Puppies can teach us a lot about how to respond to frustrating and difficult situations in positive and productive ways.
We adopted a puppy several years ago. I knew the puppy would have some things to learn about getting along with us inside a house, about adapting to the way we do things. We had expectations that the puppy’s behavior would change, conforming to our desires. What I didn’t realize was how much I had to learn about getting along with the puppy, and that I, too, would have to change. Once I learned this, however, I found that the lessons applied to my interactions with people as well as the puppy.
Lessons started the day we brought the puppy home. Rudy, our new dog, did well in becoming housebroken, wearing a collar, and walking on a leash. We were genuinely pleased with the way Rudy was learning the rules of the house and living up to our expectations. Rudy was becoming a fun, interesting, and devoted companion. What he did one day, however, made me think twice about making a puppy a part of our lives.
I came home from work and discovered that Rudy had chewed the covers and some pages of three new books that I had purchased the day before. Because books are more precious to me than shoes, I was really upset. I threw my car keys and briefcase on the floor. I yelled at Rudy and shook my fist at him. I told him he was a “bad dog” and that I was very angry with him. Rudy’s response? He peed on the floor and shook with anxiety. We had just gotten him housebroken the week before. Now that I yelled at him, he was peeing on the floor again—and guess who had to clean up the mess! The lesson I learned through this experience was that yelling and threatening a puppy is not very effective in producing desired outcomes.
I was recently reminded of this lesson while having a heated discussion with my sister, Pat. I don’t see Pat very often, as we live more than a thousand miles apart. We’re generally good friends and enjoy many of the same activities and look forward to our times together. That day, however, our conversation turned to politics, where our ideas differ dramatically.
At one point, I used sarcasm in asking a very pointed question tinged with a bit of blame. My intent was to convince Pat that I was right and she was wrong. I was going to shame her into admitting that her views were self-centered and biased. Pat remained silent for a minute. She then told me what was hard to hear—“I feel like you’re attacking me.” I knew at that moment that my behavior could lead to a very unpleasant outcome. Fortunately, Pat and I were able to continue our conversation and our visit without hard feelings. Moreover, we were soon talking about how to have a meaningful conversation with someone who holds very different views. We decided that really listening to each other and showing respect for each other was more important than being right.
I’ve since given some thought to how I might respond to frustrating and difficult situations in positive and productive ways. I learned that in many cases—as in the situation with the puppy—threats and expressions of anger can lead to a mess that no one wants to deal with. And—as in the situation with Pat—blaming and shaming can take you to the brink of destroying a healthy relationship.
With both Rudy and Pat, what I really wanted was companionship and a healthy relationship. My response to conflict with them, however, indicated that I expected them to conform to my way of thinking and behaving. Missing on my part was a respectful consideration of who they were and how they felt. My angry response to Rudy left him standing in front of me shaking with anxiety. My attack on Pat left her sitting across the table from me in a state of shock and disappointment. I, at first, thought that both Rudy and Pat had let me down; they didn’t live up to my expectations. What I realize now is that I didn’t live up to their expectations.
In both cases, I threw obstacles in the way of getting along. The shaming, the blaming, the threats—these aren’t instruments of peace and reconciliation. Pat gave me a gift when she expressed her feelings about my behavior. Rudy—in addition to giving me a mess to clean up—showed me that threats and expressions of anger can jeopardize a trust relationship and diminish a spirit of camaraderie. Getting along with others who do things we don’t like or who think differently than we do can be challenging. While I still have a ways to go in knowing how to handle frustrating and difficult situations in relating to others, I know now that it’s important to focus on the relationship, to look for common ground, and to let go of the need to impose my will or views on someone else. I’ve also learned that the use of blaming, shaming, and threats is unproductive and can lead to an unwelcome mess that may be hard to fix.
Want more puppy lessons? Read “Puppy Guru: Why My Dog Is My Best Yoga Teacher.”