Faith and the Human-Animal Bond
A fundamental principle of healing that goes a back to Hippocrates if not longer reminds us that the success of any treatment relies on the patient's faith in his or her own ability to heal the self. Faith in any professional overseeing the treatment ranks second, and faith in the treatment itself comes in third. When our animals develop medical and/or behavioral problems, we must add a second part to step one: Not only must we have faith in our animals' ability to heal themselves, we must have faith in our own ability to properly support them throughout this process.
Historically, faith was later deleted from the treatment process for the same political reasons that separated human body from mind and animal body from any mind at all. Over time, both the scientific community and public came to accept that this deletion represented the truth, and veterinarians and other animal healthcare professionals dutifully took a back seat to the treatment along with everyone else. Antibiotics or surgical procedures got the credit for curing various physical ailments. Professionals and owners alike attributed Snoopy's or Fluff's greatly improved behavior to a particular training technique or behavior-altering medication.
This belief system works well as long as it works well. However, when the treatment into which we pour all our faith doesn't work, then we can add feelings of abandonment to all the negative emotions that attend such affairs. A good example of this occurs in dogs displaying aggression. In the past, the party line maintained that aggressive dogs were aggressive because they hadn't been properly trained. Based on this logic, the solution was obvious: get the dog trained. Concurrent with this view that put all faith in training as the treatment of choice for behavioral problems, came all sorts of training processes into which owners were to place their faith. If these approaches came with charismatic gurus whose books, television shows, or videos also inspired us, then owners gained faith in those people as well as the methods they proposed.
When this approach worked, we credited the method and, if applicable, the guru. If it didn't work, then some of us blamed the method and guru, but a lot of us also blamed ourselves and our pets. When we did that, our faith in ourselves and them took a further beating which, not surprisingly, further undermined their health and behavior.
Let's pause here and take a little side trip into canine aggression country. The majority of domestic canine aggression arises from fear, and that fear often arises because these dogs can't handle the responsibilities inherent in their position in the human-canine pack. Because they view their owners as subordinates and even pups whom they must protect, like any good dog leader they're very sensitive to what those peoples' body language and physiology communicate about their respective mental states. If the owners are fearful, the dog will pick this up.
To understand how this works, imagine that you're a dog who lacks confidence and lives in a complex environment (as practically all human environments are). With whom would you rather live: someone who possesses confidence in his or her ability to cope in that environment or someone who lacks it? The answer is a no-brainer, isn't it? The less capable we feel about our ability to cope, the more we relish the companionship of those capable of relieving us of that burden. The same holds true with frightened dogs: the more confidence we communicate, the more secure and confident they feel in our presence. The more we can cope, the more they can cope. Put another way, their behavior is a reflection of their relationship with us.
The good news here is that, if we have faith in our ability to cope and in our dog's ability to follow our lead, then we're well on our way to resolving many problems that result in aggression and other problem behaviors. The bad news is that we must gain that faith in ourselves first. Sadly, that becomes increasingly difficult to do in a world in which we are daily bombarded with media designed to convince us that we are nothing more than the sum total of that which comes from without rather than that which comes from within. Even so, without this faith, even the best method won't work. With it, even the worst can yield positive results.
But how can we gain faith in ourselves and our pets' ability to heal/change? Surely volumes could be written about that subject! However, I can offer two steps for consideration.
One, make a list of all those things that you and your pet do well alone and together, no matter how insignificant they might be. This will provide you with concrete evidence that as individuals and together you are both capable of success. You can then summon this evidence when circumstances conspire to convince you that you and/or your pet are lost causes when it comes to dealing with a particular problem.
Two, if you can do it, visualization is a very powerful tool. Visualize yourself and your dog in those fear-inducing situations, recognize what they do to your physiology, and know that your pet can clearly read these signs. Then practice breathing deeply and dealing with those fears and the circumstances that precipitated them over and over again until that fear vanishes.
Sure it's a mind game, perhaps even an "unscientific" one if we dismiss all those studies of the human-animal bond and in psychoneuroimmunology that explore body-mind interactions. And most certainly having faith in ourselves and our animals means accepting far more responsibility for the resolution of any problem. It's so much easier to dump all that on a veterinarian or trainer or some drug or training technique!
Still, having faith in self and animal provides a certain power that no one and nothing outside that relationship can possibly provide. Those who have gone this route share my view that, although overcoming any fears and gaining that faith may require a lot of hard work and soul-searching, in the end it's more than worth it.
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