Since we humans are creatures of immense and apparently very predictable routines, my dog Chaco decided he’d teach me a thing or two about the importance of surprise, his mastery of intuition, and my equally impressive lack of it from a dog’s perspective.
It All Started With Separation Anxiety
When Chaco the dog’s first human became ill and subsequently died, he began to show signs of severe separation anxiety. He would bark, scratch, jump up and down, hide so I couldn’t tuck him away and leave him behind, lick his paws until they bled, and eventually try to chew through the bedroom door.
Something had to give! In order to solve “his problem,” I sought advice from books, the Web, and a slew of local veterinarians, including some who specialize in dog behaviors. Bottom line, they told me: humans give off a huge range of nonverbal clues about our intentions well ahead of time, especially when it comes to leaving home without them.
The key to diminishing separation anxiety in pets, they say, is surprise: the pet owner facing this issue must vary the daily routine so much that the dog is never certain what the human will do next: when she will leave, and when she will return. For years I had been teaching people that the key to mastering intuition is also surprise. Maybe I needed to attend Chaco’s workshop!
Human Clue #1: When I am preparing to leave the house, the first thing I do, of course, is simply think about the fact that I’m leaving. Uh oh, first big mistake. I haven’t even opened my mouth and Chaco’s ears perk up from across the room. He knows something is about to happen. My first thought is, “How does he know already that I’m getting ready to leave the house?”
Eventually, I figure out that the first point in his workshop tailor-made for me is: “Stop talking to yourself and saying, “Okay…”
Whenever I have been sitting still for a time, reading or writing, or engaging in some routine household task like washing dishes or dusting the floors, apparently the first thing I do when I’m ready to shift gears is say out loud without thinking, “Okay…” I am usually alone when this happens, so after a long time and several trips to the vet, I discovered that talking to myself and saying “Okay” out loud was a clue to the dog that a change was gonna come, and the change might not include him. AAARGH!!! Gotta get a grip on talking to myself!
Clue#2: I head to the bedroom closet and drawers. “What in the world am I going to wear?” Clothes have always been a source of discomfort for me, so Chaco not only picks up the discomfort, he picks up the routine that searching for clothes means either somebody’s coming or I’m leaving – or I’m getting ready for a stay-at-home Skype video session and can’t look too disheveled from the torso up. He gets nervous for a moment until he figures out that this time it’s Skype rather than leaving the house, and then settles right back into the chair beside my workstation, waiting for me to set up the computer next to him.
Clue#3: Right after rummaging through the closet I immediately head for the bathroom to clean up even more.
Chaco: “Uh oh. This is serious. She’s going out!”
Combing my hair is the worst sign of all for the dog, whether I’m staying at home or leaving. After all, I would be mortified to face the world with my frizzy hair all askew!
My taking a long shower can be a sign of leaving, of settling in for the night, or of going out during the day, so Chaco scopes the weather and the light outside to see which it is more likely to be this time.
Chaco: “Ah, it’s midday so it must be that yoga class for old folks, because she goes into that bag in the other closet and puts clothes on over her clothes. The last time she tried to take me with her to that class I barked up a storm, so I know I’m grounded now.”
Me: “Oh, I live in Hawaii now; it could rain at any moment. Gotta make sure all the windows and doors are closed and locked.” On top of that, I am regularly reminded that there is more and more theft in this neighborhood: can’t be too cautious.
Chaco: “There she goes, walking around the house closing up everything, even though it’s as hot as the dickens outside. This is really bad now. But will she take me or leave me at home? Oh no! She’s turning on the light and radio covering the bed and… OMG, she’s getting out my Kong Toy with the peanut butter inside! I’m done for. No hope now. My human is leaving me behind.”
So the behaviorists have told me to vary my routine: get all ready to leave and then stay home. Put on the radio even if I’m staying home. Get dressed even though I’m not going anywhere. What???? Get dressed even though I’m not going anywhere? That is the biggest sacrifice of all, trying to cooperate as a two-legged with four-legged separation anxiety. Being trussed up is not my idea of a pleasant morning or afternoon alone at home when I could be relaxed and funky instead while I read or write.
Clue#5: “The most dreaded of all: a trip to the yard to ‘pee pee’ when I don’t even have to go! How humiliating! I’m done for. I’ll just hold it and hide around the corner or under the stairs instead. Maybe she won’t find me; maybe she’ll give in and change her mind and take me with her, or maybe I can even make her late by hiding, so she’ll have to miss her appointment and stay home with me instead.”
Now that I, the human, am settling into a new location, I will go through the routine of trying unsuccessfully not to have a routine and go over to the box where the red harness and leash are stashed close to the front door. “Yippeee!!” Chaco exclaims. “I’m going; I’m going this time!”
Most of these actions are done wordlessly, mind you. Chaco is an expert at what some in my field call “pattern recognition:” paying attention to subtle clues that the clue-giver has absolutely no idea are big red flags for critters or humans who pay attention. In other words, pattern recognition is a left-brained way of talking about right-brained things we really don’t understand. Chaco, unlike his human, has a PhD in pattern recognition.
But Wait, There’s More…!!
There is another quality of intuition that defies visual and verbal clues. When I am sad, for example, perhaps in another room of the house entirely out of sight from Chaco, he will suddenly perk up, much like he does when I unconsciously say “okay,” out loud to myself, signaling a change in activity. He will trundle across the house to find me, nuzzle me, knowing in that very moment that he needs to comfort me. I am not boo-hooing, I have made no verbal sign, and I am not visible to him physically. Something else beyond pattern recognition is going on, since such an episode follows no pattern or routine that I have been able to discover – yet. Does he know that it is August 15th or October 1st or September 1st and that I am thinking of a parent or partner or aunt? How does he just “know” that it is sad I am feeling, rather than happy or simply focused? One thing I know for sure: he only does that when I am feeling sad.
Something more is going on and I am heaven bent on finding out how this type of intuition works; after all, it is a significant part of my professional work. People I do not know call or email or Skype with a question and I just trundle off to the universe and provide them with meaningful information that they tell me makes sense and even confirms what they were already thinking about as a solution for their situation or concern. How is it that my dog is even better at this than I am?
I’m the one in the house who gets paid for this skill: serving up accurate information with no visual clues, no verbal clues, no prior knowledge, and no prior emotional attachment on my part with the client. Basically, no established routine here. There is so much more to explore and tiny but mighty Chihuahua Chaco is running the workshop!
So my dog has taught me more than I ever wanted to know about being a good psychic who explains observable known and hidden behaviors. Taking it a step further, however, he has also taught me about a kind of knowing for which there are no overt verbal or physical clues. Mastering the ability to mask my intentions about something as simple as leaving the house is a lot harder than I thought! Eventually, Chaco may have something to say about more complicated subjects like politics and privacy, but he’ll have to save that for his advanced workshop on human behavior: I’m still struggling with the basics!
Chaco’s “problem” was pretty simple after all: he suffered from unspeakable grief and loss, so much so that he couldn’t bear to stay on the planet without his beloved human. Behavior modification techniques just weren’t enough to cure his profound depression. He taught me more about himself and about myself than I could ever imagine and I miss him still. He was an amazing teacher!