The One About Empathy

The One About Empathy

We talk a lot about empathy here...about how we apply it every day, in everything we do.

Well, as you know, words aren’t worth shit unless there’s substance behind them, and this week’s little ‘Tale from the Ranch’ embodies very strikingly, the essence of what we do.

Maggie Lane is a beautiful Wheaten Terrier, who has been coming to us for years.
A firm favorite at the Ranch, Maggie is one of those delightful dogs with ten mile long eyelashes and a quirky personality that you can’t resist.

She arrived at the Ranch on Saturday morning, after only a week away from us; Mum and Dad had travelled a couple of weeks prior and she had enjoyed a week ‘sleeping off’ the Ranch at home, while they tackled the million burrs she had stuck to her curly fur. We tried to get as many out as we could, but oh Lord, it was an impossible task.

She had had such an amazing time playing with all of her friends, so thankfully mum and dad didn’t mind the state of her.

They took her to the groomers last week, had her hair cut nice and short (but not shaved, thank God) ready for this weeks visit, and we all had a good giggle at how perfect she looked, knowing full well she was going to look like a hobo ten minutes after drop-off.

As we started to let the dogs out to greet the newcomers one by one, Maggie stiffened and then immediately lunged at Sophie, a very easy going doodle, who Maggie has known for years. No harm was done, no contact was made, but it was completely unlike Maggie to say the least.

Next, her old friend Sadie was the target...Maggie lunged at her as soon as she came up shyly to sniff her and say hello.

Then Ford, a sweeter, easy going old boy you will never find, went to say ‘hi’ and she whipped around and snapped at him.

Wtf? Could this be any more out of character?

‘Okay, enough is enough, let’s give you some space’ we said to Maggie.

We separated her from the main pack, walked her with dogs who would give her a very wide berth and gave her her own room while we figured out what was going on.

We checked her all over, thinking it might be pain.

Always our first go-to with situations like this; dogs don’t choose to be reactive, they feel driven to be so, and humans would do well to remember that. When I see some asshole trainer yanking a poor dog around teaching him to be ‘calm submissive’ because he’s lunging and snapping, I want to shoot them.

Dogs lunge and snap to keep others away. It’s a defense mechanism, nothing more.

Instead of putting ourselves in the driving seat trying to dominate the poor thing, we should always work out WHY he feels defensive, WHY he feels the need to keep others away.

We spent the entire day looking at different possibilities, trying different things, different sizes and shapes of dogs, but always the same thing...Maggie had, in the space of just one week, morphed into a crocodile, snappy as hell.

So, we took a deep breath, settled down and just WATCHED.

How did she move?

How did she breathe?

What part of her body was she guarding?

Her hair was now short and we quickly realized this had a good deal to do with it, it was as if she was trying to ‘hide’ her body, felt some kind of dysmorphia.

Picture someone like me in a bikini on a beach full of people that look like Pamela Anderson in thongs, and imagine how much of my body I would be trying to cover with these hands and how hunched over I would be as I moved, and you’ll get some kind of idea of the vibe we were getting from Maggie.

We put a T shirt on her, nice and snug, knotting it halfway up her back so she had full freedom of movement, hoping that covering her would do the trick. Some dogs love a haircut because it makes them feel less weighty and more liberated.......some other dogs feel completely exposed after being shorn, feeling that they lack the protection and cushion of their fur. Popping a T shirt on them can give back the sense of protection they crave.

Nope. Didn’t work. Still crocodilic as hell.

What on earth was making her so uncomfortable that she didn’t want the other dogs looking at her, or being close to her?

Then came the ‘Ahaaaa!’ moment.

It wasn’t how she looked. It wasn’t how she physically felt.

It was her smell. She didn’t feel like Maggie because her identity had gone.

The poor girl had been shampooed to the ninth degree and all of her own personal scent had been taken away at the groomers. She may look beautiful to a human, but to her, she felt like she had just walked into a cocktail party covered in dog shit.....her immediate response HAD to be ‘Don't come near me! Stay away!’

We knew just how to fix that.

We immediately gathered up all of the dogs, opened the gate and schlepped every single one of them down to the watery, chocolate gravy mud spa that is Dingly Dell.

Maggie was first in the water, got as deep into the mud as she could, rolled around in it and frolicked in it.

The other dogs came gaily charging up to her in the water, then stopped; anxious to play, but understandably hesitant about her response....

‘Yipeeeee!’ She cried. ‘It’s me! I’m back! I feel good now! Now come on, let’s get this party started!’

Within one minute we had 15 dogs in the pond, with Maggie right in the middle of them, prancing and diving and jostling along with all the rest.

Next she was zipping in and out of the trees with Ford, galloping in the stream with Bella, then darting under the bridge with her old friend Sophie.

‘Come on Sadie, I may have been a bitch yesterday, but I feel good again now, let me make it up to you, let’s go and roll in the dirt together’.

And they did, for about ten minutes....luxuriating in the feel of the mud, sticks, weeds and long grass on their bodies, Maggie swapping out the (to her) foul smelling shampoo for the much more appropriate ‘Eau de Possum shit’.

For the last five days, since that precise moment, she has been completely normal, back to her old self, happy to be a part of the pack and high on life.

Not every behavioral issue can be fixed with a trip to Dingly Dell,( although quite a few have over the years funnily enough), but the lesson here is that in order to find the solution, you have to first work out what the problem is.

You have to take your time and immerse yourself in the feelings of the other person, practice empathy, in order to get to the root of it.

Once you do that, magic happens.

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