What My Dog Is Teaching Me About Being Human
Taking my dog, Abbie, for a walk can be a challenge. Dogs are creatures of context. And when Abbie’s usual context changes, she becomes anxious. When she is anxious, food doesn’t or can’t interest her, and training becomes nearly impossible. Luring a dog into a behavior with food—few things are more rewarding to a dog—is an easy training technique for human and dog to master. So, Abbie’s anxiety has made it difficult to train her to heel, not pull on a leash, sit at a crosswalk, and so on.
With patience and persistence, I worked with Abbie so that she would feel comfortable enough in our backyard to eat. Outside, she mastered sit and come, and seemed to be having fun working in the yard. She’s a smart dog, and inside the house—in addition to sit and come—she has learned to trap and roll a ball, lie down, stay and wait, turn around, and greet visitors without nipping them.
According to a canine behavior specialist at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Abbie has global anxiety disorder. It has its greatest impact outside. The neighbor’s barky dog, Beemer, or the neighborhood red-tailed hawk causes her to tuck her tail between her legs and bolt for the patio doors. When we change the routine—put her harness on in a new location or go out the front door instead of the sliding doors—she visibly trembles.
About 300 feet east of our house (down the yard, through the woods, across the brook, on Twin Brooks Circle), someone is adding onto a house, and construction has been going on all fall into winter. Next door too. The noise and activity have changed Abbie’s context enough that training in the yard is no longer possible; she won’t eat outside. When the trucks and construction equipment are around, Abbie hides in the bedroom. Her woods— a dog’s aromatic playground, where she tracks field mice, bunnies, and deer—are no longer safe. The family room isn’t a safe hangout when the construction workers are around. On the one hand, maybe it’s a good idea to stay away from loud, noisy, large machines. On the other hand, when it interferes with daily life activities, like sitting in your favorite chair near your human, you’re in the realm of behavioral disorder.
All brains are plastic. When we have new experiences and learn new skills, new neural connections are created in the brain. With enough repetition and attention, these connections stabilize. Repeatedly attending to what makes you anxious, for example, is likely to lock in the anxiety. Although I can’t observe these processes in myself as they occur, I know they exist. But I digress, and you can read about neuroplasticity elsewhere (one of many relevant articles).
I am pretty sure that Abbie, like you and me, has some degree of self-awareness. When we sit at the table to eat, she gets a bone from the family room and returns to the dining room; she wants to do what her pack is doing. When the microwave beeps but I don’t get up to make tea with the hot water that is ready, she goes to the kitchen and waits. If, after a few minutes, I don’t retrieve the hot water, she barks as if to ask, “Did you hear the beep?” She created these tasks for herself; I’m sure she has working-dog in her DNA. But no matter how much I try to teach Abbie that the family room and her yard are safe, she cannot escape her anxiety. Self-awareness isn’t enough to overcome the combination of hard wiring and early life experience that creates global anxiety in a dog.
Abbie is a prisoner of her anxiety (but only in the moment). But I’m a prisoner of only my beliefs. As Shakespeare said, through Hamlet’s mouth, “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
I might be hard-wired for anxiety or depression, to respond more readily to negative stimuli, to fight or flee. But I am not necessarily at the mercy of these reactions or my thoughts. I can observe, make connections, and self-correct. I can choose which thoughts to pay attention to, focus on what is productive and discard what is destructive, or at least not spend too much time with those thoughts. It is possible for me (and most people) to capitalize on neuroplasticity and replace anxiety with something else. This does not mean, however, that one should go through life singing “Hakuna Matata”.
Choosing healthy thoughts over anxiety or depression isn’t easy, though. Think about Hamlet, for a minute. His uncle has murdered his father in order to become king. His mother is aware of and okay with this. In itself that would be enough to put most people in a bad frame of mind. On top of this unsettling and dangerous family dynamic, the girl he loves, Ophelia, has rejected him because her father is suspicious of his intentions, an issue of socioeconomic class.
What’s a young prince to do in this situation, except run away to the jungle with a meerkat and a warthog? Oh, wait. That’s the Disney version. But maybe there is a point to The Lion King . When your environment is dangerous and unstable, go someplace safer. Find some allies and a mentor who will help you grow and become strong. And when you’ve matured enough, shoulder your responsibilities.
But if you believe that “Denmark” is a prison, you won’t do any of that. As long as you believe you’re trapped and helpless, as long as you don’t question and test your assumptions, as long as you accept the status quo, you are in a prison. Or possibly you are a young, depressed prince asking the wrong question.
The question isn’t “to be, or not to be,” as Hamlet asked. Abbie can tell you that you are. The questions for human beings are “how are you being?” and “how do you want to be?”
It doesn’t take too much to see that the prison door is open, if you’re willing to look. A chance encounter: something you read in a book, something you hear in a song, something you see on the street, in a movie, on TV, or from a friend, or a close call with death.
However, it takes a lot of effort, repeated effort, to walk through the open door. On the other side of the door is change; and change is unsettling, even frightening. It requires that we leave the past behind. The past is like sunk costs (see mistake #3), which are notoriously hard to deal with. But if you don’t deal effectively with sunk costs, you put yourself in a position of letting loss guide you. What if I fail? What if I lose? What if I die? And when you let loss guide you, it is all too easy to make decisions that are final, that you cannot later change your mind about (Broken Bells, “The High Road”).
For Abbie, life is simple: given that you are, do what helps you continue. Eat, drink, sleep, seek comfort. When in danger, either real or imagined, go someplace safe, fast. Don’t worry about how much water is in the bowl; if you’re thirsty, drink. A dog’s wisdom, but worthwhile for a human being to consider. But human beings can consider more.
How will you be today?