A Room With a View – Making time for deep observation of our dogs

I am a bit late in writing this blog post. I wrote my last post in the time before ‘lockdown,’ when we could walk and wander with our dog(s). We could take a rucksack, with treats inside, without having to stay close to home. Some of us may still be able do this now, depending on what our neighbourhood looks like. In my area, the local playing field and trails are busy with locals and their dogs. Single track paths are not ideal for maintaining a two metre distance! I have become more inventive with my time with my dogs during the past couple of weeks.

My pre-Easter dog enrichment workshop, planned in a nearby village got cancelled. So I created a free eBook covering my course material. I have been busy writing and creating YouTube videos. My dogs acted as the treat puzzle stars they always dreamed they would be. Ted and Izzy, my dogs, love it when I sit down and write or read.

Recently, on a break from writing, I read an article called ‘Green Prozac’ in the Guardian. ((Barkham, Patrick, ‘Green Prozac’. The Guardian, 14th March, 2020, Review)). It was a review of all the books on the market about nature as a panacea for our well being. I am very interested in this topic, so I got a cup of tea and Ted and Izzy cosied up with me on the sofa. 

The author, Patrick Barkham, explored cold-water swimming to forest bathing by book title. ‘Taking to the waters’ was a middle class activity in the 19th century. Birdwatching and most countryside pursuits would have been as well. What farmer or factory worker would have had the time or energy to jump into the sea after their long days’ work? Or stroll along country paths like Wordsworth did? But this is not going to be a blog post about the class system and how it affects the #slowdogmovement. Next month! Joke! ????

Barkham discusses the observations of Florence Nightingale and other researchers. They noticed that hospital patients had a speedier recovery when they had a window with a view to trees. I realised that my dogs were missing a long distance view to the garden in our sitting room. So, fuelled with a bit of cabin fever, I rearranged the entire sitting room so that they could see outside better. This realisation made me think deeper – about the observation of dogs and how to cultivate this skill. This is an activity that takes patience, skill, practice, dogs (and more). Because of this, it qualifies as a #slowdogmovement topic!

Ted sleeping after enjoying his new ‘room with a view’

Turid Rugaas taught my International Dog Training Education (IDTE) diploma course in Germany. We learnt how to observe the dogs of clients and we spent hours doing this. This sounds simple, but it is like using a muscle that needs work everyday! It involves watching everything about the dog. Watching the way they move. How curious they are.  How they interact with their human. How much they pee, drink water and how they interact with the enriched environment (no treats). Turid asked us to practice watching the dog and to not ask questions of the client right away. Observe first and then ask questions to fill in missing information. And, not to make assumptions.

Dog observation IDTE, Bad Wimpfen 2014/15

Being able to observe a dog is a useful skill for a dog trainer or behaviourist. Using Turid’s methods, the trainer should have little prior knowledge of the dog. There should be no story in their mind before the observation. Unless the dog is reactive or aggressive towards people, then the trainer must have a plan. In this way, it’s easier to remain clear and let the dog tell us what is going on.

The average pet dog owner most likely observes their dog for their own enjoyment. Sometimes for health or behavioural issues. Most humans are busy with work, home life, family, their partners and hobbies. They involve their dog in as many everyday activities as they can. Yet, for some people, it may be difficult to observe their dog or for any length of time at all. Few pet dog owners may think about ‘observing’ their dog on an ongoing basis. Birdwatching, ‘yes’ but dogwatching, ‘not likely!’

The American author, John Steinbeck, wrote a short story called ‘Junius Maltby’. Junius was a well educated and free spirited man, who lived outside of the bounds of society. He lived with his third son, Robbie. 

When his wife and two young sons died due to influenza, he reflected; 

‘I didn’t know my wife nor the children very well, I guess. Perhaps they were too near to me. It’s a strange thing, this knowing. It is nothing but an awareness of details. There are long visioned minds and short visioned. I’ve never been able to see things that are close to me. For instance, I am much more aware of the Parthenon than of my own house over there.’ ((Steinbeck , John. ‘Junius Maltby.’ The Red Pony. The Viking Press, 1978.))

While this may seem extreme, we have all met or known of people who are like Junius. ‘It is nothing but an awareness of details.’ he says. Indeed. With only one outdoor excursion per day with my dogs, I notice every detail my senses can take in at once. I saw it in my dog, Ted, this evening as well. Ted was in the playing field above our home and stopped and looked around. It was like he was born into the world at that moment! We had replaced three walks over the past couple of days with garden time for various reasons. None of us had gone for a walk outside our home for one and a half days.  I felt the same as Ted when we went out. My senses were alive with the smells, sounds and sights of Spring.

Ted and Izzy having a Spring time sniff

Imagine if we could take that intense ‘seeing’ of nature and apply it to everyday, with our dogs. I studied Rudolf Steiner during an early years teacher training in Waldorf Education. I was aware of Steiner’s methods of observation and how Goethe had inspired them. Steiner used ‘Goethean Science’. Goethe described it as ‘Delicate Empiricism’. If there are any biologists reading this, the term is, phenomenology of nature. For dog lovers, I will explain how Goethe’s method takes ‘noticing all of the details’ and goes a few steps further. In both holistic and practical ways.

Literally, phenomenology is the study of “phenomena”: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience. Phenomenology studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view. ((https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/phenomenology/))

For Goethe, his form of observation was a two-way experience – ‘mutual interaction’. A conversation. We are part of the relationship with our dogs, for instance. Observing them is better if we pay attention to our own thoughts and feelings.  He stressed the importance of embarking upon observation without preconceived conceptions. This is very much like the advice of Turid. During Goethe’s time, science was reductive. Where singular traits became dissected from the whole organism. He felt that most humans, when studying nature, would first want to control it in some way. He urged his audience to use all their senses. To immerse themselves in their subject. To ‘become utterly identical with it’. He asked ‘How can I make myself into a better, more transparent instrument of knowing?’

Rudolf Steiner reinforces the idea of remaining open:

‘Where we feel that we understand a thing, we try to form a picture of what, in our opinion, will take place. If it does take place as we expected, our thinking was correct: that is good. If what happens is different from what we expected, then we try to think where we made the mistake. 

Thus we try to correct our wrong thoughts by quiet observation, by examining where the mistake lay, and why it was that it happened as it did. If, however, we were right, then we must be careful to avoid the danger of mere self-congratulation and boasting of our prophecy: ‘Oh yes, I knew that was going to happen, yesterday.’ ((Rudolf Steiner, ‘Practical Training in Thought’, Rudolf Steiner Publishing Co., London, 1928, From a lecture given at Carlsruhe, 18th January, 1909, translated by George Kaufmann))

Steiner is asking us to not become lazy in our thinking. To form opinions about situations, or in this case, our own dogs, and become habitual in this way of thinking. 

I have a concrete example of what Steiner calls ‘wrong thinking’ with my own two dogs. Izzy, our Jack Russell Terrier, is eight years old and we adopted her over three years ago. We adopted Ted, our male, 2 year old Weechon, two months ago. Ted is afraid of our very tall, sixteen year old son, Henry. Ted barks at Henry when he comes downstairs or enters a room. Without going into too much detail, Izzy also barks. Sometimes she starts the barking, other times not. We thought she was happy to bark along with Ted all the time, because often she does. But, we were wrong. Sometimes Izzy barks at Ted. She stands between Henry and Ted and barks at Ted. This is ‘splitting up.’ She is asking Ted to stop barking at Henry.

Here are some practical steps to utilise when you are observing your dog in this new (old) way:

  1. Be curious and come to the observation with something on your mind. Have questions or ‘ponderings’ but no answers. Come to the exercise without a theory to prove.
  2. Let the study continue to be open-ended (no distinct or specific purpose – no agenda).
  3. Be present and open when you are with your dog.
  4. Recognise your dog as a being in his/her own right and regard them with respect.
  5. Be aware and listen and watch with ‘fresh ears and eyes’ – like I described after 2 days of self-isolation! You may see new patterns and habits. Physical movement, behaviour, personality traits, beauty, intelligence, spirit and health related physiology.
  6. Be natural and relaxed – engage but don’t control the situation while observing.
  7. Be open to noticing changes in yourself, evolving, as you continue your observations.
  8. Engage in ‘actively remembering’ what you saw after you have been observing your dog. Sit and recall, from the last thing you saw to the first, what you can remember about your dog. This is as important as actually observing your dog! It helps us to remember a successive amount of images and information in the future.  If you can’t do the recall right after watching your dog, do it before you go to sleep at night, when you’re lying in bed. 

Try to remember every detail from your time with your dog. What was the weather like? Who was in the environment (at home or in the garden for example)? What was the energy level of your dog? Did you notice if the whites of their eyes were white or pink? What did they do? How did they move? As Steiner said ‘…good memory is the child of faithful observation.’

It’s okay to write notes or draw pictures of your dog, but do it as a separate activity to observation. Do it outside of the focused activity of seeing your dog. If you’re like me, you may end up with many drawings of sleeping dogs – they are the easiest to capture!

A drawing of my dog ‘Muffin’ 1982

In a holistic or spiritual sense, Goethe delved even further. Author Jeff Carreira explains in his article ‘Goethe’s Method of Doing Science’: 

‘Goethe believed that the outer physical world and the inner world of our senses were mirror images of each other, the inside view and the outside view of the same reality. Therefore, paying attention to the outer world leads to necessary inner responses in us that tell us directly about qualities of what we are observing.’ ((https://jeffcarreira.com/goethes-method-of-doing-science/))

This is the deeper message. It is a message of deep relationship, slow observation, slow thinking. And high regard for our canine companions. To consider our dogs as partners in a lifelong relationship with us. At this moment in the world, we may have more time to reflect and observe  – depending on our life’s circumstance. We have a perfect opportunity to try this way of observing and learning about our dogs. For fun, for practical purposes or for self evolution – the choice is yours!

Stay tuned to The Slow Dog Movement blog for more ideas. Join me in creating a sea change – an evolution revolution for dogs. Where ‘less is more’ and seeing things from a dog’s point of view makes life easier for you too!

#slowdogmovement

Bibliography

  1. Barkham, Patrick, ‘Green Prozac’. The Guardian, 14th March, 2020, Review
  2. https://jeffcarreira.com/goethes-method-of-doing-science/
  3. Holdrege, Craig. ‘Learning to see Life: Developing the Goethean Approach to Science.’ Kosmos: Journal for global transformation. Spring/Summer 2013
  4. Holdrege, Craig. ‘Doing Goethean Science.’ Janus Head (8) 1, 27-52, (2005)
  5. Rugaas, Turid et al, Lecture materials from International Dog Training Education, Bad Wimpfen, Germany. 2014-2015
  6. Steinbeck , John. ‘Junius Maltby.’ The Red Pony. The Viking Press, 1978.
  7. Rudolf Steiner, ‘Practical Training in Thought’, Rudolf Steiner Publishing Co., London, 1928, From a lecture given at Carlsruhe, 18th January, 1909, translated by George Kaufmann

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