‘The Power Of Intent’ by Dr. Wayne Dwyer was being aired on PBS, though I’d listened to it on CD I decided that the message of his presentation was worth hearing again and so stayed awake to watch it. The presentation, like many other things, had me thinking about my fearful dog Sunny.
Since Sunny arrived in my life I have been inspired to help him and to help change the way fearful dogs are treated by too many owners and trainers- as though their fearfulness was a behavior they are choosing and need to bullied out of. The fearfuldogs.com site was created to help in this goal and the book, A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog (which was nominated by the Dog Writer’s Association of American in 2008 in their annual competition) was written for the same end. It is only a small contribution to the body of knowledge available to dog owners, but I’m glad that some dog out there might be getting some chicken instead of being yanked by their collar because someone happened upon the website, or my blog.
Research, and the experience of many fearful dog owners has shown that the use of anti-depressants like Prozac, medications which increase the amount of the neurotransmitter serotonin available in the brain, help our dogs feel less anxious (demonstrated by an improvement in their behavior). In his presentation Dr. Dwyer referenced a study that showed that serotonin levels in the brains of humans that experience an act of kindness, increase. Whether you are the provider of the act, the recipient or merely observing the act, the serotonin levels in your brain will be increased, you will feel better than you did when the levels were lower. The energy of kindness makes us feel better.
When trainers talk about how an owner’s energy affects their dog’s behavior, and recommend ‘calm assertiveness’, I don’t take umbrage with the idea that energy is important, but rather with the energy recommended. What does it mean to be ‘calm assertive’? You might think you know, and examples might make sense to some, but they seem too open to variation for my tastes. There are a variety of definitions of ‘assertiveness’ but none of them include kindness. When we are asserting our will, however calmly, on another being, we are not being kind.
The brains of humans and dogs are alike in enough ways that we can make assumptions about what dogs experience emotionally, particularly in regard to fear. It leads me to believe that acts of kindness are much more powerful and effective ways of helping our scared dogs ‘feel better’ than the energy of ‘leadership’, ‘assertiveness’ or ‘alpha’. The forceful and all too often aggressive energy of ’assertiveness’ only adds to their stress, causing their behavior to degrade. If you believe that dogs are masters at picking up on our energy, being calm does not change the essential energy of your assertiveness.
Though one goal we have with our scared dogs is to change their behavior, we also must change how they feel. Few examples need to be presented to convince us that when we feel better, we behave better, relative to whatever situation we’re in. We get along with people more easily when we feel good, we get more work done, and we score higher on tests.
I would suggest that the energy we create by being kind provides more potential for successful changes in our scared dogs’ behavior than does assertiveness. What if kindness is not something dogs understand? Being fed because someone feels an obligation to provide you with food may not seem to be any different from someone feeding you as an act of kindness. Or perhaps it does.
Dogs are able to detect changes in the body chemistry of people with diabetes or epilepsy. They can identify urine samples from people with cancer. Perhaps dogs know, with their noses, when we are being kind, and feel better themselves because of it. As for love, I wouldn’t be surprised if we found out that to a dog it smells a lot like pepperoni.