Apr 22 / Irene Perrett

Rescue Dog Relationships

If the last year has taught us anything, it has probably offered us the chance to take a step away from the constantly grinding treadmill of life which had become so familiar; and raised our awareness and appreciation of the treasures to which we had become blind. Our observational skills have become more acute, we take time to watch the nuanced changes in nature and attach meaning to our limited opportunities for social interactions. When I was walking with the dogs on Exmoor a few days ago, I paused to listen to a skylark as he spiralled higher and higher until his voice was faint as he disappeared into cloud. His efforts lasted several minutes, then his song became more distinct as he dropped towards the ground. A little further along, a kestrel flew up from the heather and circled on the air currents which lifted her without effort. As she glided, her wings outstretched, she found a stream of air which lifted her higher, then hovering, she scanned the ground for prey. Several times she repeated her task until I saw her plummet, stop, and then drop down to the ground. Whether she was successful in her hunt I don’t know, but she reminded me to take time to pause and simple be a part of what is around us; our senses heightened to the sound and feel of the warmth in the breeze, the rustle of small creatures hidden beneath the grass we walk on, the interrelationships of all around us. We are not distinct from these happenings, we are a part of this world however transient it may feel to us at times.

There are moments when we simply feel a change, we may not even see it with our eyes but we sense it. Sitting on a hanging log over a stream yesterday, I closed my eyes, cleared my mind and allowed my thoughts to gently drift. I focussed on the dogs and felt a magnetic pull towards them, then I sensed another being, opening my eyes to see a wagtail on the stones in the shallow water. We all have the capacity for more nuanced awareness, once we step away from the inane protection of business and noise, and absorb the quiet space that remains. The space that is ourself, uncluttered by our belief systems and coping mechanisms. The space that enables growth, understanding, compassion.

Nina means beautiful in Hindi, strong in Native American, friend in Arabic and flower in Greek.

It has taken me a few weeks to write about my foster dog Nina. I have been grieving for the loss of Bertie, he was a wonderful gentle soul whose illness only gave us a short time with him. He enjoyed the little time he had and Nina has come to us in his memory. Nina means beautiful in Hindi, strong in Native American, friend in Arabic and flower in Greek. She was named by a friend who had kindly donated to Bertie’s care, and in her own time she will find the strength to overcome her fears, to blossom into the beautiful soul that she is, to find trust and friendship. For now though, she is scared and anxious. At first too scared to even move, her breathing shallow whenever I was close, making herself invisible. She lay in her bed all day watching, vigilant for any change and only moving at night to eat. After a few weeks, to the eye she doesn’t appear greatly changed but there is change. It is subtle but her breaths are deeper, her eyes less anxious, and hugely, she choses to move away from me when I change her bed or give her food. There has been a physiological change, at first she would freeze when she perceived danger, now she is able to move. She is starting to process and plan, to chose which option works best for her. She is developing strategies which allow her to feel safer; I respect her choices and am grateful to see her move away from me. Inner feelings of safety are profound and essential for her levels of stress to become lowered. Andy Hale talks about permanent and temporary relief from things that cause stress for an individual. For Nina, it may take many months for her to feel safe, to even think about interacting with humans. But, each time I listen to her choices for distance, for no eye contact, for me to be quiet and calm, to remove any glimmer of expectation, then she can gain some temporary relief. Over time, these moments add up and develop into the smallest flicker of trust. The journey is dog centric, led by her alone. She will decide when she is able to move forward, which to us may seem a negative behaviour, but at this point any outward expression of how she is feeling internally is huge.
My role is to support her, to create the best environment I am able in order for her to heal. That includes keeping my presence to a minimum and respecting her agency, her decisions. This stepping away isn’t failure, it isn’t personal or negative. It stems from regard for Nina’s intrinsic personhood and needs; and removing human centred expectations of how we believe another nonhuman animal ‘should’ feel and behave. In time it may be that I can help her by offering guidance so that she is more able to adjust with confidence, but that time is in the future. Letting a relationship evolve takes courage; ignoring the voices in our head that say we should be doing this or they aught to be doing that. When we observe or even simply feel the smallest changes which inform us of the shift in another’s thinking, those are the moments which tell us we are to trust ourselves, to trust our intuition and to wait some more. This paradigm moves beyond the relationship with a scared rescue dog; regard for the intrinsic values and agency of others takes away many of our own self-imposed pressures and invites a more open arena for dialogue.