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  • kelleylivingston23

How My Dog Helped Me Find My Voice

Updated: Apr 22

It has taken me almost a year to publish this post. Something was holding me back until this photo popped up in my facebook memories, and it feels ready to be said.

My best boy, Merle inspired me to write about life and dogs. Experiencing life with him, healing and blossoming together, with the support of teachers, mentors, my amazing husband, steadfast friends, and despite the abusive trainers in our past, inspired me to write about the lessons and awarenesses that we shared along the way.

Merle made his transition across the bridge on May 12, 2022, and until now, I just didn't feel like writing.

Merle helped me find my voice, and there is so much love, hope and support that needs to be shared. So, now Merle is going to help me step into the light again.

Many are familiar with the bumpy ride we had, but also the beautiful connection

we shared, and 13 years of lessons learned.

Merle displayed some challenging behaviors. He made it quite clear that people and dogs were to keep their distance.

There are incredible people working to help dogs and their people. Their numbers have increased drastically since I began looking for support for Merle and me. At the same time, life has become even busier, creating a ripple affect of pressure for both people and dogs. The pressure to "fix" our lives quickly so that we can restore some arbitrary idea of "normal" is stronger than ever before.

The world of dog training and behavior has responded to this relatively new demand with a plethora of methods, tools, and devices, both to change and control our dogs' behavior.

Most of this response has been aimed at changing the dog, whether it is by force (dominance, alpha, shock, choke, etc.), or by positive reinforcement and behavior modification. In addition to the parade of harmful, but profitable devices available to curb behaviors like barking, lunging, digging, etc, trainers and behaviorists on both sides of this divide have promised "your ideal dog", "quick fixes", and even "guaranteed results". Most people would never dream of harming their beloved dogs, but this "industry" is unregulated, so any person can use any method on a dog, and proclaim themselves an expert.

More recently, we have a new wave of enlightened professionals who are teaching us that connection, secure attachments, healing, and well being are the way forward for both dogs and ourselves.

Even more promising are the visionairies who take this to the next level,

and teach us that our dogs can be our guides, and if we allow them,

will show us the way to healing and connection,

for ourselves, for the world, and for them.

There is something bigger here, something life changing, and there are many more ways to support and help these dogs as well as their human guardians. Our relationships with our dogs are just so much bigger than this. There is another perspective, and it is huge. I want to give people hope by sharing my story with Merle. I know this is not feasible for everyone, but it is important that awareness of these possibilities, and the rich connection they bring are available.

There is so much more available than training and behavior modification. There are dozens of other ways to help our dogs, and help ourselves as well. We now know how to form secure attachments with our dogs so that they feel more confident in the world. We have many options for healing ourselves and our dogs from trauma. We know how to rebuild resiliency in the nervous system so that our dogs can think and respond differently. This doesn't even take into account that we now know that behavior is more often than not, hugely correlated with pain and/or other physical discomfort. There are 100 other things that most likely aren't tried or known about when these dogs are pronounced clinically untreatable.

But, the real hope here has nothing to do with changing our dog's behavior.

or what methods are used to do it. The fact is, most of us are living in absolute chaos, just trying to keep up on a daily basis.

The real life enhancing fact is that dogs can rescue us and guide us back to ourselves, back to what is important in life, back to meaningful connection with ourselves, those who surround us, and nature.

If we are brave enough to go on a journey with them, the journey of meeting their needs while also looking within ourselves, what awaits on the other side is amazing.

We saw a vet behaviorist. She said to me, "you understand that Merle is a special needs dog, and that this requires some management in your life, and we are here to help you navigate this and support you?” She did not say "you don't have time for this, you are a martyr for changing your life around to accommodate your family member."

Merle has been a huge blessing in my life.

My desire to give him the life he deserved, to meet his needs, and for him to be happy, was bigger than my fears of being judged, seen and heard. He gave me the strength to find my voice.

For the first time in my life, I found myself unable to stay hidden under the radar of societal expectations. I’ve always found a way to blend in just enough to prevent bringing attention to the fact that I was going to do things my own way, and stay true to myself. Up until this point, I could do it quietly and without feeling unbearably vulnerable or exposed. But, Merle, he was loud. There was no hiding out with him. The only way to meet his needs was to stand strong with my own voice.

Navigating this was extreme. I was truly depressed and often said to my husband that I wasnt sure I wanted to wake up anymore. I made so many horrible decisions (trainers who taught me shock collars, aversive techniques) in the name of "helping" him, but my fears of isolation, being trapped, and being dissapproved of, were the driving force.

So often, the people around me expressed their concern for me with regard to my dedication to him, and the affect that might have on my life.

As well intentioned as they were, it didn't feel good, and it made me withdraw further, and my resolve for Merle to thrive, even stronger. But, this was partly because I just felt so vastly misunderstood.

The world started to become much clearer to me during this process.

I could see the way our culture teaches us to avoid discomfort of any kind, and just try to make all the pieces of our lives fit into a nice tidy box so that we feel normal and can continue striving for this perfect happiness cocktail of perfect job, perfect kids, perfect marriage, perfect material possessions, etc. If anything didn't fit in the box, the tendency was to quickly fix it, change it, or throw it out so we feel like we are "normal".

People pay homage to how chaotic and busy life has become. Everyone knows its this way, but not many talk about it being a choice. It is possible and desirable to step out of that. When we step out of that, we no longer need to make problems go away in a frenzy in order to maintain our normal box.

But what about all the normal pieces of life that don't fit into this normal perfect box? Things like a family member who is struggling, or a child that doesn't thrive in busy environments?

Or a dog that struggles in chaos of human world. Are we to just discard them?

Our culture is very quick to do this in the name of maintaining the box, or by claiming that it doesn't fit into things.

Well, for whatever reason, I chose a different path. Perhaps because I am willful. Perhaps because I needed this dog. Perhaps because I could see the bigger picture. It matters sometimes why, but not really. What matters is that I found a completely different life. I found my own voice, and the ability to step out of the influence of the herd.

I still have so many regrets, and 2nd guess many things everyday. I was nervous and afraid, and surely made him worse in alot of ways. But, my desire to become whole, and my desire to give Merle the opportunity to be a dog, my desire to find the meaning of it all, proved larger than my fear, and larger than any outer influence, every.

No dog should be defined by their behavior.

We talk alot in the dog community about giving dogs choice. But, unless us humans consciously seek them out, it is challenging to recognize that we have them as well. We are so easily influenced to keep our lives as a tidy little normal box. We can step out of the expectations and into the curiosity and wonder that is available to all of us.

Merle brought me back to myself, and into the light, and I am forever grateful for his presence in my life.

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