• James

Accepting the Things We Can't Change

A few years ago, my partner and I decided to adopt a second dog.

We found one through a rescue agency that seemed suitable and contacted the foster family for a visit. The dog was named "Precious," which was maybe fitting as she was adorable, but my partner and I decided we would immediately change that - we just couldn't see ourselves calling out "Precious! Come!" at the dog park. Also didn't like the reference to Gollum either.

Precious was very cute and sweet, but also timid. It took about 15 minutes of sitting on the floor of the family's living room before she warmed up to us. She was still a puppy, so we figured this was completely normal. The rescue organization and the family felt that we were a good match for her, so we ended up taking her home.

On the ride home, she was very calm and just sat in the back seat next to my partner's daughter who would have been about nine years old then. Seemed like we found an ideal dog!

Within a few days, however, we found out we got more than we bargained for. Mabel, as we renamed her, had... issues. Despite that perfect first car ride, whenever we took her in the car now - even if it's to the dog park, she howls and whines like we're beating her - it sounds horrible!

Mabel - tearing apart a chew toy that lasted about two days.

We also tried everything with Mabel when it came to leaving her alone at home with our other dog. We gave her chew toys to play with. We would let her run out in our backyard as often as we could so she could burn up her excess energy. Our last solution was trying to crate her. I had great success with my first dog ages ago, but Mabel did NOT have a good time with the crate. We came home after the first day to find that she completed destroyed the mat lining of the crate. It took several months of being patient with her until she got over her separation anxiety.

The other challenge, as with any new dog, is to teach them to walk on leash. Again, Mabel was VERY hard to train for this. She would whimper and bark and pull very hard. It wasn't a pleasant experience walking her.

When we moved a couple of months ago to a condo, her anxiety got worse. She got used to being in new surroundings as it relates to her home, but when she's outside our apartment, she again starts to whine and bark - mostly at other dogs, squirrels and pigeons.

We finally sought the help of a dog trainer. She immediately assessed Mabel as a very anxious dog. We knew that was part of it, but didn't understand her other behaviours, such as barking and even growling at other dogs that we would meet on the street. We thought it was some form of aggression. But we were told that fear can often lead to aggression in dogs. Her problem was that because she was on-leash, she couldn't meet other dogs on HER terms and in HER space. That's why she reacted that way. In the dog park, without a leash on, she is completely fine going up to greet other dogs and even playing with them.

The more we worked with the trainer, we realized how much Mabel's anxiety accounted for her "misbehaviours." None of it was her fault, and because the behaviours were not corrected in order to be a family dog, they became habit and she became hard-wired to behave a certain way.

Why am I telling you about my dog? Because when we look at dogs, we see them as completely adorable and natural companions. We see them play nicely in the dog park with other dogs, and they may even play fetch with us or any other activity where they are just happily wagging their tail. After all, it's natural for dogs and other animals to be happy, right? They live in the moment and don't feel guilty about yesterday or worry about tomorrow.

We also think the same thing about humans. When you look at babies and young children, they're naturally happy and they only cry when they are hungry or need to be changed or if there's some other problem. The same applies to how we view adults - everyone should be happy and love life.

So if we're depressed, clearly, there's something wrong with us.

Well, there is, if depression prevents us from living our lives. But I learned something new during therapy. Being happy is NOT human nature.

I was introduced to the book The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris, who argues that

"the way most of us go about trying to find happiness ends up making us miserable, driving the epidemics of stress, anxiety, and depression."*

*from the book's back cover

In a nutshell, the theory is that we spend a lot of effort and time pressuring ourselves to be "happy." That utopia can be quantified in so many ways - having a rewarding career, raising a beautiful family with a perfect partner in a perfect home, having a red sports car... however you define what will make you happy.

But how many of us, once we attain a goal, just stay put and go no further... content with everything and have no need for any more growth or change?

The fact is, even when we tell ourselves, "Ok, I now have a red sports car, I should be happy," invariably, another shiny new sports car will soon become available, or perhaps as soon as you drive yours off the lot, you hit a big pothole and completely ruin the very expensive rims. Will you still be happy then?

Harris is one of the leading experts on what is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The gist if it is, life is hard, and there are things beyond our control. So we can accept it, or we can spend a whole lot of time and energy fighting to make it "perfect."

Here's a video that explains the concept:

Going back to my analogy of our dog, our training now focuses on just desensitizing her to things that make her anxious and act out. For example, Mabel will whine and bark and tug on the leash if another dog passes nearby. Our goal is to let her be as close to a dog or another distraction as she can, without completely freaking out. Slowly, she will see that she can either freak out (which gets her nothing in terms of our attention) or just let them by and focus instead on the treats I have for her. In human terms, she can't take away her triggers - they will always be there. She's not changing the way she feels/thinks about another dog, squirrel or skateboarder - her nature is to react by going after it in order to explore it. But with the training, she is aware of them all, but she now choose to focus on the treats I'm giving her which are much more pleasurable for her.

Some parts of ACT I found incredibly helpful, but some parts are harder to get my head around. My aim with this blog is to share experiences, which may include an opinion on whether something worked or not worked for me. If you haven't heard of ACT, it may be worthwhile to check it out.

I also hope this place will be the start of an online community for others who want to share their struggles and successes. Group therapy was really helpful because others who were going through similar experiences could often point out my faulty reasoning, or see another appropriate response that doesn't make me feel bad.

By the way, the funny thing with our dog Mabel is that I used to be so stressed over her that I only half-jokingly told my partner to send her back. And I have to admit, I didn't love her the same way I loved our other dog at first. But now that we understand her and where her behaviours come from, I find that I've completely unburdened myself from the stress. She's not perfect - but she's advanced so much that I can see that she now LIKES walking with us. There are moments when you can tell, she's just trotting along us and not letting that dog across the street get to her. Her natural acceptance of the things she can't change has also encouraged us to accept her triggers and know she is not deliberately misbehaving, but she is actually trying her best to fight against her automatic response and just be calm by our side.

Have you been exposed to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy? Did it work for you? What kind of success did you have? Please tell me in the comments below.


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