I just had a major change in my life that threw me for a loop. I had been part of a women’s exercise group for the past 3 or 4 years. We worked out really hard 3 times a week at yep 6 am. From Spring to Fall our workouts were outside, once the temperatures dropped we took our workouts inside. This group had become one the highlights of the week for me. I loved working hard with them and also laughing hard with them. Friendships and bonds were created. As a result of a problem with my arm- one that failed to resolve, I had to face the fact that these hard-core workouts were out of my league.
Once I decided to leave the group a sense of loss took a hold of me. No more leaving my home in the wee hours of the morning when I made it my “job” to look for the moon. No more sunrises by the hills as we push hard to finish endless reps. Now, I was left to my own devices to figure out my workout routines. However, in the process of figuring out how to continue with my fitness goals, slowly thru the weeks I began to feel a shift. Yes, I still miss the interaction with this group but now I am able to appreciate my ability in taking responsibility for my own fitness. I am also able to accompany John and the dogs on their morning walks- which I mostly skipped after working out. As I continue to re-invent this aspect of my life, I am left pondering: What is life then if not the possibility to flow with change?
I am outside playing ball with the dogs on a very cold afternoon. I love it when it is this cold and I am moving around. The dogs apparently don’t mind it either as they are running back and forth in hopes of being the one that can retrieve the big orange ball.
I got to thinking, between hard kicks to the ball, about how my attitude has shifted in having left my workout “team” behind. My thoughts are then taken into thinking about how dogs also “shift”. Yes, dogs also shift.
We all shift. And if we don’t well, we die!
Some of these shifts occur naturally, as in the dog shifting its attention from a noise heard in the distance to now the person calling its name. The shift in body postures from attentive and ready to pounce on a rodent to a relaxed gait towards a sunny spot in the grass.
Then again, there are times that dogs need our help in making better choices. Better in the sense of all being able to live in harmony. A better choice of remaining still as a result of an injury, etc.
So much of what I do professionally is to teach dogs that they have choices to their well ingrained displays of aggression as a strategy used to create distance from what concerns them. Here is an example of what I mean. I have worked with many, many dogs that have learned that when they are afraid they will aggress by lunging, growling, sneering and biting as their response of not being comfortable with an interaction. These of course are all natural and normal dog responses – we like them or not! But they are also management and safety nightmares.
So, the goal is to shift in how the dog responds to feeling afraid and potentially threatened. Once the dog has learned that he has options and he begins to gravitate towards those better options and in time, this will build its confidence and the dog begins to feel better about the interaction. Of course, it begs for those interacting with the dog to continue to engage in a manner that is not perceived as threatening to the dog. Indeed, both parties are required to …. shift!
It is easy when working with dogs like this, to forget that they are one with their physiology. They are their physiology, their emotions, etc. All these facets of an individual are interrelated and since my goal is always to treat the individual (instead of just the symptoms, say) I must work as well with the physiology.
Consider the following: When a dog is able to acquire a more natural and relaxed stand, his brain is getting this feedback: “No need to aggress, everything is a-okay!!!” And around and around we go in a loop of new information that can become the new norm for the dog in how he chooses and is able to perform.
Here is another vivid example of a current case. I have been working with a dog that is conflicted by my presence because he is afraid of people he does not know, and the possibility of getting some really nice stuff when I am around.
So, I would argue that the conflict this dog is experiencing is indeed many, many, tiny shifts taking place – a cascade of opposing motivations one after the other.
I crafted- with the help of his fabulous owners, a training situation that gave new choices to their dog as to how he reacted toward me thru a glass window. Instead of lunging hard and growling at me, the dog chose instead to move away from the window – all without being called or coaxed in any way by his owner.
As the dog stopped practicing his lunge-growly pattern his brain and his emotions began to shift! He was able to come at the window, see me with a relaxed body and return back to his owner who stood a few feet back. This pup is de facto learning that even though I might be scary he has the option to remove himself from the interaction instead of continuing to [re]act as he has done multiple times in the past when afraid.
Shifting is a process for all of us. A process that calls for sometimes infinite patience and observation. Patience is a must because most permanent changes require the many, many opportunities to practice the new coping strategies – as the case might be, before these become the new norm.
When it comes to helping a dog thru this kind of process, patience and keen observation of the dog’s demeanor are paramount since the change will take place only when the dog is ready and for the most part the dog’s timetable is not in sync with our own.