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Learning from My Dog

This is a pretty niche topic, but I recently adopted my dog and cannot stop finding reasons to talk about her. Many of my clients are pet owners, and from our conversations I know how you love your pets as family members. I heard you, and now I truly get it. My dog has brought so much joy and comfort to me during this season of cold, dark-too-early days. We’re just beginning our training journey together, and this experience has given me a new perspective on many things I’ve learned and studied about relationships.

There is something magical about walking in the door to the sloppiest, happiest greeting from a dog. Nine times out of ten, anything I’ve experienced outside of the house disappears for that split second. She is ecstatic to see me – always. Even when I’ve had to cut our walks short, got distracted from playing with her by a phone call, or paid more attention to the tv than to petting her, she has never stopped wanting to be close to me and given me attention when I want it. I can’t say the same is true in my relationships with friends and family. 

My dog’s wants and needs are clear and reasonable, which makes meeting her wants and needs simple for me as her owner. In training her, I’ve learned to communicate in clear, simple commands so she fully understands exactly what I want and need from her. I have to say that communicating with a dog is almost more challenging than with humans because I don’t have the luxury of explaining myself to my dog (especially as a therapist – I really love to talk!). It’s made me more mindful of my communication and boundaries with people in my life. If I can set clear boundaries and communicate my needs gently to other people while being receptive when they do the same, the relationships feel healthy and secure. 

We become “needy” when our needs aren’t being met. Sometimes those needs aren’t met in relationships because we aren’t communicating what our needs are, and it’s unfair to expect other people to read our minds. Learning skills and tools to improve communication in relationships is a lifelong journey. It doesn’t take a relationship expert to know that commanding your partner usually won’t go as well as commanding your dog. When we have needs from our people and our dogs, we have to ask clearly.

When my husband and I have a conflict, I’m not exactly thrilled when I see him walking into the room. When we offend the people we love, there’s a repair process we go through to get back to the state of freely loving on each other. With my dog, I know everything is forgiven within minutes without needing to have a whole conversation. She’s happy every single time she sees us, which makes it easy for us to immediately meet her with similar enthusiasm and gentle love. If only it was so easy to forgive offenses from our partners and go right back to giving affection!

The process of getting to know our dog has also been a learning experience for my husband and me to get to know this new part of our relationship as pet owners. Negotiating roles and responsibilities is an ongoing process in life. Some days I really cannot stand to walk the dog in the frigid cold, and some days I do it as an act of service for my husband. There’s no such thing as too much gratitude for partners who are willing to do the chores that nobody else wants to do.

The most rewarding part of becoming a dog owner to my dog specifically was being part of her journey to regain trust after the trauma she experienced early in her life. Her resiliency shines when she experiences something entirely new, like snow and ice for the first time this winter. She hated every second of being out in the cold, but willingly followed me during a snow storm to take care of her business outside. I was so proud of her, and she trusted that I would always bring her back home and give her lots of treats on her warm bed as soon as possible. Watching her personality emerge when she allows other people to get close enough to pet her now has been a transformation I’m so proud to be facilitating. I’m not sure she’ll be able to pass Therapy Dog training one day, but I’m holding onto hope that my girl will continue to develop into the strong, confident, and SUPER well-trained dog she’s meant to be. In order to get her there, I’ll have to stay in training and continue learning as well!

An Thai, MS, LMFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in our Sterling, VA office and virtually to those located in the State of Virginia. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary consultation with An!