Last summer, I went on a trip with two very close friends of mine, and one night, after the days activities, we sat with a glass of wine in our room, chatting about life, friendships, loves we have had and lost, and relationships in general.
As we drew the conversation to a close, Christine, one of the ladies I was with, said “At the end of the day, all anyone ever really wants to know is that someone cares about them.”
It seems such an obvious thing, doesn’t it?
But when you think about it, caring is a lot more than just paying lipservice or liking something on Facebook, it’s more than a quick chat, its more than a speedy wave. Caring is about letting someone know, in no uncertain terms, that they matter.
How do we go about this?
It’s easy, we just give them our time, our touch, our attention.
We just need to empathize with them, understand the burdens they carry…..for make no mistake, every man, woman, child, dog, snake, grasshopper carries a burden.
What does this have to do with dogs ?
Everything, to anyone with a heart…………
Here at the DD Ranch we very often have to work with sad or displaced dogs. Sure they may live with a family, but they can still be emotionally bereft because nobody saw the dog as needing to know that he actually mattered to someone. He was just seen as ‘the family pet’, fed, watered and walked once in a blue moon. It’s never enough….dogs, just like us humans, have emotional needs; their sense of belonging to a family or pack needs to be confirmed daily.
Years ago, I decided to eschew, much to the disagreement of my fellow dog professionals, the use of treats as an everyday part of rehabilitating fearful or aggressive dogs. We still use them on occasion for training certain behaviors like recall or maybe sit, but very rarely.
Instead, I decided to make everything we do here relationship based, in the truest sense of the word. I had seen many dogs, mine included, become the mindless followers of walking food containers (us owners with our treat bags) and I got fed up with just being seen so one dimensionally by this little being that I adored so much. Surely there had to be a better way of instilling trust, and a will to follow me, than lining my pockets full of hot dogs?
I read what many behaviorists had to say on the subject, and very quickly gravitated towards the point of view of John Rogerson, whose brilliance in this field cannot be overstated, and who says that the greatest gift we can give our dogs is the gift of play.
I liked it, I liked it a lot.
It reminded me very much of my oldest friend who, whenever you visited her home, her kids hands were covered in paint, she was always making cookies and cakes with them, she laughed as they created a tornado’s worth of chaos in her living room, and always had time to stop what she was doing to play, play and play some more. As they grew older, the play time became more about listening time.
I then thought about all of the parents I have known to be brilliant, who had the very best relationship with their children (and make no mistake, owning and rearing a dog is exactly the same, it’s just that your four legged kid can run faster and bite you in the ass!) and made a mental note of the things that they did that made it work so well.
The common factor in every single case was that they all let their children know that they cared. Not in the Hollywood, arm around the shoulder kind of way or a quick disposable hug with a passing ‘I love you, son’, they actually spent time with them, listened more than they talked and were always available. It was that simple.
So, we decided to start a new protocol at the Ranch, or what was the Ranch before we moved out here to Braselton, and its been so successful we have stuck with it.
First thing in the morning, at 6.45 am when they all get let out, all the dogs are eager to start the new day. We let them go do their business, then we have all the dogs come to us one by one: the pushy ones get sent off to wait their turn, and as we sit there in our nasty old bathrobes on a chair in the back yard, everyone gets a loving hand on their body, wherever they tell us they’d like it. Ears are tickled, bellies are rubbed, we go nose to head, drinking in the scent of those we know well, and chin scratches and chest rubs for those that we dont.
We look and smile at them warmly, if only to let them know we are so very very glad to see them. We whisper that they are loved and that they are beautiful. We make kissy lip smacking noises into the head fur next to the ears of those who like it, as this reminds them of the suckling sound from their days with Mama. (By the way, this technique also works very well if you have a non-aggressive dog who doesn’t like having their nails cut or being handled at the vets…you as the trusted owner can do this and transport the dog to a sweeter place). We play a little……. making big wide eyes in surprise when they lick us or respond to a gentle game. We do an Oscar worthy version of a sad face when they look away and then laugh when they jerk back to say ‘Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to ignore you and get you upset, Aunty Pen!’
The early morning let out normally lasts for 45 minutes to an hour depending on the weather, and throughout that whole time, we are building a relationship with those dogs. No treats, they will be breakfasting soon, and anyway, this is all about us and the dog, not about our pockets and their stomach.
Throughout the day, as they explore or play, we pay attention, not just because its our job to keep them safe, but because you cannot build a relationship with anyone while you are looking at a screen or not ‘there’. So we stay in the moment while we are with them, cheering the fearful dog who manages to build up courage to jump onto the logpile, looking ridiculously over the top pleased with the dog who comes when they are called. But also looking very sad and disappointed at the dog who does something naughty, maybe throwing a hissy fit and stomping off, slamming the door behind us for more serious crimes. I guarantee three seconds later, that dog will be at the door begging me to let him or her rejoin me so they can make things right with our relationship.
Throughout breakfast dinner and snacks, we join them, and at bed time, everyone gets tucked in with a kiss on the forehead and a last touch session, and is told that they had a great day, or that they played well, or simply that they are loved.
Some would accuse us of anthropomorhism, but I don’t see it that way. We still treat the dogs as a different species, with special needs in their own right, however, we have found, through dealing with thousands and thousands of dogs literally, that they fully respond to someone that they perceive truly cares about them.
You as a dog owner do not need a degree in dog behavior to be able to do this. All you need to do is invest some time, thought and understanding into your relationship with your dog. If you own a rescue dog, who surely comes to you with a burden of unknown proportions, then this is even more important. If that rescue dog is shy or fearful, then don’t push it, maybe for the first few days, weeks or months even, you just need to sit there, walk beside her, and let her know that when she is ready, you are there for her.
With our old girl Ava, hardest working girl at the Ranch, it took months and months, but I was patient. I’m not patient in any other area of my life, but with rehab cases, I can take all the time in the world, as I know that the longer it takes, the sweeter it will be, and the more it means to both of us. All of those months, we would walk, sit on a log, sit by the stream, hand feed her, whatever we were doing, I was just waiting for the signal that the door was opening, that she trusted a little.
When she did, it was like Christmas, Birthday, Barmitzvah, tooth fairy all rolled into one. It was the best return on investment the world has ever known, Donald Trump couldn’t have been more pleased!
If you have one New Years Resolution, make it this….Let them, whoever they may be, know that you care.
Truly care, with an investment of time, of understanding………of love.