Observe, Wonder, Feel & Be
One evening, many years ago I was at a high school basketball court on the East Side of Manhattan with two dogs: my Dalmatian Freddie and a client’s Jack Russell terrier named Mack. (Someone in the neighborhood was on the city council, owned a dog, and had pulled some strings to allow us to exercise our dogs there in the evenings.)
The dogs were all playing nicely. Everyone was having fun. Then a light rain started, some kids began lighting some firecrackers, and Mack, who didn’t like loud noises, and hated getting wet, decided to go home. He was about 30 yards away from me when he wiggled through a small gap in the chain link fence and escaped to 68th Street.
I went into emergency mode and called Freddie. There was no time to hook up his leash, which was hanging around my neck (along with Mack’s). I just ran as fast as I could to the actual exit, which was in the opposite direction to where Mack was going! Freddie ran next to me. We came out onto 68th Street, and I scanned the sidewalk. Mack had apparently crossed to the uptown side of the street. So I checked quickly for oncoming cars, then ran across the street with Freddie at my side.
We got to the other side, and I looked up the street toward Second Avenue, my heart racing, my mind trying not to panic. I still couldn’t see Mack anywhere, and hoped he hadn’t tried to cross against the traffic on Second Avenue. I ran as fast as possible, desperate to find him before he got hurt. But as I ran I noticed that something unexpected and wonderful was happening. Freddie was running right next to me, in a perfect heel, his eyes locked onto mine. I realized that he’d been running next to me like that the whole time. He hadn’t taken his eyes off me for a second. As you can imagine, it was an amazing feeling.
So anyway, we got to Second Avenue, I asked some people if they’d seen a little dog go by, and was directed to a nearby video store. We got inside and found Mack casually strolling through the aisles, begging for treats. Whew! Tragedy averted!
I hooked Mack up to his leash and the three of us took a walk back to my apartment building.
As we walked I praised Freddie for being such a good dog. Although I’d spent many long hours training Freddie in obedience, I hadn’t realized until that night how deeply bonded and emotionally connected to me he was. That is, I thought I knew, but Fred showed some wonderful new dimensions to our relationship that night. And there was no specific behavioral precedent for what he did. I had never trained him to run next to me, off-lead like that. His behavior was based almost entirely on the emotional connection we had.
I also realize now that I was a different person before I met Fred. I’m much more centered and grounded than I was before that wonderful, yet often difficult dog taught me how to be human. (I learned later that his being "difficult" was actually the result of my resisting the emotional changes taking place inside me.)
People sometimes question how or why I think I know so much about how dogs do or don’t think, what makes them tick. Part of it comes through countless hours of research, studying various disciplines. But most of my understanding of dogs comes from my daily interactions with them. When they’re awake, dogs are almost constantly watching us and reading our behavior. And I’ve found that if we do something similar—just do four simple things for a few minutes each day—it can help us connect more fully to our dogs’ feelings, and maybe connect us back to our true selves.
Will it make your dog run next to you in a perfect heel through the streets of New York? Probably not. But as they say about chicken soup: "It couldn’t hurt!" And what may be even more important, you might find that by doing these four things, your life will, over time, become easier, happier, and more full of joy.
So here are the 4 simple steps that I think can help make all that happen.
1) Observe - Whenever you take your dog for a walk, or when your dog is playing with other doggies, or even when your dog is sleeping, take a few moments to simply watch his behaviors. Don’t make any judgments or assign any plus or minus values to what the dog is doing. When we take a walk through a pine forest, do we impose value judgments on the trees, rocks, ferns, and birds? No. So just observe the daily minutia of your dog’s actions; keep things as simple as possible. Pay attention to how your dog approaches other dogs. Does he come straight toward them, or in more of an arc? What happens to his face when he smells something? What is his tail doing when he sees a squirrel, or when you call him for supper?
Don’t think about what any of this means, just observe.
One value of this type of objective observation this is that our visual systems are directly-connected to the pleasure circuits in our brains. So the mere act of looking at something, anything, creates a feeling of calmness and well-being. So the more we’re able to observe without judgmental thinking, the more relaxed and contented we become.
Another nice effect is that by observing your dog’s behavior without judgment or expectation, you'll begin to see things from his perspective. Thinking usually means we project our beliefs and value systems onto our dogs’ behavior, which prevents us from seeing them for who they really are. But I think that seeing dogs as they really are returns us to nature — to the pine forest, the desert, or the waterfall — if just for a small moment in time.
2) Wonder - Childhood is a time of wonder. When we were young we spent a great deal of time wondering about all kinds of things. Wonder is also a key element in science. Darwin wondered why the various types of finches on different islands in the Galapagos had beaks with different shapes, and his theory of evolution was born. Einstein sat on a moving train and wondered what it would be like to be on a train that could travel at light speed, and the theory of general relativity was born.
But there’s more to wondering than the if, or how, or why of things. Just being in a state of wonder has an amazing effect on the psyche. Like observation, wonder stimulates the brain. Plus it opens up an emotional connection between you and the thing you’re wondering about, in this case, your dog. So try each day to view your dog with a childlike sense of wonder.
Wondering means you don’t know anything, but that you’re open to learning something new. If Einstein had thought about it, he would’ve known that no train could possibly travel at light speed, and that would’ve been the end of that. But by wondering, he saw something in his mind that no one else could see.
What will you see, that no one else can, when you take a few moments each day to look at your dog in wonder?
3) Feel - Dogs are feeling, emotional beings. So are we. But as kids, we were forced by the rules of society, peer pressure, by how our parents raised us, and by our own survival needs, to put a lid on some of our emotions. It’s an amazing thing that just by tuning in to our dog’s emotions now, as adults, we automatically tune in to some of the childlike emotions we gave up long ago.
So spend a little time each day trying to tune in to what your dog is feeling. Don’t think about it. Just take a second or two to try and feel it; then let it go. A few moments later you may find that a childhood memory will drift to the surface, or the answer to a problem you’ve been having, perhaps related to work or family, will suddenly become clear.
A theater professor of mine once said that whenever we see a great play or movie, or look at a work of art, it has the capacity to change us for the better. And even though a physician or a chemist or construction worker may not feel any affinity for Hamlet's woes, or relate to the life of a Pennsylvania deer hunter, or understand what a Mark Rothko painting "means," each will come away a better doctor, chemist, or builder. True, dogs may not be Shakespeare, but in their own way, they can do that for us too. That’s because by allowing ourselves to feel what our dogs are feeling, we reawaken our ability to feel our own emotional connections, the ones we lost when we were pups.
4) Be - Some trainers say, “You have to be the pack leader! Be dominant!” Others say, “Be the pack parent!” or “Be positive!” But I say, “Just be”
What does that mean?
All evidence on how wild canine packs really operate suggests that our old ideas about wolf packs having a dominant pack leader aren’t exactly true. However, in every animal group there is always one member who — to borrow from Willie Wonka — has the golden ticket. To me, the golden ticket represents an animal’s natural charisma or animal magnetism. So others in the group follow him because of his natural gifts, not because he dominates them.
Think about your natural gifts. What are they? Whatever they are, they’re yours and yours alone. You don’t have to try to be something you’re not.
But remember, there are two yous (at least), the authentic self, and the self that evolved as a means of fitting in, satisfying your parents' and teachers’ and bosses’ wishes, etc. The authentic self is the one who’s able to observe, wonder, tune in to your dog’s (and your own) feelings, and is able to just be. The other you, frankly, probably thinks too much. (I know I do!)
If you get angry or frustrated with your dog, that’s okay. Own those feelings, just try not to act on them. Remember, they’re not unmanageable problems, they may be irritating but they’re just signposts. So instead out of acting in anger or frustration, take a few slow, deep breaths and remember that you already have your unique golden ticket: your dog’s unwavering love. Yes, the road may be rocky at times, but those rocks aren’t insurmountable obstacles, they’re just reflections of the fractured pieces of the authentic self you gave up as a child. Your dog doesn’t misbehave or act out in order to dominate you or create obstacles or make your life miserable; he does it because on a certain level he wants to help you reconnect to who you really are.
So those are the 4 easy steps: Observe, Wonder, Feel, and Be. Just spending a few minutes each day engaged in those simple activities can bring amazing results.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”