SOMEONE TO BLAME: To know ourselves, is to know our dog.
Is it the dog's fault?
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 guardians that struggle to see past the sometimes, unsavoury behaviours of their dogs and to recognise the fractious emotional instability that drives the undesirable behaviour in the first place, are those very clients that need extra support from the dog profession. It is easy to dismiss people that misunderstand what it is we are trying to teach and give up on people because they don't think like us or perhaps they believe in outdated training methods. As we know, behaviour is not fixed in stone and its plasticity is malleable. This gives me hope and inspiration to work with guardians to find ways to see past the behaviour and observe and acknowledge objectively, the manner in which, the dog is trying to communicate. The typical statements I hear from such clients on a regular basis are separated into two categories below:
Category 1 '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 thinks he's the boss because I let him away with everything'
Category 2 'He's manipulating me to get what he wants' 'He thinks he's clever' 'He's 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 not a nice dog'
Nowhere, in any one of these statements, is there a consideration for the emotional repertoire of the dog. 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. Sadly neither of these clients understand that the behaviour has an emotional component to it and if undesirable, is but a symptom of a deeper unmet need to be heard and understood.
Human beings have a natural propensity to believe that people are not doing the best they can. When we believe that others, in particular children or dogs, are responsible for our feelings, we 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. We do a huge disservice to the child or dog that stands before us.
Labels have their place. They can enable a better understanding of diagnosed conditions or promote compassion where once lay judgement. But the laymen's labels are not diagnoses. There is a difference in passing a subjective judgement on perceived intent, then a formal diagnosis, by a behaviour professional. Labels can limit the potential of another being and create a societal unconsciousness of contempt prior to investigation, dismissing the needs of that dog or child.
The dogs with the most disturbing behaviours are usually the dogs with the greatest need for our compassion and understanding. They are, paradoxically, the dogs that end up with the least understanding and by and large have, experienced a life of non existent or bankrupt compassion. They usually end up in rescues, (if they are lucky) or more often then 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. It is usually deep seated within our inner child responses, rooted in our very own lack of healthy parental attachments and fractured foundations, where upon, our earliest childhood experiences took place, that create the platform from which we draw our emotional responses to other emotionally driven behaviours. Is it not, then obvious, that when we have an emotional response to behaviours we don't like, those behaviours are, therefore, also partly emotionally driven and deserving of our compassion and understanding?
When we pass subjective judgement on a behaviour we fail to empathise. We fail to acknowledge 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 other's 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? Take the example of a dog who can't be touched. A dog that is so sensitive to touch, his response to the anticipation of touch is anxiety and arousal. When the dog is then touched, and is confined, he reacts with a stress response of 'fight' and likely bites. He makes a sharp scissors snap towards the hand that comes before him. This dog has no choice over his emotional response to that circumstance. His nervous system has responded in a way that has been governed by his previous learning experiences and his genetic disposition.
That is also true of the emotional response we have witnessing our dog's nervous system response. This also comes from our own nervous system responses programmed by our early learning experiences and our genetic disposition. Our response, therefore, is nothing but 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.
You might ask why am I talking about human psychology? Because it is imperative to understand ourselves in order to understand others. I, myself, have just begun a new journey and chapter in my life. I have made the self diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder. I have, for many years, observed behaviours within myself that I have had little or no understanding of their origins 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 and 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 in order to master compassion, empathy, growth and understanding of her relationship to world around her.
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 masterpieces 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 to know and understand our dogs. If we meet our dogs with harsh judgements we reflect back a mirror image of what we think about ourselves. Let this be the jumping off place. The place of acknowledgement. The starting point of understanding. Let me leave you with this piece of writing below.
"The Anatomy of Conflict:
If there is no communication then there is no respect. If there is no respect then there is no caring. If there is no caring then there is no understanding. If there is no understanding then there is no compassion. If there is no compassion then there is no empathy. If there is no empathy then there is no forgiveness. If there is no forgiveness then there is no kindness. If there is no kindness then there is no honesty. If there is no honesty then there is no love. If there is no love then God doesn't reside there. If God doesn't reside there then there is no peace. If there is no peace then there is no happiness. If there is no happiness ----then there IS CONFLICT BECAUSE THERE IS NO COMMUNICATION!" Shannon L. Alder