time you are with your Dog, be aware of all the little things you may have missed because you were distracted.  Notice how their fur feels under your touch.  Pet them slowly so you can, as one of my teaches used to say, “feel each individual strand of fur.” Look into their eyes when you talk to them.  Do their eyes change?   As you touch them, notice any spots that make them tense up, or that make them melt into relaxation.  Listen to the sounds they make, smell their scent, feel their feelings.  A great exercise to do is Shared Mindfulness, and you can learn more about that here.

Respect:

As Aretha Franklin said, a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T goes a long way in creating a solid connection.  This means we are never going to force our dogs to sit with us and engage with us.  Dogs are self-determined beings and must be treated with the same respect we would want for ourselves.  If our Dogs do not want to be touched, then we don’t touch them.  If our Dogs want to chew their bone, nap, or get involved in another activity rather than sitting with us, that is their right and we are not to interfere.  When we are with them, we must be sensitive to the places they are not happy being handled.  If they don’t want their feet or face or ears, etc. touched, then we avoid doing that.  We should always ask the question, “Do we have our Dog’s consent?”  This respect is the foundation of trust. 

Trust:

As we become more present with our Dogs, and connect deeper, then trust will grow.  Trust is not something that can be forced, it is an organic process, and any forcing will surely kill it.  We wouldn’t pull on the stem of a flower to force it to grow faster.  The more we are aware and appreciate our Dogs in each moment, the more they will feel appreciated and validated.  Like us, they have the desire to be recognized and accepted.  The greater our respect is for them, and the less we act as owners and more like friends by allowing them their freedom and space, the closer they will get to us.  Trust is something sacred to all life.  The greater the trust, their deeper the connection.  It should never be taken for granted.  We must always be honest with our Dogs.  We should never use our moments of connection as a “training” exercise, or to try to cut their nails, etc.  Connection is never to be used for the purposes of control.

Trust, once broken, is difficult to repair.  Fortunately, our Dogs are much wiser than we are when it comes to trust, and are pretty forgiving.  That is a truly amazing gift they have, and one we must cherish and never abuse.

Modern technology has been a great benefit to us in so many ways, but it is a double-edged sword.  And as with anything, extremes can be damaging. We have to balance the digital world of instant gratification with the intimacy of a one-to-one connection.  Our Dogs are a great way to help us find this middle way.  We all know how to do this, we just need to be reminded.  Our Dogs are willing teachers.  We must make the time every day to truly connect with our Dogs, our Human friends, and the world around us.  This way, the next time we hear a “tweet”, maybe instead of staring at our phones, we’ll close our eyes and listen to the birds.

What Makes Your Dog Sing?

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I was at a dog park in New Jersey the other day with my friend Carla, as we watched our dogs play together. We were discussing many dog related topics, and I brought up the idea of “Ikigai” – a Japanese concept that means “reason for being.” I suggested that every dog has an Ikigai, and that one secret to achieving a great friendship with our dogs is to help them find their own reason for being. After some discussion, and my usual long-winded streams of thought, Carla, who has a great talent of cutting through the hodgepodge and getting to the point said, “You mean, it’s what makes your dog sing.”

Every dog has an inner song, and one mission of the Path of Friendship is to help us bring it out so that it can be sung loudly and proudly. Unfortunately, finding it is not always so easy. It requires us to step outside of ourselves and set aside our preconceived notions about how things ought to be; what we think our dogs should be. We can only help them to find their song when we allow them to be who they truly are. Continue reading “What Makes Your Dog Sing?”

Path of Friendship:  An Introduction

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I became more fully human and more connected with my dog the day I stopped seeing him as my dog and began my seeing him as my friend. When I gave up being my dog’s leader, master, and trainer and started treating him as my equal, all the challenges we had between us quickly resolved. We understood, respected, and trusted each other on a whole new level. It was as if a barrier  between us had been removed.

When I was a child I was fortunate to grow up with dogs in my life. My folks were dog lovers who always included a dog or two as part of our family. My dogs were my playmates and best buddies. It wasn’t as if I didn’t have human friends growing up, but the bond I had with my dogs went much deeper. They were my trusted confidants and kindred spirits. I never felt the need to “get control” of my dogs. As friends, we related to each other in the spirit of respect, cooperation and trust. Although we were different, we saw each other as equals, and our friendship was natural and effortless. I thought this was the way everyone and their dogs related to one another.

Eventually, I grew up and began learning the so-called “correct” way to see my dogs. Many of my teachers at that time advised me to put away “childish thoughts” and adopt a more popular and acceptable view of the dog/human relationship. Even though it felt wrong, I carried this mindset into adulthood and eventually made it my career. Fortunately, years later I rediscovered the simple and empowering relationship with my dogs that I had when I was younger. I ultimately rejected the idea that dogs need to be manipulated or dominated, and that just being a “dog” wasn’t good enough. I returned to my childhood roots with dogs and loved them for who they are – not just what I wanted them to be. Continue reading “Path of Friendship:  An Introduction”