What I Learned from My Dog with Attachment Trauma
This is a story about parenting….dogs. Now don’t get me wrong – I have no intention of saying parenting dogs is like parenting kids (entirely), people are not dogs and dogs are not people. But, relationships are relationships – and if we are open to learning, we can learn MUCH from our relationships with animals.
I am a family therapist and in the last few years have ventured into the field of attachment trauma – I have learned and learned, practiced and practiced. But, it turns out; the most humbling and challenging experience for me (thus far) has been parenting a dog with attachment trauma. It makes my heart go out to those who parent children with attachment trauma – again, not the exact same thing, but, similar. Y’all, this stuff is hard, even if it is ‘just a dog’. Let me explain.
I have two dogs – Boogie and Olive. Boogie came into my life as a puppy at 8 weeks old. He started out in a loving home with his momma and has been by my side for the last 9 years. He is utterly attuned to me, cares deeply about what I think, makes requests clearly and calmly, and is easily comforted by our companionship. He is securely attached – he has no trauma around his human relationships – he is attuned and connected, easily. Olive on the other hand, was a stray. My mother took her in at her farm when she was roughly 6 months old. This is where Olive learned to play with other dogs and get along with a handful of humans; she was safe, well fed, and loved. However, she is a very different dog from Boogie. She is skittish, self-focused, is an alarmist, and warms up very slowly to new people, and only if they approach her properly. She came to live with me at about a year old, and about a year ago. She is challenging, to say the least. She is also wonderful and has stolen my heart – but that does not mean things have been easy.
So what is going on here? Why such a huge difference between the two? Olive had a warm and loving home so soon in her life – shouldn’t she adjust easily?
A disclaimer here, my areas of focus are humans and horses; but here is what I know about mammalian brains in general. They begin growing in utero, they grow in response to their environment, and they grow rapidly in the very beginning of life. In humans, 80% of brain growth happens before a child is 3 years old. Dogs grow and age exponentially faster than we do – so it would make sense that a 6-month-old dog would have experienced a significant amount of development in their brain, with much of its neural pathways already sorted out. (Especially when you think about what a 6-month-old dog is capable of, as compared to a human).
When Olive came to live with us, I spent the first few weeks feeling totally overwhelmed. I had had dogs all my life, but she was a conundrum. How can a dog be so selfish, so uninterested in my requests, so hard to soothe? Then, after too long, it hit me…duh, I have a dog with her own difficulties of attachment trauma. I had been studying this and working with families who struggled with this for several years now – but it only then occurred to me that my dog might be experiencing the same thing (it’s so easy to compartmentalize humans as being totally different from animals…but really, that’s just not the case that often). Thankfully, a light bulb went on about so many of her behaviors. For example:
- Olive isn’t selfish – that’s my interpretation of her behavior. What’s really happening is she has an overdeveloped sense of survival, or in other words, the mechanisms for survival in her brain are in overdrive– so every meal, every “treasure”, every opportunity to take care of herself – she capitalizes. Survival thinking is “me” thinking – it is “how do I take care of just myself, in just this moment?” Of course she tried to eat her dinner as well as everyone else’s, and of course, she tried to horde all the treats, and push Boogie out of the way when attention was being given. She was taking care of herself, the best way she knew how. Her early experiences, likely including her intrauterine experiences, told her that survival was of the utmost importance – not relationships with others, and certainly not with humans. That only comes when survival needs are met with safety, security, and predictability. The survival, “me” focused portions of her brain were muscled up, while her relational “we” portions of her brain were underdeveloped.
- Olive isn’t uninterested in my requests – dismissing and rejecting me – she was focused on her needs and how she was going to take care of herself like she’d always done. And anyway, who was I? Some human that thought I should matter to her all of a sudden because I took her in? Humans, in general, have not been a predictable force in her life. Lately, a few had been great, but early on? As a stray I can only imagine her experience of humans – ignoring her, running her off, maybe even being the ones who dumped her in the first place. Yet, I expected her to simply trust me – based on no other reason than I thought she should. I’m pretty nice, why not? But, when people are unpredictable, the safest thing you can do is keep your distance and focus on taking care of yourself. That’s all she was doing. She doesn’t have pathways in her brain that exclaim “Yay, people!” like Boogie – her neural pathways are more likely to say, “People….hmmmmm”. So, it’s no wonder my requests were met with some dismissiveness – building a relationship in which trust goes both ways doesn’t happen overnight, especially when one party has no previous experience with trust. Imagine trying to ride a bike down a mountain path, when it’s your first time on a bike! You would totally fail – not because you didn’t care, but because you didn’t have the previous experience as a foundation for this new one. Neural pathways don’t change simply because circumstances change, they change over time, with practice and consistency. Just like learning to ride a bike.
- Unpredictability in early life also impacts Olive’s ability to be soothed. Her life for the first 6 months, and possibly in utero as well – involved hunger, fear, and fight/flight/freeze. So her brain wired itself to be highly sensitive, highly responsive, and quick to detect threat. None of this supports a zen approach to life – it does support survival, though, and beautifully so. So
es, when a strange man walks in the house, or a big truck sits in our driveway, or we get in the car for an unknown destination – Olive is upset, and difficult to soothe. Why doesn’t my relationship with her soothe her easily? See point #2.
I cannot tell you how many mistakes I have made with Olive because I assumed she was being selfish, or rejecting, or unreasonably difficult. And knowing what I know about the brain and attachment trauma doesn’t mean I am automatically doing a better job with her. I do at times, and other times I let my feelings get the best of me. To be honest, when I really think back over all the times she and I have gotten cross-wise, most instances were my doing. Yes, she did something I didn’t like – but my impatience, my assumptions, and my big feelings are what turned a small “misbehavior” into a relational rupture. Has she been challenging? Heck yes. Has she been willfully, intentionally “bad”? Pretty much never.
We learn about each other more every day – and a year after she came into our lives she is a loving, sweet, playful friend – who also makes questionable choices and is difficult to soothe. Parenting Olive is a journey in which we both make mistakes. I am deeply grateful for the unending forgiveness she has inside of her – that fortunately, most dogs do.
The greatest lesson she is teaching me is that building a relationship with someone who has experienced attachment trauma doesn’t just take time, it takes intentionality over time. Lots of time. For she and I to be successful we need predictability, calm, intentionality, and forgiveness. Not just love – love is good, it is necessary, but it isn’t a cure all. The brain doesn’t work that way. New pathways are formed through repetition, not just good intentions.
So for those of you who are loving someone (be they four-legged or two) with attachment trauma – it is hard. It is beyond words hard. Progress is slow and certainly not a straight line. And it asks a lot of us – we have to be patient, and in control of our thoughts, emotions, and impulses. But if we expect that of them, then shouldn’t we be able to do it ourselves first? And you know what, life with Olive may never be as easy as it is with Boogie.
But I noticed something the other day. When I laugh…Olive wags her tail, and when she comes bounding into a room (she is always bounding), it makes me smile. It’s a small thing, but it’s something.
Kate Naylor is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the Austin, Texas area and a Natural Lifemanship trainer. More information can be found at www.kategosenaylor.com