© Karla McLaren 2014
Milton’s behavior in round two is interesting. He has moved very far away from the untouched treat I placed on the left side of his blanket, and he sits very still on the rightmost side of the front of his kennel, staring fixedly, straight ahead. I sneak some sideways glances at him from my kneeling position. He’s a very handsome boy with a Doberman’s black and brown coloring, but his body shape and size is closer to a Beagle’s. He’s a fit, compact little guy, with a clean short coat and healthy skin and paws. I know that he hasn’t been given a bath here at the shelter (no one has time), so he’s clearly very careful about his own hygiene. Very self-contained. Milton’s body language interests me, because even in the confines of his kennel, he has many choices. If he really didn’t want to see me, he could simply go outside in his run, and effectively disappear. He could also curl up against the wall and present his back to me. He could push the treat outside his kennel, tear up his blankets, or rush the kennel door and bark menacingly. But he does none of these truly antisocial things. Instead, Milton has entered into a relationship with me – and in all honesty, I think he’s trying to teach me manners.
I continue to kneel, and I watch Milton out of the corner of my eye. His eyes do not seek mine, but his stare has changed from the beady malevolence of our first meeting to a more relaxed yet determined stare. If we were humans, and if we were looking at each other, this would be a staring contest. But with Milton in charge, it’s a not-staring contest, and Milton is in it for the duration. I can see Jake in the next kennel, sitting patiently and quietly, but getting antsy as he waits for me, and I wonder about my next move in Milton’s dance. I wonder if I should take the offending treat away, but I think that would be a mistake. It was a gift, which means it belongs to him now. And though he hasn’t eaten it, he is using it to communicate with me. I don’t want to make the wrong move.
If I were a dog, Milton’s determined stare of avoidance would mean that I had broken a social rule. My response, if I didn’t want to get into a fight, would be to cease my incorrect behavior and make myself small and subordinate. I wondered if this would be a good thing. At the shelter, we’re supposed to position ourselves as the lead dogs in this pack, but I grew up with animals who knew with absolute certainty that they were the real leaders. My brother’s brilliant dog, Johann, pretty much trained himself and looked after my sisters and brothers as if he were our uncle. My cat Sofia, who learned to open doors and turn on faucets, lived life on her own terms. Or my little bonsai stray, Kiku, who had every disease known to felinity and never grew much larger than a kitten, yet who taught herself to use her litter box, to put herself to bed every night, and to understand all the intricate rules of human-cat wrestling.
I felt that Johann, Sofia, and Kiku would be offended by the shelter’s training methods, even though these methods were humane and respectful for most animals. These three were self-contained animals, very self-aware, and extremely quick to decipher all the rules of the house and human relationships. I wondered if Milton was this kind of animal, and if he had had the extremely bad luck to have an owner who treated him like a knucklehead, which to be fair, some dogs truly are. I wondered if Milton was not so much hateful and dangerous as he was affronted by treatment that did not respect his innate intelligence and his dignity.
I made a decision. I looked up and down the kennel rows to make sure no staff person was around, and I lay down on the cold cement walkway in front of Milton and curled my head in supplication. I waited for a few seconds, and then reached my hand gently toward Milton’s kennel door – not touching it, but asking if I could. I peered up at Milton, and he looked down his nose at me for a long second, then looked away, off to the left. I looked in that direction, too. I touched my side of the metal frame of his kennel door – I didn’t put my hand inside. Milton didn’t look back at me, but he slowly reached out with his left paw and touched the frame on his side. We weren’t looking at each other, and we weren’t touching, but we were both looking in the same direction and touching the same door frame, and we had reached some kind of compromise in Milton’s world.
I didn’t want to break the mood, but I was cruising for a bruising from the staff if I got caught here – especially if I got caught letting a dog take what the staff saw as a dominant role. So I whispered, “Thank you Milton – you’re a good dog,” and I slowly placed a new treat on the bottom frame of Milton’s kennel door, between his paw and mine. I got to my knees slowly and crawled to Jake’s kennel. The poor sweetie had been waiting very patiently, so I patted him through the kennel bars, scratched his long ears, and gave him two treats, and then went further into the chained-off area. On my way back out, I lowered my head when I got to Milton’s kennel. I didn’t look at him, but I whispered, “I love you Milton. You’re a very good dog.”
The third round through is the final training moment before I start walking specific dogs, doing mountains of kennel laundry, or working in the cat annex. In the first two rounds, I had established myself as someone to look forward to, and I had given all of the dogs some idea of correct behaviors (and two almost free treats). This time, the treats have a real cost – the dogs have to be seated, still, and quiet, and almost isn’t rewarded on the third pass. Many dogs get very excited and begin to bark as I near them, but I make eye contact, raise my finger to my lips, shake my head, and say, “NO, quiet.”
to be continued next week…
Karla McLaren is a pioneering educator and award-winning author whose empathic approach to emotions revalues even the most “negative” emotions, and opens startling new pathways into the depths of the soul. She is the author of The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill, the trailblazing book The Language of Emotion: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You, and the interactive online course Emotional Flow. Karla has taught at such venues as the University of San Francisco, Naropa University, Kripalu, and the Association for Humanistic Psychology. She is currently developing new forms of empathy and social interaction curricula for neurologically diverse people.
The Art of Empathy
What if there were a single skill that could radically improve your relationships and your life? Empathy, teaches empathic pioneer Karla McLaren, is that skill. In The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill, McLaren presents her groundbreaking model of The Six Essential Aspects of Empathy to help you understand and nurture healthy empathy in every part of your life. Informed by four decades of empathic experience, plus current insights from neuroscience, social science, the arts, and healing traditions, The Art of Empathy teaches you how to become a healthy and happy empathic presence in a world that needs you