Are you looking for a better way to relate to the animals in your care? Jackson Galaxy gave an incredibly thought-provoking and life-changing presentation recently at the Best Friends National Conference in Las Vegas. It wasn’t for the faint-hearted, because it forced each of us to dig deep inside ourselves to make us effective ambassadors for homeless pets.
In short, Jackson’s main theme stressed that animals are as individualistic as we humans. If we want animals to be as well-adjusted as possible to our human world, we need to recognize each pet’s individual personality. That allows us to meet each pet’s unique needs and fits them into our world.
Jackson began the seminar by introducing his well-known cat personality types: Mojito, Napoleon and Wallflower (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHcuok3tmm8). He emphasized that this can apply to any animal: dogs, horses or even elephants.
Jackson suddenly took on the aura of a zen master. He had each of us close our eyes and take deep breaths. With eyes closed, he guided us peacefully through our posture, making sure our feet were firmly connected to the ground, our hearts free of burdens and our minds clear of worry. He told us to go to our own “safe place,” a happy memory from childhood or adulthood when we recognized we were completely safe and free from worry or danger.
He said, “This is the state you want to be in when you walk in to work with an animal.” He said animals are so attuned to our energy that the least bit of tension in us will cause them to tense up as well. If you’re working in a shelter environment, he said, and someone has just made you angry, be sure to shake off that stress before entering the kennel area.
Then it was time for exercise number two. Jackson had us write down a description of the most scared animal we’d ever seen. In my case, it was a dog so fearful that she cowered in a corner, avoiding eye contact and urinating out of sheer terror. Then we had to write down the scariest moment of our lives. One of the conference attendees had been caught in the crossfire of a gun battle between the police and some thieves. Talk about being scared witless!
Now it was time to put it all together. Jackson asked us how we coped with that scary moment, how we managed to put it aside to carry on with our lives. Then he told us to imagine a pet in the same scenario. Imagine a pet so traumatized that he or she developed a behavior pattern to cope with the memory. In some cases, it’s a pattern of behavior so ingrained that it’s become like muscle memory. Our job is to help each individual cope with their scary memory and return to their “happy place.”
How does Jackson do it? He creates a story for each pet he deals with. That helps him to individualize his approach to each animal. For instance, imagine you had a painfully frightened German Shepherd dog in your care. You would picture yourself as that dog and create a story like this: “I was one of seven puppies born in a puppy mill. My brothers and sisters and I were taken from our mother when we were barely four weeks old. I never saw my mother or my brothers and sisters again, because I was sold to the home of a young family. Being young and disoriented, I bolted out of a hole in the fence one day to see if I could find my family. I’d been searching for several days when I was hit by a car. My right rear leg was nearly broken, but I was able to limp away to hide. People tried to help me, but I was in so much pain that I lashed out at them. I didn’t want anyone to touch me because the pain was so horrific. I was rescued by some kind people, and they tell me they’re going to find me a new home. But I’m still not sure I want to be around anybody. I’m not sure I can trust anyone. I don’t want to be in that kind of pain ever again.”
Get it? A story like that will alter your approach to the dog. You’ll realize that the dog isn’t vicious and isn’t really afraid even though she’s lashing out to bite. That dog just doesn’t want to revisit the stress and pain she’s encountered in her short life. Simply put: she has trust issues. Your job is to help her overcome those thoughts and to help her feel safe and secure. By imagining yourself in the same scenario, you can more easily create a cure.
I think that’s why I found Jackson’s presentation so unique and powerful. He’s asking us to dig deep inside ourselves and to use every gift we have: imagination, caring, creativity, self-analysis, experience and so much more in the service of helping each individual pet. Each of us has our own unique story, our own life history, that shapes who we are and how we react to the world. And so does each pet.