Taking Pictures In Therapy

By Sean O’Shea

Therapy. It’s a messy, uncomfortable, and often painful process. We all know going in that there’s a good chance of tears, overwhelm, panic, uncertainty.

A therapists gig is to help you dig down into the muck of your experiences, trauma, and pain, examine it all, process it all, feel it all, and then, by giving you new tools and support, hopefully help you move on in the most healthy fashion possible.

Lots of folks avoid therapy because it’s hard and often painful. It’s much easier to distract ourselves with all manner of “stuff”, and hope it will all be okay.

But if you’re willing to dive in, be vulnerable, and do the work, amazing things can happen. But there’s no escaping the hard work, the discomfort, pain, and the challenge of the process.

Do we always look happy in therapy? Are we always smiling and laughing? Is it the most fun point of your day? Probably not. Is it the most beneficial part of your day…probably.

People in therapy are often found crying, trembling, overwhelmed and freaked out as they attempt to navigate their interior world.
Breaking old patterns, finding new insights and awareness…all good stuff…good stuff that doesn’t always look so good.

I see rehab with dogs in much the same way I do therapy for humans. Are their differences? Of course. We can’t have the same verbal conversations and we can’t communicate emotions and best approaches for forward movement in the same way. But, are we working through trauma, anxiety, toxic patterns and beliefs? Absolutely.

So knowing all that, why on earth would we expect a dog, who’s going through major transformational stuff, to always look happy? Why would we expect these complex creatures to just happily, easily, and seamlessly adjust to their entire worlds changing? Shouldn’t we expect some emotional fallout? Shouldn’t we see some therapy-like discomfort and overwhelm as they attempt to navigate unchartered mental and behavioral waters?

This is what always perplexes me. Folks want dogs to be trained and rehabbed and transformed…but they don’t want the dog to have to experience any discomfort or uncertainty as they do so. They want the dogs to magically transform and skip all that nasty, not fun stuff. People freak out if they see a dog shaking as it lays in place or looking unsure or afraid. Even though all that’s been done is that the dog’s pattern’s been blocked, or it’s in a new environment, or it’s simply not being allowed to act out as usual.

The patterns being broken create temporary stress and anxiety. The dog, finding itself in unfamiliar territory is freaked out…just like the person on the couch in the therapists office. But even though we get it for us, we struggle seeing it with dogs.

Of course the goal of therapy, or training, isn’t to keep the human or dog in a state of discomfort and anxiety or stress. It’s meant to be a gateway to the opposite – more comfort, less anxiety, less stress. But that takes time and growth. And neither species gets a free pass or a shortcut.
And while it might be hard to watch dogs in an uncomfortable state, if we can see them in a deeper fashion (emotionally, pattern wise, trauma bearing etc.), and understand that they too have to go through difficult stuff to come out on the other side, we might just be able to see things a little differently.

We see this arc of shock, confusion, adapting, processing, and growth constantly. It’s not always pretty, and it’s not always “done” by the time the dog goes home. Many dogs need months of continuous work to finally reach their comfy, happy, easy space. This is why some folks remark that dogs in our program don’t always look “happy”. I’m okay with that, I don’t love it, just like I’m sure the therapist doesn’t love seeing people in pain, but I do appreciate it, because I know it’s leading the dog somewhere.
Somewhere far better than where they were when they showed up.

So the next time you see a picture or video of a dog being trained, and if the dog doesn’t look ecstatic and bouncy, take a moment, learn what the dog came in with, what’s being worked on, and maybe you’ll be able to see that he’s going through a process, a transformation. One that’s unfinished.

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  1. tuffy said:

    yes agreed!l well said-

    i will go further, and say that once the dog is comfortably trained or rehabbed and working, they still won’t look ”happy, bouncey, ‘laughing’ in glee” while they are working/on leash/with owners outside of home.

    i know when i am loving my work and concentrating on it to do my best, i am fully ”in the zone”; i am happy/content inside and may or may not be smiling, but mostly i am fully absorbed and working at it, not bouncing in glee. and i expect most people at enjoyable, somewhat challenging work are similar.
    the laughing overtly joyous ‘party’ behavior is reserved for breaks and non-working hours and is an entirely different kind of joy.
    So, in my experience, this is the same with dogs.

    When they are truly relaxed and secure and working in concentration, they don’t have that constant ‘show ring stare’ at the owner, and bouncy, playing attitude. They are often quite serious but relaxed and quite happy in concentration of their task at hand. not distracted by food or toys.
    i’ve seen scent hounds that are super motivated in doing their work sussing out trails and scents, but they are very concentrated and serious in outward manner. Malinois, or Terriers, who are much more active and expressive dogs naturally, *seem* to have a bouncey aspect while working. but it will be found when trying to distract them from their working goals that they are profoundly serious and in deep concentration on their goals–either in taking down a criminal, or killing a rat, or simply staying at heel with their owner. they are far from ”carefree, happy, bouncey”. in this case, i think of a professional LaCrosse player, or Soccer player, or fly weight boxer. they are super active and concentrating and focused, and probably very happy to be doing their sport, (which is actually a job), but they are far from in celebration party mode.

    i think we in this society have forgotten that dogs are intelligent beings with an emotional range similar to ours and hence, learning to read their language when they truly ARE happy and relaxed *inside* seems to be a lost art. it would be super awkward and draining to always be in a state of panting, bouncing hilarity, which is what the reality of that ”happy dog” is to the general public.

    • Love this! And totally. 100% agree. I always think about how people look when working or concentrating. They usually aren’t bouncing around like maniacs. They’re quiet, focused, doing their work.

  2. Jaquelyn Warbis said:

    Working with feral dogs now this is especially true.

  3. Excellent way to frame the path to a better life rather than staying stuck and having things happen to you. If we could all go to happy camp and get better, we’d be lining up. It’s work… hard work. In retriever training there’s a term called “seek the obstacle” which means that to get a dog to retrieve thru water, brush, over boulders etc, you have to train over obstacles that make it seem second nature to the dog. That’s what I got most out of T3 is the focus on addressing behaviors rather than tiptoeing around them. Lots of creativity required and the seek for knowledge and ideas from the group (as in group therapy) very supportive and enabling people to help dogs. There simply isn’t anything negative to training this way and putting dogs thru a bit of a boot camp to move beyond where they are is a key ingredient to lifelong changes… that’s great about dogs, they’ll go to where you lead them and find a better life once they’re there. Thanks Sean!

  4. Really good! Honest. Love the blog subscription.

    Sent from my iPhone


  5. Henry said:

    Very happy I came across this post! Great read, thank you for sharing 🙂

  6. I honestly loved this post so much. You blog is amazing and i find myself sharing your content more and more. Keep up the good work the Dog Training world need this.

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