Can our relationship with our dog be a tool for personal growth?

In answer to the question in the title - Yes! Absolutely.

How can it not be? Our dogs are so intertwined with our lives, and us with theirs.

Think about it. We control so much about how our dogs live: we control their food, exercise, socialisation, enrichment - even where they go to the toilet. They play out roles for us: companion, protector, playmate, a reason to get fit, a reason to live, an emotional connection to another being, and more.

As sensitive, sentient beings whose lives are governed almost entirely by our decisions, how can they not inevitably become a reflection of us in one form or another? When we accept this, the next logical step is to see that when an issue arises, there is an opportunity to explore how we may be contributing to this and where we might make influential changes within ourselves.

Thankfully, it’s now widely accepted that our dogs pick up on how we’re feeling. If we are tense and anxious, our dog may be tetchy and edgy; if we are upset or unhappy, our dog may become clingy or attention-seeking. Many trainers and behaviourists teach owners the significance of this and the importance of managing their own emotional state, as well as working with their dog’s. Of course, this makes absolute sense. However, appreciating this interplay of emotions is only the first step; now I’m talking about taking it a few stages further and recognising that it’s not just our conscious emotional state that is having an influence, it is also our unconscious emotional state. But when it comes to state management, it is one thing to work with those feelings that we’re conscious of, but how on earth do we access what’s going on in the unconscious? That’s where our canine relationships can guide us. Particularly the challenging ones.

When an aspect of our dog’s behaviour elicits a strong emotional response in us, a flag is being raised to say 'Hey! Look here. Emotional healing required'. It is a signpost pointing in the direction of our own imbalances. To understand this more fully, we need to consider the functions of our conscious and subconscious mind, and how they impact our thoughts and our behaviours.

The subconscious mind creates programmes which guide us. Information is stored and does not easily change. Growing up, our subconscious mind takes in information and forms programmes that enable us to live; it is the mind of habits. We learn to walk through repetition, and then our subconscious mind stores the programme. After that, we don’t have to think about it, we just walk. The conscious mind thinks - it makes choices. It is creative and adaptable. It considers problems and how to deal with them. It makes decisions and enables us to get through the day. The conscious mind thinks it runs the show. But it doesn’t.

In his wonderful book The Biology of Belief, Bruce Lipton tells us that our subconscious mind is a million times more effective at processing information than our conscious mind. This means that not only is it taking in vast amounts of information from the environment around us that dip under our conscious radar, but it also has an enormous influence over our thoughts and emotions. Only 1-5% of our cognitive activity comes from our conscious mind. At least 95% of our decision making is governed by our unconscious. Throughout our whole lives, our subconscious has been taking in information on a massive scale. From the moment we were born, it has been absorbing and processing our experiences, creating our understanding of the world, and forming our beliefs. And our beliefs are a really big deal. They are the bedrock of who we are. They form our values, dictate our choices, create our opinions, and shape how we live. A belief system is like a filter through which we see the world. We look for things that reinforce our beliefs. We seek to create a life that is in alignment with them.

Some beliefs are conscious - they have been formed with awareness and understanding. But some are unconscious so we don’t even know they’re there. They might be beliefs we formed growing up, or maybe they are as a result of a negative experience. Whatever the origins, their significance remains below our conscious radar, and like all beliefs they are seeking to be reinforced, looking to be proved right and influencing our lives... if we remind ourselves that over 95% of our actions are governed by our unconscious then that’s a big influence!

So how does this apply to our relationship with our dogs?

My personal experience a few years ago may help to explain how I first made this connection.

Barney came to us at four years old. He was a generally easy-going Rottweiler, but his sensitivity to the emotions of those around him and slight suspicion of strangers meant that he could be quite a vocal boy at times. I’m not exactly sure when my anxiety with him began - it may be that on one occasion he was a bit edgy or growled at another dog on a walk... who knows. Whatever the origins, I found myself increasingly worried when we met new dogs that he would become reactive and bite them. In my mind’s eye, I could see him suddenly turning and flying at them in a frenzy. I had no real grounds to suppose that there would be such an extreme response from him, but I couldn’t shift my fear. Of course, it's no surprise that as time went on I found his 'edginess' with new dogs began to grow, but only when he was out with me. My husband had none of these problems at all. I was forced to admit that I was the problem. I had to shine the spotlight on me and look at how I was contributing to the situation. Obviously, my anticipatory tension when I was out with Barney was a key influential factor, but why was I so at the mercy of my fears?

I was already interested in the subject of personal development and was familiar with using a particular method of self-questioning when working with areas of conflict in my life, so I considered that it might be useful to use the same method for exploring my situation with Barney. I began by asking myself various questions: What sex was Barney? How did I feel about him? Why did we get him? What emotions did the 'issue' bring up for me? The significant information was that he was male and also what I considered to be a very masculine breed, and that the feelings triggered by the issue were anticipatory anxiety and fear of a sudden violent reaction. The crucial question then was had I felt these feelings before in my life? Yes, I had. The connection I made was that I was carrying unresolved associations from my childhood between masculine energy and unpredictable aggression.

To cut a long story short, I realised that as long as I held this distorted belief in my subconscious, its influence would be felt in my life. I would be unconsciously seeking ways to validate and reinforce it. With my distorted belief filter, and the double whammy of Barney being male and a stereotypically masculine breed, our relationship was already set on a course in which I would be unconsciously looking for indications of reactivity to feel anxious about. By bringing this awareness from the level of unconscious to conscious, I could then work on these issues and make choices around my reactions. The very fact that I recognised this part of myself meant that it no longer needed to be acted out in my relationship with Barney, thus allowing the opportunity for a more balanced dynamic between us.

This experience highlighted to me that, in terms of behavioural issues, our unconscious beliefs not only feed into it, they also feed off it. With this awareness, we have such a profound opportunity for personal growth and emotional healing.

If a situation arises that pushes our emotional buttons, then it’s a good indicator that we need to do some inner work in that area. And, as contrary as it seems, we know that there’s a strong possibility that a part of ourselves, on a subconscious level, has an investment in perpetuating the situation. When those unconscious beliefs are brought to the surface and acknowledged, then we can work with them and shift our behaviour, allowing our dog the opportunity to shift theirs. When we shift our perspective, it is easy to see the signs of this connection everywhere. Does our dog suffer from separation anxiety? Maybe we have some unresolved abandonment issues of our own. Do we project that sense of abandonment onto our dog? Or, maybe we need to be needed? If reactivity is the issue, does the situation act out old associations of anxiety around loss of control or repressed anger? Does the dog that always runs away reflect a part of us that wants to be free?

I recall two dogs from different households, both of whom were terrible escape artists and always walked on the lead when out. In both cases, the owners (and main caregivers) were married women who both went on some years later to leave their husbands. They have since divulged how unhappy they had been, and how much they had wanted to leave for a long time. This does not mean to say that every dog that runs away has an owner secretly longing to leave their spouse, but it may be worth asking questions around feeling restricted, a lack of self-expression, or a desire to be free of responsibilities. Ever a work in progress, I continue on my own personal healing journey and the challenges I face with my present dog provide me with ongoing guidance as to what unresolved aspects of my being are calling out for attention.

When we embark on this level of exploration, the line of enquiry will always be the same, but the content will be as unique and individual as us and our dogs, and it’s worth remembering that an emotional imbalance might be highlighted through our relationship with our dog, but that won’t be the only area of our life that it influences. When we restore that equilibrium, we are not just bringing balance to the way we interact with our dog, but also the world.

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