Emotional Intelligence & Reactive Dogs
Emotions affect the way that we feel and our presence with our dogs, let’s focus on what we can do about it. Let's start with being mindful.
The basis of mindfulness is awareness and being aware will help you to take a less involved view of your mind chatter. Through being mindful we can’t stop our thoughts but we can stop assuming they are an accurate representation of our reality because often they are not. An example would be how we start to see other dogs and dog walkers when we are walking with our own worried dog. We see a dog off lead and heading towards us with their person and our mind starts to chatter before we are even aware that it’s gone off on a tangent of its own. We may expect the worst before we are anywhere near the other dog and their human.
Everyone’s mind has a negative bias, to keep us safe, which is also an ancient inheritance from the times we were prey animals ourselves. We were much better off expecting a rock to be a tiger than we were to assume that the tiger is a rock, as only one of the two will eat us. So now when we see something that might or might not be dangerous – whether physically or emotionally – we tend to go for the idea of danger because ironically it’s the safer option. We only have to consciously expect the worst a few times and the expectation begins to become unconscious, we learn quickly and are even quicker in the presence of what we consider to be danger.
When the idea that something is dangerous becomes automatic the gap between the thought and emotional response becomes even smaller.
The gap that occurs between a thought and a related emotional response is that small amount of time where the thought has happened and the body is catching up. The orientation period is quite generous the first time we experience something new. We have to work out how to feel about something first time around and decide whether it’s dangerous, so there’s a pause whilst the mind assesses the scenario. Between it and the body, a relevant emotional response is created.
The more often the scenario is repeated and the specific emotion is practised the more likely it is that the mind and body trigger the emotion earlier, so we don’t even get chance to assess it before the onslaught of emotional response and wild thought loop. If we remember that the body can experience strong emotion just from the memory of a scenario, it’s unsurprising that when the scenario occurs in the flesh, the emotion is present very quickly.
If we apply that to our lives with our dogs, we might have a tough experience where the dog is in a position they can’t cope with so they go beyond their ability to cope and react towards another dog, person or something else. We then experience a strong emotional reaction ourselves and our presence changes, our collective energy with our dog then becomes chaotic and sometimes it can take all day to calm down again. If that happens three or four times a week it will seriously affect not only our collective wellbeing but also our relationship with our dogs. Later on, we might think about the experience a few times and bring back that emotion every time. We can then become stressed on our walks – even when we see a dog so far away, going in the other direction, that we are likely not to meet them at all.
There are two parts to emotional intelligence, as introduced by Dr Daniel Goleman. They include the ability to read and respond appropriately to the emotions of others whilst also being capable of understanding our own emotional responses. When we are no longer caught up in a wild mind existence we can properly observe how our thoughts and emotions interact. Then we can sift through them, keeping the ones that are real and important whilst letting the other thoughts harmlessly chatter away in the background, not causing emotional turmoil where there is no need for it to be. There’s nothing as important and effective for this than mindful practice which brings clarity to every moment. When we become aware, we handle everything better. If we are handling things better, our dogs will soon respond in kind, partly because we are fully present with them and ultimately because they are responding to our calmness and be no longer as worried as they were.