The Invaluable Relationship Lesson I Learned From My Dog

I look for relational wisdom everywhere: books, mentors, my clients, experts, my marriage, my kids, TV shows (relationship themes come up on my Netflix feed all the time).  

This time, it was my super-spirited, one-year-old Aussie doodle puppy, Pepper, who taught me an important relationship lesson. 

I was on a jog with Pepper on a beautiful sunny day, after what felt like seven years of rain in Charlotte. I was so excited to take him out on our daily jog through a path in the woods: a ritual that had been nonexistent for many dreary weeks. About halfway through our jog, Pepper stopped and started biting at the leash. I sternly told him “no” and he started biting even more aggressively. The more stern I got, the more intense he got. I was livid. He was ruining my coveted sunny jog.  

When nothing else seemed to work, I finally stopped and calmly got down on his level. He immediately dropped his head in my lap and cuddled close to me. His gesture made me melt. I scratched his ears, and told him it was okay in a soothing, gentle voice. After about one minute of cuddling, he was ready to keep going. 

Amazing. His biting was his way of asking me to come close and comfort him. What an ineffective way to get me to come close! His aggressive efforts to get me to comfort him created an urge in me to do the exact opposite. My urge was to rise up, get angry, and try to assert my control over him.  

Partners do this all. The. Time. 

When we don’t get what we need emotionally from our partners, we can be tempted to react with anger and frustration. Unfortunately, these reactions can make our partners do what I did with Pepper: respond with anger and defiance. Alternatively, some partners shut down and lean out in those moments.  

This dynamic plays out a million times over in distressed relationships. “I don’t get what I need from you . . . I get pissed and angry . . . and you either get angry back at me or withdraw from me.” In this dynamic, no one is getting their needs met.  

Now, dogs don’t have many choices. When Pepper got spooked by something in the woods that day, he didn’t have a way to say, “Hold up Mom, I’m scared. Can you stop and give me some cuddles and a comforting ear scratch?”  

But humans do have choices. We have the choice to be intentional and clear in how we voice our needs to our partners. If we voice our needs with anger, criticism, judgment, demands, or aggression, we are less likely to get those needs met. We have a choice in saying, “I’m feeling anxious; can I talk to you about it? It can really help.” or “I’m struggling with some things and need some comfort from you– a hug, reassurance, some encouraging words.” 

I made a choice that day to lean in, despite the aggressive reaction in my dog.  It wasn’t an automatic reaction. It wasn’t my second or third reaction. But, if I had known Pepper was spooked and needed a cuddle, without hesitation I would have leaned down and comforted him. And often I find partners are willing to do the same.  

The critical difference is asking for what you need in loving, clear, and vulnerable ways, rather than critical, angry, and reactive ways.  

I’ll keep you posted on any other relational wisdom Pepper has to offer in the future! 

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