We used to have unruly Dalmatians, one in particular who was extremely insecure and nervous. She was aggressive and she barked a lot and sometimes she would bite. We spent quite a lot of time, energy, and money on dog training. Our trainer told us that in the world of dogs, the Alpha dog does not need to bark or bite or anything. The Alpha can just walk into a group of dogs with confidence and the other dogs will roll over. Our dog wished she were an Alpha dog, but in reality, she was what the trainer described as a “middle manager” dog. She lacked confidence, she was a fear biter, and she felt that everything was a threat that was her responsibility to deal with: if someone or something scared her, she’d attack. Once, our dog trainer had a special group class for emotionally challenged dogs. She brought her elderly, blind, crippled Corgi and one by one, each dog on leash could come up, sniff her, see that she was not a threat, and walk away. Our dog was the only one who came up, sniffed her, freaked out and tried to attack her. She had no concept that she was much bigger, abler and more powerful than this poor little old dog.
In the dog training we did with her, the idea was to build trust between our dog and her human handlers. If a perceived threat presented itself, instead of going after the threat, she was supposed to look at whoever was handling her. If she did so, she’d get a treat and a clicking sound and reassurance. When out and about, whoever held her leash was responsible for identifying threats, not her. Blind, crippled, geriatric corgis and small children were not threats. Squirrels, sticks that looked like monsters, and pedestrians were not threats. Off-leash aggressive dogs were threats, but we humans dealt with them. There was never a threat that was hers to deal with, but had there been one, she could count on us to tell her. I would have no qualms unleashing her if someone were to attack me, but that never happened.
We all have an inner wild dog part of ourselves who needs to look to the human handler part of ourselves when it feels threatened, to see what to do. That wild dog part of ourselves is important to keep in reserve just in case it is needed. I like knowing that it is there if I ever need to protect myself from a real, physical danger. I like to know that I can count on my inner wild dog should I ever get attacked by a person or an animal, should I ever actually need to go primitive. I also know that I am lucky to live a life in which this is not an every day possibility. Most situations in my daily life can be dealt with by my more civilized self.
It takes training to know the difference between a real threat that requires a dog fight and a perceived threat that can be dealt with in a civilized manner. Sometimes people can say things or do things that make us angry and if we are inexperienced with expressing our anger or have injuries around our expression of anger, we can easily feel threatened. We might react disproportionately to the situation, or treat someone much less powerful than ourselves as if they are more powerful, including our own children. Once our inner wild self gets triggered, it doesn’t take these things into consideration. Once triggered, this part of ourselves just reacts. It can be hard to access our inner authority that discerns between real danger and elevated emotions.
We can build awareness into these moments. Unless the person we are reacting to is coming at us physically, there is no urgency to react immediately. If we’ve established that we are not in immediate physical danger, we can give ourselves a few seconds to identify what part of us is reacting to the situation. The best way to do this is to breathe and notice what is happening in and around our body. You can press the pause button by saying, “Give me a second, please.” If the person respects this wish, or even if they don’t, go inside yourself and ask any of these questions: Am I breathing? Where does my breath stop? Am I clenching muscles? Am I ready to throw punches? Do I want to scream? Am I hunching myself into a ball, trying to hide? Do you notice your surroundings beyond who is in front of you? Do you feel your feet on the ground? If you are able to establish any sort of consciousness of your inner state in the face of the perceived threat, you’ve successfully engaged the human handler within. The part of you witnessing yourself in this way is the part of you who knows how to identify whether there is a real threat and what action, if any, needs to be taken. This part also can reassure your primitive self that everything is under control, that no action is required from the wild dog inside. From this moment forward, let this witnessing part of yourself decide what happens next. When you engage your inner authority, you invite others to engage theirs and often things automatically become more civilized as a result.