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  • Writer's pictureRachel Meadows

SOMEONE TO BLAME: To know ourselves, is to know our dog.

Updated: Aug 21, 2023

Who’s to blame?

Over the years, working with dogs and their humans, I have come across a great number of amazing people and equally, amazing dogs. However, many of those have struggled to see PAST, the sometimes, ‘unsavoury behaviours’ of their dogs and to recognise the fractious, emotional instability, that drives that undesirable behaviour in the first place. These are the very people, that often need extra support and LESS Judgement from those around them. It’s easy to dismiss people who, from the outside, look like they are lacking the skills to manage their own behaviour in response to that of their dependant, child or dog. Not everything is apparent at first sight. Attributing blame to either dog or career is to judge one or the other.

As we know, behaviour is not fixed in stone and its plasticity is malleable. Change is always possible. We can learn to look beyond the behaviour and observe and acknowledge objectively, the symbiosis, of the relationship and begin the process of compassionate enquiry. Self-enquiry and curiosity of others.

People's belief systems can be categorised into two camps.

Camp 1: Are the people that apologise. The people who that feel, Whatever is going on, is all their fault. They are riddled with guilt, believing they’ve failed their dog somehow. They say things like:

'I know I shouldn’t

'It's my own fault... I spoil him'

'I can't help it when he looks at me with those puppy dog eyes'

'He's the boss because I let him away with everything

Camp 2, say things such as:

'He's manipulating me to get what he wants’

'He’s not very clever but he knows when he’s bad”

'He’s, so naughty'

'He knows how to do that, he's just being stubborn'

'He's acting guilty so he knows he did wrong'

'He's a bad dog'

'He's aggressive'

‘He's manipulative’

And Then you have the general public that looks upon the behaviour of the dog and blames the career. Either they haven’t trained their dog properly or they are too harsh or too permissive with the dog.

Nowhere, in any one of these statements, is there a consideration for the emotional experience of the dog or the human. The first assumes all responsibility for the perception or subjectivity of the observed behaviour. It starts with the presumption that the behaviour is, firstly, naughty and secondly, caused by being 'too nice'. The second attributes all responsibility to the dog and also with an assumed ‘personal intent’ attached to the behaviour. Behaviour has an emotional and biological component to it. All behaviour has a function. If it’s destructive or beyond the realm of ‘so-called normal’ it’s but a symptom of a deeper unmet need. That may be as simple as the environment or a lack of skill from the care provider but sometimes it's more serious. Neurological and or medical issues are very common with severe behavioural abnormalities.

All animals, including humans, have a natural propensity to negative cognitive bias. It’s our brain’s way of keeping us safe by embedding negative experiences and retaining those memories better than positive ones. Sometimes childhood adversities can put us into survival mode and we can assume a pre-emptive defensive position, creating a belief system that those around us are ‘out for themselves’, unsafe or inherently selfish. This can lead us to believe that the behaviour of others, in particular, partners, children or dogs, is responsible for our feelings. We may assume intent on their part, thus enabling the labelling of a child, person or dog, as bad, manipulative, naughty, disloyal, guilty, stubborn and so on. Our cognitive bias does a huge disservice to the child or dog, that stands before us.

That's not to say labels don’t have their place. They can enable a better understanding of diagnosed conditions or promote compassion where there once lay judgement. Objective observations are about looking through a lens with an awareness of our biases. Observing what we see and not attributing our feelings about what we see is the best way to start. Laymen's labels are not diagnoses. There’s a difference between passing a subjective judgement on perceived intent, then a formal diagnosis, by a behaviour or medical professional. Subjective labels can limit potential and create a societal unconsciousness of contempt prior to investigation, dismissing the NEEDS of that dog or child and their family. It’s simply discriminative to attribute a layman’s label and judge something without a full understanding of all the elements of the dynamic. Observe behaviours and then seek help, from a professional, to understand and support.

The dogs with the most disturbing behaviours are usually the dogs with the greatest need for compassion and understanding. They are, paradoxically, the dogs that end up with the least understanding and by and large have experienced a life, bankrupt of compassion, due to mislabelling or misunderstanding the behaviour. They usually end up in rescues, (if they are lucky) or more often than not, on death row at some dog pound.

When we are triggered and angered, or feel rejected by the behaviour of someone in our life, or even our dog, it is NOT, that behaviour, that created these feelings within us. Sometimes we’re just lacking the are lacking skill, education or emotional regulation, to deal with something that is incredibly challenging and frustrating. Often, however, our reactions are deep-seated within our inner child responses, rooted in our very own lack of healthy parental attachments and fractured foundations, where, our earliest childhood experiences took place. That can create the platform from which we draw our emotional responses to other emotionally driven behaviours. When we have an emotional response to others’ behaviour we don't like, that behaviour is, therefore, also partly emotionally driven and deserving of our compassion and understanding.

When we pass subjective judgement on behaviour, we fail to empathise. We fail to acknowledge the separation between our own emotions and those of others. If we choose to blame other people for the way we feel and the way in which we choose to respond to the world, we cease to comprehend where our emotions begin and those of others end.

So why then do we find it so difficult to detach from labels, see past the behaviour and understand and empathise with the Being that suffers before us? It’s really simple… It’s just easier in the short term and it justifies our frustration or a subconscious need to blame when we don’t understand something or we lose control of our own emotions.

Take the example of a dog who can't be touched. A dog that is so sensitive to touch, his response, just to the anticipation of touch, is anxiety or an inflammatory reaction. When the dog is then touched, without consent, he reacts with a stress response. He makes a sharp scissors snap at the hand that comes towards him. This dog has no choice over his emotional response, resulting in the ‘undesirable’ behaviour of a lunge or a bite. His nervous system has responded in a way that has been governed by his previous learning experiences, his health, his genetic disposition and or his negative bias which has promoted a reaction based on a, perceived need, for safety.

That is also true of the emotional response we have, witnessing, our dog's behavioural output of their nervous system response. This comes from our own genetics, context and learning experiences. Our response, therefore, may be a reflection of how we felt as a child when we witnessed similar emotionally driven behaviours. That, I guess is why, some of us react with compassion and others are triggered immensely by the behaviour of others. Remember, when a behaviour triggers our fight or flight, it’s because we feel unsafe. The same goes for our dogs.

You might ask why am I talking about human psychology. Well, Because it is imperative to understand ourselves in order to understand others. I had a recent diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder. For many years, I’ve observed some of my behaviours, that I had little or no understanding of, until very recently.

Comprehending the pallet of colours from which I paint my canvas helps me to choose carefully and with intention, colours that complement each other, along with, a composition that can enable a masterpiece pertinent to me. Without this knowledge, I would continue to muddy the waters of what, otherwise, would have the potential to be something great. The relationship and mindfulness, an artist has with her canvas, is no different from that which she must have with herself. We need to be the composer of the harmonies in our own healing, to understand and embrace compassion and empathy for others.

The same is also true if we are to forge deep bonds, healthy attachments and long-lasting fulfilling relationships with the ANIMALS we share our lives with. Each dog has their own masterpiece to paint and it is our responsibility to provide a pallet, from which they get to choose their own colours. By letting go of control and embracing the creative journey of discovery, allowing others to paint the way they see things and celebrate their creation, with joyful anticipation, will unite a gallery of soulful compositions, where we all learn, that each stroke of a brush is as individual and beautifully unique, as the artist that casts that brush upon the canvas.

Our dogs are unique. No two are the same. To know and understand ourselves is the gateway to understanding our dogs. If we parent, our dogs or children, with harsh judgements we reflect back a mirror image of what we think about ourselves. If we judge others’ parenting, we shame, create further isolation and miss an opportunity to support and potentially help to bring about change. The blame game achieves nothing. Be curious. Ask questions. Be aware of your negative bias and always seek to understand yourself which can only bring about positivity to the relationship with yourself and those around you. Where COMMUNICATION and UNDERSTANDING are lacking, JUDGMENT and CONFLICT thrive.

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