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What you feel is valid

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

What You Feel is Valid!

In a therapy session, not so long ago, I was rambling about how I spiralled into old ways of handling depressive and anxiety episodes. I was feeling defeated. My therapist responded with a simple statement, “The way you reacted, the way you felt at that point and how you dealt with it is VALID”. And I broke down.

How many of us have been told this? Sure. When we are happy, elated, excited or any of the other so-called positive emotions, people around us readily accept these emotions. They may even participate and share them with us. But what about anger? Sadness? Grief? Numbness? We are mostly told to “let go”, “move on”, “look at the bright side”. And so, we bottle them up, mask them until we cannot and have an outburst. We then go through self-blame, shame and this cycle seem to repeat.

We are mostly told to “let go”, “move on”, “look at the bright side”. And so, we bottle them up, mask them until we cannot and have an outburst.

Dr Nicole LePera, the author of “How to do the Work”, talks about survival mode. She explains that under stress, our bodies enter into survival mode and respond in ways to protect themselves (emotionally or physically). If the mind detects threats to safety and survival, we activate the stress response and defend ourselves. This can look like fighting someone who is harming you physically. But it can also look like shutting down (freezing or turning numb), anger outburst, distraction mechanisms, avoiding triggers. We can extend this to all mammals who use the fight-or-flight response to respond to stress.

When I realized how we humans deal with the unpleasant emotions of others as well as ours, it made me think of why we tend to expect the same from our dogs. We love it when our dogs are running around to fetch the ball when they perform the tricks we teach them when they come to us. We call them “happy” dogs. But the same dogs, when looking to put things in their mouth and destroy things, when they chew on furniture, growl at us, “guard their resources”, display anxiety, we start finding it difficult to appreciate the dog and want to find ways to “fix” them.

Yes, both in the case of humans as well as dogs, some behaviours, especially directed at others, can be harmful and threatening. Without reducing this experience, it may be worth looking at these individuals as distressed and hurt. Their bodies are living in survival mode and seem to be thinking that their emotional and physical safety is under threat. If we just adjust our thinking from labelling these behaviours to acknowledging their struggle, we can begin to create a safer environment for our dogs.

Pic 1 - Dog exhibiting behaviour that is commonly considered "bad" or "unwanted"

If we just adjust our thinking from labelling these behaviours to acknowledging their struggle, we can begin to create a safer environment for our dogs.

Not very long ago, I had a foster dog who was unfriendly with my dogs as well as others at home. Her immediate instinct would be to nip and bite them if encountered. In the initial days, she also did not appreciate my presence and was nipping hard at me if I sat on the same surface as her (even if the surface was my bed). She would charge at me if I made any sudden movements. I had bruises, torn clothes, torn bedding and destroyed furniture. But she was a dog in extreme pain.

She had an accident as a 2-month-old puppy and the wound did not heal well enough leaving the spine and hip hurt. And the only thing I could do for her is give her the space she needed while we addressed her medical needs as well. I had to be mindful of my movements, my body language, her space and boundaries. There was no point in trying to change her behaviour or invalidate her experience.

Pic 2 - My primary and only role as Bailey's foster mom was to validate her experience to the best of my abilities.

In another instance, I was working with a client who was dealing with repeated instances of fights between his own dogs, Potter and Weasley. This is truly a very tricky and stressful situation to be in. How do you deal when two dogs who are under your care attack each other? You cannot take sides as a parent. But this was one of the most satisfying cases to have worked on. The dog parents ensured to validate the experiences of both the dogs, the one who was attacked and the one who attacked. Both dogs are struggling in their own ways and neither of them is “wrong”. 

And after a few months, I was so glad to hear from the client that they have progressed enough that the dogs can be in the same room and even fall asleep without needing to be on edge around each other. And this would have been so hard to achieve if both of them did not feel safe to express their emotions and didn’t feel validated.

Pic 3 - Dogs fighting is an indication of them struggling and not about who is "wrong"

Having addressed all that our dogs go through and how it is important to validate and acknowledge their experiences, I would be doing an injustice if I do not talk about the experiences that we, as dog parents, go through. It is not easy to be calm and understanding when we are stressed too. It is, without a doubt, a difficult place to be in when the house might be in a mess, being nipped by a dog repeatedly and not finding a solution, walking your dog becoming a stressful situation day after day, tackling judging looks by neighbours/ family members/ friends and feeling like we are failing at raising our dogs. 

It is, without a doubt, a difficult place to be in...

When I was spending those initial few weeks with my foster girl, I had days of breakdown, frustration and feeling defeated. While acknowledging her, it was also important to acknowledge my struggle too.

Knowing this, I want to say that I see you and your struggle. It is not an easy space to be in. The stress and frustration you are feeling are absolutely valid. On those days, it is even more important to be kind towards yourself too. Both you and your dog are struggling to navigate an extremely difficult circumstance. Give yourself and your dog the space to heal, to recoup and then to create an action plan that can be stress-free for both of you. In my case, Sammy was a dog who would lunge and mount other pet dogs on walks. He would start barking at the sight of another pet dog and keep pulling on the leash. Once I understood that these encounters weren’t doing any good to both him and me, I just decided to change his walk timings. And it did wonders. We, of course, did a lot of other lifestyle changes too. But instead of pushing him and me into a stressful situation repeatedly, we just decided to take a break from it and that worked!

Even if we manage to take a “break” from stressful situations, it is necessary to keep in mind that some dogs may just be anxious, fearful, unsocial, or easily stressed. But they are not broken and don’t really need to be “fixed”. They need space to be accepted for who they are. They need to feel understood and find ways to cope with things that easily stress them or make them anxious. Even doing this basic foundation work to provide them with the space for being authentic to express their emotions and finding ways to distance them from their triggers can go a long way in helping them manage their emotions. 

I hope all of us, as dog parents, create the space for our dogs to be just themselves. Accept them for who they are, their strengths, likes, dislikes and their quirks. Appreciate them for all that they are and we will ditch the effort to try and fit them into the mould of what a dog should look like.

Pic 4 - The relationship shared with Sammy and Zoey by following the idea of validation and reassurance

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About The Author – Sowjanya S Vijayanagar

Sowjanya is a certified Canine Behavior Consultant. She works with dog parents who are facing difficulties in understanding and dealing with dogs. She is also an Associate Member of Pet Dog Trainers of Europe (PDTE). In addition, she is a canine ethology research enthusiast and hopes to work on variety of research projects.

It is her dogs, Sammy and Zoey who inspired her to embark on this learning journey and they will forever be her teachers!

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