As promised, this week’s post is about Kira’s emerging personality! I find it so hard to really give people a picture of life with Kira. When you try to reconcile last week’s post “Living in a Scary World” with posts about all the amazing things she does, it is difficult to put the two descriptions together! It’s hard to get a clear picture of Kira’s life unless you have had first hand experience with a puppy mill dog. Yet both posts are absolutely accurate portrayals of Kira just as she is today. She is both very frightened and very brave. In the course of the same day she can be both very withdrawn and very affectionate. She is not a dog who suffers from generalized anxiety. She is not a dog that is fearful of everything and everyone. She is a dog that is extremely fearful of a great many things and can be thrown into complete panic at the drop of a hat. And she is also a dog who just as often displays a very calm, steady demeanor.
In the course of a day Kira will vacillate between being totally comfortable with one scenario and completely freaked out by another. The same dog that climbed into my lap on the couch last night, will run away from me in the yard as if she has never seen me before. That is life with Kira. It isn’t that she has some good days and some bad days. It isn’t a matter of “progress” and “set backs.” Kira’s journey isn’t so much about learning not to be afraid as it is about learning how to live life. Learning about everything in the world, how it works, and what it means.
I have come to realize that this journey for Kira is also about her learning who she is. As I watch her grow I wonder: Did she know somewhere deep inside that this is who she was? Did she know, all those years that she was locked away in a tiny cage, that she was really brave and smart and inquisitive? Did she know that the dog she is today was inside of her all along? Or was her life so miserable that it was all suppressed until now?
Kira could not have been said to have a personality for most of her life. When she was rescued she was completely, totally shut down. She had lived purely in a survival mode. She had no mental stimulation, was physically uncomfortable every moment – plagued with fleas, ticks, worms, infections – and had zero control over her environment or what happened to her. She lived in filth with no blankets and no bed. She was fed just enough to keep her alive and, according to the sheriff’s report, she was sometimes denied basic sustenance. No cheese or bit of chicken….
I think back to the dog she was when she came here this summer. The words we used to describe her were: fearful, timid, gentle, sweet. What she really was, was shut down. She was simply too afraid to do anything – too afraid to even to move. It is an interesting situation that rescuers of puppy mill dogs face – we rescue a dog that we won’t really know for a very long time.
In the past 7 months we have come a long way and I think Kira is now at a place where we are discovering who she is. To refer back to Maslow’s pyramid (mentioned in an earlier post), she has moved through the stages to a place where we can see hints of, “I’m ME!”
Note: Dr. Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) was a humanistic psychologist. He theorized that human behavior is driven by instinct and desires in order to reach an upper level of capabilities, and that the person does not feel the second need until the demands of the first have been satisfied, nor the third until the second has been satisfied, and so on.
STAGE 1: “I’m comfortable enough now”: The moment she was rescued Kira’s life took a dramatic turn and for the first time in her life her physical needs were being met. She immediately received veterinary care, medication, flea and tick treatment, access to clean water and regular, nutritious meals. She was at stage one of Maslow’s hierarchy and with all of her basic physical needs met, she could turn her attention toward other needs.
STAGE 2: “I feel safe enough”: Learning to feel safe is THE BIG CHALLENGE for puppy mill dogs. If they do not feel safe enough they will never move on to be part of group, to be known by others, or to emerge as themselves, complete with desires, likes, dislikes, personality, play, motivations, interests…..the very things that we take for granted as being “normal” in the lives of living creatures. If they cannot learn to feel safe enough they will remain trapped inside themselves.
First Kira learned to feel very safe in her crate. By the end of the first week (Week 1) she had stopped huddling in the back and freezing when anyone looked at her or spoke to her. Every night before bed, I sat outside her crate and read her Dr. Seuss books and by the second week, she pricked her ears up and showed interest. She began to stand just in front of her crate and peek around corners at us. By the end of her 1st month (see Beyond This Point There Be Dragons) she was feeling safe enough to quietly walk around the house and watch everyone do things, as long as no one acknowledged her, touched her, to talked to her. She began to relax and accept being petted when she was in her crate. She began to run and play briefly with the other dogs. I knew that she had decided that she felt “safe enough” when she began to turn her energy and attention toward the possibility of belonging.
STAGE 3: “I’m Part of a Group”: On October 1st Kira quietly climbed up onto the couch and laid down with us. I wrote that night: “by climbing up on the couch, what Kira communicated was something like, “I want to belong to this group. I want you to accept me and I want to be with you.” (On the Couch: Home and Family) That was a hugely important moment! It was the moment that she consciously choose love and belonging over fear. The very fact that she was ABLE to choose, that she felt safe enough to choose, filled me with hope. Since that day, she has rarely left the couch and will now squeeze up next to anyone sitting in her spot!
STAGE 4: “I’m known”: By November Kira began to enjoy feeling that she was known. When a dog that comes into rescue trying their very best to be invisible, so that no one will look at or speak to them, reaches a point of wanting to be known…. Well, that is a phenomenal transformation. To me it is a kind miracle. From When Kira Smiles (November): “She knows her name. She lifts her head and looks at me when I talk to her. She barks excitedly when I say, “Is it time for breakfast?” She bounces out into the yard with the other dogs each morning. She collects toys and tucks them carefully under her blanket. She falls asleep with her head on my lap. She gives me kisses. She lets me kiss the top of her head. She sometimes smiles. Her eyes shine with joy and wonder at this life she has found herself living. And that smile and those eyes make me forget her limitations and my heart is full. It is magical.”
At this stage, Kira didn’t just belong to a group, she began to understand her place in the group. She began to show an understanding that the things she did affected others. She began to live in relationship. In this stage she began to experience what we might call a sense of self, or self-esteem, a sense that she had worth and was valued.
STAGE 5: “I’m ME!” Stages 4 and 5 are probably where most of us live our lives, continually striving to know ourselves and be known by others. We really don’t know how dogs experience themselves. But we can observe things like spontaneity, curiosity, a sense of competence, problem solving…. things that parallel human experiences and about which we have some understanding. Maslow described self-actualization as “realizing one’s full potential and becoming all one is capable of being.” In other words, the desire to become more and more of what one is.
When I first began to see little glimpses of Kira’s personality, it occurred to me that I didn’t really know her at all! She surprises me all the time by doing totally unexpected things. New aspects of her personality emerge each day and I can’t wait to know her more! In the meantime, here are some observations that might serve as clues to what we will see from her in the future:
- Kira likes to manage things! I’m told that this is a herding dog trait! She stands on the couch and barks if the other dogs get too rough in their play. She barks at Obi if he tries to sneak food off the counter. She doesn’t like any OCD type behaviors, which is unfortunate (or maybe helpful) for Obi. Obi is an obsessive “fluffer” and it will sometimes take him a full 5 minutes to get his bed to the point where he can lay down. Kira doesn’t tolerate this. She will let him circle a couple of times and fluff briefly, but then she whines and barks at him until he stops. If he doesn’t pay attention, she goes over, nudges him aside and lays down herself in the middle of his bed and then looks up at him. It makes me laugh every time. It’s as if she’s saying, “Look! Just lay down like this! Your bed is perfectly fine!”
- Kira is a star student! She likes to learn. She puzzles over things and is obviously pleased when she figures out how they work. She seems to have a great sense of inner satisfaction when she learns to understand things. Contrast this to Obi, who has little internal motivation to learn new things. Obi needs a specific objective (i.e. catch squirrel or get treat) and he has to decide that it is worth it before he devotes mental energy to learning things. He is smart and trainable, cooperative and easily led, but he is not motivated. Kira learns because she wants to understand things. The reward for her is internal – she enjoys the mastery of something. She seems happy and proud when she learns new things.
- Kira is social. She likes to be with her family and she always wants to be in the same room with everyone else. If we go into the back bedroom that she is still afraid to come into, she stands outside the door and barks for us to come back. She assumes that other dogs like her and she has no sense of boundaries when it comes to dogs. She doesn’t care about being step on or laid on or jostled by other dogs and she assumes other dogs don’t mind either. Mocha is not always pleased by Kira’s intrusions into her space. Kira seems merely bewildered, but not alarmed or particularly perturbed, by Mocha’s snarkiness.
- Kira can be assertive when she knows what she wants. I have only just recently had to begin telling her “no” and this is a tough one! I can’t use a stern or loud voice, so I say no and gently block her from what she is doing with my hand. Sometimes she pushes back a bit and looks at my face with a curious, “why not?” expression. She assumes that everyone will share food with her and tries to help herself to food off people’s plates while they are eating! We are working on this.
- Kira is very affectionate. She never gets tired of having her belly rubbed on the couch and will paw me repeatedly when I stop petting her. She often gives me little kisses. Anytime another dog is getting attention, she pushes her head in to be petted too. Just last night she thought we should be closer while we watched TV so she climbed up into my lap and tried to curl up and lay down! She is WAY too big to fit, but it was so sweet that I held her there for a while anyway.
Assertive, intelligent, curious, social, affectionate, engaged…. None of those words would have described Kira 7 months ago. At that time I don’t think anyone could have imagined those words ever being applied to her. There is another word, and it is my favorite, that I wouldn’t have imagined using: Delight. The thing that touches me the most these days is how delighted she is by things. Maybe it’s just the contrast between how she used to be and how she is now, but I honestly don’t think I have ever seen such simple, whole hearted delight in a dog. Those moments are the best ones by far and I often find myself enchanted, watching her with tears in my eyes.
So who is Kira? That is a question that is being answered day by day as she grows into the dog she was meant to be and she continues to learn about the world and her place in it. Whatever else Kira is, she is beautiful in heart, mind, spirit and body. She is a survivor. She is the embodiment of hope, possibility, and grace. She is a testament to the power of love, understanding, patience, and kindness. She is a reminder to all of us that anything can happen, and anything can be.
For more information:
A dog behaviorist talks in detail about possible practical applications of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to dogs and presents a bit of a different take on it, focused specifically on what owners can do with their dogs. http://www.dogster.com/lifestyle/dog-training-canine-psychology-hierarchy-of-needs
For more on Maslow’s Stage 2 and honoring a dog’s need for safety see: Suzanne Clothier 5 minute video, ‘Keeping it Safe’ http://www.suzanneclothier.com/blog/keeping-it-safe