The metaphors by which we live guide us as we navigate our way through life. For example, my primary metaphor for spiritual care is “bearer of sacred space.” I want a person to be able to come up to feel safe. So I maintain the space between us as non-judgmental, which gives them the opportunity to become vulnerable. If I do that, the effect should be that people are able to bring (even if briefly) their baggage to the surface for us to sort through together. And in the end they should walk away with a better sense of who they are and who they can become. The metaphor “bearer of sacred space” serves a specific purpose: it guides how I interact with people to bring about the desired effect.
After I had been working with Loki, my German Shepherd/Siberian Husky mix, I realized I needed a metaphor to help keep me focused as we progressed. I had looked into more traditional approaches to training that incorporated “corrections” with reinforcement. In the end, I came to believe that positive training served both my own purposes and my dog’s wellbeing best. But what were “my purposes”?
Perhaps it’s no surprise with my interest in the numinous that I believe that the best way to describe what I’m doing with Loki is “nurturing his spirit.” I don’t necessarily need him to be the kind of dog that jumps immediately when I bark. Don’t get me wrong. I do want him to listen, but I don’t expect instant obedience. I want him to find his own sense of self-confidence. I want him to be free, yet safe. Basically, I want him to become the best “Loki” he can be. That may mean that he will drive me nuts from time to time (and he does). That’s fine I don’t want him to be an automaton. I’m not domineering over him. Rather, when he and I are at our best, we’re a team.
When I started helping out with dog training at Free Spirit Siberian Rescue, I discovered that the way I worked with Loki wouldn’t transfer well. When someone brings their dog to a basic training session, they also bring a relationship dynamic to the table. Because of the quality of Loki and I’s relationship, we were able to work in a certain way. But, at the rescue I quickly realized that I had to build that relationship before any significant training could take place.
Another major dynamic involved in working with the rescue dogs is their emotional state. If a quality relationship is the foundation necessary for quality work, then the emotional wellbeing of the dog is the ground beneath that. Loki lives in a house with Annabelle (cat) and I. It is a very nurturing environment. The rescue dogs don’t have that luxury. Their emotional issues can range from fear of people, to anger at people, to a sense of disconnection or isolation, to a sense of abandonment. All in all, these dogs need to heal in ways that the pampered household dog does not.
The ideal end result for working with the rescue dogs is that they learn the behaviors necessary to help them integrate faster and more fully into a loving household. They don’t need to be perfect. They just need enough to get them started. That requires that they have a certain kind of experience. Therefore, my metaphor for working with these wonderful pups is “helping their spirits to heal.”
I still use the same basic positive training methods at the rescue as I do with Loki, since the way they work from the inside out are vital to the healing process. Furthermore, while those methods attend to the spiritual needs of the dogs, they also fit and reflect my philosophy of life. Indeed, I believe that love’s unique, non-coercive, life-giving power is the answer to messed up world. Utilizing positive training methods give expression to this.
Despite the similarities of the metaphors, I’m actually surprised at how much the change has shifted the manner in which I engage a dog. The details I pay attention to are quite different. That means the things I respond to are different. I can’t say what gift the dogs experience as we encounter each other, whether tethered together on a leash or through the doors of their kennel runs. But for me, the real gift is to see the change in their eyes. There’s nothing like seeing that new sparkle appear for the first time. It’s a peek into the inner light of the magnificent creature before me as its true potential begins to shine through. In that moment when our eyes lock and I feel that sense of connection, it is to me as if the very space between us has become sacred, and I am thankful that they have let me in.
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Remember, training methods matter.