What a Puppy Can Teach Us
We got a new puppy in our house about 2 weeks ago. Having a new dog has made me think back to when my older dog (she's 9) was a puppy. Here's a story from back then. I wrote this back when she was just 9 weeks old or so.
Last night I took my dog out, like I do every night. She sleeps in a crate and so I take her out one last time to relieve herself. She’s still a puppy and I take her out on her leash because she wanders off a bit and is hard to get her back. Last night as I was standing there, she lurched forward and I saw something jump. My first reaction was annoyance. I had things that needed to get done after taking her out and she was messing around.
I stopped that thought and re-focused. What had jumped? And what was causing me to be so mindless of this situation? My focus was several minutes in the future and was causing me to not participate in what was happening at that moment. I was already on to the next thing that was needing to be done, as many of us have a tendency to do.
So, I intentionally turned my focus to my dog and whatever had jumped. It was a toad. It was just sitting there about 2 feet away from my dog and she was intensely interested in it and wary of it. I really tuned in and watched what was playing out in front of me. She inched forward, jumped back, inched forward, jumped back.
Each time she got a little closer, came in from slightly different angle. Eventually she got really close and the toad jumped again, and the dance started again. At one point the toad took 2 hops and my dog did not see the second hop. She was approaching and jumping back from a sp
ot where only grass stood and maybe the lingering scent of a toad.
There she was, reacting to something that was not there. Scared of and interested in a little patch of grass that would never jump, never attack, never hurt her because that is not what grass does. Grass just sits there, slowly growing, looking green.
I was able to enjoy the little dance between my puppy and that toad. I started off annoyed, and could have remained that way. I was able to shift my focus to the present moment and enjoy what was right in front of me. Sometimes I can do that and other times I get hooked by the annoyance and cannot re-focus.
I think this story has a little more to teach than just to refocus and pay attention mindfully. See, my puppy did something that we human beings do often, and some of us more often than others. We get scared and jumpy around lots of things that appear very scary because they are unknown or because they remind us of something that was dangerous in the past. The problem with that is that some of those things are completely harmless and we still act like they are sca
ry and dangerous.
That toad could not have hurt my puppy if it had wanted to, and she did not know that. And then the toad hopped away and the puppy looked kind of silly moving forward and jumping back from an
empty patch of grass. Of course, my puppy had no knowledge of all of that. It was her first interaction with that animal. Some fear is completely normal and natural.
Sometimes we are afraid of our emotions or think that our emotional reactions are the complete facts of a situation. And maybe we get afraid that our judgments about ourselves are true, or maybe believe that the judgments we've heard from others are true. Fill in the blank for the fears that impact you in particular.
We are not stuck with all of that unless we want to be. The Mindfulness skills taught in DBT really can begin to help us get some freedom from the fear of things that are harmless and maybe even enjoyable at times. The mindfulness skills teach us to approach things by observing, describing, participating, and doing that nonjudgmentally, one-mindfully and effectively. My puppy does not h
ave the capacity to observe, describe, at least in a way that she can tell me. You, who are reading this, have the capacity. You may not yet have the skill, and you can learn.
Next time you notice that you are jumpy and there does not seem to be a logical reason for it or if you notice you are jumpy around something that is unknown, look to see if there is a toad sitting there, or if there’s an empty patch of grass. Try to get curious, about what's there and about the fear. You might discover that your brain and body are trying so hard to protect you, that they are short circuiting a bit and becoming afraid when that emotion is not needed. Maybe your brain and body are having an emotion that does not quite fit the facts of your current situation (this happens to all of us on a regular basis, just fyi.)
If you get curious, you might
learn something about yourself. If you get curious, you may be able to experience something different in your current situation. You might have a moment of delight as you watch a puppy approaching and jumping and reacting to a little patch of grass that's never going to go anywhere. If you get curious you might start to understand some of your emotional responses in very different ways than you do right now. If you decide not to get mindful, not to get curious, that's cool as well. It's really up to you.
You know how to live the way you are currently living. And you can keep going just like that. I prefer a little bit of delight instead of annoyance. Sometimes it's easy to come back to know and sometimes it's difficult. Ultimately, when I've done it, it's always been worth it.
Want some quick lessons on some DBT skills? Check out our skills videos.