"Have you ever had a rescue animal? I think of all of us like that."
One of my yoga teachers said that, and although she generalized “animal,” I’m taking the liberty of changing it to “dog,” for a couple reasons. First, because I can’t imagine a neglected lizard acting out over his living situation.
And two, because dogs are expressive, adorable, and our natural companions. In this context, “dog” obviously means “elevated domestic creature,” not “scoundrel.”
Don’t even start with what about cats? They eliminated themselves through pessimism and lack of gratitude.
It’s a cute idea, that we’re all spooked terriers at the end of the day. Seeing people as scared dogs instead of standard-issue idiots makes them easier to tolerate.
While we’re quick to anger and critique each other—“what’s his problem?” or “shouldn’t she know better by now?”—a poor dog’s fragility inspires compassion. We wonder what he survived to cause his behavior. There's significant overlap between human and rescue dog behavior. For the unfamiliar, here are common traits of rescues:
- freaked out by changes of all kinds: the unexpected, the unfamiliar, the unpredictable, sudden movements, sharp tones of voice, weird sounds
When you’re annoyed people don’t respond how you want to situations you consider normal, remember the rescue dog analogy. What’s natural to us might be incomprehensible to others.
In fact, those very actions can confront, upset, or threaten them. Take eye contact, for example. Of course it’s typical among humans, but dogs also look at humans for information and reassurance.
During my final months in NJ, once I was accepted to grad school, had planned my move to LA, and thought my life was in order (ha!), I volunteered at an animal shelter.
One of the dogs huddled in a corner of her cage and never looked at anyone. It turned out her first interaction with humans happened upon her rescue from a puppy mill. I can’t write about animal mistreatment without crying and my eyes are already filled with tears. Suffice it to say, she was completely clueless about interacting with people and dogs alike. She perceived eye contact as a threat.
Every shift, I visited her, spoke to her softly, and generally beamed love in her direction. Gradually she progressed and eventually our eyes met. It felt miraculous. The staff and I turned her into a real dog!
But I’m not always that good. Before class with the yoga teacher I mentioned above, a woman standing outside one of the studios worried aloud about people loitering in the room we would soon use. She was trying to rope us into her whirlwind of let’s freak out about nothing, shall we?
Not having it, I walked away to refill my water bottle.
The woman enacted her conditioning (as did I). Viewing her as a nervous shelter dog pacing her crate would’ve enabled me to say, “I’m sure everything will work out.” Arguably, I would have patted her head, too. Instead it was a rescue dog fail.
Ideally, we’d use the same infinite patience we show scared animals on one another. Whether we accept it or not, we’ve all had the crap beaten out of us in various ways and to different degrees. We all have trauma and we’re all set off by weird stuff. We may not even understand the cause, so it’s tough to assume others know the roots of their problems.
I hope this “we’re all shelter dogs” concept gives you another way to see frustrating people. Try it for a day and use the animal of your choice. Even a lizard.
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