Quieting the Dogs

I pride myself on a certain skill with dogs. I have read books on training animals, admired Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisperer, and practiced training successfully with our own dog as well as with friends’ pets. (Certain training techniques work on children and co-workers as well!)

Exacerbating the Problem

Dogs bark at strangers instinctively, to warn the pack of possible danger. In my research, I had read that when we attempt to soothe them, we exacerbate the problem in at least two ways.

  1. We inadvertently reward the barking behavior. The dog may not be able to differentiate our “soothing” behaviors from our “rewarding” behaviors.
  2. We frustrate the dog’s beneficial instinct. We may know there is nothing amiss. However, by acting like absolutely nothing happened, we are telling the dog that we haven’t “received the message” that there is possible danger. The dog may actually bark with even greater urgency and agitation.

Dogs rely on their alpha leader to evaluate threats. If the dog cannot clearly recognize a trustworthy alpha, then these problems are compounded and can escalate. The dog may become fearful, anxious and even depressed at the loss of a protective alpha. It may also initiate a lengthy process of establishing itself as the alpha, a process that can be overwhelmingly disruptive to suburban family life.

A Success

One friend visited us with her dog, Lady. Our friend loved Lady deeply, but complained that when a stranger passed by her condominium door, Lady would bark incessantly despite repeated attempts to soothe her.

I began the visit by firmly enforcing some simple commands to establish myself as the alpha. (I did have the advantage of being in my home territory in this case.) Sure enough, after some time, Lady began barking at the sliding door to our back yard. Our friend commented, “Yup, that’s exactly what she does at home.”

First, I took this as a positive sign. Dogs do not guard homes unless they have accepted them as their own. Her barking confirmed that she was part of a “pack,” with me as the “alpha,” and was dutifully guarding our “den.”

Next, I did something someone had recommended in my research. I immediately got up, went out, and let her watch me survey the back yard from our deck. Upon re-entering the house, I asserted my alpha status with a firm command.

Everyone was amazed that Lady had gone silent the moment I got up, and remained quiet, secure, and happy upon my return. I had acknowledged her dutiful warning, and my alpha behavior communicated, “Thanks. I’m on top of this.”

The Meditation Analog

I meditate (occasionally) and have read about various impediments to this beneficial practice and how to overcome them.

One such impediment is physical pain. Pain frequently arises if our muscles and joints are unaccustomed to long periods in the same position. Practitioners of meditation seem to recommend, first, avoiding such pain by meditating in a comfortable posture from the start. But if it does occur, as it inevitably does during longer sessions, they recommend against resisting it or even shifting posture to ease it. Instead, they recommend including the pain among other thoughts that are simply observed and eventually fade away.

During a session of guided “gratitude meditation,” the insight came to me that pain is like the barking of a dog. A dutiful (healthy) body uses pain to warn of danger or threat. If ignored, the pain is likely to intensify and maybe even spread. If pain is suppressed by drugs, it can lead to addiction, especially if the underlying cause of the pain remains untreated. But if we acknowledge pain as a natural response and address it and its causes in a conscious way, it should naturally dissipate without causing unnecessary suffering or leaving lasting effects.

Something to try, anyway, next time we experience pain or other discomfort…

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Updated at: 19 November 2015 5:11 PM