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!
Given that we humans are creatures of immense and apparently very predictable routines, Chaco decided he’d teach me a thing or two about his mastery of intuition, and the equally impressive lack of my own mastery from a dog’s perspective.
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 the first point in his PowerPoint presentation to 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 in these moments, 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 that the change might not include him. AAARGH!!! Gotta get a grip on talking to myself!
Clue#2: 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 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 that it’s Skype rather than leave, and then settles right back into the counter chair, 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.
Chaco: “Uh oh. This is serious. She’s going out. Combing the hair is the worst sign of all, whether staying or leaving. She would be mortified to face the world with her frizzy hair all askew!”
Showers can be a sign of leaving or settling in for the night, or of going out during the day, so the dog scopes the weather and the light outside to see which it is more likely to be this time.
Chaco: “If it’s midday, 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 now I know I’m grounded.”
Me: “Oh, and I live in Hawaii now. It could rain at any moment, whether gentle mist or downpour. Gotta make sure all the windows and doors are closed and locked. On top of that, I am being regularly reminded that there are more and more tourists in the neighborhood and more and more theft.”
Chaco: “There she goes, walking around the house closing up everything, even though it’s 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! I’m done for. No hope now. My human is leaving me behind.” Smart dog!
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: “And 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.”
Sometimes, more often now that I’m settling into a new location and new routine than a few months ago, I will go through the routine of trying unsuccessfully not to have a routine, and then 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 intuition as “pattern recognition:” paying attention to subtle clues that the clue-giver has absolutely no idea are being communicated like big red flags. Chaco, unlike his human, has a Ph.D. 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 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 was not visible to him. Something else beyond pattern recognition is going on, as such an episode is rare and follows no pattern or routine that I have been able to discover – yet. Does he know that it is August 15 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 in this fascinating arena of intuition, 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 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.
What is the pattern recognition in that type of intuition? No visual clues, no verbal clues, no prior knowledge, no emotional attachment on my part. No routine.
So Chaco has taught me more than I ever wanted to know about pattern recognition which is alive and well indeed, and which often explains a large percentage of manifest and latent communicated behaviors. I guess I’ll have to sign up for his intermediate workshop next: mastering the capacity to mask my intentions about leaving the house is a lot harder than I thought! Chaco may also have something to say about politics and privacy, but he’ll have to save that for his advanced workshop… I’m still struggling with the basics!