During this time of social distancing and isolation, there is one bright spot. We can learn to be closer with our dogs and enrich our friendship. The quiet, snuggle times that we have with our dogs usually fit neatly into our daily routines, without much thought. But now that most of us are sequestered in our homes, our routines have changed. We can take advantage of this time to connect more deeply with our dogs. We can also take this time to work on any problems we see in our relationship. This is a time to focus on connecting, which brings us closer, and not controlling, which further distances us.
A great way to do this is through what I call C.A.R.E.S., which stands for Companion Animal Relationship Enrichment Strategy. Based in part on trans-species psychology and ideas such as polyvagal theory and attachment theory, it asserts that most of the problems we experience with our dogs, and much of the fear and anxiety our dogs suffer, can be be more effectively healed through enriching our relationships and not through training and behavior modification. I have used this approach for more than 30 years, and have had great success with it. This period of social isolation is the perfect time to put this approach into action.
The eight dimensions of the Companion Animal Relationship Enrichment Strategy (C.A.R.E.S.):
- Regard your dog as an equal. This may seem like a radical idea, especially since we’ve been told by trainers and behaviorists that our relationship with our dogs is hierarchical, with humans being on top of the ladder. However, nothing distances us more than inequality. When we view our dogs as subordinates, whether as a pet, a “child” or a tool, we eliminate the possibility of a true friendship from ever forming. This is because true friendship, as Plato and countless other great minds have expressed, can occur only between equals.
Equality is not “sameness.” Our dogs are different from us in many ways. Our differences are complementary, and that is precisely why we have developed a friendship over tens of thousands of years. Although our dogs are not the same as us, we are of equal value – just as our hearts and our lungs are not the same, but are of equal value. We cannot exist without either; they complement each other and therefore give us life. This is what the concept of being equal with our dogs suggests.
- Have complete faith in your dog. Our dogs are perfect creatures, even if they don’t act that way all the time. The truth is, neither do we. When we have complete faith in them, we send them the message that we believe in them and we are committed to them. The more we have faith, the closer we are. The more we doubt, the further apart we become.
- Un-cage your dog. I am speaking metaphorically here. When we attach labels to our dogs, such as “aggressive,” “shy,” “wild,” etc., we are putting them in a box and don’t see them for who they are in the moment. Our dogs are not one-dimensional, fixed objects that never change; they are ever-changing, multi-dimensional living beings that are completely unique moment by moment. When we recognize that and see them as they are in the present moment, our friendship will deepen and flourish.
- Love and accept your dog unconditionally. When we put conditions on our love for our dogs, we greatly increase the distance between us. If we tell them, “I’ll only love or accept you if…” you obey me or you stop chewing up shoes or you don’t jump, etc., we communicate to them that we don’t love or accept them for who they are. This message will destroy our relationship and add tremendous insecurity and anxiety to our dogs. A friendship cannot survive if it’s based on “quid pro quo.”
This love is not only a feeling; it must also be an action. Never withhold affection for your dog or hold back on tenderness because they may not be behaving the way you expect them to. Love shouldn’t be rationed as if it’s in short supply. The more you give your love freely, the more you will receive it.
- Let go of control and support your dog’s autonomy. When we make control a priority with our dogs, we lose the very foundation of our friendship. Love is not how much we can control them, it’s how deeply we connect with them. Our dogs are unique, self-determined individuals and we must respect that. As equals, they deserve the same freedom of choice that we do. When we micro-manage everything they do, we send them the message that they are incompetent and inferior.
This does not imply that dogs have “carte blanche” to do whatever they want. As friends neither of us is entitled to that. It means that we support their decisions and choices and don’t stand in the way of the freedom for them to be themselves.
- Resolve conflicts with your dog with compassion and empathy. When problems between you and your dog inevitably arise, if we respect each other’s needs and wants and use compassionate communication in finding mutually beneficial solutions, these conflicts will ultimately strengthen our friendship. On the other hand, if we see ourselves as the “boss” and don’t take our dog’s feelings and needs into consideration by attempting to “train” them, then we further distance ourselves from them. This requires tapping into and expanding our capacity for empathy. As friends, we should focus on win-win solutions to our difficulties.
- Learn from each other and share wisdom. We have complementary skill sets and can learn a great deal from each other. We can help each other be happy and flourish. As humans, we have an incredible capacity of prediction and the ability to see the “big picture.” Our dogs have an equally incredible ability to notice the present moment in astonishing detail. When we tap into this harmony between us, we create a synergistic relationship where we become better together than we’d be separate. When we ignore our dog’s input so we can be the “boss,” we damage our connection.
- Prioritize spending time connecting with your dog. The more time we spend with our dogs, the closer we become. I realize that this is not always possible, so the time we do have with them should be spent on connecting, not controlling. If our precious moments together consist entirely of manipulation and training, we have lost time together that we never recover. Instead of teaching useless “tricks” to show off to the neighbors, spend time in activities that enrich and enhance our friendship. This can include, but is certainly not limited to: shared mindfulness, queen for a day, mindful walking, hide & seek, massage, hiking, playing ball, and more. When we do this in the spirit of equal friendship, rather than of owner and pet, we decrease the distance between us and remove the barriers that block the bond between us.
This pandemic will ultimately end and there will be a return to normalcy. If we use the time we now have with our dogs to enrich our relationship, we’ll get past this time of social distancing and become closer together as friends — the way we are supposed to be.
“Life is ten percent what you experience and ninety percent how you respond to it.”
~ Dorothy M. Neddermeyer
This is a tense time for all of us. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, the stock market is in free fall and everywhere you turn there is division and discord. We seemed to be gripped in fear, and the panic is going viral. And even though we diligently wash our hands, avoid crowds and practice “social distancing”, we are still contagious and can infect our dogs – not with a virus, but with anxiety.
Our feelings and emotions, and how we express them, can directly trigger similar feelings and emotions in our dogs. When we become excited and happy, our dogs tend to become excited and happy along with us. When we are anxious and stressed, our dogs can “catch” those feelings from us as well. The closer our relationship is, the more contagious we are. This phenomena is known as Emotional Contagion, and is defined as the: “tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally.”
These days when we are all on edge, we have to think about how we’re effecting, or infecting our dogs.
This hit home for me the other day when I was sitting on the couch watching the news with my dogs Bodhi and Bhakti. I was paying attention to the “talking heads” on television and their gloomy report, when I noticed that Bhakti jumped off the couch and went upstairs. Now, the only time she really does this is when there is tension in the room, such as when my wife and I engage in lively discussions, so I wondered why she did this when I was the only person there. I looked over at Bodhi, and he had a worried expression on his face. My first thought was that they had heard a noise outside that disturbed them, but as I got up to look out of the window, I noticed that Bodhi was fixing his worried gaze on me, as if I had done something to make him anxious. I realized, in fact, I had. I was agitated and upset while engrossed in the news report about the corona virus pandemic, and Bhakti and Bodhi became “infected” by my agitated state. It was a clear case of emotional contagion.
I immediately turned off the television, sat down and took a few deep, mindful breaths. This is like hitting a reset button and I felt much more relaxed. I smiled at Bodhi, who was still a bit unsure. After a few moments of talking to him and rubbing his chest, which he loves, he calmed right down. A moment after that, Bhakti came back into the room with her “Is everything alright?” look, and she calmed down as well. I gave them both a hug and we all went outside to play.
I have always depended on my dogs to help ease my own stress, and now it’s my turn to do the same for them. I making every effort to spread good feelings in order to infect my dogs with love and calmness, and taking specific actions every day to maintain this, even as the world’s chaos surrounds us.
First, I limit my exposure. Not just to crowds and large gatherings, but to the news and social media. I only read the latest updates and then close my computer. Period. I use this time to connect more with my dogs by taking a walk together, playing in the yard, or simply sitting on the couch with them while watching Netflix.
Finally, I practice reverse social distancing and engage in random acts of affection – they get hugs and kisses often throughout the day, even more than usual. This affection seems to be going viral, as I’ve seen them spread this amongst each other. I even witnessed Bhakti give my cat Rocko a kiss, which she never does.
I’m confident this crisis will be over in time, and that our lives will return to a state of normalcy. Until then, my dogs and I will be certain to fight this viral infection with viral affection – and from that, hopefully, we will never recover.