This article was first published in the 2020 Spring/Summer edition of ‘Counselling for Scotland’, the COSCA (counselling & Psychotherapy in Scotland) journal. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of COSCA, slightly editted to suit internet publication. A full copy of the journal, including the original article, can be obtained from COSCA
“Mastering others is strength; Mastering yourself is true power”–Lao Tzu, Chines Taoist Philosopher
The Greek Philosopher Socrates taught that ‘to know thyself is the beginning of wisdom’.
For a large part of my life I thought wisdom was about learning, passing exams, being successful in my career, in short, being clever. Ten years ago, if I had been asked to think about ‘knowing myself’ I would probably have claimed to be too busy.
It was true I had a lot on. A mother of school-age children with a full-time, senior manager role, a long daily commute and, at the age of 45, I had joined the 25% of UK households and bought a dog. Actually I bought two, hamiltonstövare puppies, a type of Swedish foxhound.
The First Dot – Problems with Dogs
Because we were out of the house all day I enlisted the help of a local dog walker, to take care of my dogs’ needs, and as a responsible member of society I enrolled in a local puppy training class where we achieved our Kennel Club Good Citizen Dog Training scheme Bronze award. I was determined to do everything right.
Three years later I was in court, in front of a Judge, charged with ‘sheep worrying’. Actually it had been one of my dogs that had been worrying the sheep but as the responsible adult I was fined and convicted. Up until then I had not even had a parking ticket, a measure of how law-abiding I was as a person.
Dog training was important to me but it seemed I needed to try harder. I contacted more trainers to see if there were different training approaches that would make more sense to me and my hounds. I was referred to a dog behaviourist, who specialised in analysing and correcting problem behaviours in dogs, and I attended more workshops. One trainer suggested that I buy a Labrador retriever. They were easier to train and he had some puppies for sale.
Now I had three dogs. The Labrador was much more connected to me. Sometimes he even helped me ‘retrieve’ the hounds. I was committed to make this work but it was difficult.
The Second Dot – Fragile Mental Health
I was struggling at work as well. The organisation had been going through a major restructuring, with a lot of uncomfortable change. One day I was talking to a friend about it. She looked at me wisely and asked “why don’t you see your doctor and get some time off work?”
I had a feeling like a pressure valve being opened inside me. I started to cry and could not stop. Two days later I was still in tears sitting opposite the doctor, who listened and nodded, as he signed me off with stress.
At first I just felt a sense of relief that I had permission to step off the treadmill that had become my life. Up until that point I had considered myself healthy. I was seldom ill and never needed to take any time off work. I exercised regularly. To be honest, I didn’t really understand what ‘problems with mental health’ meant, although I was sympathetic to anyone experiencing difficulties. Now, out of the blue, I found I could not perform the simplest of tasks. The slightest upset, like finding a coloured sock in the washing meant for whites, had me in a fit of rage. I would agree to meet up with friends and then cancel in a panic, as the date got closer. I could not cope with every day life. After some months I resigned from my job.
Some years on, I can now say that this was a pivotal moment in my life. I came to understand that problems with stress had crept up on me over time. It was not the stress that was the problem, but how I had dealt with it. I had been ignoring my discomfort, pushing the blame of my unhappiness onto things outside of myself, work, relationships, other people. I had been totally unaware of the emotional pressure, which, like water in a blocked pipe, was building up while I just “kept going”.
The Third Dot – Why did we get a dog?
For the love of dogs
What are we responding to when we bring a dog into our home? Dog ownership is on the rise. Dogs are good for our health, offering us companionship and unconditional love, encouraging us to exercise. Stroking a dog has even been shown to lower our blood pressure.
There is a flip side to dog ownership. It is estimated that 130,000 dogs come into UK rescue charities each year. UK wide research has identified that many of of us find some aspect of our pet’s behaviour problematic and behaviour problems are the most common reason for dogs to be given up for re-homing. (https://www.dogstrustdogschool.org.uk/facts-and-figures/)
Some critics will say that dog problems are on the rise because the person is not making the right choices, such as owning an active working dog and living in the city, or owning a hound bred for hunting and expecting it to come bounding back for a biscuit.
A problem or an opportunity?
I find this point of view judgemental and a little simplistic. We are each drawn to our dog for a reason. Maybe we are lonely and want a dog in our lives for extra company. Perhaps we like the look of a particular breed of dog and are attracted to it aesthetically. It could be the children wanted a dog and we just gave in. There are a host of rational reasons I could offer as I to why I brought dogs into my life, but I now recognise that the decision was more intuitive and emotional. However you, or I, got here, any problems we are experiencing with our dog can be viewed as an opportunity to learn about ourselves. I believe that our own mental health is a key part of the puzzle.
The Fourth Dot – We are all connected
Unaware of the personal train crash I was heading for, I had noticed, at a more superficial level, how my dogs’ behaviours somehow seemed to be connected with my own thoughts and feelings.
We are all energy
I knew about energy therapy, the healing property of non-physical touch and the concept that we are all connected by an invisible network. Sometimes referred to simply as ‘the field’ it’s the medium used by healers across the world. Einstein called it ‘spooky action at a distance’. Physicists today refer to it as ‘quantum entanglement’. Many people believe that animals are already naturally tuned into it.
Scientific research is showing how our dogs respond to us physiologically. One study, published in Sweden at the beginning of the year, found that cortisol levels (the stress hormone) are synchronised between dogs and humans and concluded that the dog was mirroring the stress levels of their owners.
The dog doesn’t respond to what the owner thinks, says or does…..
The biologist and writer Rupert Sheldrake gives interesting examples of the connection in his book “Dogs that Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home”. One particular experiment conducted by Sheldrake demonstrated that some dogs will anticipate the return of their human companion, at the precise time when the human companion makes the decision to return, independent of how far apart the dog and human are geographically.
My continued search led me to Kevin Behan. A dog trainer in the United States, Behan claims that our dogs’ behaviours, emotion and perceptions are driven by their owner’s emotion.
“The dog doesn’t respond to what the owner thinks, says or does, it responds to how the owner feels.“Kevin Behan, ‘Your Dog is Your Mirror’ (2011), New World Library
When I read that I felt as if I had come home. I wrote to Kevin asking for his advice. How could I use the behaviour of my dogs to help me identify what was ‘wrong’ in me? I wanted to discover and resolve my inner conflicts so that my dogs didn’t have to act them out. Getting to the root of the issue seemed to make more sense to me.
Kevin was gracious in his response, but didn’t offer any practical help. He said ‘self-discovery’ was the fun part and encouraged me to ‘enjoy the hunt’.
It seemed to me that there was something missing in our relationship with dogs. We concentrate on the dog itself not considering how we are affecting the dog’s behaviour. So I started to conduct my own research using myself and my dogs, mainly by noticing my thoughts and feelings when my dogs were doing something that I didn’t want them to do. and trying to make connections.
Why Does it Matter?
Mental Health Crisis
In 2001 the World Health Organisation, reporting on mental disorders, warned that
Depressive disorders are already the fourth leading cause of the global disease burden. They are expected to rank second by 2020, behind ischaemic heart disease but ahead of all other diseases.https://www.who.int/whr/2001/media_centre/press_release/en/
Clearly COVID -19 has rather taken the limelight in recent months but if anything, the current pandemic is likely to have an even larger impact on our mental health over the coming months and years. Coincidentally applications to animal rescue centres have increased over this period.
When we bring dogs into our lives we are looking for something. But often we don’t get what we expect. When we don’t get what we want, we might actually be getting what we need, which is an opportunity to learn about ourselves more deeply.
Joining the dots – dogs helping us see ourselves
From the moment we are born we are learning. We learn to sit up, walk, talk, read and write. It all becomes automatic, we don’t have to think about it. Similarly, we form beliefs and develop behaviours that become unconscious, providing a filter through which we experience the world. This makes it easier for us to cope with the world. That filter can also cause us problems. We learn to suppress feelings and thoughts about ourselves, to keep ourselves feeling alright. In my own experience, I had been living my life as I thought I should and blocking any idea that living ‘the right way’ didn’t feel right.
As our dogs sense us viscerally and physiologically, including the bits that we filter out with our intellect, they are ideally placed to give us the feedback we need to increase our self-awareness, key to leading a more fulfilling life.
A personal example
One of the many notable experiences for me was with my Labrador, Archie.
I had been trying to settle down to read a book but he was pestering me, getting excitable, licking my ear and preparing to ‘get intimate’ with my arm. I was irritated and I started to push him away.
But I stopped. Instead, I breathed and checked in with myself. How was I feeling at that moment? I felt emotion rise up in me, tears started to fill my eyes. A few days previously I had had an argument with a friend. I had felt wrongly accused of something and that I hadn’t been treated fairly. I had been trying to distract myself from my discomfort, but to my surprise it had been sitting there inside of me, ready to come to the surface.
The even more surprising thing was that at the exact same moment when I started to really experience how I felt, Archie calmly lay down beside me. It seemed as if he had been troubled by the feeling of turbulence inside of me and had been doing his best to get it out.
I found that when I started to open myself up to my experience in the moment with my dogs, I started to find beliefs in myself that were contributing to my problems.
From these beginnings I developed a counselling service, called Hounds Connect, that focusses on using our problem relationships we with have with our dogs to learn about ourselves. Approaching our relationships with our dogs in this way allows us to release the dog from the behaviours we don’t like and as well as becoming better acquainted with ourselves, the ultimate vaccine for good mental health.
Counselling for Dog People
I offer a one-to-one listening service, using a person-centred approach, for people struggling with their dog. The approach combines two concepts; 1) the benefits of person-centred therapy and 2) the way in which dogs are connected to us.
The benefits of person-centred therapy
When people are having difficulties with their canine companion they can feel overwhelmed, but the problems they are experiencing with their dog can reflect difficulties they are having in other areas of their lives. Offering them a safe, non-judgemental space to be heard allows them to start listening to themselves and make these connections. Carl Rogers wrote
“the problems which are brought to therapy are not resolved directly…a frequent experience in therapy is the gradual realisation the problem is not what is known in consciousness.”p.104 Carl R Rogers, Client Centred Therapy (1951) (reprinted 2015 Robinson)
The way in which dogs are connected to us.
Dogs are hard-wired to respond to how the world feels around them, including how we feel. That means they react to feelings in us that we may not be consciously aware of. Kevin Behan described dogs as
‘our canary in the mineshaft of emotion’p. xxii Kevin Behan Your Dog is Your Mirror
So when the behaviour of our dog is causing us difficulties there is an opportunity for us to dig deeper and use the problem to learn more about ourselves. Person-centred therapy allows us to do that.
Sessions are offered face-to-face, or virtually, determined by the clients’ preferences (and COVID restrictions). Clients can choose to bring their dog, or dogs. It’s not essential, but some clients find it helps them have the confidence to talk.