When we connect

30 08 2020

Last summer I led a course for an amazing group of women. We were taking a break and sharing stories of connection. Spontaneously I started talking about my connection with Sheranni and as I finished I felt a rush of gratitude for all that he had taught me. The participants were on the edge of their seats and not because of my storytelling. Unbeknownst to me, Sheranni had during the telling of it walked from the far end of the field to greet me. Someone captured my look of surprise on their phone camera.

Horses understand connection. They read the feeling that is the basis of true connection and often they are moved to act and deepen their connection to us in moving and powerful ways. I’m still in awe of how they do this. What subtle minds they must have to distinguish between nuances of feeling when we ourselves, supposedly the clever species, cannot read each other at times.

Someone once observed in a session that ‘horses know everything there is to know,’ and the phrase struck home. Over many years I’ve studied horses and wondered what it is they know. The horses who serve our community at Horsemanship for Health know health and ease of living. Our team of six horses live without stress and not one of them has been traumatised or neglected. Our small herd of four have spent the past six years living in close connection with each other and that connection has created horses who are balanced and open to new experiences with humans.

The more I observe the flow of connection, the more I realise how important it is for vital health. Without connection, we become withdrawn, isolated and eventually ill. Loneliness is one of the biggest epidemics of our time and may eventually kill even more people than the current pandemic.

It’s much harder to treat loneliness, of course, or even to measure its impact although university researchers are now taking it seriously as a social concern. The pandemic has increased loneliness among many who have been unable to connect with loved ones during weeks of isolation. We have come to a new appreciation of the simple joy of putting your arms around someone you deeply care for and giving them a hug.

Because we are social beings who thrive on connection, we all know loneliness. We know how small and afraid it makes us feel inside. We know the field of belonging is our true home. We know we have lives that offer little opportunity for belonging. Lonely people are told to make connections, but when you feel desolate inside, you believe no one will want you. No one will want to connect with your abiding need for acceptance.

How this makes us forlorn. A child without friends is the saddest of little creatures. I can remember times from my own childhood when all I wanted was for the pretty girls with the neat homes and clothes – the ones who seemed to have it all sorted – to accept me for who I was and to adore me as I adored them. They were too preoccupied with their perfect appearance to care.

And so I turned to boys who didn’t care how I looked and to animals who cared even less and through these friendships I learned how to get along with most people. We find our style of connection through those who accept us in all our wonkiness and wobblyness and I suspect now that I was too unconventional for those prettily perfect girls who introduced me to loneliness. In a way, I am grateful. If I had been let into their world, that would have been even worse because I would have modelled myself on the wrong kind of people for my character.

Finding the right kind of people for our character is the work of a lifetime. In a balanced and varied life, a life which includes other species, there are endless opportunities for connection. In educating my young hound, I’m noticing just how affected he is by my moods and my energy levels. In the past couple of days I was unwell and he lay across my legs until I felt better. Today I am recovered and he is bouncy and filled with life.

Animals are an emotional barometer for me. They remind me to check in with my internal weather and understand how my feelings create a charge that ripples out into the world I inhabit. When I’m tuned into my feeling for the moment and not too focused on the other, I am balanced and when in balance I can truly connect.

Many women, particularly, have led lives driven by the needs of the other. We suspend our feeling for the moment to be sensitive to someone else. This is such a habit we don’t even notice it. We think we are being kind and caring. We don’t question this form of subtle conditioning. Horses are master teachers of emotional intelligence because they do not live socially conditioned lives. They live with feeling that is unfiltered.

It makes me smile to think of how our world might be if we stopped filtering our feelings. If we just walked off in the middle of a conversation without apology to go and have a snack or take a pee. If we just lay down when someone was talking at us for too long and simply closed our eyes. If we licked someone when we had merely shredded a waste paper basket.

Social convention is useful and culturally part of our human communication style. We stifle our yawns in a boring meeting. We don’t interrupt when someone talks for too long. We eat food that tastes awful and say nothing. We look away when we see a minor act of aggression in the street. We keep the peace.

Horses have taught me that social harmony sometimes means giving someone a nudge when they are being annoying. It means being faithful to the group and never letting your own needs take precedence over the needs of the whole. It means never bearing a grudge. It means being open, affectionate and curious every single day.

Just when I think I understand about connection, the horses show me there is so much more.





Early bird

16 08 2020

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Looking after horses means getting up early. Over the eighteen years I’ve cared for my horses, the mornings have become the best part of my day. This morning when I arrived at the meadow, the herd were grouped together nose to tail on top of the hill. My arrival created a ripple of interest and each horse came forward to acknowledge me. Once greetings had been exchanged, the horses calmly returned to their huddle, swishing flies from each other’s noses. Before they did so, each one stood apart in absolute stillness for a moment, as if soaking in the quiet.

How simple it is to live like a horse. How freeing to get up from your bed of grass and greet your family members with interest and curiosity. How wonderful to greet the morning with nothing on your mind except grass and company. For a horse, each morning is a new terrain to explore, a new enquiry through the senses, a fresh unfolding landscape.

The horses are my first thought when I wake. In the very early days of teaching full-time and looking after horses, I would leave home before five am, drive through the dark lanes, lit only by the brilliance of the stars, a flask of hot tea sloshing about in the car. After turning the horses out to their field and mucking out their barn, I’d eat a bar of chocolate for breakfast, dunked into hot tea. On those mornings, in those moments before I reached work and all its numerous demands, I was utterly content. I realised that motivating myself to do something physically demanding every day was creating an inner change in me, although at the time I didn’t quite know what that inner change was. I just knew that I liked pushing wheelbarrows up a muck-heap in the dark and filling haynets in a barn while the owls called outside.

I’ve been getting up early for so many years now that it has become a habit. Even when I don’t need to be up by 6am, I find I get restless staying in bed. The other weekend I went to visit friends in Somerset, and my young whippet, unused to sleeping in a strange house, got me up at just before 5am. We went out the field with my friend’s dog and because I had forgotten to bring my wellies and didn’t want to soak my sandals, I walked barefoot across the wet grass. This is how we used to live and there was some ancient part of me that relished the tingle of drenching dew. 

Since the pandemic, many people have chosen to rise earlier and in the reports of their experiences, I’ve noticed a near universal sense of gentle euphoria. Fellow early birds say they feel more alive, more focused and calm and ready to face the challenges of the day. They are able to get more done. For me, the early part of the day is when I feel most connected to the world itself and less caught up in my own mundane thoughts. I love the easiness of the mornings when each moment feels charged with meaning and all I need to do is pay attention and listen. 

Sometimes when I’m up especially early, I’ve thought about all the other people in the world who are looking after sick children or elderly relatives or working a night shift and feel connected to the world in a particularly poignant way. A lot of caring goes on unseen throughout the night. Also an abundance of creativity. Well-known early risers include Charles Darwin, who was certainly a man who had a lot going on in his day with his meticulous research observations and the Origin of Species to design and write. Contemporary creatives who get up at dawn include Oprah Winfrey, who walks her dogs first thing, and Tim Cook, the Chief Executive officer of Apple, who is up at 3.45am to check email, exercise and drink coffee.

It’s tempting to think that a super early start means a punishing push through each day, but I’ve noticed how animals regulate their days with plenty of short rests when they aren’t doing much at all. When I’m bent over my laptop, working at a stretch for hours at a time, it’s easy to forget to look up and breathe, to remember that there is more space in each day than my narrow perception allows. The pandemic has reminded me to do what I must do and to let go of what is not important. Early mornings are a time to check-in when my mind is quiet and uncluttered. Later in the day, when there is much more activity: meetings, messages, meals to prepare, the morning calm and clarity often fades and I find myself searching for it. The horses remind me every day  where it can be found. 





A vocabulary of smiles

26 07 2020

Like many people this week, I have struggled to get my head around wearing a mask when I go out shopping. For a start, there are so many small considerations, such as when to actually pull the mask up to the mouth and when to lower it. A whole new social etiquette is emerging which I’m finding in some ways amusing and in other ways confusing.

Yesterday, an encounter in a coffee shop amused when the manager offered a plastic visor to an elderly couple, who had forgotten their masks, to try on for size. Even though I was masked, I was also offered a turn so that I could agree that the plastic shield bearing the breath droplets of strangers was far superior to my own cloth model.

The confusing part involves how to speak to people when they can’t see your mouth. Rather than offer a muffled ‘morning’ which seems superfluous now that my accompanying smile cannot be read is it perhaps better to offer a nod instead?

In Born to be Good, a fascinating study on human behaviour, social psychologist Dacher Keltner, devotes an entire chapter to the significance of the smile His research dissects the different types of smile human animals offer to each other. One classic example is the ‘service industry smile’ ‘the one that signals the customer is always right’ and masks the frustration of workers who must never show their feelings no matter how unreasonable the demands made by the one being served. This smile creates such strain Keltner observes as to ‘produce a form of schizophrenia.’

“We may experience feelings of emptiness and quiet frustration, or a deep ennui, but we display to the world the smile of satisfaction.”

Dacher Keltner Born to be Good (2009)

 

There are many different occasions when people smile and Keltner’s research has shown that people smile while exposed to the most unlikely situations, for example, after losing and when watching a film of an amputation. But the emotion behind the smile differs according to which muscles are activated. Smiles which activate the delightfully named ‘happiness muscle’ or the orbicularis oculi tend to last longer and communicate genuinely positive states. These smiles have been named Duchenne or D smiles after the French neuroanatomist Guillaume Benjamin Amand Duchenne (1806-1875). If the happiness muscle does not fire, smiling still happens, but does not last as long and often masks a negative state. These non-Duchenne or non-D smiles might be anxious or nervous smiles or smiles to cover up the true emotion.

This research shows that it really is true that we smile most fully with our eyes, which is good news for those who feel that the full range of emotions has been muted by the necessity of wearing a mask. Interestingly, because only the eyes can be seen it might make it easier to read the genuineness of a smile.

Here’s Keltner on how you tell if it’s D or non-D: when contracted, the muscle around the eyes, raises the cheek, pouches the lower eyelid and wrinkles the skin into crow’s feet – the most visible sign of happiness. ‘People may think they look prettier following Botox injections, but their partners will receive fewer clues to their joy, love and devotion.’

So, the next time I’m shopping along with my fellow mask wearers and we’re all eyeing each other as we try to navigate this strange new social landscape, I must remember to look for the crow’s feet.

In the example above, taken from Born to be Good, which is probably one of the funniest works of psychology I’ve ever read, the D smile for the first gentleman, is on the right; for the second, it is on the left. Of course, you all got that, didn’t you?

 





Losing Control

19 07 2020

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One of the things I love about the woodland where I walk most weekends, is the lack of management. When trees fall, they are allowed to regenerate and sprout new saplings as they wish. No foresters come in with trucks and ropes or chainsaws to tidy things up. There is a large tree lying across the main track, with just enough space to allow people to pass thoughtfully on their way. I’m sure it annoys many people that the track is no longer completely clear, but this compromise pleases me deeply. So much of modern life is controlled, micro-managed and ordered to the point where the natural flow of life feels tightly squeezed.

Emerging from a pandemic, inevitably there are control issues everywhere. Questions of controlling the disease dominate our headlines still. We are no closer to controlling Corona Virus, and possibly we will have to learn to live with it and cope with local outbreaks as they emerge. Some of us will adapt, and take a different path, and some of us will find it hard to live with a virus that continues to control our daily lives. Many people have already had enough of its tight grip on our social lives. All over the country, illegal music raves are flaring up in defiance of lockdown, like wild fires out of control, and instead of ordering the noise to be cooled off, police are allowing the raves to burn on through the night. This is sensible – I mean, how do you get 3,000 people out of a muddy field in complete darkness – yet utterly annoying for the people of Bath, for example, who have had to endure thumping music for the past 24 hours.

As someone who is regularly woken by a noisy neighbour, the residents of Bath have my sympathy. Despite a letter signed by 13 residents, requesting that my neighbour respect the need for peace in our close community, he still ramps up the volume. We cannot control his need to play loud music at antisocial hours. We want to do something and we often joke about all the antisocial measures we would like to take against our asbo neighbour. Nevertheless, we don’t throw bricks though his window. When we remember, we write down the times our sleep is disturbed and then we get on with our days.

I’m able to be relaxed about the noise intrusion now. In the past it has made me very uptight indeed and I reached the point where I considered moving. Working from home means there are distractions enough to tempt me away from my laptop – I mean just how many times is it really necessary to go and stand in my kitchen and stare out of the window to see if the tide is coming in or going out? – dealing with loud music while trying to have a zoom meeting with messages announcing unstable internet connection, was almost guaranteed to send me to the kitchen for another long look out of the window.

This strange new life I have been living since March with all its uncontrollable unknowns has curiously helped me to become less uptight about stuff that used to really bug me. I think it was because I thought I could properly manage the various elements of my life. I could structure my days and prune out anything that felt like an obstruction. Six months ago, I was powering through a diary that had no space in it at all, and I must admit I enjoyed it, although not being able to sleep because my mind was still working on some of the problems I hadn’t managed to solve in the day was not conducive to working creatively.

Since the pandemic, I’m less interested in control and much more interested in elegant solutions. The saplings growing from the fallen tree are such a perfect example of nature’s way of sorting out a collapse. One thing falls and dies, another thing regenerates. Many of my ideas and plans have crash landed, fallen to the forest floor. After getting over my shock, I see that there is more air and space around those toppled ideas, and they have started to make their own way into the light, seeking space of their own. I’m less in control, now, and more open to watching the new growth take on a life of its own. Nature never makes a mistake. I’m grateful to be in a place to take notice.





Swipe, Harrow and Roll

5 07 2020

We choose not to use chemicals on our fields and manage the land as naturally as possible. Most of the time, it’s pretty low maintenance: we simply let the horses and ponies roam all over the five acres or so. We don’t section off areas with tape. We don’t have stables. We keep the hedges high on purpose. We want our small herd to have as much browsing and meandering space as possible.

Arabian horses and Dartmoor ponies are very compatible field companions. Both breeds evolved in harsh conditions; both travel long distances in search of food and water and both breeds have neat, tough feet that do well barefoot. As a herd, our group are, like their home, pretty low maintenance compared to many horses kept at traditional livery.

Dartmoor ponies are known as useful conservation grazers. They will eat bracken, gorse and scrubby dry grass. They will eat thistle heads, nettles and brambles. They will eat cars if you carelessly leave them in the field. The one thing – two things actually- our ponies will not eat are docks and burdock. The resident goats – who were taken in as live-in weeders – do not earn their keep. They do not want to eat docks or burdock; why should they when they have perfectly good goat muesli delivered to their bowls every morning.

So every year the docks and burdock have a wild coming out party in our fields and no one stops them. We watch them grow loud and unruly. Sometimes we chop their heads off when they get too big for their roots. Sometimes we dig them up (well, Jo does the digging with a ragwort fork and a lot of effort – I mean a lot) and the docks don’t care. They grow, they change colour and they create their own little ecosystem. They form a cunning camouflage corridor for our resident fox which uses them like a convenient alley.

The docks have gone! The fox’s cover has been exposed! These were my thoughts when I arrived at the fields this afternoon to see the whole space swiped clean. The rolling and harrowing added the finishing polish. It looked like less like a hunting hangout for wildlife with business to attend to and more like a empty village hall with a nice sign outside inviting people in for tea. ‘Recreational,’ was Lindsey’s word.

It sounds as if I miss the docks. I don’t. I know they will be back next year – probably sooner if we get more rain – I really like having them swiped, though. It is such a thrill to see the fields so clear and empty and filled with possibility. It feels like a fresh start. A new beginning.

The ponies came back to a new nude landscape. Tinker looked around and scanned the length of the field searching for something new to investigate. Eventually she settled on the tyre, which had been moved by the tractors and put her nose into it, knowing in that way that animals built for survival know, that the hole in the centre would be untouched. She glanced round for her companion who was already eyeing the haynet, knowing that the swiping meant not only less cover, but less to eat.

I watched them scan, settle and simply adapt to the new surroundings. I noticed how quickly they adjusted to change. How easy it is for them to know what to do in every moment.

As our landscape changes, how easy is it for us to adapt? How will we return to the new open space? With trepidation or with the knowledge that we will know what to do when we get there?





Regarding Beauty

21 06 2020

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At the far end of Teignmouth, the town where I live in Devon, there is a large park with three names. Eastcliff, the Rowdens and Mules Park combine to make up what is a magical space of grass meadow, woodland path, shady pond, walled garden, community orchard and flower border. Cherry, ancient oak and chestnut trees are in full leaf right now. Nonetheless, it was the poppies that stopped me in my tracks.

Abundant ruffles of pink, crimson, scarlet, violet and white sprawled across the bank. I whipped out my phone to capture them before they took wing in the wind. I wondered who had planted them so cleverly, knowing with a sure gardener’s eye that their dizzying display would one day stop people in their tracks. Who took the trouble to do this? And why?

Community gardens are one of the loveliest things I can imagine. No gardener myself (I make do with a few pots) I appreciate the work that goes into creating something so naturally beautiful it looks effortless. As I roamed my eye over the bank, and saw the little pathways woven through the display, I felt a surge of admiration for the mind that thought this through. No tribute was needed except my appreciation.

img_1464  Reading Annie Dillard’s slim volume: The Writing Life, I came across this quote from Plato, which asks the ultimate ‘what if’ question. What if we could see beauty without having to judge it? Without having to compare it to something else? Without metaphor or comparison or concept? What if, we could just stand before beauty, and allow it to show its true face. What then?

Children know how to do this. Living closer to a state of wonder than jaded adults, who have seen too many extravagant bouquets to be moved, a child sees the universal in a delicious new buttercup or dandelion clock. As adults, we’re a bit more picky. We prefer peonies to poppies, roses to ragwort (those pesky weeds!) and congratulate ourselves on our discernment. We know what we like. We admire good taste. Whereas, Beauty Itself, Pure Beauty is nowhere to be found in our carefully cultivated consciousness.

I know formal gardens do not move my imagination in the way a bank of poppies tripping all over themselves with brightness makes me want to party with them, soak up their spirited splendour, their casual look-at-me I haven’t really bothered to dress up vibe. Perhaps it’s because stripped of all pretension, the poppy is a humble flower, which doesn’t need much looking after, which in its low-key way creates a sense of freedom and possibility.

The ephemeral beauty of the poppy is, of course, why we have turned them into symbols of hope. The poppy flings its seed into the hardest, saddest and most painful places on earth. The poppy flourishes on grit. Out of this dark grittiness, emerges the idea of Beauty Itself which does not care what has occurred or whether its presence is welcomed or even noticed.

After Warsaw was ground down to dust during the final acts of destruction from the occupying forces, the local women waited for silence before they emerged with tiny pots of plants or flowers, carefully nurtured during the darkest time in Polish history. The women arranged the plants on doorsteps of homes that were now piles of rubble. While the ruined city heaved under the onslaught, the flowers showed their faces to the sun. What this taught me was that Beauty does not acknowledge brutality. Beauty surpasses pain or grief or torture. Beauty endures and cannot be destroyed.

What if we could be as carelessly unconcerned as simple plants in offering to the world our own unalloyed beauty? What if we could turn our faces to the light without stopping to consider who might be admiring us? What if we could drop our vanity and know that our own moral beauty needs nothing except a few rocky places on which to sow its seed?





Walking to Work

18 06 2020

When I have something to work through, I walk. I’ve always done this. There’s something about the natural rhythm of walking that slows down my hectic thoughts and allows me some breathing space. In my experience, there’s no problem a walk won’t help.

Going on walks to work something out nearly always leads me to a different place. Today I thought about all the passing conversations I’ve had with other walkers over the past few weeks. People have spoken warmly and openly. I’ve learned honest, true things from these conversations which cannot be called consequential.

I don’t walk far. Indeed when my head is painfully pounding, I find long walks exhausting. Instead I wander. I slow down so that I can look up into the trees and I tune into the birds. Their pure music pierces through the muddle in my mind. Today I heard a woodpecker drumming his beat like a practice garage musician. It made me listen longer and for a moment as I became absorbed in the pattern of the sound, I forgot why I had come.

Some people I have met on my walks I have got to know by name and as we walk we share our stories. We share why we’re here, what we feel and what we dream of. These simple elements form the narrative of our encounters. I realise that everyone I meet is looking for a way to share something of their life with others. I see that shining from people now in a lovely untarnished innocence that was not so apparent to me before.

I know that people say they have more time for each other now. I have said the same. I do feel more curious and open. I wonder, though, if it truly is time that has shifted my perception of others, people I might have walked past before without acknowledgement? Does lack of time really make us rude?

It’s common to think so. It’s common to think along the lines of: if I had more time I might be less busy and stressed out and therefore nicer to be around. But time can’t change our inclinations towards one another. Time only acts as an influence when we decide we can’t be bothered to make the effort to be pleasant. We so often make lack of time the villain in our lives. Now it feels to me like a very worn-out excuse for mean mindedness.

My walks teach me the true value of time which is that time is created. As I walk, time is made up moment by moment. It is not a large stick with which I need to beat myself or others. it is not some abstract empty space into which I pour my life. Time is unfolding as I walk step by step. If I slow down enough, sometimes I can feel it pulsing through me like a cool stream.

My walks place me back in time. In true time. In walking rhythm time when I see that my fears about lack of time have no value in my life. I lure myself with promises of more time and see these promises for the falsehoods they truly are. The trees remind me to stop wasting time thinking I have the answers to the conundrum of time itself. They tell me to stop chasing my tail and look up to the leaf canopy instead.

They tell me to stay tall and true and rooted. This is all.





Ten Top Tips on Being Human

6 06 2020

Since adopting my young hound, I’ve dived into various schools of dog training. I thought I might find a few helpful hints on how to help your dog feel less anxious when you leave him on his own and how to get your dog to stop playfully chasing children – (Teio’s current work-in-progress) and while there has been much that has been useful, some of what I’ve found has been eye-opening.

Dog training is vicious! The various schools really like to bark and snarl at each other across the great divide of who knows best.

Now as a conscientious canine custodian, I find this alarming, but not really that surprising. In any area of training, whether it’s schooling horses, educating children or fitness routines for adults, there will be impassioned debates on the ‘best way.’ Internet marketing so often presents this holy grail of successful training as ‘five easy tips’ or ‘ten fool-proof ways’ to achieve perfect abs or a good night’s sleep or a trim waist. I wish I weren’t such a sucker for top tips, but something in my reptilian brain is secretly searching for the shortcut.  And it is the word ‘secret’ that usually does it for me. If I spot something like “Seven Secrets to Training Your Super Dog that only Special People in the Universe Know” then straight-away I’m signing up for the free masterclass and ignoring the common sense voice that warns: your inbox will be swamped with offers costing hundreds of dollars the minute you give your email address. DON’T DO IT!!!

But I want to believe in the hype. Sucker that I am, I want to find the holy grail of dog training even when I know perfectly well that there is no such thing. So in order to distract myself from the menace of marketing, I’m reading different kinds of books about dogs – books that help me to think clearly about what I need to consider for my young dog’s future and I’ve found John Bradshaw’s In Defence of Dogs to be scholarly, insightful and delightfully readable.

Bradshaw, a biologist who directs the Anthrozoology Institute, based at the University of Bristol, has studied the behaviour of domestic dogs and their owners for more than twenty-five years, and his work is helping to change the ways dogs are viewed and understood. He presents his arguments based on sound science in cool and friendly tones, a welcome contrast to some of the competitive high-pitch promotion from various dog trainers. Bradshaw’s approach is to demolish myths about dogs and their training by first inviting you to rigorously question your own ideas and assumptions. 

“Despite all the evidence indicating that dogs and wolves organize their social lives quite differently, many people still cling to their misguided and outdated comparisons between dogs and wolves. The question therefore has to be asked once again: does the behaviour of the wolf have anything useful to tell us about the behaviour of pet dogs?” 

Studies show that dogs may be genetically linked to wolves, but that does not mean they must be like wolves in their behaviour. Because dogs have evolved closely alongside mankind, they are far more inclined to form friendships with humans than they are with their own kind. Dogs have no inclination to form anything like a wolf pack and, most importantly, dogs are able to become friends with dogs they are not related to. Every morning during our runs in the park, I observe this strong affiliative behaviour with young Teio as he offers the play bow to dog after dog, extending greetings also to each new person he encounters. If he truly were a wolf inside a whippet skin, he would not show this confidence to strangers. But does it really matter that he is not a wolf in disguise? When it comes down to training him, the distinction is crucial, Bradshaw argues.

“The misconception that dogs behave like wolves might not matter if it did not seriously misconstrue the dog’s motivations for establishing social relationships. The most pervasive – and pernicious – idea informing modern dog-training techniques is that the dog is driven to set up a dominance hierarchy wherever it finds itself. This idea has led to massive misconceptions about their social relationships, both those between dogs within a household, and those between dogs and their owners.

“Every dog, conventional wisdom holds, feels an overwhelming need to dominate and control all its social partners. Indeed, the word ‘dominance’ is used widely in descriptions of dog behaviour. Dogs that attack people they know well are still universally referred to as suffering from ‘dominance aggression.’ The term is sometimes even used – incorrectly – to describe a dog’s personality.” John Bradshaw. In Defence of Dogs. (Penguin 2012)

From my outings to the park and casual conversations with dog owners, I see how prevalent is this idea of ‘dominance’ and along the way I have received some well-meaning warnings about not allowing young T to become ‘top dog’ in my own household. I am so grateful to Bradshaw’s illuminating work which has helped me to see that what is most important is a well-socialised dog and a dog who wants to build a real relationship with me because it is rewarding for him as a social animal. So I don’t yell at Teio when he makes a mistake, which because he is young and learning, is pretty much every day. I don’t expect him to be obedient and know what I want because – well, he is a dog who thinks very differently to me – and when he’s relaxing at home, I let him sleep where he is most comfortable. He has to move sometimes, but I always ask him politely and he always complies. I’m clear with him and kind. I treat him how I would like to be treated if I were a dog.

This is not how many dog trainers say it should be. But I’m not training him. I’m not interested in a dog who obeys me as his pack leader. I’m interested in developing a supportive and rewarding relationship with him in which we both feel happy and secure. 

As social animals, we instinctively understand deep down how important secure relationships are to our own well-being, perhaps never more true than now as we emerge into a new social landscape. Nevertheless, the idea of ‘dominance’ of seeing others as a ‘threat’ to our well-being is just as pernicious in the human world. Listen to any conversation and there will be some version of ‘us’ and ‘them’ being thrown around in the air like an old bone; some political division or sense of separateness being gnawed at. Just tune into any live news online and this is what we will hear and what many of us will believe: there are people out there who are trying to take over and they need to be muzzled.

The language of dominance is everywhere; it’s another type of reptilian shortcut. It’s far easier to condemn, to snap at someone who gets in your way, to snarl and show your teeth than to try to understand them. This language of dominance belongs to a very, very tired human story. Times of change call for new narratives, new ideas of defining ourselves. If dogs may be defended against an out-moded hierarchy of aggression and be seen as the social beings they really are, then why not humans? Is it not time to stop portraying humans as competitive chimps, fighting over whatever entitlements we think are important? Is now not the time to truly question our old and worn-out confrontational ways of being and find other answers?

It can start with the very next conversation, the very next person who crosses your path. Ask yourself: am I wagging my tail or curling my lip?

 

 





In praise of play

31 05 2020

One of the joys of bringing up young animals is watching them play. Every morning Teio greets me with an affectionate nuzzle and within a few minutes he is searching for someone or something to play with. If Max, the senior collie who lives downstairs, is up and about, Teio will run down to engage in play, chasing the older dog around the small square of parched grass in our shared garden.

Witnessing the old collie grunting with pleasure and rolling about on his back and the bright-eyed young whippet delicately pointing his paw to keep the game going, I forget that I’m up an hour earlier than usual. I forget I haven’t had coffee yet. I’m awakened by the energy of their play and for a moment nothing else matters.

When dogs play they are truly in the moment. They aren’t wondering if they should be doing something else more important or getting on with the serious business of their life. In a young dog’s world, play is his life.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been wondering about the place of play in my own life. I know that I feel happiest when I’ve spent time sharing a simple walk with family and friends with the dogs running through sunlit trees up ahead.

Even though I’m enjoying the moment, there’s also a part of me, though, that whispers: this can’t last, take it while you can. When I tune into the warning, my happiness continues, but as if through a perspex screen. I can see it, but I can’t touch it.

My young dog knows nothing of these conflicted feelings. He can’t feel two different feelings at once the way we can. Why are dogs happier than humans? Possibly because their lives are less complicated, but also because dogs are more generally affable then we are. Put it simply: they are friendlier.

The friendliness of dogs is, of course, one of the reasons we love them so much. The sight of a shining eye looking up into our face and pink healthy tongue lolling from a happy dog’s mouth is enough to melt the most miserable of souls.

I was touched by the comment of a young man on one of our outings to a local park this week. The young man looked to be in some sort of difficult or chaotic place, disheveled and anxious, but he stopped for a moment when Teio bounced up to him. Hearing that the young whippet was friendly, he crouched down and offered his fist for Teio to sniff. After a minute of friendly greeting the young man looked up. ‘He’s a nice dog – a good dog,’

The young man’s body language softened. ‘I’m trying to attract more good things in my life.’

‘Well, this morning you certainly have.’

We smiled at each other and I saw through the chaos to the place of worry and fear that I recognised like a familiar friend. We went our separate ways, but the young man’s words stayed with me.

We all want to attract more good in our lives. But so often when we find the good, we are afraid to fully take it. We are suspicious of goodness because it requires us to open our hearts and be grateful or glad or uplifted. When you’re used to being afraid or insecure, your own happiness can startle you as much as a threat.

It’s tragic that we are like this, and I wish it weren’t so. I wish we could be more like affable dogs, bounding across the social distance restrictions to playfully reunite. Of course, after months of social isolation many people will be pleased to see one another and there will be parties and barbecues and gatherings again.

But in those very social occasions there will be mixed feelings. There will be laughter and banter and there will be fear; there will be insecurity; there will be wondering what comes next; there will be questions: how to pick up the pieces, how to repair the damage, build the business, mend and start afresh.

This is how we are as human beings. We survive crisis, we come through disaster and chaos. We emerge shaken and changed and more vulnerable than we are perhaps aware. May we remember, too, that we also know what we need to help us on our way. A good dose of the good is good for us. And enough time to put our worries away for a while and remember how to play.





When we aren’t looking

25 05 2020

Good things come to us all by themselves and with a sense of rightness for the moment we’re in. This is the gift of the unexpected. Some call it serendipity.

I wasn’t looking for a dog to take on right now. There were tons of practical reasons not to, especially in a period of such fragility and uncertainty. But the heart doesn’t listen to reason. Intuition doesn’t respond to cold logic. All I know is that my heart leapt when I heard he needed a home. Then, when a saw a picture of young Teio – pronounced TeeeOh – it set something in motion that I needed to follow.

The yearling whippet is living with me now and we’re getting used to sharing a space. He’s getting to know my rhythms and routines. We’re learning each other. His energy is most undoglike. Soft, curious, very alive. He can stretch out his limbs and take up the whole length of sofa. He’s tall and lithe with almond-shaped melting brown eyes. It’s like having a lovely young gazelle to stay.

Except he has surprising outbursts of puppy behaviour. My work room appears as if a crowd of three-year-olds have just finished a rip-roaring birthday party. Shredded bits of paper, plastic and twigs everywhere. Furniture askew. Rugs rumpled and a disorderly play bed bang in the middle. I look at the mess and my heart heaves with happiness.

In his first hours, Teio followed me everywhere, moving from room to room, checking, checking, checking, his jittery claws clipping the wood floor. I wondered what I had done. Would he ever settle? Would I ever get any work done?

I put his soft bed on the floor next to mine. He jumped into it and looked up at me. I wished him goodnight and turned to my book. The next moment he leapt in one smooth movement to the space at the foot of my bed. There he now sleeps soundly, dreaming, a mushroom coloured velvet bolster, slender white legs twitching as he remembers – what does he recall in his sleep, I wonder as I watch him, thinking how strange it is that he should leap into my life almost when I wasn’t looking.

This gift of new young life is both messenger and metaphor. I think this young hound has come to show me how to be happy. How to trust. How to hope. How to love no matter what is happening in the uncertain world. How to remember to dream.








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