Dali and I are a lot alike. We both have difficulty feeling comfortable with others of our own species. When Dali sees another dog, if she’s the least bit afraid, she barks hysterically. When I see another person, I don’t bark hysterically, but I’m not comfortable in groups of people and can get a bit aggressive out of my fear.
Dali is unreachable when she gets in this zone. There doesn’t seem to be anything I can do to reassure her. Out of my helplessness, I have gotten very frustrated with her. Then I feel bad and apologize to her. I do believe she knows what “I’m sorry” means because I’ve said it so often to her.
One day, I was talking to a dog trainer about Dali and he explained that Dali was probably bullied when she was very young, before she came to live with us. Her vulnerability grew from the original antagonizers to other dogs. She was also bullied after she came to live with us. Early on, I took her to a dog park. She was so incredibly fast. Other dogs would chase her. One dog started to pick on her and got a group of other dogs to join in. It was scary for me, so I can only imagine how scary it was for her. That was the last time we went to the dog park.
Now I have more understanding and empathy for Dali. I remain calm when she gets triggered and launches into her I-must-tell-the-world-there-is-a-threat-until-I-know-everyone-has-heard-me barking campaign. With my new empathic response, sometimes I notice that she has a quicker recovery time, sometimes not, but I know I’m not adding to her distress and lack of safety by getting angry with her.
As my empathy grew for Dali, my compassion grew for myself. Now when I’m with groups of people and feeling uncomfortable, I am better able to calm myself down. I talk to myself the way I would talk to Dali, soothingly. I remind myself how much sense it makes that I get afraid and that I’m not alone in this feeling. I don’t love groups, but since I’ve learned to exercise self-compassion from being compassionate with Dali, I’ve had more experiences that feel alright rather than shaming.
A wonderful organization that helps at-risk children heal from trauma uses the idea of self-compassion by learning compassion for animals is The Gentle Barn. Children, who may not be able to relate to care givers, can identify with the vulnerability of animals and heal some of their own emotional pain by interacting with a pig, cow, chicken, or goat. This nontraditional form of therapy includes telling the children the stories of individual animals who are survivors of abusive situations and how each animal has learned to love and trust again. The youths leave with a sense of hope that change is within their reach.
Here is an inspiring and informative video about The Gentle Barn and the healing that is possible when we recognize how we are all interconnected:
If you’d like to share, I would welcome to chance to read about how the human-animal bond has helped you heal.