Connecting with our dogs. Is it an overt action, passive process or both? Is your dog a peripheral member of your family, a standard fixture on the outskirts of each moment, holiday and snapshot? Or, is your dog your soul companion, a being that means as much as any human family member? And for either version (and every possibility in between), what is the process of connecting and establishing that bond?
I grew up with dogs on the periphery. I dressed them and played tea with them, I trained them when I was bored, I was slow to feed or walk them when I had more interesting business going on. Sometimes, I took out my bad mood on them and I lacked the sense that my selfishness carried any consequence. I won’t say I thought of them as two dimensional but, in my childish perspective, I found them to only be extensions of myself and their emotional relevance extended only as far as my willingness to consider their well-being.
Later in life, when I was settled in western Massachusetts, I decided to get another dog. During my young professional years I had the good sense to not take on the responsibility of a dog but in 2004 I brought home a tiny baby-dog. A puppy who many of you probably know by now was a border collie I named Kai. At this point I was a hobbyist trainer, fascinated with theories of learning and modifying behavior. I was naïve and new to the field, and my one focus was to raise Kai to be a good dog. I had no plan on how to connect with him, I simply did the things they tell you to do in the puppy books. I trained him, I socialized him, I watched him to ensure he didn’t have potty accidents in the house. But, there was something different about my relationship with Kai, my connection with Kai. I actively sought out what life was like from his perspective. I crawled in his crate and looked out. I observed quietly as he played and found myself delighted and 100% engaged with the toys he played with, the curiosities he set out to satisfy, and the fears he shied away from. Somewhere along the way and without any overt effort on my part, Kai became connected to me in a different sort of way. He changed everything. Through my relationship with him, I became an experienced behavior consultant and trainer and, literally, my whole life changed with him at the center of it all. For over nine years, Kai was in my core. I had jobs, lovers, partners, and so much more….but by my side there was always Kai.
Now, I am celebrating my 10th year in this profession. I have met with hundreds of clients and evaluated thousands of dogs. The concept of connection is most certainly a key component in what determines the course of action with how clients proceed. Sometimes, the dogs are a beloved peripheral pet – but key to helping children learn about caring about animals and not at all to be considered inconsequential. However, it’s a connection that differs greatly from those that consider their dogs as a soul companion.
On the flip side, I have recently seen my mother lose her sole (and soul) companion dog, a little cavalier named Aidan. Aidan had heart problems as he aged and at one point my mom said she felt like his caretaker, not his owner or companion. She has raised a child, been married and divorced, and helped her parents through their sunset years. Yet it was Aidan that she most connected with.
I don’t know why or how we create the connections we have with our pets. What makes one dog a dog that changes everything whereas another dog is a less-intense (but no less joyful) companion. Truly, I am not the only one who wonders about this. There are endless books, articles and memes regarding the human-canine bond. It’s a gift, that we know for sure, regardless of the form of the connection.