"We think we listen, but rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know." - Carl Rogers
Last week I had an opportunity to take my dogs, Marley and Odin, out to the coast. It was one of those rare winter days when the sun was out and the temperature was mild. My wife and I packed up the dogs and set out to Oswald West State Park. As we drove across Sunset Highway I reflected on how far my one dog Odin has come on his journey from a damaged puppy who could not even walk on a leash in public into a dog who can run across a beach unleashed for some frisbee tosses with his brother Marley. Making friends with dogs (or even people!) originally seemed like an impossibility for Odin, but now we can go to dog parks and daycare and he even has made a few human friends that he trusts now.
Odin's first five months of life are completely unknown to me. I would find myself considering that idea more and more and every time I reflect on that it would put me into his shoes for a minute. What would I be like if I was left to the world alone as an infant? Who teaches me how to love? Who nurtures me during some of the most important times of development? What could happen to me without the guidance and protection of my parents? The list goes on but the important takeaway for me was the more I took time to consider those feelings the closer I felt to Odin and his struggle to get better.
The word "empathy" has come to mean different things through time with its current understanding coming from the German term Einfühlung which literally means "feeling-in." It's the faculty that can help you make sense of your world by stepping outside of yourself and understanding the position of someone else without allowing your own feelings affect your judgement. It is a skill that must be practiced to grow but with that growth comes a much clearer understanding of your world at large. It helps connect an individual and eases those in emotional distress.
Odin's anxiety caused the destruction of many shoes, blankets, blinds, a remote control, and the list goes on. I have a door that has been completely torn up from closing him out of a room just one time while I got ready for work. Gnaw marks can be found on walls in our apartment if you look hard enough as well. I would always correct him but the habits would persist. The kicker was he was a really good dog. He was kind and loved being played with at home but the outside world scared him.
What I eventually came to grips with was the idea that maybe correcting these bad behaviors were only a band-aid and were not addressing his real problem. This was not a dog who was ready to be trained because first he needed someone to trust as his guardian in this world. He needed compassion and understanding; he needed someone to hear what he was trying to really say (without words of course). Fear and uncertainty was such a big part of life up to the moment he was rescued that he was unable to move passed his trauma until he had a foundation to stand on.
I made sure to spend as much time as I could making him feel loved. I would talk to him in the goofy voices that we all do when we are alone with our dogs. I would correct him for bad behavior but followed it up with a hug and didn't allow him to walk away from me scared or upset. We would go up to the things that scared him together. bI didn't let his own follies (i.e. aggressive snapping at other dogs when frightened, barking at strangers walking by) in life make me feel as if I'm failing him but rather used them all as teaching moments that would let him know it's alright to mess up but there is no need to feel scared anymore. Sure enough many of his worst moments seem to be behind him these days.
It took a whole year but we are almost out of the woods! We have dealt with all the normal puppy stuff with the addition of some stitches from playing too hard and one fractured leg over the summer from a game of catch gone awry. Watching him grow up while our bond only grows stronger has helped both of us tremendously and I really don't know any other way that I could have gotten him to this point. To all the dog parents out there with dog problems, be patient with them and they will heal in time. Put in the work and love them with all your heart and one day you will see them out on their own and all you will be able to say is "good dog."
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