For more than 30 years, I have been professionally interacting with dogs, first as a champion American Kennel Club breeder, a recipient of the AKC Breeder of Merit award, and later as a dog behaviorist and trainer.
Some of my earliest memories are of my German Shepherd, King. He was so massive that my dad must have thought that I would be devoured. Thankfully, King was a gentle soul who tolerated me more than he probably should have. King and I became fast friends.
As I grew, our friendship grew. King would follow me wherever I went. There were no leash laws at that time, so we were free souls. Because of King's relaxed manner and devotion to me, I simply had no fear. I was the leader; he was the follower. King's devotion and acceptance empowered me to believe in my authority and empowerment, which was a very big deal to this little girl. I acted in charge and King and the neighborhood dogs accepted my leadership.
King was my first dog teacher and dog companion, and since that time, I have encountered many dogs who come to me and my clients as a
- Independent and Aloof soul;
- Protector; and finally
Archetype #1 - Dog as TeacherA common way that dogs come to us is in the role of a teacher. Often, these teachers with floppy ears seem to show up on our doorstep just when we need to learn virtues such as patience, true friendship, and self-sacrifice.
For instance, take the example of the young woman who was terrified of dogs her whole life, stemming from a childhood trauma where she was attacked by a dog. Throughout her teen and early adult years, she carried this terror of dogs wherever she went. Can you imagine being terrified of a creature who is on every corner? It was a very stressful way to live life.
Enter Joseph, a small, willful, playful and totally loyal Yorkshire Terrier. Joseph was a rescued dog who came into this woman’s world and taught her his language through his gentle, loving nature. Once she learned dog language from this gentle soul, her fear relaxed. Now she confidently and happily teaches others to listen to their dogs, as well.
It’s not uncommon for “dog as teacher” to disguise himself in what can seem aggressive, frustrating, or even uncontrollable behavior. In fact, I can almost guarantee that 90% of the cases of healthy family dogs who are “uncontrollable” are actually teachers. Once the human learns the lesson, the dog’s behavior goes away.
Mitchell, the Pomeranian who loved to hear himself bark, realized his barking would get him attention. This family jokingly explained to me that their children wouldn’t listen either when they asked for their son and daughter to behave. They kept up the dialogue that “nobody listens” to them! A self-fulfilling prophecy, you say? Exactly! These parents needed to learn about “leadership” with their children and Mitchell. Mitchell was the perfect conduit for me to teach these parents and dog guardians what true, loving leadership looks like.
Archetype #2 - Dog as CompanionAnother common dog archetype is Dog as Companion. In this role, dog comes to us to be our best friend, to make the days more fun and the nights less lonely. “Dog as Companion” is probably the most desired type of dog that we seek when we look to bring a dog into our family.
Sheila, a beautiful Labrador puppy, was born with a congenital disability that required amputation of her leg at four months old. Knowing that the “Universe Provides”, I had no doubt that some loving individual would appear who would be devoted to Sheila.
One morning my phone rang, a mother of a 7-year-old girl explained that she had a daughter with Spina Bifida. Her daughter, Elizabeth, had endured 21 surgeries by age 7. Elizabeth wanted a dog friend, a companion. Hearing their story, I knew that Sheila and Elizabeth would be a perfect team.
We agreed to meet at the vet’s office where Sheila had completed her surgery and rehabilitation.
All eyes were on Elizabeth and Sheila at the vet’s office that morning. As Sheila bounced out of the examining room on three legs, she encountered a happy Elizabeth on pink crutches calling gleefully “Sheila, Sheila!” Neither Elizabeth nor Sheila entertained the idea of being handicapped. Both puppy and darling Elizabeth believed in the power of love and friendship.
Archetype #3 - Dog as Independent and Aloof.Some dogs come into our lives, and they are independent and aloof. They are neither teachers nor companions, and become involved in a relationship only to a point. I’ve encountered these individuals less frequently in my time on this planet, but I know them when I see them. It’s important to recognize that if you have this type of dog in your family, he will most likely never become the loving lap dog that will snuggle up to you on a cold winter’s night. And that’s OK! There’s a certain wisdom and sense of awe that comes from observing an independent and aloof nature. In the very least, it can be respected as an individual’s personality.
The lesson this dog brings is to value independence and respect individuality. He also brings a lesson about control: We can’t ever control others, and an Independent or Aloof dog will often be paired with an individual who needs to learn independence herself.
Archetype #4 - Dog as Hero
Some of my favorite stories from my decades of working with dogs are the extraordinary stories of the hero dogs I’ve encountered along the way. These dogs seem to be sent to be with us for one particular moment in our life, and without their presence in that one moment when we needed them the most, tragedy would strike.
Gracie or "Amazing Grace" came into my life for a short period, but she proceeded to be with a family whose lives she changed forever.
This family had two daughters, an 11-year-old and a two-year-old with Down Syndrome.
On a bitter cold, snowy Sunday afternoon in the Northeast U.S., the two-year-old family daughter, wearing only a diaper, wandered out of the family home and into the nearby woods. Her family inside was oblivious to the danger.
Suddenly, through the piercing cold came a screeching sound from the woods that shocked the mother into awareness. Jumping up, the frantic mother yelled, “where is Gracie”?
Upon noticing that the garage door was open, the dad and elder daughter sprinted out of the house and into to the woods to find Grace barking and frantically circling the two-year-old diaper-clad toddler.
Gracie’s dog wisdom knew that the toddler was in dire straits and it was her job to alert the family or passers-by that she needed help and fast!
A family who never lived with a dog before and who were initially unsure of this responsibility now realized that Gracie’s influence in their lives was beyond measure and a true blessing.
Archetype #5 - Dog as ProtectorThe Bedouin call their dogs the “watchers in the night”, and trust them to alert to danger in the hours when the humans sleep. A dog’s hearing is four times stronger than ours, and their sense of smell is 40 times greater than ours. Many are sent to be our protectors, to warn us of dangerous places and people. What some interpret as aggression in dogs might just be instinctual distrust that is meant to protect us, not harm us.
Anyone who lives with a dog can share stories of the dogs barking in the night. Rather than ‘shush’ them, I teach dog guardians to understand that “barking at the cave door” is instinctual and part of a dog’s resume. Honor it!
Do not “shush” your dog. Rather, thank her for fulfilling her role as Protector. Tell the barking dog, “that’s enough, thank you.”
Respecting the dog, go to the window or door, tell your dog, "Sit, stay and don’t touch!" Look out of the window, reassure your dog that she has performed admirably. Your dog will appreciate your leadership. Actions speak louder than words.
Archetype #6 - Dog as Caretaker/HealerThe final archetype that I’ve witnessed in dogs is Dog as Caretaker. These animals are sent to us during times when we need a caretaker.
Rio, a black Labrador that I raised, went to live with a dentist who had retired due to a crippling illness. Once a very active man, this former dentist was confined to a wheelchair. Despondent and fearful for his future, this man contacted me looking for a dog that would keep him company through his long days of readjusting to his new life.
Rio, a sympathetic and intuitive soul, recognized that this human needed unconditional love and devotion. Each day, Rio would sit with his head in the lap of his new guardian, giving support to the saddened man.
Tearfully, this man shared with me the ways in which Rio gave him courage and determination to be optimistic about their future together. He said that he no longer felt alone and unloved.
Rio provided laughter, comfort, and joy each day as they sat together, went to the supermarket, and met others. People noticed their amazing bond. New friends were found, and new experiences had because of a sweet, kind and patient dog soul named Rio.
Do any of these dog archetypes resonate with you? Which one do you have living in your home? Find me on Facebook and share your story. I would love to connect with you!
If you would like to learn more about how to think like your dog and become a conscious pack leader, check out my Conscious Pack Leadership eBook.