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A woman that runs with wolves - Intereview with Dr. Isla Fishburn

My guest today is  Dr Isla Fishburn (BSc Zoology and MBiolSci and PhD in Conservation Biology) a canine wellness practitioner. She is passionate about creating a co-existence between people and animals. Her experience as a conservation biologist and ambassador for wildlife quickly made her discover that conservation needs to begin at home: “many people do not consider the emotions and experiences of our dogs and how this can affect their very wellbeing.” Isla’s mission is to still create a co-existence between people and wildlife but first she must help people to conserve the natural dog; from genetics, diet, behavior and, most of all, emotions. Isla is a firm believer that dogs have emotions and these are the foundations of any mammal’s survival.

  • Good evening Isla, delighted to talk to you for Daily Pet.  Since we met through Raw Feeding Veterinary Society perhaps it is most appropriate we start this chat by talking about canine nutrition. More people are now becoming aware of the importance of species appropriate diet for our pets.   Most of the commercial pet diets are effectively formulated on the premise that our canine or feline companions are omnivores not carnivores.  Today there are even some animal health professionals  who perpetuate this idea. What do you, as zoologist and conservation biologist, or to put it in layman’s terms – as someone who has spent years studying wild canids, have to to say to this?  How far removed, anatomically and physiologically are dogs from the wolves?        

Wow, Zoran! What a great question to start with! When I started working with domestic canines, very quickly it became apparent that much of the focus on dogs was about convenience; convenience for the human who the dog lives with. This in itself caused me concern because, when a human being consciously makes the decision to live with another animal, than it is the responsibility of that human being to learn and do all they can to meet the needs required for that animal to live a long and healthy life. What surprised me when I began working with domestic canines was that the focus was not about the needs of the dog as the species, Canine, but about how to make living with a dog convenient for the human. For me, there was no greater statement to this than the continued controversy over what and how a domestic canine should be fed.

I found this crazy. I mean, to think and find out that a debate even existed about what a domestic canine should be fed?! Out of all the things we need to know about canine care, diet should be the most obvious. Let me make it simple. I spent several years working with captive wolves. As a conservation biologist it is my duty to provide the upmost care and support for these animals; wild they are yet they are housed in a captive environment.  There were many factors I needed to know in order to ensure the wellness of the wolves was supported, and one of these factors was their diet. As a Zoologist this was relatively easy. I observed what wolves may eat in the wild (you may be surprised to learn that each wolf pack may feed on different prey animals, with some packs not even hunting a certain prey species that is within their territory) and provided similar food to the wolves in captivity. This largely comprised of fresh, whole and raw prey species, largely deer and bull calf.

The reason this is relevant to our domestic canines is that wolves and dogs are more similar than we like to believe. Largely, both are scavengers and are biologically termed as being facultative carnivores. Put simply, this means canines have the ability to eat other food sources, but meat, bone and fur should remain a large part of their diet.

When we look at the many breeds of dogs we have today, we must remember that humans have been responsible for the rapid and quick transformation we see in the shape and size of a dog’s skull and body. However, this does not over-ride the many thousands of years it has taken for nature to produce the species, Canine. As such, the canine body, whether wild or domestic, is the same; dentition, anatomy and physiology. What domestic canines appear to have lost or have significantly reduced, is the saggital crest; a protruding bone that sits on top of a canine skull. In wolves, the saggital crest is noticeably bigger and it needs to be so. This crest is there to support the larger and more powerful jaw muscles that a wolf has. Wolves do have a larger biting pressure than dogs, being 1,500 ibs/in2 (as a comparison, a German Shepherds biting pressure is 750 ibs/in2). However, the reason why wolves have such an enormous biting pressure and larger saggital crest, is because wolves rely on their jaw pressure to hold on to and take down a prey animal when they are hunting; the biting pressure is not for the crushing and chewing of bones and meat as such, but for the ability for a wolf to hold on and take down a prey animal who is trying to escape.

I like to keep things simple, because I don’t think things like diet should be as complicated and confusing as they certainly appear to be for domestic canines. However, as a canine wellness practitioner, my focus is on achieving a state of health and wellness for each dog. This does mean that we have to view each dog as an individual and this requires an holistic approach to achieving a balanced state of wellness. For instance, I have certainly observed with the wolves I worked with as well as reading from other sources that wolves are also known to forage on vegetation, such as, berries, nettles, acorns, grasses etc. The frequency, variation and duration of this varies from individual to individual.

As a general rule, do I want to see dogs being fed a fresh, raw and whole diet? Yes. Do I think it is simple as that? No?  For instance, the raw food we feed our dog may create conflict via chemical communication towards another individual; if we are not feeding organic meat then how do we provide support for a dog’s body that is having to process, metabolise and break down hormones, pesticides, toxins and antibiotics that will be in the meat; how might I vary the diet for one dog compared to another based on their individual needs; how would I need to change the diet if a dog is unwell or has intolerances; why and when might I choose to give my dog certain fruit and vegetables for dietary support; and why might I choose to feed a fresh but lightly cooked diet. In our home, our four dogs are fed a fresh, raw and natural diet, but they receive a slightly different variation given their age, health, temperature (e.g. a dog that feels the cold more or a dog that struggles in the heat), functional character and environmental changes.

There are many factors that can cause a dog to have imbalances, and not providing a dog with a diet that s/he needs as the species, canine, can be one of them. If we are uncomfortable with the thought of feeding our dog a raw diet then perhaps this may help; like any of us, our dogs are living beings and living beings need living food. Food itself has a healing quality, but only when it is fresh and unaltered. So processed food is a no-no for me because, energetically speaking, it has no to little life support for a dog and, as such, it can certainly cause or exacerbate imbalances in your dog across the physical, emotional, energetic or spiritual planes.  My job and duty is to enhance the health and wellness of a dog, so feeding processed food to a dog would mean I am doing the exact opposite. 

  • One of the most commonly encountered myths related to raw feeding is  that raw meat will make dogs more blood thirsty and aggressive. Is there any scientific proof for this notion?

I don’t think there is any scientific evidence for this specific myth, but then, we don’t need science to tell us things that should simply be common sense. Domestic canines are still the species Canine, and what they require is the correct range and variety of macro and micronutrients to support their body. We know that a dog’s body can and should be given a raw food diet and feeding such a diet is not going to turn a dog in to a blood thirsty, angry dog. In fact, what you most commonly observe in a dog that has been changed to a raw food diet is a list of positive responses, from improved skin, breath, teeth and even calmer behaviours. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule and I am certainly not saying that if you feed a dog that displays anger and aggression in a certain moment (because we must remember that aggression is still just an emotion, where the dog is displaying this at an involuntary level for safety purposes) a raw food diet then s/he will miraculously no longer show this behavioural response. As humans, we have to consciously change our thought process in thinking that every outcome or event has a linear solution; if we change event A then that will change event B, but this is not the case. When we work holistically, what we realise is that everything is interconnected and we have to observe, analyse and consider how an interaction can influence all that makes up an individual dog.

What I do believe is that if a dog is fed an incorrect diet, whether that be processed foods or simply the dog’s nutritional requirements are not being met, then this can affect behavioural responses, as well as other imbalances within a dog. Your dog is composed of chemical building blocks that require the right chemicals to be put in to his/her body in order to sustain life. Unaltered, fresh and whole food provides the right natural chemicals that your dog’s body needs and seeks in order to allow these chemical building blocks to remain in balance and harmony. If these chemical building blocks are unable to receive what they need through poor nutrition (as well as other factors like toxins, emotional stress etc) then this certainly can affect a dog’s behaviour. It can make an anxious or nervous dog more anxious or nervous. This is because the body is already feeling “on edge” given that it is not receiving the right chemical nutrition to support and relax the nervous system. Equally, it can make a dog become more irritated and frustrated, leading to aggressive behaviour.

However, one thing to bare in mind if or when you feed your dog a raw food diet, is to know the origin and source of where the meat you are feeding has come from.  Whilst I am not aware of any peer-reviewed papers on this subject I do find it important when it comes to balanced behaviours through food. When I worked with captive wolves, one pack being a size of ten, I noticed that the individuals who were the group leaders and gave direction, would vary what part of a prey animal they would feed on depending on how that animal had been killed. Looking in to this further, I found several papers that suggest the level of natural hormones and chemicals present in any animal when stressed, pained, frightened etc can vary in different parts of the body depending on how a prey animal is killed by a hunter (i.e. shot and killed instantly or chased then killed). Whilst there is a little more to it, I do believe that the wolves were varying their food choice depending not only on who they are within the group, but also how that animal had been killed. I do believe that the wolves were doing this so that each individual was able to advertise its identity at a chemical level; we know that chemical communication is one of the more important methods of communication in canines. The reason I am telling you this is because I believe dogs, in certain circumstances need the same and I believe this because I have seen it occur on several occasions. It is also one of the reasons why dogs may scent roll too. Furthermore, it is one of the reasons why one of my four dogs is fed a different part of a prey animal to that of my other dogs. If I feed this particular dog the same food source as my other three dogs, she becomes irritated, assertive and intense towards my other dogs. I know that because of her functional character within the group, she needs to be on a food source that will allow her to smell different to the other dogs. If I prevent this then she is no longer able to communicate subtly through her chemical scent and has no choice but to intensify her other forms of communication (i.e. vocal and visual) towards the other dogs in my home.

So, when we are feeding our dogs meat, what we must also be aware of is that the meat has a chemical component to it too; it has energy and an emotion stored within it as part of the prey animal before it was killed.
Baring this in mind, there is potential for the emotional state and behavioural response of our dog to alter depending on where the meat we feed our dog has come from. For example, if we feed a dog meat from a farm where the prey animal is exposed to neglect, suffering, sadness and lack of care, then chemically, emotionally and energetically, this meat will have a very different effect on your dog compared to meat from the same prey species from a farm where the prey animal received care, attention, good nutrition and love.  This is why I like to know the source and origin of the meat I feed my dogs and why I do not look for meat that is the cheapest to buy.

 

  • You are giving workshops for pet owners in applied Zoopharmacognosy (AZ) and I certainly look forward to seeing you in Malta sometime in the near future, sharing your knowledge and experience with our animal guardians. Let us first demistify this fancy term - Zoopharmacognosy: This is a behavior in which non-human animals apparently self-medicate by selecting and ingesting or topically applying plants, soils, and psychoactive compounds to prevent or reduce the harmful effects of pathogens and toxins.     How can this animal behavior be harnessed by dog and cat owners?  How are your workshops structured and what do they entail?         

Actually, this doesn’t just apply to non-human animals! Humans can do this too! I can’t really provide you with an answer about cats, because my experience is solely based on canines, but I do know that any animal will self-select on a range of resources to improve health, emotionally, physically or physiologically. There are many papers that show anything from a caterpillar to a primate can alter their normal range of foraging when they have an imbalance(s) in some way. The animal will begin to forage on something that it doesn’t usually eat, or consume in such a great quantity, but does so because that resource is being used, not for food, but for medicinal purposes.

It is another great example of showing how connected we all are and that, before we consider ourselves and our dogs as physical beings, we must first consider what makes up the physical part; cells and energy. Whether we want to believe it or not, when we strip the body down to a molecular level, we know that we are composed of cells and that these cells are vey much alive (they are what keep us alive!), emitting an energy and a chemistry. When balanced, these cells should vibrate and resonate at a certain frequency, which is specific to each individual. But when imbalances start to arise in the body, vibrational catastrophe can occur and the cells may start to vibrate out of sync, vibrate at too high a frequency or too low a frequency. Whichever it is, it means that the body is no longer operating at a normal state of functioning. At this moment, the cells seek for opportunities to return itself to balance and one way they can do this is through the use of plants! Everything that is living emits a vibrational frequency, and the vibrational frequency of a plant can be used to either increase or decrease the vibrational frequency of the animal, allowing the animals cells to vibrate at normal speed once more. I guess you can think of it a little like an orchestra; when all the players are in harmony then the music is uplifting, joyous and blissful, but even if just one player is out of tune or sync then the whole orchestra can go into disharmony.  This is kind of what happens in the body.

The body knows how to heal itself, it is just that domestic animals, like dogs, are restricted in their ability to forage for those resources that the cells are searching and seeking for to bring the body back in to alignment. The reason why a dog’s body may be out of tune, so to speak, can be for several reasons; genetic, physical trauma, but nutritional and/or emotional stress as well as toxins either from the environment or placed in to the dog (e.g. synthetic drugs) are suggested to be the most significant for our dogs.  This is why I love the subject of AZ so much because it provides for opportunities to give choice back to a dog and you can really see a dog selecting if there is something they need in someway to improve wellness. Of course, it is not the dog making a conscious choice about what s/he needs, but it is the receptors within the dog’s cells. If the dog has an imbalance in some way, the dog’s cells can recognise the vibrational frequency of a plant and how its vibrational frequency can be used to return the body back to a normal state of frequency. AZ is a form of energy medicine, but where the dog shows you what s/he needs. It all works at a chemical and energetic level, from the dog inhaling the aroma of the plant and the cells within the body being drawn towards inhaling more of the aroma, or moving away from it if it is not needed. A dog may wish to inhale, ingest or have the plant aroma applied topically. I use a range of herbal powders, essential oils (of therapeutic quality) and floral waters and have used this therapy to support dogs that have had cancer, ear infections, aggressive behaviour, anxiety, noise phobia, pain, infection, burns, support from having had allopathic drugs to name just a few. Of course, as a wellness practitioner I like to know about other energy therapies that can be used in combination and sometimes I will bring other therapies in to my work. To quote the words of holistic veterinarian, Randy Kidd, “all medicine works…some of the time…in some animals.” I think we need to remember this. In addition, many cases I have worked with require several if not ongoing sessions, depending on the issue, so neither is it a therapy that will return your dog to normal functioning in a single session. Having said that, I have had many success stories with this therapy.

Once a pet guardian understands the concept and feels comfortable in offering this therapy, it usually is a practice that can be handed over to the owner so that they can support their dog’s wellness. It allows for a great bonding experience and quiet yet powerful exchanges of love    between dog and owner. When conducting a session, observation is key, and as a zoologist I love this part of the therapy. I am trained to watch, observe and question a behavioural response so I get to put my zoological skills to practice when doing AZ.

I actually find when offering this therapy to captive wild canines that they are easier to observe in their selection process. These animals do not have so much loyalty or obedience conditioning placed on them like some domestic canines can have. I find it sad for those dogs who are so desperately and obviously selecting something to improve their wellness,  using a therapy that should occur so involuntarily,  hold back because they have been so conditioned to wait for instruction from the human – no animal should live like that. I find that these are the hardest dogs to observe because they are fighting against their instinct to select something to support them in place of pleasing the human.

There is more to AZ than what I am describing here and I can’t express enough that you must have good knowledge and understanding about this therapy before you use it. I currently offer this therapy as one to one sessions (that can be done through Skype), via workshops and I will be writing my own AZ practitioners course as of 2018 so there are more people able to use this wonderful practice to support our dog’s wellness.

  • You are a firm believer that dogs and animals have emotions, can you tell us about your observations or experiences that have led you to this belief

I think from an early age I knew that animals have emotions, and when we learn what emotions are you soon realise that it is impossible for any animal to exist without them. I am a zoologist and conservation biologist but I also work with energy healing. It saddens me that many view science and spirituality as separate and that we have to believe and follow one or the other, but can’t follow both. The truth is that we can use both approaches to life and to improving the wellness of our dogs. Spirituality is also a science, it just exists on an energetic level. Combining my experience as a scientist with my experience using energy medicine helps me to really get and feel emotions and the importance of them.

Sure, dogs and other animals do not have frontal lobes and a neo-cortex that is advanced as ours, and when we look at how damaging the power of thought can be to humans, this is not a bad thing. Yet, all animals share the same primal emotions, the emotions that are required for survival and keeping the animal alive. For me, this is where I start – the fundamental need of any animal is to stay alive. Staying alive means feeling safe and telling the body that it is safe. This is what I focus on as part of my canine wellness check-list.

Emotions are not something that we create in terms of consciously creating them. For instance, we can only exhibit sadness, if emotionally we are sad; anger if, emotionally we create the energy and biochemistry within us, that creates anger.  Emotions are fluctuations in energy within the body as a result of biochemical changes that occur based on outside influences and experiences (although physiological changes can occur if we put chemicals in to a dog). So, everything from before birth to present day can affect the biochemical changes within your dog’s body. Everything that your dog sees, hears, smells, tastes and touches through its senses sends messages to the cells within the body. These cells form biochemical responses (i.e. emotions) based on what the senses are telling the body about any given experience; emotions that promote happiness and joy tell the body it is safe; emotions that generate energy promoting fear, anxiety, stress etc tell the body it is not safe. Emotions are part of a primitive evolutionary toolkit that keep the animal alive. Like I have said, no animal can exist without emotions and because emotions are involuntary fluctuations of energy, a dog (and any non-human animal) are very honest, instinctive and innocent in displaying any emotional response – they can’t help exhibiting a specific emotion and they can’t hide these from us our the outside world.

Humans and other non-human animals have the same primal emotions, which I mentioned earlier. These include what are known as the four Fs; feeding, fighting, fleeing and fornicating. All animals (both human and non-human) also have emotions of happiness, fear, anxiety, anger and rage, sadness and grief, care giving, sexual attraction and pleasure. Other primal emotions that canines (and other animals) exhibit include seeking, prey chase drive (which varies from individual to individual), curiosity and anticipation, separation distress and social attachment and play. In terms of supporting canine wellness, it is important to protect our dog’s emotions by providing long opportunities for them to feel safe. It is not healthy for any animal to experience frequent or prolonged emotional states of anger, fear or terror. This is how imbalances can arise in the dog as the vibrational frequency of the body begins to resonate out of the normal state of alignment.

As such, emotions are actually homeostatic regulators – they seek opportunities that promote balance and harmony within the body so that imbalances do not arise and the body is safe. Too much or too extreme exposures that move the body out of its natural alignment causes the body to become imbalanced and can further exacerbate the body in creating more and more biochemical responses that are unhealthy and vibrationally out of tune.  

It is only the human species that are able to be consciously aware of their emotions and are able to reason. This is why there is so much focus on meditation and empowerment for humans today to make us more aware of our emotional states and thoughts to keep us healthy. It is something that I also offer in my “Quiet your mind” for humans. Dogs can and do think and can problem solve, but they do not have the power of thought like humans do; dogs do not worry about the past or concern themselves about the future. Yet, if a negative experience occurred in the past, which created a biochemical/emotional response in the body that was unsafe, the body stores this response and its attached stimulus harder and faster than any experience that promoted happiness, so that the next time the dog may be exposed to a similar or same experience, the body is alerted by the biochemical response(s) generated in the body, and the dog can react the same. This is often the case where a dog has had trauma or has deeply rooted aggressive behaviour – the dog is displaying an involuntary emotional response towards the experience. This is why we can say dogs are honest; they never can lie. We might be able to support this dog through energy therapy techniques (such as AZ, and others) to return the dog’s vibrational frequency back to normal, but it all depends on how deep and affected the dog is. For me, my focus is on providing a dog with experiences that protect the cells and promote biochemical responses that promote safety and happiness; as homeostatic regulators, that is what the cells want so why would I not give this to a dog. I guess you can say I focus on what the cells of the dog need rather than the physical entity of the dog.

There are also emotions referred to as secondary emotions - responses that include embarrassment, guilt, shame etc. It is suggested that only humans show secondary emotions, and behavioural signs where we might describe the dog as looking guilty are, in fact, appeasing behaviours because the dog recognises a change in biochemistry and thus emotional state in another individual. This may include another dog or us! Yes! A dog can actually change its emotional state depending on changes in our emotional state or our biochemical responses at that time. This is why one aspect of canine wellness is to examine the wellness and imbalances of the human(s) the dog lives with. I have countless examples of how a dog’s emotional state and thus behaviour have changed due to the emotional state of a human. Like I say, whether we like to believe it or not, we are all connected because everything that is living emits an energy. It just so happens that in humans and some captive and domestic animals the energy that they emit is not resonating at a normal frequency due to imbalances and we must find ways of returning this back to normal to promote a life of health and wellness.

 

  • Dog psychology and dog training has been dominated for a number of years with Cesar Milan’s philosophy, which can be summarized as dominance. In his best-selling book, "Cesar's Way," Milan writes that there are only two positions in a relationship, leader or follower. His philosophy is that we, as humans, must act as dominant pack leaders, and our dogs must behave as submissive followers.   This philosophy is based on the premise that wolves or wild canids have clearly defined pack hierarchy. Is this what you observed during your years of studying wolves in their natural environment?

 

In short, yes and no. Wolves and domestic canines do display specific positions within a certain group, but so long as the group is harmonious, these positions work together to enhance the safety, strength and balanced energy within that group. It is almost like saying that as you add numbers to the group, each individual becomes an extension of one another, spreading out as the sum of all the parts are greater than the whole! However, this is only true if the individuals in the group are needed to improve group functioning in whatever capacity. Wild wolves have this down to a fine art, but in captive wolves and domestic canines it is the humans that decide which individuals co-exist as that group. Some times we get this right but other times we get it very wrong – if you put too many individuals with the same positions together then this can create imbalance and disharmony – almost like having too many string players in that orchestra but not enough brass to complement.  How many individuals is too many? Well, that is like saying how long is a piece of string; it depends.

I refer to these positions as functional characters; each individual has a specific role or function within a group that enhances group support or the support of an individual. If a specific functional character is missing from the group then that can make the group more imbalanced or can make an individual feel more nervous or panicked. I certainly have worked with the functional character of a dog to support another dog, who otherwise was so nervous that she would not leave the house. This is how powerful functional characters can be but only when the functional characters complement each other and the needs of the group. We can sometimes have numerous individuals of the same functional character in a group but, sometimes, having the same number of the same functional characters can cause conflict and instability.

One thing that is for certain, however, is that there is a difference between dominant and domineering. As humans we think the two are the same in canine communication and other subjects, but they are not. In human society, many people do actually display acts of domineering, using their power or ego to bully or suppress others. This is not dominance. As a zoologist, the term dominance has a very different meaning.  I am very comfortable with this term because I continue to read about it in books and papers even today. The word does not surprise me, but what did surprise me was the reaction of the dog community when I first began working with dogs and using this word. I had no idea it was such a taboo. The reason for this is because, many years ago, scientists wanted to study wild social animals, to get ideas about how they co-exist and what this can teach us about human societies. The problem was that the scientists got it wrong, very wrong in fact. This is because rather that studying wild animals that had naturally created their own group size, the scientists created man-made groups of social animals in a much more controlled environment, a captive environment. The animals did not create these said groups naturally, but were forced in to group living. This caused disharmony, panic and chaos. The groups did not create stability and harmony and this resulted in conflict, challenges and defensive behaviour. The conclusion was that living as a social animal was stressful, chaotic and punishing. This is where that notion of dominance in and towards our dogs came from. They couldn’t have been more wrong. No animal should live a life of submission, this is not natural nor healthy.

You see, the whole purpose of social group living is to enhance the homeostatic regulation of safety, peace and harmony, like I talked about above. When living in a group it supports the animal and each individual’s emotional state. It certainly isn’t supposed to do the opposite. Yet, what those scientists did was force those wild social animals to live together, but they created groups that were incompatible because they had no understanding of functional characters and what makes up a group. They created something that should be so natural, harmonious and supportive in to something that was total disarray. Group living is about safety; safety in numbers so long as those in that group are compatible.  

But, there is such a thing as a dominant animal. This applies to all species that live in social groups, not just canines and not just species that are predators. It occurs in prey animals too. It is just what the term means is very different to what many of us have been led to believe. I really enjoy teaching this subject along side group composition and functional character because it is so important in understanding our dogs as a canine species. Get the group composition right and they become an extension of each other, but get it wrong and disharmony will occur. This is why it is true to say that not all individuals are equal, because there is one individual who may be present in a group of dogs who is glaringly different and, in this sense, of more importance.   This does not mean to say that every individual should not have his or her needs met, as this is something different. However, what can and does exist within our list of functional characters is an individual who is said to be the priority individual. They are quite easy to identify and you would only have one or two of these in a group. They are selfish and aloof and very self-preserving, but for the good and survival of the group. They are classed as the decision maker(s) within the group and keep order within it. In zoological terms, it is this character that we would term as being the dominant individual, not because it is fierce, aggressive or domineering, but because of its role and importance within the group. In the wild, there are many reports showing that when the decision maker(s) in a group have been killed, then the rest of the group will slowly die. This is the importance of a decision maker – they gel everything and everyone together and give guidance, direction and structure. If they are removed, the rest of the group panic and die. Whilst this level of extremity is not seen in our domestic dogs it is important to learn if we have a decision maker or not, because a decision maker is not and never will be a follower. If we have a decision maker and we expect this dog to listen to our direction quickly, sharply and immediately, then you might be in for a shock. If you have a dog that is a decision maker, then both this dog and you are attempting to do the same functional role. What you will discover is that the canine decision maker is far better at it than you!

So if we don’t have a decision maker our dogs can be one of several other functional characters. Regardless of these we can group them in to a collective term and refer to them as followers, but I find this a little limiting and a lot disrespectful. Each dog as a functional character and individual (as well as other factors that make up the imbalances, biochemistry and learning experiences of that dog) will vary in its degree to which it follows, and when. This is important to understand. First and foremost, our dogs are living, breathing and pulsating animals that are involuntarily and subconsciously focused on one thing; feeling safe. When we look at forming a relationship with our dogs, we must build solid foundations formed of trust, safety, guidance and love. Our dogs are absorbing information and experiences in every waking moment and these form lasting memories within the body. We can’t simply say my dog is a follower so why is s/he not listening to me. This is a two-way relationship and we have to consider the emotional state and experiences of the dog because most dogs are put through a lot more stress and expectation than any wild or captive social canine is – just think of all the things we expect our dog to be de-sensitized to in their environment and the many stimuli we expect our dog to be comfortable in being around or being touched by, without expressing or changing their emotional state. To expect that a dog has to simply accept this and get on with it is insane to me. I want to focus on the dog’s emotional state first.

So, we do have canines that can be scientifically referred to as the dominant individual, but hopefully you now understand what this means and how we can apply it to how we interact with dogs. The question remains, do we have a hierarchy? I think harmony is more important here than hierarchy. Whilst we do have dogs that are followers and we do have dogs that are leaders, a group will come together to create harmony. I also think that the word hierarchy loses the purpose and connectivity of what a group is, or at least should be. The term hierarchy implies that we have a sliding scale of individuals who can be separated and divided in to most important all the way down to least important. This is not how it works. Sure, we do have the decision maker (or dominant dog) at the top, who we can refer to as the “priorty” individual.  Yet, all other functional characters are of equal importance in the functional roles that they do for the safety and support of the group, so other than the decision maker (who pictorially would be at the top) all other individuals would appear on a linear scale rather than a sliding scale. So there is never really a canine at the bottom, there is just one or two at the top and everyone else falls under them on a linear scale.

Like I said before, anything and everything affects the emotional state of a dog and whilst we have to consider the functional character and group composition, we also need to consider age, gender, experiences from before birth to present day, imbalances, nutrition, environmental balance, disease, emotional balance and a whole host of other things to help us in understanding how to support a dog’s wellness and give it the best direction and care in life.

 

  • The role of dogs in human lives has dramatically changed over the last few decades. In the past dogs lived mostly on the fringe of the society, especially in rural communities - today they almost have a status of family members.  Has this change benefited dogs at all?

Ahhhh! This is a really good question and the answer is, it depends. When I first started to work with domestic canines, it was apparent to me that a scale of two extremes existed about how people value their dogs. On one extreme, I observed people who don’t care about how their dog is feeling. They expect their dog to respond to any given command, task or exercise when told to do so. I see this as abuse and disrespect. Then, on the other extreme I witnessed people who almost kill their dogs with kindness – the people who love their dogs so much that they want to involve their dogs in everything that they do, even if it is at the expense or detriment to the dog’s wellness; they simply fail to recognize that the dog feels uncomfortable because all the owner is focused on is that they are with their dog. I think both of these extremes are unhealthy and do not necessarily benefit the health, life and existence of a dog just because s/he lives in a home. In these circumstances I would argue that a dog co-existing so closely to humans is not a benefit, because their wellness is interrupted.

However, thankfully we do see those pet guardians who are in the middle of these two extremes, those who are more grounded themselves and open up their home to co-exist with the dog whilst allowing the dog to have choice and freedom. Of course, there are many dogs that suffer as a result of no to little human contact. Those that are starving, are in pain or have skin problems but no one to treat them, or those that have been chased or physically abused. Dogs in this situation could certainly benefit from love, a family home, good food and other holistic therapies.

What surprises me is how easy it is for anyone to “own” a dog. You see, when I worked with wolves, I presented the knowledge I had, the time I had committed to learning about this species, the years of studying at university. This allowed me to start working with wolves at a high level. Yet, there were people who also wanted to work with wolves but had no to little experience. These people had less responsibility and important duties whilst they built up their experience learning from people like myself or other team members. Once enough experience was gained, these people were able to have more and more involvement, interaction and responsibility with the wolves. A dog is not so different from a wolf, or any animal, in that it is an animal and has a certain biology that we need to understand; genetics, diet, behaviour, learning, wellness etc. Yet, ANYONE can become a dog owner regardless of what knowledge they may (or may not) have! I am not sure this is in the best interest for the dog and I think that in some circumstances, such a close co-existence with humans is actually detrimental to the dog’s wellness.

I guess it depends on the context. What I do know is that wolves and dogs are very family orientated. They are both social animals, but that does not mean that your dog should be socially accepting of everyone and everything. I certainly know that as a human I am not social to all humans! So as long as the dog’s wellness needs are being met to the best of the person’s ability and so long as the person has the intention of love and respect, I think that co-existence between man and non-human animals can benefit not just the animal but the human as well. There is a belief in many Native American tribes that domestic dogs were sent to us to absorb our imbalances and reflect them back to us. I love this, because dogs are great healers and have great medicine. I also believe that I sometimes see dogs who show imbalances, but not because of the dog, but because their human guardian is carrying imbalances that the dog has taken on too. I think this is more common than what we realise and goes back to what I was saying about human thought and exchanges of energy; a dog that lives in a home where they are exposed to imbalances as a result of the human is likely to absorb these imbalances too. This is why in the work I do, it is also important to look at the humans the dog lives with and the family home. Sometimes we need to do a healing session(s) for the human too.  I guess, perhaps we can say that dogs now benefit from living closer with humans because there is more potential for their physical needs and imbalances to be met, but I would argue that many dogs do not necessarily benefit emotionally, especially those who live in stressful homes, or where the level of control or expectation has the dog living more like a prisoner than a free spirit.

Many humans have imprints and imbalances locked inside their cells as a result of trauma; either from an horrendous event that occurred to them in some way, or a result of ongoing stress. I think that many humans in today’s society are perpetually exposed to stress. This is not good. It is not good for the human or for the dog that lives with the human. Our nervous systems have not caught up with the hussle, bussle and quick pace of life that human living creates today. Our nervous systems simply can’t cope with this level of stimulation, hyper-arousal and elevated vibrational frequency that this creates within us. Stress is bad for the body and we must find ways of protecting our body as well as our dog’s body from this. I think that many dogs also live in a heightened state of stress as a direct result of the human(s) they co-exist with being in this state, or because of the human environment the dog lives in. As a canine wellness practitioner, my focus is on supporting the body (both human and dog) to return to a state of feeling safe and at peace. Some times this is easy; some times the damage can’t be fully undone.

I think this is key here. One of the things that I emphasise in optimising a dog’s wellness is the human. I read a great book (I read many great books!) that, by one simple statement, brings the meaning of this home, “heal yourself before attending to anything else.” That is why I also focus on healing sessions for people, because we can’t work on returning the dog back to balance if the human the dog is living with is imbalanced too.

As humans, we have to be very careful with the power of thought; what follows thought is energy and this energy is a biochemical response that your dog also feels from you. There is scientific proof that thought can change our biochemistry and emotional state, increasing levels of cortisol and adrenalin even just by thinking about something that might frighten us. We have to be very careful about the power of thought around our dogs and also for ourselves. In addition, I am also a big fan of positive imagery – what you visualize, whether eventually spoken or not, creates an energy, an image and a response. For example, if we have a dog that runs away and all we create in our mind is an image of the dog running away, then this will further emphasise the dog to do so. Instead, if we focus on positive imagery then this can be just one of several ways to support feelings of relaxation, calm and balanced behaviours. Many people will say that the dog can feel your energy going down the dog’s lead but it is more than that; it is the energy that the dog feels, and this includes the thoughts and images you create. If you don’t like a dog, or better yet a person, be careful what you think as your dog will be alerted to this due to changes in your biochemistry.  

So, do I think that all dogs today are happier, healthier and benefit more given that many of them co-exist in closer proximity with humans? No, not necessarily. It depends on who the dog lives with. However, what this co-existence has created is a need to reach a larger number of people to educate many about the health, diet, biology, behaviour, needs and love that any animal requires. As a conservation biologist I have realized that, in a different way, we also need to be conserving our domestic pets. Until we do so, we will not improve conservation efforts for our more wild brothers and sisters. 

  • Finally, what would be your advice for harmonious dog-human relationships? How can we define a harmonious canine – human relationship?

I think key words here are guidance, trust, value and love/respect. As a human you are an animal that has freedom, ability to make choices and a need to live in peace. This is no different to any other animal and our dogs need the same; to not have freedom, choice or peace keeps that individual in imprisonment and will certainly create imbalances. I am a big believer of giving my dogs choice; a choice to join me in meditation or drumming; a choice of what they would like to eat or forage on; a choice of where they would like to walk or sleep; a choice of who they would like to meet.

Every animal seeks safety and needs to spend most of their time experiencing emotional states that promote this.  I think to create and allow a harmonious dog-human relationship is to recognize just this; we are in a relationship and co-existing with another animal. By definition, relationship can mean the emotional connection between two or more individuals. So, we are emotionally aligned with our dogs and meet their emotional needs, including the need for any animal to feel love.

On a larger scale, this harmony should spread out to all of the universe. To realise that we are in a relationship with all of life; all animals, plants, trees, stones, waters, stars. The earth provides us with energy and so does the sun. We are connected to all life force through universal life energy. When we realise this, we can work with all life force to improve and remove our own imbalances so that we can apply the same to optimize our dog’s wellness.    

When your profession is animal related you are forever evolving your work and forever learning, researching and observing. In one of the recent books that I read about wellness the author gave an account about his time with the Amazonian tribal people he stayed with. When the author asked one of the tribal people about how they stay so well, he gave a simple answer, “our health span should equal our life span.” I think we should all remember this. There are so many dogs (and humans) today who have a wealth of physical and emotional imbalances. This is not what living should be about. We should not live with the expectation that, one day we, or our dog, will develop some disease or condition. We need to understand that we are not separate from anything. In order to have respect and build a solid relationship with our dogs, other animals and this Earth, and to be in balance, we must first learn to love and value ourselves. In my quiet your mind meditation classes I teach, I always get everyone to meaningfully shout out the words, “I love myself, I believe in myself, I forgive myself.” You may or may not be surprised about how difficult most people find this. We are of the same, so to have any harmonious relationship with any living being, we must first have a harmonious relationship with ourselves. For some, this is not easy to achieve.

In the courses I teach I always use a wellness check-list – a list that I believe is needed in order to learn how to support the wellness of our dogs. Whilst I am not providing this list here, I provide you with the following, below. It is what I call the four principles as told by wolves. It is the unspoken words that I learnt having spent time interacting, observing, sitting with and laying with a wolf family of ten individuals. Although the wolves taught me many things, including a lot about myself, I think the four principles as told by wolves is one of the most important ones, because it applies in any relationship.  

Guidance
Any young animal will receive guidance from an older individual. It allows for learning but within the need of survival by feeling safe.  For our domestic animal an individual needs to look to you for guidance because you are a substitute for a canine (animal) adult and will be the dog’s human guardian. As such, the dog can feel that they do not need to make their own decisions based on fear or flight responses and know that everything will happen in the dog’s own time. Inevitably, you are making good decisions for your dog and you recognise the individual coping requirements of your dog(s). It creates an orienting response rather than a stress response.

Trust
Trust complements the need to feel safe and the two go hand in hand. Trust allows for close interaction, a feeling of calm and a knowing that all is well. This supports the wellness of all in the group. Trust is paramount to the relationship and flow of balanced energy between individuals. If a dog does not trust you then its wellness is already being compromised and it is resonating at a vibration that is not in line with the relaxation response. It can take seconds to lose the trust of an animal and a long time to get it back. Losing trust of your dog usually happens as a result of poor guidance and the dog will start to make its own decisions (based on fear response rather than normal relaxation response).

Value.
Animals that live in a particular social group do so because their energies complement each other and survival is optimised without conflict. Your dog is a social group animal and you should treat him/her with this in mind. In most people’s lifestyles today we feel that we do not need anyone to survive. But for the dog and wolf, each family member is specifically chosen to function as a group that all need one another. Their survival depends on the co-operation of the group and all individuals are highlighted as being needed. Do not disregard your dog as an animal that should obey you and your commands. The dog is an extension of your family so be sure to meet the needs of your dog on a daily basis. Use your guidance to educate the dog that s/he is needed and show and give trust to your dog.

Love.
Love, the greatest remedy of all. There is no doubt that a family group exchange a silent communication of love. Love allows energetic states to be elevated and this can change moods, feelings and behaviour.  Just because you have a dog does not mean that you own the dog. Dogs are teachers that allow us to learn about them. You are their human guardians, ensuring that they have the best education and understanding. You need to love and respect any animal as you love and respect yourself; we are all connected. This allows for co-existence, partnership and co-operation, all of which support the wellness of an individual. If you do not have love and respect then you do not need your dog, you cannot show trust to him/her and your levels of ability to guide your dog will be diminished.

I leave you with this. Your dog loves you. You are enough. You are unique. Love yourself. Be kind to yourself and know you are always connected. If and when you believe this you will begin to enhance your dog’s wellness as both you and your dog’s vibrational frequencies return to normal functioning. Now, go find that inner child; dance in the river, chase a butterfly or play in the woods…just make sure you invite your dog too, so that s/he can do what comes only natural to them. There is nothing more harmonious than this!

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