In his book “Your Dog is Your Mirror”, (and quoted on our front page) Kevin Behan says:
“There are many good reasons to own a dog, but the real reason for the dog in our life is that it gives us the unparalleled opportunity to become conscious of the judgements, reflexive thinking, and instinctual patterns we impose on the world. Dogs are here to show us how our heart works, and the judgements we hold against it. They are here to bring us a choice. Everything about dogs is reflecting back to us what is happening within us and within our society. Nothing about dogs is ever about the dog.”
This, in essence, is what Leadchanges and Leadchanges workshops are about – helping humans understand more about dogs, dog/human psychology and the connections between them, through play and interaction with dogs that already understand their job as the course teachers! These dogs are two Rhodesian Ridgebacks and a Ridgeback cross, and possibly a friend or two that may be staying with them at the time.
The canine course teachers are all girls, two full sisters from the same litter, Akina and Kaishi; Yume, the ridgeback cross, was adopted from AAR in Spain, having been dumped in a bin over there. The two sisters have been helping humans learn more about who they need to be for their dogs over the last few years, initially starting in South Africa where they were born and then moving to Spain in June 2012. In the South African workshops five Ridgebacks and three Yorkies were the teachers and now Yume has joined the team. The girls are magnificent and their looks and physical appearance always have a powerful effect on workshop participants, many of whom have never seen a Ridgeback and don’t know the breed. They always provide a talking point and are the perfect ice breakers in the initial group activities.
The workshops are successful for a number of reasons, not least of all because everyone loves a dog – right? Well, mostly everyone! They are also successful because animals have a way of helping humans in a non-confrontational, clear and non-judgemental way and this is what we are able to offer to groups of anything from 2 to 16 people. These groups include families and friends who want to learn more about themselves and their dogs while at the same time having fun doing it.
Animals are our mirrors, reflecting back to us what we need to see in ourselves. Sometimes this may be an inner fear, our ego, over-assertiveness, timidity or ineffectiveness. In these courses, our canine friends are the teachers, helping us to see who we need to be by showing us how we really are and this happens in a mostly non verbal way. Speech is actually something us humans rely on far too much, as some of the workshop exercises demonstrate!
Participants get to see for themselves what they need to see. The workshops help participants find a way back to their more instinctual side, allowing them to learn by “doing” and “observing”. This is something we do easily when we are children but it is an ability we often lose as we reach adulthood. Adults try to intellectualise too much and use too much thinking, often over complicating the simplest of tasks. Experiential learning is, of course, the only way our dogs can learn because they don’t rely on verbal communication, studying from books or attending school.
Dogs don’t live in a world of thought, logic, past regrets or future worries but interact with each other and with us in the NOW, purely on an instinctual level. By becoming more observant and developing our awareness, we too can live more in the moment. This is what our dogs can offer us – the lesson that, because of the way they are, they do not hold onto negativities – and neither should we.
Dogs need us to be calm, effective leaders giving guidance, direction and redirection. Often this is what we need to do in both our personal and our working lives as well. Too often we let others push our boundaries and if we allow this with our dogs, it soon becomes very obvious. For every response we get from our dogs we can guarantee it is the kind of cause and effect we have with humans too! The skill is to become aware of this and then try and apply what we learn to our every day lives. But that’s the difficult part, along with maintaining consistency in all we do.
It is a well known fact that learning and memory are fixed more strongly and new information is retained longer when learned through play because we are studying in a relaxed way. Adults so rarely get the chance to play in an uninhibited way because either it is not the accepted thing to do or they have to be on their best behaviour, setting examples and being “responsible”. What we need to learn is that although taking responsibility is a serious business, we don’t have to be serious in our demeanour. Play is not trivial but is integral to our health.
Dogs demonstrate to humans how important play is and they have a way of breaking down the inhibitions that most people develop as they get older. A wonderful book by Dr Stuart Brown called “Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul” offers insight into how play can help us and one of his inspirations for the book, was the dog. As he says:
“We have all witnessed the blissful abandon of a golden retriever racing across a lawn. This is the joy of play.”
Through the workshops we learn that not only are dogs good for our health and that they can teach us to be more playful, live longer and be healthier but we learn that our dogs will also benefit if we give them a stimulation rich environment from puppyhood into adulthood and keep them learning through their lives. Dogs learn best through fun, not strict training regimes and both humans and dogs learn through movement – the greatest growth rate in the cerebellum is during the greatest play period of an animal’s life.
According to the book “The Brain that Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge:
“…mental training or life in an enriched environment increases brain weight by 5% in animals and up to 9% where training is used to directly stimulate them! Trained, stimulated neurons develop 25% more branches and increase their size, the number of connections per neuron and their blood supply”.
Dogs have fewer fears, adapt to both new and more frightening situations and deal with stress better if we encourage them to develop their brains.
As Dr Brown says in his book on play:
“Learning should not be drudgery. Play promotes true intellectual curiosity. It has been shown to increase lifetime performance, just as adequate recess time leads to increased long term academic accomplishments.
The play-less adult becomes stereotyped, inflexible, humourless, lives without irony, loses the capacity for optimism, and generally is quicker to react to stress with violence or depression than the adult whose play life persists. In a world of major continuous change (and we are certainly facing big changes economically now) playful humans who can roll with the punches and innovate through their play-inspired imaginations will better survive.”
Mental challenges, puzzles, reading and learning new things mean that we have a 63% lower chance of developing Alzheimer’s, only a small percentage of those who develop the disease do so because of genetics.
Leadchanges workshops cover all these subjects and more! Using Q&A for participants to work out answers for themselves and interspersing the theory side with activities, illustrating the points discussed with fun and games, participants learn that emotional balance is far more important than intelligence quotient. Those with a high EQ do far better in life than those with a high IQ. Humans need balance – mentally, emotionally and physically – in order to be happy and fulfilled and so do dogs. If a human is out of balance, a dog will show them in what way, mirroring back to them what they need to see and showing them what they need to change.
Most people who come are surprised at how much they learn, not only about dogs but even more so about themselves. The most common comment that comes out of a workshop is exactly that mentioned in the quote by Kevin Behan at the beginning of this article – that nothing about dogs is ever about the dog! Everyone who attends says that they had a good lesson in human psychology!
All anyone needs in order to participate is an open mind, a sense of fun and a sense of humour! The workshops do the rest, offering clues about how we can start to become more aware, have more fun and begin the thinking process so that ultimately we will become more emotionally balanced, purposefully responding to things rather than being reactive to them.
The dogs show us the way to thinking not only independently and outside the box, but more instinctively too.