It’s winter in the Northern Tablelands right now. Read: it’s bloody cold. And as luck would have it we have a litter of pups who are now nearly 2 months old and at a stage where they want lots of interaction. So that means lots of freezing mornings and evenings out in the elements playing with puppies. You better believe that we really cherish it. Truthfully, my daughter gets stuck with most of the freezing mornings cos I am real mother-of-the-year material…
But once the initial breath-stealing reaction to the cold passes, going to play with the dogs and pups is hardly a chore. I think it’s because of the intensity with which dogs feel and display emotion. How can you be cranky with a writhing mass of puppies who want nothing more than show you how excited they are that you are there?
I got a call from a special young lady last week that really has ‘emotion’ on my mind. It made me think about how emotions work, and why, and what they do for us. This girl had rung me because someone close to her had just got some devastating news and this person was distraught. The young lady rang me because after all her years of living with abuse, strong suicidal ideation and drug abuse, the emotions being displayed in front of her were freaking her out. She was ringing because she was frightened by what she was witnessing. She was frightened that major harm would come as a result of this huge depth of emotion.
Strong emotions have usually equated with negative outcomes for this young girl. She has been pushed through a mental health system that advocates medication to dampen emotion, an education system that actively dampens down the expression of emotional extremes, and is a product of a society that advocates for the benefits of learning to ‘control’ our emotions – especially the ‘bad’ ones.
Just for the record, I don’t believe any of that shite. I don’t believe in making what Pink so cleverly dubbed, ‘The Great Escape’ (From her album ‘The Truth about Love’, go listen to it, you’ll love it!).
When this girl rang me last week, all terrified of watching the emotions pouring out of someone she loved, I struggled to reassure her that things would be ok. Stay with them, affirm their feelings, let them feel. It was a terrifying piece of advice for her to follow, she was hoping for lights, sirens and, probably, men in white coats with drugs.
And her predicament has had me thinking all week. In her song, Pink says “everyone you know is tryin’ to smooth it over, find a way to make the hurt go away”. I believe this is pretty close to the truth for many of our kids. Emotions have become a bit of a boogy man - out to get you if you’re not careful. “Stop crying” “Calm down” “stop overreacting” “such a drama queen, always upset about something” or “don’t worry, it’s nothing”.
We make strenuous efforts to smooth things over. We are quick to diagnose emotional sensitivity as ADHD, ODD, ASD and myriad other illnesses and disorders. And we are usually just as quick to medicate it, smooth it out. Hyperactivity or excessive enthusiasm need dampening. Anger needs to be invalidated and boxed up. Grief needs to managed to stop the crying. Sadness needs medicating.
But dogs don’t worry about any of that crap. They have an emotion, you know about it. There is no containing it, or concern about whether it’s the right emotion or the right time to express it.
Back in the dark ages, the prevailing belief was that dogs and other animals couldn’t experience or express emotions. Thankfully our understanding has come a long way since then. We now understand that the mind of a dog is roughly equivalent to that of a two and a half year old human. The assortment of emotions available to a dog is roughly equivalent to that of a two and half year old child. That is to say, a dog will have all of the basic emotions: joy, fear, anger, disgust, and love, but a dog does not experience the more complex emotions like guilt, pride, and shame.
And we also understand that a dog’s emotional development is the same as that of a human, only quicker. What takes two and half years in a human, develops in a dog over 4-6 months. At 4 - 6 months (depending on the breed and its rate of maturation), a dog has developed capacity for every emotion he will ever develop.
At birth, a human has only an emotion that we might call excitement, ranging from very calm up to a state of frenzy. Within the first weeks of life the excitement state comes to take on a varying positive or a negative flavour, so we can now detect the general emotions of contentment and distress. In the next couple of months, disgust, fear, and anger become detectable in the infant. Joy often does not appear until the infant is nearly six months of age and it is followed by the emergence of shyness or suspicion. True affection, the sort that it makes sense to use the label “love” for, does not fully emerge until nine or ten months of age.
The complex social emotions—those which have elements that must be learned—don’t appear until much later. Shame and pride take nearly three years to appear, while guilt appears around six months after that. A child is nearly four years of age before contempt is felt.
So at 2 months old, the WAGS puppers are starting to express both negative and positive excitement. They can show distress as well as contentment or happiness. And boy do they express it. It’s one of the reasons that people love being around pups, they express all that is in their little hearts. And never is there a fear that by expressing an emotion will they somehow be hurt more or somehow dissolve or ‘be less than’
Expressing emotion is healthy, no matter what that emotion is. I would argue that all emotions are positive. There is an innate connection between emotion and need. Emotions act like signals, they serve a function and should never be judged or ignored. We learn to suppress our emotions to our own detriment, and the detriment of all those around us.
Being with dogs, especially being with all 16 of them on a freezing Tablelands morning, is like a huge big breath of fresh air. It’s permission to act the fool, cry your heart out, dance in the rain and gush with love. It’s being able to express what is in your heart, to its fullest extent and regardless of consequences.
So after my phone call to my young friend, after things had quietened at home and the storm had passed without taking any buildings down, I went to see her with some of my WAGS crew. And we cried, and we laughed and we poured love into the big sponges that are my WAGS pack. And we learned that emotion is real, and good, and healthy, and while we’re at it maybe there are few other residual feelings in there dying to get out from stuff that happened a long time ago. And that’s ok too.
The primary tool a kid has to learn stuff is observation of the adults around them. Initially its immediate family and over time that circle of influence widens to include extended family and friends. All of these people will have an influence on how a young person perceives the world and how valuable they are in it.
Sometimes, part of the reason we encourage our kids to suppress their emotions, particularly the extremes, is because of some convoluted reasoning we have engaged in about how it’s our fault for their sadness, disappointment or anger. We couldn’t afford the really cool shoes they wanted, we couldn’t afford to take the night off work to go to their dance concert, we put them in the path of the school bully or the abuser by not being vigilant. As adults we tend to be pretty good at finding a way to blame ourselves. But having blamed ourselves, we don’t want our failings broadcast, hence the need to suppress any reaction to our perceived failings.
There is also the truth that while ever we as adults are not comfortable with expressing emotions, a product of our own family history, we will not be comfortable with emotion in our children. However, there is strong evidence showing that children will carry the unresolved emotions of their parents. Particularly the youngest sibling will carry the emotions not openly acknowledged and dealt with in the family. And we can all see how well things are going to end if a child starts acting out unresolved emotions for us – they are usually unresolved because we don’t want to face them, so we are going to stuff that back in a box real quick.
All that emotion might be suppressed in the moment but it can’t stay there. Young people are quickly overwhelmed by an overflowing cup of emotion, particularly where there is no pressure valve. Dogs are a great pressure valve. And the one of the most important services the WAGS team offers is a safe place to FEEL. Some kids come to it quickly, others take longer to warm up to the idea, but eventually we all get it – the dog is reacting to your emotions all the time and every one of those emotions is healthy and real and ok. It’s ok to come down to see the dogs and just cry into his fur. It’s also ok to come and see the dogs so you can dance around like a goose and laugh controllably. It’s all ok and it’s all in a day’s work for the dogs.
If I have an anthem as a youth worker, it would have to be Pink’s ‘The Great Escape’:
“I won't let you make the great escape,
I'm never gonna watch you checkin' out of this place
I'm not gonna lose you
'Cause the passion and the pain
Are gonna keep you alive someday”