A Meditation on Death

As many of you already know, Shine, my oldest dog, has a tumor in her lungs.  It showed up on an X-ray that I requested because her breathing had been off recently.  

Shine is dying.  It might not actually be the tumor that causes her death (or, more likely, the reason I decide to humanely end her life), it could be her kidneys failing.  It could be her ability to stand and walk.  She has a few health issues going on and depending on the speed that the tumor grows, something else may get to her first.  She’s old: 14 years and 6 months at the time I write this. She is dying.

But here’s the thing: she always was. 

Shine, 2022

The discovery of the tumor hit me like a punch in the gut, it somehow made her mortality more real to me.  We all know intellectually that our dogs will die, but the immediate and pressing truth of that somehow still comes as a shock.  

I believe there are two kinds of knowing: there is knowing something to be true intellectually, and there is knowing something to be true deep in the marrow of our bones.  

I always knew that Shine would die, but the bone marrow truth didn’t hit until the tumor was revealed. Now my body felt the reality of the truth that was always there: she was going to die.

She is sitting up on the couch looking at me as I type this.  I say “Hi, Beautiful,” with a bittersweet laugh.  I love this dog.  She is dying.

In the days that followed finding the tumor, I went into a knee-jerk emotional response of wanting to cater to Shine’s every desire and impulse because she was dying, because I wanted to make her as happy as I could.  Because the end felt SO CLOSE and I wanted her to have all the joy.  

And then I wondered why I hadn’t felt that way for the past 14 years.  

Our dogs (and, lest we forget, every single other living creature on this planet, ourselves included) could die any day.  My first cat had a heart attack and died without giving me two weeks’ notice; he just walked out on the job of being my cat.  Kisa, my first dog, showed me that her heart was failing but gave me less than 24 hours to come to grips with that fact and make a difficult choice for her.  

Accidents happen.  Organs fail.  Illness and death may interrupt our lives with our dogs with little to no time to “spoil” them the way we might want to.  

My friend Sandy, who has an ineffably huge heart, fostered a dog for what felt like forever.  Darla was a funny, quirky, bully-breed mix.  She was in foster care with Sandy for ages, then Sandy and her partner gave in and adopted her. After a short time as an “official” member of their family (and after Sandy and Matt forked out for a very expensive cranial cruciate ligament repair surgery for her), Darla ate something weird (she was ALWAYS eating something weird!) that caused something to happen. Sandy says, “To this day we don’t 100% know what happened, but we’re pretty sure she had eaten some shoelaces that caused damage in her stomach and potentially caused her to go into sepsis at the end (that was the vet’s best guess).” She went into cardiac arrest before they could even operate. 

Sandy and Darla on adoption day

Sandy and Matt didn’t get a chance to “spoil” Darla, they didn’t get to know what was coming.  Does that matter?   

To whom?

I believe that most dog parents have a (possibly unarticulated) idea of the best possible last day and moments for their dogs—some sort of walk or play at the dog’s level of interest and ability, all the treats and snacks, all the cuddles and belly rubs (if they’re into that sort of thing), and then a nap on the comfiest bed during which they release that long, soft, last exhale.  No vets, no pain, no needles, no fear, and no regrets or remorse for the human.

This is a fantasy.

One of the shelters where I worked would often allow dogs who were going to be euthanized a “spoil period” of 24 hours for staff and volunteers to spend time with the dog, feed them cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets, and help them enjoy the last day of their lives, maybe a little more than they’d enjoyed all the ones leading up to this one (or at least since entering shelter care).  At this particular shelter, dogs who remained behaviorally and medically “adoptable” were able to stay in care indefinitely—euthanasia was reserved for dogs with significant behavioral or medical concerns—so the added spoil time didn’t change the dog’s chance of survival, it was just to tack a day of pure pampering onto the end of the dog’s life.

Who is this spoil period for?  Is it for the dogs or the people? Does a sudden increase in fun, snacks, and affection really take the sting out of death? For the dogs or the people? 

In the shelter world, quality of life is an important and constant consideration, and if a dog’s life is extended by a full day, that means one more night spent in a kennel, surrounded by stressed, fearful, barking dogs. Is that worth the cheeseburgers? Or is it more important to make sure that the staff and volunteers who are at high risk for compassion fatigue and burnout get the opportunity to say goodbye, maybe find a little more peace for themselves with what is about to happen by being able to say, “I did this thing for the dog, I made their last day more pleasurable.” 

Are there times when a life was extended to the detriment of the animal but to the benefit of the caregivers?  

Yes, without a doubt.

Is that a fair trade-off if it means that they, the humans, will be able to avoid burnout and continue to provide care for other animals at a higher caliber or for a longer period?  

Is that last day of any value to the dog? 

Darla had an unknown past, ended up in a shelter, then a loving foster home where she became a “foster fortune” for Sandy and Matt, and then a sudden and tragic death. 

Do we add that up to a number value?  Bonus points for ending up with Sandy and Matt but minus points for tragic death?  Is that how it works?  If she had a final few days of endless treats and play would the final sum be different?  For her?  For them?

Was there anything lost by not having time to prepare for the end of Darla’s life*? Is there anything to gain when we can curate the end of our dogs’ lives?

When we spoil (And what a word that is!  Something to dissect at another time.) our dogs who are at the natural or unnatural end of their lives, what are we really doing? 

Are we wrapping up our dogs’ lives like presents when we engage in these final acts of devotion?  Are we taking whatever is already there, the life already lived, and putting nice paper and a bow on it? Is this final bow-tying an attempt to give a last gift to our dogs or an attempt to feel like we have some control over the uncontrollable?

When I think about the changes I started making in my life with Shine now that the finish line was in sight, were they for her or for me?

A day or two after learning about the tumor I was eating a meal and felt a PUSH to share my food with Shine.  That’s not something I do.  I am all about sharing when I’m preparing a meal, but once it’s plated I do not offer tidbits to the dogs.  This is a personal boundary I adhere to religiously, which means that I always enjoy meals without the pack “begging” for food when I sit down to eat.

And then I felt that urge to dismantle my own firm boundary for Shine because I wanted her to have all the good things.  

I stopped myself.  I don’t know how long she has.  It could be two months, it could be much longer than that depending on how fast the tumor grows, how her joints, her organs, and her mind hold up.  It could be another year. 

Do I want a dog who expects snacks from the table for a year?

I do not.

Does that mean LESS JOY for Shine?

Not really, because she never expected table-treats to begin with, but I know that I’m withholding something from her that she would enjoy. 

What is the value of the joy that could have been but wasn’t?

What is the value of last-minute joy? 

What is the value of last-minute joy compared to a rich and joyful life, regardless of its length?

I know a wonderful couple, Morgan and Joe, who recently lost a very young dog—he was only 2—to sudden and unexplained liver failure.  I’m thinking of them and Ace a lot as I write this.  

They got no warning, no, no time.  The extent of “spoiling” they were able to provide for him was small, but it was still a gift: “We were able to make one decision that made him more comfortable and it was opting to do the euthanasia right where he was, which was in the operating room area where customers never get to see. They wanted to do the procedure in one of the exam rooms, but our sweet boy was so sick that we wanted him to be comfy right where he was. That was such a great decision we were able to make.”

They couldn’t give him that fairytale last day, but would his loss have been less painful if they had been able to? Of course not.  A curated death does not make the wounds in our hearts smaller or faster to heal.  I doubt anything does that, but maybe knowing that your dog was well-loved makes the weight of the grief a bit more bearable.  And Ace was well loved—his whole life with Morgan and Joe was wrapped in love and care—both felt and expressed.  But his death was painful, for him and his family.  

Ace. May 7th, 2020 – July 12th, 2022

Darla didn’t get that soft ending either; does that make her death more tragic or her life less rich?  Because she didn’t get a few weeks of Puppuccinos, extra walks, or bonus snuggles as a tradeoff for impending non-existence?  

Will Shine’s death be more painful for me or for her if I don’t find some way to get some horse shit for her to roll in one last time before she goes?

Here are the root questions behind all these other questions: 

When and why do we prioritize our dog’s happiness over our own convenience and preferences?

We pull out all the stops when we know a dog has just a few days to live.  When it’s a few weeks to a month or so, we make a lot of concessions. What about when it’s 6 months or a year?  When and why do the scales tip from human preference and convenience to canine joy or vice-versa? 

For Shine, I filled up her kiddie pool a few extra inches, because the increased amount of wet dog mess in the house is totally worth her happiness.  Was that not always the case? Did anything change?  

I don’t have a clear answer.  I have some murky thoughts.  

The big deep question is what are you willing to sacrifice for your dog’s joy?  Time? Clean floors? The cost of a Bark Box subscription? Hair and dogdirt on the couch or the bed? What feels like a COST to you, what are you willing to pay?  What do the stakes have to be for you to pay that price?

And our dogs will never know that we make these choices.  They will never know the calculations we make to determine if we can literally or figuratively afford pricey vet care, the time to drive to that park they love, the discomfort we feel when a 25-pound dog somehow takes up 85% of a queen-size bed.  They will never know what could have been, they are only experiencing the moment.

The scales tip in our minds.  When we feel we have infinite time with our dogs (we don’t) we are less likely to make sacrifices of time, money, and convenience to get through each day in a status quo that we are satisfied and comfortable with.  

When we know that there is a finish line in sight, depending on how close that finish line is, the scales will tip more or less heavily towards dog-joy.  

But there is always a finish line, even if we don’t see it approaching. 

Are you living with your dog right now in a way that would cause you some regrets if tragedy struck tomorrow? 

Think about your last walk with your dog.  If you had known it was The Last Walk you would take together, would you have done anything differently?  Would you have allowed more time to sniff? Taken a different route that your dog likes more? Tugged on the leash a little less or been less frustrated?

Look, I don’t have any answers here.  This is a very personal question about what feels right and true and warm to you. 

I’m feeling the shift of the scales in my heart every day.  On the days that Shine coughs a bit more I am more generous with her, kinder and softer.  After the few occasions that she’s had mobility issues, stumbling and taking a minute or two before she seems able to use her back legs, I treat her with greater tenderness and care. But doesn’t she deserve that same amount of kindness and manifested love every damn day regardless of her physical health?

“You see this goblet?” asks Ajahn Chah, the Thai meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

~ version by Mark Epstein (from Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective)

Here are the changes I have made:

  • More generous with the “fancy food” that Shine requires before she’ll happily eat her meals
  • More water in her kiddie pool
  • Found a Sniffspot with a big pond where she can swim
  • Allowing longer sniffs on our walks
  • Created a category in my budgeting software to save for the cost of at-home euthanasia and private cremation (around $600 for a 50lb dog)

Here are the things I am planning as we get closer to The End:

  • Getting ahold of some horse poop for her to roll in/eat
  • More snacks.  LOTS more snacks.
  • Probably a change to her meals so she only gets her favorite foods—and take out the supplements that don’t taste good
  • Take time off work to be home or out on ability-appropriate adventures with her

Let’s look at these lists:

My current changes are all in line with joy for Shine and are not significantly detrimental to my resources (time, money, patience, emotional energy) and are sustainable long-term.

The second list includes items that are of greater consequence to me or Shine’s health (don’t forget that she has renal issues, too!) and are not sustainable long-term.

These lists will likely grow and change as time passes and I see more ways to make Shine happier each day.

But why did I need a tumor to make me think about this?

Many years ago, I think it must have been 2006, I took a day-trip adventure with my first dog, Kisa, to Calistoga to see California’s Old Faithful geyser and explore the surrounding attractions.  While we were walking through the petrified forest up there we crossed paths with an older German woman who approached me to talk about Kisa (not an uncommon occurrence given her enormous size and strikingly good looks).  The woman reminisced a bit about her dog who had passed away.  She looked me in the eyes and with so much softness and sincerity in her face she told me, “Enjoy every moment.”  That moment, that directive planted a seed in my heart that has since rooted deep.  I’ve shared that sentiment with others, told that story a number of times, and hopefully helped some people enjoy, or at least accept, moments with their dogs that might otherwise have felt neutral or unpleasant.  

If I enjoy or accept “every moment” does that change my dog’s experience of their one wild and precious life?  Can I change the world for my dog, make it softer, more joyful simply by embodying that mantra?   

Yes, but it doesn’t get Shine any horse poop. 

In the recovery community, there’s a phrase, “You can’t keep it unless you give it away.”  In that context, it means in order to maintain your own healing/recovery/sobriety you must help others on their path. I believe this sentiment holds true for our lives with our dogs: we can not keep the joy and love they bring us unless we give it back to them.

Those final moments may or may not matter in the grand scheme of things.  Whether the end is tragic and painful or carefully curated and peaceful may be significant or not when all (and I mean all) is said and done. 

But I believe that when we are able to look back over the lives of our dogs, whether they were long or short and say, I performed my love actively, I expressed my gratitude for them in my small daily choices, I did not wait until time was almost up to offer love through gesture.  I did not hold my love close, expressing it in words but rarely through action: I held out love with open hands to give back to them the joy and happiness they gave me with the gift of this shared life. When we can say those things at the end of our dogs’ days, then we know that we have loved them well and generously.

The practicalities of what generosity of love could look like are as unique as your dog.  For Shine, when I choose to walk her past the fire station that has the patch of grass she loves to roll in, that is an expression of love.  When I place a cat food garnish on her meals, that is an expression of love.  When I buy one more damn supplement to support her failing body, that is an expression of love.  When I check my own frustration at her demand barking for dinner, that is an expression of love.  When I stop my writing to look up at her resting, walk over and offer gentle belly or ear rubs, that is an expression of love.

Right now I am living every day with the deep, bone marrow truth that this life, my beautiful Shine’s life, will end, and this deep knowing has changed the way I share this life with her for the better. The texture is softer; I am more gentle, I am more generous. 

Is feeling death close at hand what we need to really show our dogs the truth of our love?  What really matters?  

Knowing that they will die, what really matters? 

Love your dog well, every damn day.  Let that love pour through your speech and your actions. 

Enjoy every moment.

The glass is already broken.

And it’s all so beautiful.

*Sandy has noted that one thing she wishes she had done differently with Darla was to get more pictures of her, specifically more pictures of Sandy and Darla together—something that would have been possible if they had time to prepare.  This is something for us all to take to heart, but also something to recognize as being just for the people and of no benefit to the dogs… unless the photoshoot includes really good refreshments.

Mindfulness, Uncategorized

The Role of Ego in Dog Training (Part 3) – Finding Peace

In Part 2 of this series, I described how ego (Buddhist, not Freudian) can show up and insert itself into the ways we live with, train, and generally interact with our dogs, to the detriment of everyone involved. Here we will examine how to acknowledge when and where ego appears, why it’s detrimental to both ourselves and our dogs, and explore alternatives to ego-driven reactions. 

In order to begin to recognize where ego is a primary motivator in our responses to our dogs and their behavior, we have to do something that many find difficult or at least unpleasant: witness our experience and feelings.  It is in the examination of our interpretation of events and our emotional responses to them that we can see what is propelling those feelings into existence.  

Right now I want you to think about an aspect of your dog’s behavior that you don’t like. Barking? Counter surfing? Pulling on leash? Jumping on visitors or lunging and growling at other dogs? What’s your pup’s baggage that you wish you could make disappear?  Now, what emotions come up for you when you think about your dog doing that thing?  Here are a few common ones: anger, shame, frustration, helplessness, exasperation, irritation.  Any of these sound about right?  Do you know why you feel that way? 

What is it about that particular behavior or habit of your dog’s that you find so aversive?

Is the answer, “Because I don’t want my dog doing that,” “Because it’s embarrassing for me,” “Because I find it annoying,” “Because it makes walks or being in public unpleasant or difficult for me,” or something along those lines?  If so, you and your ego have made your dog’s behavior about you and how these situations are negatively impacting you personally or possibly people’s perception of you.  

 I don’t want my dog doing that.

 It’s embarrassing for me.

 I find it annoying.

 It makes walks unpleasant or difficult for me.

Me, me, me.  

Okay, we got it: it’s about you. This is ego at work. 

As a refresher, ego is our perception or construct of “self.”   We suffer when our dogs’ behavior contradicts our idea of who we think we should be (or appear to be) as dog owners.* This is directly related to the Buddhist concept of attachment which I will loosely define as resistance to separating from something.  In the context of this post, attachment will most frequently appear as resistance to separating from (i.e. letting go of) our ideas of how our dogs “should” behave.  Our attachments to these constructs of “good” behavior are direct reflections of our egos: we hold on for dear life to our ideas of how we think our dogs should behave because of what we imagine their behavior says about us. 

If you don’t believe me, here’s a situation that may resonate: When you are walking your dog, do other dogs bark at you from their windows and yards?  Do you think that those dogs are doing anything that they shouldn’t or do you think that they are behaving like normal dogs?  What about when your dog looks out the window or runs the fence line and barks at a passer-by?  Is it a normal dog behavior now? Or is it  “problem behavior”?  Many if not most of us are much more judgemental about our own dogs’ behavior than about others’ because now it’s about us

Stop Making This About You

When your primary motivation to change your dog’s behavior is for your own sake, to make your dog line up with your idea of who they should be or how they should behave, for your convenience, for your neighbors’ eyes, or for your attachment to constructs of “good” and “bad,” you are setting yourself up for suffering.

Suffering is caused not by aversive experiences, but by our own reaction to them: how we handle the unavoidable unpleasantness of life.  As the saying goes, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”  We are causing or increasing our own suffering when ego drives our responses to our dogs’ so-called misbehavior.  

When we stop making the primary motivation for training or behavior change about us, we open a space for the critical question, why is this actually important?

Many of the things you don’t like about your dog’s behavior are legitimate concerns and absolutely should be addressed, but when your motivation to address them comes from this space of self-serving egoic need, the path to “better” behavior will be littered with obstacles of your ego’s own creation: destructive emotions, harsh actions, and closed-off perceptions and attitudes.

The Door You Walk Through Changes the Path You Walk

In a literal sense the above statement is obvious: when we alter our entry point into a physical space, the direction we move and our experience of that movement changes. You can think of a room with multiple doors, a hiking trail with multiple trailheads, or a parking garage with multiple entrances.  The feel of the terrain, sights seen, sounds heard, and ease of movement from point A to point B will be affected by where you begin.

The same is true for your interactions with your dog.  When you begin from the door of ego you are choosing a difficult path with more obstacles and fewer constructive emotions.  This path limits opportunities to learn and grow from your experience.  When you close that door and open a new one, choosing to react to your current situation from a different starting point, you can soften the experience for both yourself and your dog, reducing conflict and increasing peace.

In a world already bursting at the seams with acronyms, I am hesitant but committed to propose a new one to help clarify just how the door you walk through affects your experience of any given challenge with your dog.  The door you walk through, your motivation, changes your PEACE:

Perception:  How you see what is happening

Emotions: How you feel about what is happening

Attitude: The manner with which you react to the situation

Choices: Your actions and speech

Elasticity: How mentally and emotionally flexible you are during and after the event

Our perception, emotions, attitude, choices, and elasticity are all determined by our starting point. When we respond to our dogs from a place of softness our every step forward is cushioned by the tenderness of our intentions.  To find that softness we must look outside ourselves to determine why behavior change is indeed important.  Outside of our fragile egos, calcified attachments, and knee-jerk judgments we will find motivations that better serve not just ourselves–though we will absolutely benefit from them–but those around us… especially our dogs.  

When our egos are at the center of our motivation:

Perception:  The situation is seen as being only relevant in light of how it negatively impacts us. Our perspective excludes the validity of our dog’s (or others’) experience (closed perspective).

Emotions: Our emotions tend to move towards destructive feelings like frustration, anger, or shame.

Attitude: We move from a place of resistance, judgment (black and white thinking), and blame.  Blame may be directed back towards ourselves manifesting as shame, or away from ourselves towards our dog (or whoever we perceived to be at fault).

Choices: Our speech to our dog, ourselves (self-talk), or even others around us will be harsh.  Actions will be mechanisms to try and make the situation less aversive to us: to limit our own suffering by exerting external control, to try and make the situation look more like we think it should without acknowledging or giving weight to how our actions may affect others.

Elasticity: Low.  In the moment: minimal ability to adapt or change the course of our response due to tunnel vision of ego: we are stuck on “fixing” the situation to mitigate our own discomfort (emotional or physical). After the event: minimal ability to bounce back emotionally, let alone learn or grow from the experience due to attachments to ideas of “good” and “bad.”

There’s hope, though: you can flip your brain, turn your ego on its swollen head, find new ways to perceive situations and softer, more constructive ways to respond.  We just have to start from a different place. 

When our PEACE is shaped by compassion, community, or relationship-based motivations we can replace the destructive path of ego with a gentler, more advantageous way to change our dogs’ behavior:

Perception:  We can see multiple perspectives and hold space for the needs, wants, and emotions of others (open perspective).

Emotions: Our emotions will include care and concern for others while still allowing us to experience our own feelings about the situation. 

Attitude: We are accepting of and receptive to what is happening.  We are compassionate towards all involved, including ourselves.

Choices: Our speech and actions are considerate of and respectful to ourselves and our dogs.

Elasticity: High.  In the moment: we are open to movement and change to allow for alternative emotional responses or courses of action because we are able to take in new information.  After the event: we are able to learn from the experience without judgment of ourselves, our dogs, or others.

“Peacefulness should be the place we begin rather than the place we try to achieve”
-Dr Jerry Jessup, as quoted by Jill Bolte Taylor in Stroke of Insight

When Your Dog is Upset: Move From Compassion

In a previous post, I wrote about a truly terrible walk with Kit, my reactive Cattle Dog.  I made it through that experience emotionally unscathed because I wasn’t thinking about myself or even how his behavior looked from the outside: I was focused on my dog’s wellbeing.  More important to me at the time than my experience was that my dog made it through that walk with as little stress as possible (which was still a considerable amount) because I aimed the arrow of my actions at his emotional safety.  

The driving force behind how I responded to Kit was compassion. When we find our dog’s behavior unpleasant or undesirable but can recognize that the dog’s behavior is an expression of emotional upset such as stress, fear, or even rage, it is in everyone’s best interest to respond with compassion. 

Would you yell at a crying child? Or even a crying adult? Does yelling, scolding, or physically reprimanding do anything helpful for the dog’s emotional state which was the original cause of the behavior to begin with? The answer is of course no. All scolding or yelling does is make clear to ourselves, the upset party, and anyone who is watching that we don’t like what’s happening.  In some cases, punishment (scolding, leash jerks, or zaps with a shock collar) may stifle the expression of emotion, but it will never soothe the emotion itself.  Often, punishment actually exacerbates the dog’s level of stress, making the whole event worse for the dog this time, and subsequently trickling into added stress the next time a similar situation arises.  

Here’s how it could look if I moved from an ego space when Kit reacts (and this is embarrassingly based on my own experience†):

Perception: Closed. My dog is acting in a way I don’t want – his behavior contradicts my idea of what he should be doing when he sees [other dogs, motorcycles, skateboards, mourning doves, rabbits].  I am resistant to accepting the significance of what is happening for Kit because I am focused on how it is affecting and reflecting on me.

Emotions: Frustration (dog-directed), shame (self-directed blame: if I was a better trainer he wouldn’t do this), on a bad day: anger.

Attitude: Judging both dog and self, blame – directed at Kit (he is the cause of my suffering). 

Choices: Option A) forceful response: try to “fix” the dog’s external behavior through correction/punitive action – make the reactivity stop as a way to ameliorate my experience of the situation. Option B) avoidance response: remove self and dog from the situation as quickly as possible, self-talk is negative: expressions of shame and embarrassment, not being good enough.

Elasticity: Low. In the moment: tunnel vision of ego prevents the ability to see alternative choices that may be available, keeps emotional range narrow and negative. After the event: poor recovery, likely to cry in frustration (true story), will affect me (and therefore how I interact with Kit) for several hours or the rest of the day. I am unable to see ways to make it better next time because the issue is perceived as being with the inherent “goodness” of Kit or myself, and both of those remain the same.

I am endlessly grateful to whatever powers in the universe have shifted me away from that ego-centered space.  If that was still how I handled Kit’s reactivity, the awful walk that I wrote about would have been a thousand times worse for both of us. Fortunately for Kit and myself, I walked through the door of compassion that day when Kit was in emotional trouble (i.e. losing his shit).  Here’s how my PEACE looked:

Perception: Open. I can take in my dog’s experience and see that he is not doing well emotionally – his external behavior is a display of his current level of upset.

Emotions: Sadness, worry, frustration (situation-directed), love.

Attitude: Compassion and acceptance (of both my dog’s experience and the current situation), care and nurturing.

Choices: Protect my dog: determine and take the next right steps to support his emotional wellbeing thereby reducing his reactivity because he won’t feel as upset.

Elasticity: High. In the moment:  I have the ability to alter actions/choices based on recognizing how Kit is feeling/responding to my choices.  After the event: quick emotional recovery because I can rest in the knowledge that I did the best I could for him given the circumstances.  When I do the best I can, that means he’s doing the best he can and I am able to recognize how I could do better for him next time.

When I moved from compassion, I was soft, I was open.  I was able to take in more of reality than my own unhappiness.  I was able to affect positive change in both myself and my dog because my perception had expanded beyond myself. 

When Your Dog is Impacting Others – Move from Community

Often our frustrations with our dogs have to do with the way they naturally want to interact with others around them, both dogs and people.  Jumping on new people and charging over to other dogs when on leash are both incredibly common complaints of dog parents (especially parents of adolescent dogs!).  These behaviors are frequently the ones that people will say that their dog “shouldn’t” do because it’s “bad,” “embarrassing,” or some other reason relating to how we perceive other people judging the dog, or more accurately, judging the owner’s control over the dog.

You know what? I agree that it’s not ideal or desirable for dogs to charge up to or jump on dogs or people willy-nilly, but not because there’s some standard for dog behavior that your pup needs to live up to, not because you have a “bad” dog if they jump, or (worse!) that you “can’t control” your dog.  I believe that dogs should be taught to keep all four paws on the ground when meeting new people and maintain some semblance of cool when meeting new dogs because these good manners are for the sake and safety of those at the receiving end of your dog’s exuberance.   

You may be reading this thinking, “I don’t mind when my dog greets dogs or people with unbridled enthusiasm!  They’re just really friendly!”  Please know that even if your dog’s zeal when greeting others is friendly, even if your dog has nothing but angel-soft and innocent intentions when approaching new people or pups, it doesn’t matter.  I firmly believe that you are obligated to teach your dog calmer greeting habits regardless of how friendly they are because not everyone wants your dog to say hi.  There are likely millions of individuals–both human and canine–who are not comfortable being approached by dogs and, as a society, we should all respect that. Most of us have recognized that it’s wildly inappropriate to engage in well-intentioned but non-consensual touching of strangers (such as unknown people placing their hands on pregnant women’s bodies). In the same way, we should culturally acknowledge that just because you have a friendly dog does not mean you have the right to inflict your dog’s well-intentioned but non-consensual company on strangers.  As the saying goes, the right to swing my leash ends where the other person’s face (or dog’s muzzle) begins. 

So: whether you like your pup’s ebullient greetings or not, you are doing a service to your community, to the people and dogs around you when you coach your dog to be respectful of other individuals’ personal space bubbles.  Additionally, by walking through the door of community rather than ego when you begin that coaching you are doing a service to your dog and your own PEACE.

For our example, let’s look again at the young man with the Golden Retriever I mentioned in Part 2 of this series. This young man harshly corrected his dog for moving to greet another dog while he was standing in line at a brewery.  I noted that his leash jerk and scolding were likely the result of a reactive ego: the handler’s response to his dog was motivated by a knee-jerk urge to shift negative emotions and fault away from himself.  Obviously, I have no idea what was actually going on in that young man’s head, but I feel that I have enough experience with frustrated pet parents to make an educated guess.  Here is how I imagine his PEACE playing out: 

Perception: Closed. My dog did something that I don’t like or I judge as “bad behavior.” I only see my own judgment of the situation, how the dog’s behavior reflects on me.

Emotions: Irritation, displeasure, shame/embarrassment at lack of “control.”

Attitude: Judging, disciplinary, blaming.

Choices: Take corrective action against the dog.

Elasticity: Low.  In the moment: owner focused on good vs bad behavior, punishment causes immediate disruption to emotional connectivity between dog and person. After the event: human in a worse mood, dog more stressed; level of fallout dependant on sensitivity of dog and human grudge-holding.

Result: less fun for everyone.  

Now let’s see how things might be different with a community-minded approach where the primary goal is physical and emotional safety for all parties:

Perception: Open. My dog is about to go into another dog’s space – I don’t know if this is okay with the other dog or the dog’s person. Awareness includes the well-being of others.

Emotions: Concern (externally directed), uncertainty.

Attitude: Responsibility, compassion for own dog’s desires and other dog’s/person’s rights to space.

Choices: Interrupt the dog’s current course in a way that is minimally aversive to the dog, increase space between dogs thereby maintaining physical/emotional safety for everyone.

Elasticity: High. In the moment: able to see multiple points of view, able to expand consciousness to include the relevance of others’ experiences and adjust actions to accommodate.  After the event: connectivity between owner and dog remains same or increases due to owner’s compassionate engagement with the dog during a moment of stress. Able to ingest information about dog’s current skill set in public places and can adjust training and management accordingly.  Learn to set the dog up for success in the future.

You can see how much softer this response is, not just for the dog, but for the owner as well. Negative emotions that prompt harsh actions reduce joy and connection both inside and outside oneself.  When we choose to widen our perspective and include the value and relevance of others–even when we perceive our dog as being “at fault”–we create space for growth, constructive change, and greater connection.

When You Just Don’t Like It – Move from Relationship

There are some things that our dogs do that we just don’t like, and that’s okay.  They’re not harmful to our dogs, they’re not harmful to the community, and they’re not harmful to us.  Or, they’re not exactly harmful to us.   

We all have lists of things we don’t like that aren’t harmful to anyone.  Things like certain types of music, the feel of particular materials, certain activities or hobbies, and so on.  These are all personal preferences, and when it comes to your dog you are certainly allowed to have preferences for their behavior the same way you are allowed to have preferences for the music you listen to. 

Here are some examples of generally benign-yet-possibly-irritating dog behaviors:

Pawing at you for attention or other “demand” behaviors 
Barking in excitement before a walk (I’m looking at you, Shine)
Jumping onto certain pieces of furniture
Lying in the middle of the kitchen when you’re cooking  

These are small behaviors that don’t pose a risk to anyone’s well-being.

Except they kinda do. If they irritate you, they have an impact on you, how you feel about your dog at that moment, and likely how you respond to and provide feedback to your dog.  That means they have an impact on your relationship with your dog.

When we take these annoying behaviors personally, when ego drives our response to them, we experience emotional hardening: closing off to our dog and our own potential growth, and  (you guessed it!) less peace.  When we view those small, mostly-harmless behaviors as being relevant only in terms of how we experience them, we are forgetting or discounting the relevance of the other party: the dog.  

Do you think your dog is doing this thing just to get under your skin? Is this an intentional and willful act to upset you? Does your dog know they “shouldn’t” do this thing? 

Guess what? Your dog is just being a dog and trying to enjoy their day the best they know how given what they have previously learned about the world they live in‡. 

With that in mind, when you feel yourself getting annoyed or notice your dog doing That Thing again, if you react from ego the results of your PEACE will be harmful to your relationship with your dog.

I’ll use an example from my own life to illustrate: Shine barking (in my face) when I’m harnessing the pack up for a walk.  Here’s the ego-driven reaction to this super-benign irritant:

Perception: Closed. I hate it when Shine barks like this, I find the noise grating and it’s frustrating that she won’t just be quiet. I only have room for awareness of how her barking affects me and contradicts my idea of how she should behave. 

Emotions: Irritation, resentment, on a bad day: anger

Attitude:  Blaming the dog for my emotions: it is Shine’s fault that I feel frustrated and powerless over her behavior. Resistant to her behavior’s validity.

Choices: Take action to attempt to control the dog through correction: scolding/verbal reprimand for barking.

Elasticity: Low. In the moment: unable to see from the dog’s perspective. Again: punishment causes immediate disruption to emotional connectivity between dog and person.  After the event: start the walk in a worse mood, if Shine was scolded she is now more stressed; I am unlikely to change anything to prevent the situation from occurring again.

Now let’s look at this from a relationship-centered response:

Perception: Open. Shine is so excited for the walk that she can’t contain herself, I see her joy, but I find the noise grating.

Emotions: Conflicted: gratitude that my nearly-14-year-old dog is still thrilled by going for walks, but still annoyed by the barking.

Attitude: Acceptance of the reality of Shine’s emotions, softness to her experience as well as my own.

Choices: Either ride it out (the barking only lasts for the time it takes to get all three dogs harnessed) or engage her in a cued behavior (sit). Rewarding/feeding for Shine’s response to the cue will keep her mouth busy (chewing!).

Elasticity: High. In the moment: able to remain open to my dog’s joy while still allowing space for my own experience, able to adjust my response so as not to damage her happiness. After the event:  The walk begins with gratitude (mine) and joy (hers); I am in a state of mind to think about whether I want to seek a way of preventing the barking in the future or accept it without needing to change.

This is a no-brainer, right?  Do we choose frustration, grumpiness, and blame, or gratitude, joy, and acceptance?

…and it is a choice. 

Between Stimulus and Response 

One of my favorite quotes is this well-known gem by Viktor E. Frankel: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

When our dogs do anything that hits us as aversive we have a choice about how we respond.  It doesn’t always feel like it. So, so often our responses are more like knee-jerk reactions (no different than a reactive dog too close to a trigger), but when we are able to find that space after the stimulus but before we react, we can choose to respond from a place of compassion, community, or relationship.

Our egos and their attachments to how we think our dogs should behave cover us in rigid shells that crack easily, that we are constantly trying to repair with harsh corrections and justifying judgments.  These shells keep us tight and small and closed: unable to take in more or to reach out past their walls.  These shells are barriers to greater connection with our dogs, to clearer communication, softer interactions, and deeper understanding.  

When we let the shell of ego fall away, we can discover that we never needed it to begin with.  We don’t need it to protect ourselves from feeling the sharp edges of blame, judgment, resentment, and shame when our dogs behave in ways we don’t like because ego is what causes those feelings.  Ego is what prevents us from walking soft paths, seeing through clear eyes, and accepting what is.  

When ego falls away from our interactions and relationships with our dogs we become unresisting and receptive–not vulnerable to greater suffering, but open and welcoming to what lies outside ourselves.  As our awareness expands we learn to compassionately hold space for not just our own experience but the experiences of our dogs and others around us.  In that space we can find growth, freedom, and peace.

*I personally prefer the phrase “pet parent” and I am aware that others prefer the terms “caregiver” or “guardian.” Many of us feel these are more accurate descriptors of our relationship with our dogs than “owner,” but here I believe the term “dog owner” carries the right flavor for the sentiment. 

†This is a conglomeration of many, many, many moments of reactivity that I’ve experienced with Kit over the last three and a half years.  I am happy to report that I (to memory) never scolded or punished Kit for reacting to dogs or fast-moving-people-on-wheels, but at one point I did try to control his reactivity to mourning doves through what I thought of at the time as a low-level “aversive interrupter”–which I believed at the time was not based on emotional upset.  I used a quick jerk on his leash (attached to a harness) to interrupt the behavior.  That was an ill-thought-out and short-lived experiment in using low-level punishment and it made both Kit and me more unhappy.  It was also the act of a desperate and overwhelmed dog mom.  I have 20/20 hindsight here.

More often than not, specifically with his dog reactivity, my behavioral response to a reactive episode (or the threat of a reactive episode) was to high-tail it away, mentally muttering to myself such gems as “fuckfuckfuckfuck” which I can translate to: this isn’t what I want, I should be a better trainer, this isn’t the dog I wanted, I hate being that guy in the neighborhood, everyone must think I’m an idiot with no control over my dog, I have no control over my dog.

‡I’m not going to go into a whole treatise on unintentionally or intermittently reinforced behaviors that set both pups and pup parents up for stress and frustration, but the concept is relevant here and worth exploring for your and your dog’s sake. 


The Role of Ego in Dog Training (Part 2)

As I said in my last post on this topic: ego has no role in dog training. Unfortunately, ego frequently appears, sometimes subtly and under the guise of something else; other times ego screams its presence from the rooftops. To be the best trainers, handlers, and dog parents we can be (not to mention the best human beings) it is our duty to root out ego and excise it from our interactions with our dogs*.

For clarity’s sake please note that I’m not talking about the Freudian ego which–in that line of psychology–is an essential part of the psyche.  Here I’m referring to the Buhddist idea of ego: the individual’s idea or construct of self: the self we think we are, which at its core is illusion.

This ego is self-important, self-absorbed, and fragile. Ego is the root of many of the “shoulds” in our lives and the driving force of much of our unhappiness. Ego (along with its cruel twin, attachment) creates a false narrative that our self-constructed view of the world (ourselves included) is right.  This narrative propagates the sentiment that things should be the way we want or expect them to be, and anything other than–that contradicts–our “should be” version of reality is wrong, bad, or undesirable. Ego frequently creates blame, judgment, and shame, often turned on our dogs, but sometimes turned back onto ourselves.   When ego exists in training or handling our dogs, it shows up in our self-absorbed motivations and reactions.

Manifestations of Ego: Proactive and Reactive

The most odious and obvious version of ego in dog training is seen in folks who insist on being the “alpha” (which is just the contemporary version of the old fashioned and ugly term “master”). These are the people who pride themselves on being in charge, on dictating their dogs’ every move. An old neighbor of mine was like this: she kept her dogs marching in step beside her on walks, never allowing them  to sniff or explore, leashes short and attached to pinch collars. She loved her dogs, but her need for visible control over them was more clear to me than her affection. These owners, trainers, and handlers often do not hesitate to use pain and fear to get the behavioral results they want, because the most important thing is the result they want. This is the proactive ego:

This ego says: I present my control over my dog to the world as an object lesson on my construct of importance, power, and worth.

A more subtle manifestation of ego can be seen in the person who does not require full-time compliance but “corrects” or otherwise punishes their dog for doing something (typically normal and predictable dog behavior) that falls outside their perception of “appropriate” behavior. I saw this recently when a young man harshly jerked back on the leash and scolded his adolescent Golden Retriever for attempting to say hello to another dog in a public space. The dog went outside of the young man’s unconscious (and uncommunicated!) list of what he felt was appropriate or tolerable public behavior, and the dog was punished. This is the reactive ego aiming away from the self: the internal upset caused by the conflict between desire and reality is shifted away from the self.  The handler’s negative emotions are discharged onto the dog.

This ego says: my dog’s misbehavior contradicts my construct of appropriate or good; I will take action to show the dog they are wrong for this.

Reactive ego can also point its arrows inward: the person who experiences feelings of failure or shame when they perceive their dog’s behavior as being outside what they think it “should” be. I personally have experienced this more times than I can count when Kit, my 30 pounds of fury, completely loses his marbles over some trigger or other and spikes into an explosion of reactivity. 

I’m a professional, my dog shouldn’t be like this, his behavior is supposed to be different, and because I am responsible for his behavior, I am failing as both a dog mom and trainer. 

Do you see how completely self-absorbed that thinking is? While in this example I’m not reacting with any response that is directly injurious or aversive to my dog, the foundation of the sentiment is about what I want and who I think I should be.

This ego says: my dog’s misbehavior is a reflection of my own failings.

Again: when ego exists in training or handling our dogs, it shows up in our self-absorbed motivations and reactions.

Wanting a Trained Dog Doesn’t Make You a Bad Person

Here’s the thing: in so, so many cases, there’s a really valid reason out there to want our dogs’ behavior to match our idea of “good” or “correct” responses to situations. There are very good reasons not to want a dog to leap forward to greet another dog, react to environmental triggers, or even to want your dog to walk at heel, but when the primary motivation to curtail undesired responses is rooted in ego, the training process becomes soiled with judgment, attachment, pressure, and impatience.

If our motivation for wanting a dog to sit quietly next to us in public is because it’s “correct” or makes us look good, there is automatic judgment on anything else the dog does. Our ego response to anything outside the realm of “correct” will cause dissatisfaction/suffering in us and our feedback to the dog will be tainted by that unhappiness. Woah. Uncomfortable truth, much?

But what if our motivation is different? What if we want our dog to sit quietly next to us for the safety and comfort of our dog, other dogs, and the people around us? How will that motivation change how we respond to that joyful leap to meet another pup? Are we worried about ourselves and our constructs of good and bad? Or are we concerned with the wellbeing of our dog and others?

What is the opposite of an ego-driven motivation?

In part three of this series, we will explore motivations rooted in compassion, community, and relationship, and how moving from these spaces is better for humans and dogs, alike.

*and everyone else, including ourselves, forever.