Understanding

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:

http://www.byutv.org/watch/2494c327-dc7e-412f-9f1a-962b42bd6a5a/turning-point-the-gentle-barn

If you’d like to share, I would welcome to chance to read about how the human-animal bond has helped you heal.

Just because it’s fun

Years ago, soon after we welcomed Oskar to our home and before he knew all of our rituals, I took Dali and Oskar to the airport to pick up my husband, Irwin.  We were waiting for him in the baggage area and after I received his call, I knew to keep a look-out.  When I saw Irwin, I alerted Dali and Oskar:  “Who sees Daddy?”  Dali looked around, spotted Irwin and started running towards him.  She had a goal.  Oskar ran along with Dali.  He was so much in the moment, simply joyous to be running with his buddy.  Oskar was in a moment of play.  Running just because it was fun.    He ran right past his Daddy.

Sometimes Dali and Oskar will rough and tumble play.  Dali doesn’t play as much as Oskar would like and I feel bad about that, but when they do, it is so much fun to watch.  It is like they are in their own world.  And that is part of play, too.  Play participants are in a state of abandon, a zone.

According to play expert Dr. Stuart Brown (what a fun job he has!), play is important throughout our life.  There are many different types of play and the basis of human trust is established through play signals.  Play helps with our emotional regulation, cognitive and physical development, innovation and creativity, and bonding and closeness.  Nothing lights up the brain like play does.  All species seem to be able to play and there is a very powerful and deep signaling system that exists between various species.

In his TEDTalk, Dr. Brown gives this example of a polar bear coming upon chained sled dogs.  The polar bear is in a predatory approach with eyes fixed, stalking movements, and claws extended.  One of the sled dogs gives a play bow and when the polar bear receives the message, everything changes.  Their interaction becomes good-natured and trusting.

I’ve certainly experienced this with Oskar.  Oskar can be very playful.  He can make me laugh out loud.   One time, I was at the foot of the stairs calling to Oskar at the top of the stairs to bring the ball-ie.  He doesn’t like to bring the ball.  He likes me to chase him.  I don’t like to chase him.  He just stood motionless and so after a couple of tries, I left my post and walked away.  Moments later, I hear the ball hitting each step.  I started to laugh.  Oskar had pushed the ball down the stairs to lure me back, but he found a way to do so without bringing the ball to me.

Although hard to define because it is pre-verbal, play is voluntary, fun for its own sake and seems purposeless.  It can be active.  It can also be imaginative and inward.  Some of my favorite times have been walking in the woods with Dali and Oskar.  I explore places and climb in and out of small creek beds I never would if I weren’t with them.  And I daydream.  I hadn’t understood these times to be a form of play until listening to Dr. Brown.

It is important to bring play in to our lives.  It is important for our well-being.  Play deprivation results in rigidness, lack of optimism, a negative view on life and depression.  It is important for each of us to be true to our own temperament to find the activities of play that fit us best.  This will help us be more effective in work and different areas of our life.  I recently started painting and found my anxiety decreased dramatically.  I love using a lot of paint and because I enjoy the gooey feel I sometimes use my hands to cover the canvas and mix paint.  Doing this brought up memories of photos I had seen of myself as a toddler playing in the mud.  Perhaps a trait I was born with was to enjoy exploring through a sense of touch and physical movement. 

Play is also important in our couple relationships.  If we neglect the fun side of our relationship, this can trigger a spiral of distress.    Each couple needs to incorporate their ways of play into their lives and so some things together just because it is fun. 

The video at the top of this blog post always makes me smile.  My mirror neurons probably fire watching the dog and sheep play tag.  I hope they and my blog inspire you to find ways to play that fit who you are.