Recently there’s been a NY Times article going around about how Dogs are People, Too. The article focuses on an MRI study done with dogs (trained to go through an MRI machine) and reveals brain activity maps. The study, in short, seems to indicate that dogs have the ability to experience human emotions, such as love and attachment. This finding goes steps further to re-evaluate how we treat animals, suggesting we should look to provide guardianship over creatures with limited personhood, rather than ownership over property. I would encourage you to read it if you have not done so already – it’s a fascinating piece.
I also recently read a piece on Creating New Pathways for Your Dog’s “Monkey Mind”, which writes about dealing with human anxiety and carving out new pathways, and the implications that has with dog behavior.
These writings have gotten me to thinking about the emotional ties that bind us to our dogs. And the longer I live as Balton’s guardian, the more I begin to think he may have found me so I can start to evaluate my own emotional patterns. I’ve often said I learn about myself in learning about my foster dogs, but each day with Balton tends to remind me of my own humanity more than I can say.
Over the course of life, bad things happen and good things happen. They happen to people and they happen to dogs. I think about Balton’s lack of confidence, which is why he feels the need to be on a defensive unless he can trust I am looking out for his best interest. I think about what may have caused the emotional pathways in his brain to be carved out the way they have. I think about the work we need to do in order to create new pathways. Maureen Backman writes “Fearful pathways are deep, strong and rehearsed. Carving out new pathways – new ways for dogs to behave, to feel about the environment – takes effort, consistency and compassion. In writing this post, I thought of ways we can help our anxious and fearful dogs find new pathways for behaving. Many are comparable to creating new pathways in our own lives (Creating New Pathways for Your Dog’s “Monkey Mind”).”
I have struggled with confidence in myself, and trust in others, for some time. I have fought a 15 year battle with anxiety and depression that sometimes I feel like I’m winning. Most times, I feel like I’m losing. But I’ve learned a game face will allow you to function all right. If you’ve got your game face on and your depression under wraps, you’re looking okay to the rest of the world, even if you’re hurting inside and not wanting to face life. Looking for some answer or a switch to make small life situations not feel so looming and hard. Feeling somehow inadequate or like a terrible person because you can’t just be grateful for the blessings you know you have. Feeling like somehow you have some untapped potential to be a better person and you just can’t tap it.
Depression, anxiety, and addiction are not well understood. Not by those suffering them, and less so by those who don’t live with emotions and fears that frankly seem irrational. I remember when I read Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half post on depression, and rereading it again and again. I hoped that what she was writing would make sense to those who never really got why people don’t “just get over it”. How well meaning attempts from others to offer solutions can make you feel super alone, and worse that you can’t just get off the couch and go to yoga to make your demons go away with a finger snap. But, if nothing else, the post was validating for me in knowing someone had penned depression well, and somehow managed to make me feel less awful about it.
Aggression in dogs is misunderstood and not constructively addressed by most people in society. There are some really good organizations and professional trainers who look to these dogs with compassion and kindness, seeking to address the root cause of aggression. But for most people, they see a dog lunging or barking at them and can’t see fear. They see a dog that needs to be controlled or dealt with, or they see irresponsible caregivers for that dog.
Aggression is a symptom of an underlying emotion (often fear). Shutting down, being unable to focus, or intense dread about picking up the phone to call someone you consider a friend or should depend on as family, are symptoms of my underlying anxiety and depression. You can control symptoms, but controlling symptoms does little, if anything, to really develop solutions for cause.
You can train obedience in a number of ways, but if you’re training obedience without addressing stress, you may just be painting over a crack that is a symptom of crumbling foundation. You don’t see the crack, but the foundation is continuing to crumble, and it’s only a matter of time before the repairs become much more costly than a can of paint.
I think the same applies to human conditions. You can only drive a car without oil before it leads to bigger engine problems, and I then dealing with your car’s overall health becomes far more overwhelming than it would have been if you just changed the oil like you should have. My husband offered me this analogy in a recent low point with my depression.
This could very well bring on another discussion in looking critically at tragedies which occur as the result of human conditions. Violent crimes with mental health undertones, for example, which focus more on gun control than developing real solutions for those with mental health conditions. I need to do some more research here, but I can’t help but feel if you’re functioning and going with the motions for what society needs to see you as, you’re okay. Until you’re not. The same can be said for dog bites that “came out of nowhere.” The dog was fine. Until he wasn’t. And now he needs to find a new place to live because the family who ignored his early warning signs can’t have a dog that bites.
I’ve spent a lot of years trying to fix myself, but if the last year with Balton has taught me anything, there is no such thing as an easy fix. While I was once convinced that there was a different forever home out there for him, I’ve started to have a greater acceptance that his “hard to place” status wasn’t a thing that has only been to his benefit. The universe seemed to tell me I was meant to be the caretaker he needed, but lately I’ve been starting to think maybe he’s the dog who was meant to teach me how to be a better caretaker of myself.
Maybe as awareness of my dog’s personhood grows, I can start becoming more aware of my own human personhood. And maybe, just maybe, building some new pathways for Balton can teach me how to build some new and improved pathways for myself.