Pack Dynamics: What Rescuing Dogs Has Taught Me about Relationships
When I rescued my first dog, Phoenix, in 2015, she was a traumatized 6-month-old gorgeous, gray bundle of fear. I was overwhelmed by her fear and she was overwhelmed by, well, everything.
To this day, she loves dogs and is afraid of people. She tends to cower or hide when people come over. Once fear hijacks her brain, she can no longer hear commands.
Because of her possessive and anxious bond with me, my partner and I started thinking about adopting a more outgoing sibling for her. We thought it might help her more easily navigate the world. We had no idea he’d come along so soon!
In 2018, we rescued Mojo in upstate NY and brought him down to Brooklyn. He was found tied to a post in Georgia, nursed to health, and neutered, before being brought upstate and placed with a foster family.
Mojo was upstate for a mere 3 days before we got him. He was about 8 months old, a lovebug with little-to-no training. It was love at first sight for me and I sensed he’d be the right dog to help Phoenix continue to come out of her shell.
Being more practical, my partner wasn’t so sure. We were in an apartment in Brooklyn while our home in CA was being renovated. He felt it would make more sense to wait to get a second dog after we move back into our house.
But my love-pricked heart won out over his practicality, so Mojo came home with us.
Here are 5 lessons about relationships that bringing Mojo into our pack has taught me so far:
1) Everyone responds to stress in their own way.
I over-function, my partner slows down and gets very deliberate, Phoenix withdraws, and Mojo gets hyperactive and mouthy.
Learning each pack member’s response to stress allows us to notice behavioral cues that we might otherwise react to and judge as wrong, because they’re different from ours. This allows us to address the stress-inducing issue more quickly, instead of criticizing or correcting the behavior, so we can return to harmony.
***Figure out your own stress response, and that of the people around you. Your relationships will bloom and deepen as you learn to take care of one another better during stressful times instead of piling judgment or criticism on top of the situation.
2) Boundaries are the bomb.
The more we create and hold firm boundaries with Mojo, who arrived fairly lawless, the more he settles down and begins to shine.
This works with people, too.
My partner has started to step in and name it when I go into over-functioning. He’s created a boundary around it because it doesn’t feel good to him when I get that way. He asks me to slow down and give him things to do instead of scrambling to do it all myself.
His natural ability to create structure feels good to the part of me that’s afraid we won’t get everything done. With his proactive boundary setting, my stress level comes down and my natural joy and radiance begin to shine again.
***Where could you set better boundaries around what works and doesn’t work for you in your relationships?
3) Respect and build on each other’s strengths instead of criticizing each other’s weaknesses.
My partner and I have had to clear up several messes as we navigate the addition of this new pack member who needs a lot of attention. And I don’t just mean messes of the “accident” kind.
We noticed that when my partner would get overwhelmed or resentful, I’d start to criticize the way he was doing things. Sometimes my starting to nitpick was the signal that he was feeling something he hadn’t verbalized yet.
As I criticized, he’d make more mistakes, and Mojo would start to act out with him. As he started to speak what was on his heart and feel clear again, Mojo began to behave better.
And so did I.
He figured out that the M members of the pack (Marie-Elizabeth and Mojo) tend toward MORE and the P members of the pack (Patrick and Phoenix) tend toward PAUSE.
We cracked up as we acted out what the MORE and PAUSE ones are thinking about one another when they’re mad. Suddenly, our pack made sense again.
With this new understanding, we can build on each of our strengths to create a dynamic balance between doing and being that works for the whole pack, instead of getting frustrated and criticizing each other.
***Where have you been defaulting to criticism or withholding in your relationships? Try noticing someone’s strength and affirming that instead.
4) Take a time out.
Like an over-tired toddler who’s throwing a tantrum and resisting a nap, sometimes Mojo’s high energy gets out of hand and the only way to settle him down is to give him a time out in the crate with a chew toy.
Time outs are an underused tool in adult relationships.
Sometimes we’re triggered and can’t hear the other person no matter how rationally and clearly they speak. Once we’ve had a time out and have settled back into ourselves, it’s easier to work through the upset because we can hear each other again.
***This week, when you get upset give yourself a 5–10 minute time out. Focus on your breath and the sensations in your body. Let them be as they are without trying to fix or change anything. Just gently attend to yourself. Notice if you’re more able to work out the upset after your time out.
5) Love and joy are necessary food.
Exuberance and devotion are great, however uncool they are in a culture that tends toward indifference and irony. This is where dogs offer a deep teaching.
If you’re overflowing with love and joy, don’t tone it down to fit into a half-mast world. Let it shine!
Mojo hasn’t met a person yet who he doesn’t want to love. Everyone brightens up around him, unless they’re afraid of 55 lb. dogs, in which case we keep him away.
That said, in sharing your exuberance with others, remember that boundaries are the bomb, so no jumping up on or pawing at the people, m’kay?
Exuberant joy + calibration = the special sauce for great relationships.
***Do you hold back your natural exuberance? Try letting it out more this week, even if you feel squirmy inside because you’re afraid to look ridiculous. Let yourself look ridiculous! Others will be grateful you did because you just gave them permission to feel and express more of their joy, too.
Have you ever rescued an animal? What did you learn from the experience? Leave a comment below, I’d love to hear about it.
About the author:
Marie-Elizabeth Mali shows creatives how to weave together their two loves — their craft and their partner — so they can shift from feeling stuck in a love triangle that can’t be solved to living in a love circle that works. Marie-Elizabeth is also a published poet with an MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College and an underwater photographer who has a thing for sharks.