I just wanted to go on a walk with my puppy. Is that too much to ask? Turns out- a simple walk was causing major stress and fighting against it was creating unnecessary frustration and resentment.
I adopted an adorable rescue pup named Samson a few months ago. He’s an anxious fellow and gets very worked up during moments of separation, but overall he’s a real sweet guy and a great addition to our family. That was- until my new puppy randomly stopped walking. It was like he went on strike. We’d be strolling along, happy as can be, and then out of nowhere he’d just refuse to continue walking. “Why is he doing this to me?” Yes- That’s actually what went through my mind. I was mad. Irrational. And honestly- kinda hurt. “Why is he ruining this? Why can’t he just be normal?” Looking back I”m a little embarrassed by my selfish response, but it's how I felt.
I started to dread walks with my dogs altogether, anticipating the next strike and the frustration that would follow. No matter what I tried- waiting it out, yelling, coaxing, treats- nothing worked. And then one day my fiance casually mentioned that time Samson fell into the grates in the street when we first got him. I had completely forgotten about the time our gangly new puppy awkwardly fell into a few of the grates and got completely freaked out. My poor baby! That must have been so scary! Wait a second…..
The next walk I paid attention. Samson’s “random” walking strikes suddenly became consistent- every time we were walking by a grate in the street. When “why are you doing this to me?” shifted to “my poor puppy is traumatized and I need to help him feel safe”, his refusal to walk became a time for us to work together instead of being against one another. We started looping several feet away each time a grate approached or switching to a jog. I started acting like a cheerleader every time he trusted me enough to walk or run anywhere near a grate and Samson would look at me for assurance as we passed by them together.
Today, walks are a still a little awkward. I have to pay attention and anticipate Samson’s anxiety. He won’t come within two feet of a grate and starts to waiver if I don’t notice it first. But I’m not angry anymore. And I’m not hurt. I’d misread and misunderstood his behaviors and completely misinterpreted WHY he was acting this way. With a little time, and a little luck, I figured out what was going on and suddenly it wasn’t about me; it was about supporting my new dog.
You see, just like puppies, humans don’t behave for no reason at all. There is always a root, a purpose, or a meaning, but those explanations are often way beneath the surface and it takes a little detective work to figure it out. If you remember that behavior has purpose and that purpose is likely more complicated than “____ is doing this to just try and make me mad/hurt me/be oppositional,” you will be better able to manage your own emotional response to their behavior and be a problem solver instead of being in combat mode. Tricky part is, sometimes the person doesn’t know why they are acting a certain way and can’t explain it to their loved ones. But if you can be compassionate, curious, and patient, you can work together to help them feel safe, work together, and shift behavior.