Select Page

The next installment of ISCP member Rowena’s learning processes after adopting Cauta, a Romanian street dog.

This week I have been thinking about what Cauta may be trying to communicate, and how this can get so tangled.

There seem so many ways to interpret behaviour. What we actually observe, verses what we think we saw, or the emotional colouring we paint on it. Which can point in very different ways.

I draw on a tradition of ‘Infant Observation’, an experiential study of a baby from birth to eighteen months. The baby is ‘observed’ once a week in their home and the observer tries as much as possible to write down afterwards what they saw and experienced, without judgement or premature interpretations. This is then thought about in a discussion group to explore what may be going on underneath a seemingly simple interaction or behaviour. Whole internal and interactional worlds can be opened up. What is crucial is that this is not an impassive, mechanistic exercise but one which places the observer’s emotions centre stage, as a clue to what may be present but not explicitly said.

How does this relate to being with dogs? In a world where non-verbal communication is key it seems pretty crucial. Dogs, as we are, are emotional beings. Many studies have shown they pick up on our feelings, but do we also experience theirs?

Could we sometimes hold their emotions in our own? Could this be happening outside our awareness?

I think of Cauta in class. His intense sniffing, exploring every surface of the hall before even being able to think about being confined to one area of it. Could this be interpreted as natural curiosity, or is this more borne of an anxiety, a hyper vigilance that all must be checked to see if this is a safe place to be?

Throughout the class he resembles a live electric wire, giving off barks rather than sparks.

Sometimes in offering a new behaviour, (lay down and you will get a treat), I see the confusion and what seems to be anxiety, bordering on panic, in his eyes. His desperation increases to achieve the morsel of food. He is ‘food motivated’ sometimes, but having recently been starved, using this may perhaps trigger deeper anxieties for him. Food as a training tool to us, could have been life or death to him.

He gets the food and the exercise in the end, or rather we manage to communicate clearly in the end. But I am left troubled. What are we really doing here? Making him compliant? A puppet dog who bends to our every wish? Is there any other way of doing this? What are the ethics of this? Should we put him through this?

But ultimately he needs this, we need this, in order to access more in his life, like being off lead, or opportunities to visit new environments.

One issue is his enthusiasm to greet other dogs being consistently thwarted by a lead, by me. Is his need to approach a symptom of friendliness or an unhealthy obsession?

I know rationally he cannot meet all other dogs because frankly, they do not feel the same about him, and he is not yet able to respect that. Back when he was a stray I assume the dog community worked this out for themselves. But now as a ‘domestic’ dog our clumsy efforts to keep the peace seem arrogant.

I am careful to give him play opportunities, spending afternoons running around with dog friends in a secure place. But still, the guilt remains – are we doing enough? Would he be happier as a more free-roaming dog?

All we can do is keep going, and, as a wise man once said, hope to be ‘good enough’ (Donald Winnicott, child psychotherapist, 1953.)

For more information on Infant Observation see: