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Empathy works. It always does.

Understanding My Dog’s Tragic Expression of Unmet Needs

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You remember the two dogs I wrote about a week ago? Luna and Sol? Well, Sol is not the only one triggering anxiety. Luna does too.

Usually, she is a sweetie. Super mellow, listens to me, doesn’t disappear in the fields.

So this morning when we get at the dog park, I let her off leash. We walk up to the field where other dogs are playing with each other, happy to have found playmates for Sol and Luna.

Then out of the blue, Luna charges at another dog. Like really charge: her neck hair up straight, her teeth in a grimace, her posture in complete attack pose. I feel terrified.

I’ve seen enough dog aggression, and it all ended in a hospital visit: my baby sister got caught in a dogfight, my older brother was bitten in the throat by a Dalmatian, I got bit when I was caught between Luna and Sol, trying to disentangle Sol’s collar.

So teaching Luna to calm down or stop her from charging at other dogs, is not only a challenging task for me – it’s really scary. Being afraid, I’m nowhere close to call upon my calm-assertive Alpha-dog leadership quality.

And as I imagine the potential for violence, I perceive urgency, and yep: my anxiety spills over into anger and frustration. My calm-assertive energy becomes anxious-angry-confused energy and I start teaching Luna the wrong lesson: Fear! Anger!

Of course it doesn’t work. My anxiety doesn’t invite her calm: it triggers her anxiety, reinforcing this sense that we are in danger and that she has to be aggressive to protect us.

It takes a lot of self-acceptance and self-compassion, before I reach a place where I can focus on Luna’s needs and understand that Luna’s behavior is a tragic expression of unmet needs.

Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication, offers that “Everything we say and do is an attempt to meet universal, human needs, and some behavior is a tragic expression of unmet needs.”

As soon as I shift my perspective on Luna’s behavior from “she’s a scary, uncontrollable dog” to “she needs leadership”, I get curious: which needs is she trying to fulfill? And how I could I help her with them?

She probably needs safety and support: “Hey, Elly, will you be the pack leader? I want to trust you’ll keep us and yourself safe, so I can relax. Show me you’ve got everything under control.”

With that in mind, I feel less scared and more excited to figure out ways to meet all needs: hers and mine. Even without an answer, I feel inspired to work on a solution and I enjoy experimenting with different strategies.

When were you able to receive someone’s behavior as a “tragic expression of unmet needs”? And how did that help you feel excited about brainstorming strategies that meet all needs?

Let me know. I would love to read from you.

Author: Elly van Laar

I am a coach. I specialize in helping mission-driven professionals bring their lives into balance. I have a Master's degree in Political Science, Leiden University, the Netherlands. I'm currently in an ICF-coaching certification program. I love meditation, walking, gardening, biking, and hanging out with family and friends.

2 thoughts on “Understanding My Dog’s Tragic Expression of Unmet Needs

  1. Dear Elly I am catching up on your blog after a long break… somehow I unfollowed a few of my favourite blogs, am a bit mystified but at least now I know I can go looking for them! Anyway… loving your nvc plus doggo stories very much. The three dog metaphor thta you came up with more recently is brilliant, I am going to share that with my daughter as we are in a similar position with our rescue doggo, Gemma. Gemma challenges any dog behind a fence that we walk past. Lucky she is mostly corgi, so not dangerous to us, but can be very noisy and unfun. She is much better since taking her to training which has increased all of our confidence, but is still lovely to have a little shared reality. So lovely that I have gone into full ramble mode but I know you will forgive me 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Rowena, so happy you’re liking the dog stories. I read your challenge with your beloved Gemma dog, hopes that the training will create long-term change, and that you and I have some shared reality around dog walking. Thanks for following my blog and being such an enthusiastic reader of my writing. I feel touched and honored.

      Liked by 1 person

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