My Journey of Mutualistic Learning; Dogs, The ISCP & Me

In April 2016 I adopted a Romanian rescue dog, I didn’t realise at the time but he was going to be my introduction to a new understanding of a dog’s world. Though I had been lucky enough to share my life with many dogs over the years, it soon became clear that this dog was different to the others I had met- he had no wish to bond or connect to me and had withdrawn into himself, this was his way of coping with the situation he had found himself in and the anxiety he carried from past trauma. Over the following year we gradually created a bond of trust which allowed us to nurture a connection, I gained an understanding of his emotional and physical needs which enabled him to start to feel more in tune with his environment and his new life. As I watched this little dog relax and grow in confidence, I realised that there was a wealth of knowledge that I needed to tap in to in order to further my ability to help him, but with an ethos and way of working with which I could feel comfortable- which would embrace working empathetically with my dogs to generate a deeper understanding of not only how to help them, but what causes a dog to behave in a certain way and the emotions related to that behaviour. In other words, by understanding the emotion I could find a way forward to change or reinforce a behaviour.

My wish to expand and deepen my learning has been a lifelong ambition- I am not a canine practitioner, my profession is in equine training and behaviour, but I have an interest and passion to understand the animals I work and live with. After all, they teach us so much about ourselves. Through this understanding, we actually become more aware of how we are as individuals and how we impact the world around us. By furthering my education, I have gained an insight into the essence of human and canine psychology, and the strength of the evolutionary bond which makes our relationship with dogs so special and very possibly unique. More than that, it encouraged me to examine, and re-examine my thoughts and beliefs not only on my relationships with my own dogs, but on the ethics and morality of our relationship with other species and our role as humans within a wider concept. It opened my eyes to thoughts and ideas of others who were new to me, how our understanding has evolved through science and yet, how the work of those with vision from the past is still relevant today. To unearth these broader concepts and perspectives highlighted the need for qualities such as tenacity, resourcefulness, and the confidence to make mistakes but learn from those in order to move forward.

When we undertake change and learning we need time to absorb and process, this is relevant to us as individuals, to those we are working with and to the animals with whom we wish to communicate. To gain connection we must first gain trust, to empathise and understand another’s emotional state and perspective. For me, trust is the essence of a strong relationship, especially with those who may never have had the opportunity to trust. Though just small steps, I have now adopted a second Romanian rescue and am fostering a third- all from the same shelter, all withdrawn, anxious and afraid when they came to join me and now learning in their own time that life can offer freedom, relaxation and joy. I have no agenda other than to give them a sense of peace, of safety so they are able to become themselves. The breadth of research within our community has given me the insight to seek the deeper and sometimes hidden emotions which emerge and surface in the form of behaviours, and to be fair, dogs aren’t that much different from us! When I am working with a client I have become more empathetic to their wellbeing, to signals which tell me about their emotional state, and whether they are able to process and learn. With humans, what we say and what we think doesn’t always correspond, but very often our body language and the energy that we hold will tell another how we are feeling. By noticing those subtle signs, we start to gain trust and further the bond of connection. This is true for other species of course, but we have to learn to listen- for humans sometimes listening, really listening is the hardest thing. To see from another’s perspective and validate their right to that perspective, and to the emotions they hold. When working with another animal, be it a young horse who may be unused to human contact, or a rescue dog who carries trauma, we need to reflect on both how we can influence their well being but also on how they as individuals perceive their own emotional state.  Though other species will process thought differently to us, their prefrontal cortex lacks our sophistication and ability to create constructs and theories, I believe that they own a sense of self, they hold the same emotions that we feel, and carry those emotions over time. Just as a memory from the past can cause an emotion to surface, an event that may even have remained hidden from our childhood can draw those same feelings once remembered. A smell, a taste, a glimpse of an image, can take us back to how we were when we first encountered that moment. We can carry this secret unknowingly for years until a spark ignites the memory, and the emotions associated with it. These emotions feel real to those who carry them, however distant the memory. Through empathy and compassion the bond of trust will slowly develop, often tenuous to start but by increments over time we gain a strengthening bond which tells us that we are able to connect, to communicate with the animal we are trying to help- we have shown them we are prepared to listen, because of this, they learn to trust. As I share some steps along this journey with a dog in foster, a dog who may carry hidden trauma and has learned that by withdrawing from the world he can survive from one day to the next, I hope I am able to guide him to a state of wellbeing, of confidence and self-belief Mutual trust is the essential element to make this change, ultimately giving the joy of watching our dogs learn to view the world in a different light.

Irene Perrett- ISCP Advanced Diploma Graduate 2018