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.