Monday, April 17, 2017

Why I Love Couples Therapy

There are those therapists among you that SAY they do couples therapy, but the truth is, they see two people who are in relationship to each other and treat each individually.

I don't do that.

I figure if you have two people in a room, you have the ingredients for a family, and a family is much more than the sum of its parts.

I love to see couples in counseling because people create such problems for themselves. They bear tremendous delusions about being married when they come in, and what marriage can do.

I'll just list a few of them so you can get a sense for what I'm talking about:
  • "If you love me, you'll never find another person sexually attractive."
  • "This is important to me, so it should be equally important to you."
  • "You don't want sex with me, so you don't want sex."
  • "My relationship with my family is your job, too."
  • "There is one right way to (raise kids, clean the house, etc, etc) and you aren't doing it.
  • "When you love someone, you always want what's best for them." (No, sometimes you hate them and wish they were suffering, sort of)
I read Craig's List once in a while, to read what people want to talk about regarding their relationship. A lot of the topics have to do with stuff I have very strong opinions about, but many people posting says stuff like: Don't tell me to see a therapist! so it makes me reluctant to give serious advice.

It's sort of like saying "I'd like some advice. My roof is leaking, but don't tell me to hire a roofer!"

Well, the truth is, it isn't exactly like that, because for the most part if you get a referral for a leaky roof, the roofer fixes it. There's no such guarantee with marriage counseling. There are several reasons why.

The first reason is that people usually wait 6-7 years after the problems get started before they even GO to a marital therapist. If you waited 7 years after your roof started leaking to call a roofer, you'd expect a big bill, wouldn't you?

The second reason is that the profession has done a pretty lousy job helping troubled couples, and have waited for way, way WAY too long to do the longitudinal research necessary to figure out what makes marriages truly work.

John Gottman from the University of Washington, Seattle did, and what he found out wasn't rocket science, but it was a surprise to a lot of people. And counter-intuitive.

One shocking thing his research group found out, is that they could review the first 15 minutes of tapes of dating couples during a structured interview, and figure out which ones would divorce (if they got married) from which one's would not with remarkable accuracy.

One nosy grad student wanted to see just how much data was needed to still predict pretty darn close, and her answer was too shocking to be believed: three minutes.

So, why I love couples therapy so much is that if you can help people figure out what they want their futures to look like, and what parts of those futures they want to work on together;

  •  if you can teach them how to trust themselves enough to say what's on their minds (the ones near breaking up are usually easier to help on this point); 
  • if you can teach them something truly practical about sex that allows them to have and enjoy it more often; 
  • if they can figure out how to work together on being parents and friends---boy all of that really makes them happy and grateful to you. That's nice.

You can't really "do" marital therapy with individuals, although I used to be willing to start out that way. The problem with helping individuals with a troubled marriage is that they can't possibly seem to describe what's wrong with their marriages and their partners. They can only give you their own delusional reality about it.

This usually has little or nothing to do with the actual person you'll later meet. BUT, the reason I'll do it initially, is that talking about one's spouse has EVERYTHING to do with the speaker. That can be useful, but pretty darn frustrating if what you were hoping for was a sympathetic ear who's just going to agree with you.

Now, it's nice to have a 'bartenders' view' of a troubled marriage at times.

That's when a person tells his or her bartender: "You have no idea what I put up with. She's cold as a fish. She yells at me all the time. I get an earful every time I want to come here and have a beer, and the house isn't fit for a pig" and the bartender says "Geez, Mac, that's tough."

Maybe that's what Craig's list posters are looking for.

But if you get that from someone claiming to be a marital therapist, you should run, not walk out of there.

A good psychologist knows that there's more to the story. Of course, there is. What was she like when you married her? Was she a sweet and passionate lass who slowly turned? (What 'environs' encouraged that transformation?) Was she always that way, and you took one look at her and said: "That's the one for me!"

These questions require the person to take responsibility. Yuk.

There is a magic wand a good psychologist has tucked behind her or his file cabinets, and one wave:

  • warms a cold fish, 
  • makes a man put down the toilet seat (it doesn't work in one's own family), 
  • cause compulsive attention and passion about changing diapers and oral sex,
  •  and prevents faltering erections. 

And no, I won't wave it at you, because you don't pay me enough.

Marriages ARE impossible because PEOPLE are impossible.

One good sign is that the best marriages have quite a few problems, but they have something else that no magic wand can fix: they have a sense of humor about their problems. They have other things I'll be talking about more as time goes on, but the sense of humor thing is no small whoop.

Psychotherapy is an impossible profession.

I stopped my psychotherapy practice years ago, to give myself time to recover from my own divorce. It just didn't seem right to me to counsel people about how to keep their marriages together when I was in the crazy period of ending my own. There just seemed like a contradiction to me, as simple as I am.

That was years ago, and my ex- and I get along pretty good now. He's involved with a nice woman, and I remarried a friend I knew in high school. The darn fool was in love with me then and kept the home fires burning for me ever since. Jumped at the chance to grab me in my 40's when was grey and lost all that lovely honey-blonde hair. Love.

So, what was I saying? I stopped for a while and did other things. I got into gardening. I developed a passion for chickens. I developed a profound respect for farmers and for rural country life, and for learning how to depend on people and ask for help. I've realized how profoundly oil depletion is going to impact l of us, and started to write about that in a blog you can find here. I learned about business in a builder-distributorship my husband owned and then this happened. If you haven't been affected by it, yet, or know someone who has, wait a while. You will.

So now, I'm thinking that it might be pretty darn smart to try and strengthen the community around me in any way I can because strong marriages make strong families. And strong families make strong communities. And we are all going to need all the strength we can get from our own families and our communities in the months and years ahead.

If you live near me, and you are having troubles at home, you can read more about what I believe and how I work at couplestherapyinc.comCouples Therapy Inc. If you live far away, you might want to seriously research a good roofer in your area, if your roof is leaking. Or wait seven years, and see if it fixes itself. Or fly to see me for a weekend.

In good times, a bad marriage can be eased with consumer spending, holiday travel, or even a drive in the country.

In bad times, folks, things will get 'up close and personal.' Already, money is the number one most popular thing couples fight about. Sex and communications are up there too. If you feel that you've lost respect for your partner, chances are you've lost your interest in pleasing them sexually too. If you don't feel like you have a friend next to you, and can't talk out your problems, you'll be unlikely to have things improve with age.

I hope you'll find these posts entertaining and informative. If you're local to me and want to sit down and talk in person, let's do that.  Otherwise, you can see one of my associates across the USA or in Ireland.

He Wanted a Guarantee

I had a most interesting telephone 'interview' from a gentleman who wanted to determine if I were the right therapist for him. He was quite familiar with various schools of couples therapy. He had asked if I were familiar with a site about marriage and marriage therapy, and I was not. He said the site spoke about the need to be "marriage positive," and that most couples therapists were not. He asked me whether I was or not.

I answered that I liked marriage and personally liked BEING married. And divorce itself causes terrible harm.  I have the title "Marriage Friendly Therapist," so I imagine yes, I'm marriage positive.

He asked whether I worked to save the marriage, or for the benefit of the individual. What a great question.

I told him that part of the problem with having a successful marriage was a fusion or 'enmeshment' between the two partners that made having a happy marriage impossible. I didn't see it as simply as being "for" a marriage or "for" an individual, but I knew what he meant.

Sometimes a therapist can develop a personal bias that comes out in their clinical work that "marriage" can somehow "restrain" the individual, preventing them from reaching some greater "potential."

I told him that wasn't my perspective.

I thought of relationships as an avenue that can help people to "grow themselves up," but it takes two. The decision to divorce is always a unilateral decision that either person can make at any time.

He told me that he believed that the therapist's (I'm paraphrasing here) 'mental set' about making the marriage successful was crucial in determining whether the couples work would be successful, and he wanted to know if I were able to make that sort of commitment to his marriage.

I could not.

I didn't know anything about his marriage, or him, for that matter.

I had never even spoken to his wife.

How could I provide him that reassurance?

What would it be worth if I did?

Apparently, he had received these types of assurances in the past from other therapists, and that scares me.

How could anyone give an assurance that just by the way I think, that power will change HIS marriage...


Wednesday, April 01, 2009

When a Clients Get Angry at their Therapist

"Sometimes you say things that really piss me off" my client told me.

What I just said was one of those times. I was flattered. Clients do you a great favor when they tell you they didn't like what you told them.

You've reached a different level of honesty with them.

It is impossible to do "good therapy" without either being profoundly wrong at times, or equally problematic, painfully right. Often, when profoundly wrong, they either don't tell you, or they correct your misunderstanding. Everything about the way they speak to you, when you are wrongheaded, tells you that you missed the mark.

When I'm on target, however, and perhaps something less than "gentle" in delivering my message, I make you angry. Most often, I make you most angry when I'm protecting that side of you that least wants my advocacy, never mind my acknowledgment.

When you are very hard on yourself, dear client, encouraging words like "go easy on yourself" work only for the mildest of cases. These sorts of reassurances most people want and need from spouses or close friends, as a sort of "attaboy!"

In therapy, especially when the destructive self-hatred is very entrenched and resilient, kind words are worse than useless. They encourage that "hateful side" to dig in deeper, convincing you that not only are you despicable, but you are an idiot for picking a useless therapist. After all, therapists are "suppose" to be kind and positive, right? Dr. Kathy may be kind, but does she have a clue? Has she really missed how truly rotten I am?

In situations like this, when the relationship between my client and I are strong, it is time for tough talk. I outline what I see happening: how such an attitude is both protecting my client and preventing him or her from seeing the possibility of change. They have become entrenched in a pattern of thinking or acting that they are now actively holding on to, while claiming they are helpless to do anything differently.

Clients have learned that you don't mind being wrong, and aren't in love with your ideas.

"Pissing off" a client is only effective for therapists who aren't really "in love" with their ideas, notions or (especially) their theoretical models. The most practical advice I ever read, was from Carl Whitaker, a family therapist, who said "Learn to advance and retreat from any position." Needing to be "right" is often the very problem that brings clients into therapy. A therapist compounds the difficulty when they insist on their point of view as being the correct one. A good therapist prefers to be effective, rather than "right." They hold their theories lightly, and always in the service of their clients, not as a weapon to hit them with.

Clients have confidence that you are working with their best interest at heart, even if it doesn't feel like that from moment to moment.

Most people can't possibly trust that their therapist is working in their best interest, except over time and through experience. Therefore, I seldom find myself "pissing off" my new clients. They don't know me, and they have no reason to trust me. They have even less reason to make themselves vulnerable, by saying that I've made them angry. If a client is very angry at me, very early in therapy, it usually has more to do with the client's way of being in the world, than my way of doing therapy. I know myself and the effect my personality has on most people. Most people like me, as a therapist, and I give them very little reason not to, as we begin working together.

Clients learn that you are strong enough to allow them to be angry at you.

Most clients are extremely protective of even ineffective therapists. Most don't want to hurt or offend their therapists, and would rather quit therapy than confess that they are angry at the therapist. Often, in our "4-6 session therapy world," clients hardly know the therapist well enough to develop an opinion, never mind share it. When a client can get angry at you, it usually means they know you well enough, care about you enough, and believe, deep down, that they won't crush you with their hostile emotions. This is usually an excellent sign.

Clients know you won't retaliate.

That comes with trust that develops over time. Many clients come to therapy because they grew up with people who had power over them, and often used it unpredictably, or underhandedly. Learning to be upfront about the impact people have on you, emotionally, particularly people who have a great deal of influence over you, requires some sort of belief that you will be safe to do so, without unpleasant unexpected consequences. \

Often my reactions aren't what they expect. I often thank them for their honesty, or tell them I'm flattered by it. Sometimes, I tell them that they may be even feeling angry because they believe I was "on target." I sympathize that it is one thing to be angry at someone for saying something that made you angry because it was not true. It is even more infuriating when it IS true. I invite them to feel entitled to their angry feelings, while at the same time, watching and mulling over what was said. That's often an unexpected response, but not an unpleasant one.

Clients know you have your own perspective and don't "catch" their emotions.

We often live in a world where getting angry at someone causes that person to get angry back. Such "contagiousness" of emotions is often the norm. Good therapy doesn't work when emotions are contagious. I'm most often curious when clients have strong feelings, and move into a closer relationship with them, rather than respond defensively.

"What part of that got you angriest? What do you imagine I meant by that? Is it true? What did I leave out by saying it that way? Wow. That's really interesting. I never thought about it that way before. No wonder it made you angry to hear me say that. I might have felt the same way, if I took it that way."

People don't often feel flattered by someone getting angry at them, nor do they want to hear more. A more typical response is to attempt to either appease the angry person, or distance from them. Paradoxically, however, anger is an APPROACH emotion. It is often an attempt to bring the person you feel angry at into closer contact, not drive them away. Anger enables us to express ourselves and be better known to the other person when it is done effectively.

I truly appreciate my clients telling me about their emotional state, even when that state is anger, and even when I am the target of that angry feeling.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A New Name, a New Focus

This blog is about my couples therapy psychotherapy practice here in the Hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. I figured it might be interesting to chronicle it here. It won't be a traditional practice, in any sense, nor do I want it to be. I don't see the world in conventional ways so my practice will reflect that.

The name of the blog, Dr. Kathy, Ink., means it is my own thoughts, not those of my organization or my profession. I thought of all kinds of other names--ones through which I tried to capture what I want people to link to, about the way I work--but ultimately, I think just being 'Dr. Kathy' captures it.

Kathy is my legal birth name, not a nickname. I always believed that the words "Dr." and "Kathy" fit as well as "oatmeal" and "orange juice" for breakfast. But that's my name, and that's my degree, and I guess it is a description of me, as well. Professional but not fussy.

My practice is simple and local, two traits I've come to value a great deal. It's also cosmopolitan and international. Those are also two words that describe the people I work with.

In upcoming blogs, I plan to talk about the heart of my psychotherapy practice, Dr. Kathy style.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Winding Road

This freestyle essay came from the writing prompt: "Look at something around you in a new way." Here are the results. Other than typos, it was written as you read it.

I live on a hilltop. It is cold in winter, and we have a long, winding driveway that ices up and is slippery. In the spring, the melting snow creates streams of water that create crevices in it and the moisture causes the gravel to part under the weight of our car. In the summer, the carefully chosen and laid gravel cannot withstand the demands of the weeds, which grow up through it, even without the benefit of soil.

But there is another side to my driveway when I take a second look. It curves so delightfully, and gracefully, hiding our home from the view of the street. It is such a natural extension of the end of our long street, that tourists will often mistake it for the road itself, and drive up it, to be surprised by our house at the end. It is long, I say nearly ½ mile, or so it seems to walk it, and so it graces our entrance delightfully.

The weeds that grow all around it can also be called by another name: Wildflowers. After their ugly weedy starts, they display beautiful flowers that encase the auto’s travel, and mine as well, if I walked it. And if I walked it, I see a peek into our woods, and a patch of raspberry bushes, and a dining table for elves, leprechauns, and fairies.

I know, of course, that the huge rock table was actually put there by our “Country Wizard Extraordinaire,” Russ, who put in our driveway, but that is who actually accomplished this Herculean feat, with power equipment.

Who was the muse that caused him to decide that an outdoor dining table was needed in that spot? The elves, leprechauns, and fairies of course. They whispered into his ear that April day, and told him exactly where to set it: “Under that tree, just to the right, and put large boulders in front of it to the side of the driveway, to protect it from sliding cars. We don’t want to be disturbed by sliding cars while we dine…” They supply their own chairs until I can see clearly enough to know what to do: Put some of the wild ginger plants there, and let them make fine comfortable seating.

Blindness often invades me. Instead of fairy tables and wildflowers, I see weeds and ice. It is a blindness of a city person who has lost touch with her country roots. 

Let me be clear: I was born in Boston and lived in the city or suburbs most of my life, but I do have country roots when I see clearly. I spent summers in campgrounds and the ‘country’ with my father’s mother, with horses and chicken coops and dirt roads. 

And my deeper ancestral roots were in County Clare, Ireland, where the dirt was the kitchen floor as well as the driveway, and the large hearth with a peat fire cooked the food. With city eyes, I could see the poverty of thatched roofs and tiny windows and bedrooms. With my blindness removed, however, I could see the fine stone fencing that encased the ‘ladies garden,’ and the fields that kept the neighbor’s horses, and the complete enchantment of a land that Cromwell complained contained neither the water to drown a man, the trees to hang him nor the soil to bury him.

Clare did have a form of a Sunday promenade, the formal name of which escapes me, but a ritual of sorts that brought neighbors visiting other neighbors. They would come, and sit, and drink tea and catch up on the news: a baby that was to be born, a barn that needs to be repaired, the birth of a goat, a stubborn mule that knocked down a fence. These kinds of rituals aren’t done anymore by my Clare cousins. 

“Y’ don’t know if you might walk in on them when watching a favorite Tellie program…” 

And you can’t call them, because these cousins don’t have phones or the neighbors don’t, or both. 

They’ve gone blind, you see.

Down that driveway carries my car, and it speeds past the berry bushes, the wildflowers, and the enchanted dining table. As we whiz down the road, we also go by the river that actually bubbles and runs swiftly like its name, Swift River. 

I am blind in my car as I am watching the road or engrossed in thoughts that take me far away from the beauty of what surrounds me. I think only of the distance to travel to town, to be again in asphalt and heat and fumes from distant Ohio factories that settle in the Valley below me, and into the warmth that brings early flowers in spring, but the ungodly heat in summer.

It takes me only three days back in the city before the buildings seem all too close, the people too many, and the traffic too noisy. There, in this discomfort, I start to get a clearer vision. 

I see my driveway entrance, and my wildflowers in summer, and even the ice in winter that hangs like icicles on Christmas trees. I long for the long stretches of meadow in all seasons that show me, in winter, what the phrase “blanket of snow” really means, or why in summer, “make hay while the sun shines” is actual advice and not just a saying.

City people blindly cut grass short and put it into plastic bags to be picked up by workers in trucks, but here we grow it long before we cut it and roll it up for the animals to eat in winter. There is a chaotic loveliness to the country, a dirty practicality that tourists, like myself, years ago in Ireland, see as poverty or worse. 

There is a winding, careless, ‘you aren’t in control even if you think you are’ reminders in the country of just how vulnerable we humans are. We keep backup sand and shovels half way down the driveway for slide-outs, or black sunflower seeds later in the winter that serve as welcome-back bird food as well as traction. We keep carelessly piled wood that feeds our furnace if the ice kills the electricity. We have dirty dogs and dirt driveways, and weeds and bumps, that city people see.

But after three days in the city, I no longer see any of that. All I see, and all I long for, is the magic of the solitude and fairy tables and wildflowers that come with the long and winding road I call my home.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

September, The Start of the Year

I love summer. I love walking around buck naked, I like gardening, I like a lot of stuff about it.

But the real start of any year in my world isn't January. It's September. I think one knows if you are oriented toward being an academic if the approach of September brings you new ideas, a desire to read stuff, a reminiscent fondling of your books. That's what September does for me.

I want to get out my plaid skirt, but I don't own a plaid skirt. I want to buy new sweaters, even though it is too hot to wear them. I want to sharpen my pencils, organize my book bag, and get ready to learn something.

Fortunately, being an academic, I can do all these things. I can buy new books and deduct them from my taxes. I can do literature searches and mark them with yellow highlighter. I can investigate new computer programs that allow me to organize a ton of quotes and references for articles I haven't even conceived of yet.

If all of these things sound as appealing as a dental cleaning, don't go into academia. The biggest rewards I get from teaching is the learning I do myself. My learning style is a "Converger" meaning that I like to perceive information abstractly and process it actively. I want to test theories, apply common sense, handle information and see if it works. I don't like to be given answers, because I'm too distrustful to believe it just because someone said it.

As a teacher, I want to give my students the skills they need in life. I use a lot of movies because it is a great way to get across complex ideas quickly. My favorite question really is: How does this work? or more exactly "How does the World work?"

I live close to a college town, and this time of the year brings a ton of new students to the many colleges in the area. While summer is a sleepy time here, and traffic is light, the fall brings a crush of cars, a collision of older adolescents and toni parents with carefully applied make-up and clean clothes. We locals know that they don't really live around here. We know anyone who looks like that is either coming to a college reunion or dropping off or visiting their kids. Even though they fill up the restaurants and make getting around more difficult, I love to see them come. I like to look into the faces of their 18+ kids, and try to imagine just what they must be making of this life transition. Are they scared? Are they delighted? Have they applied themselves studiously and are anxious to dive into their chosen careers?

They are all very clean and organized looking now, but I know that over time their looks will change. Their clothes will get wrinkled. Their hair might be more outrageous. Their sunglasses will look odd or piercings will appear. Even 'dress up' will be a little less dressy, and most of their shoes will be comfortable most of the time. In other words, they will begin to blend in.

My constant questioning about how the world works, my love of documentaries that 'teach me something,' and my natural laziness to dress up almost ever, allows me to blend in to this college scene too, although my age clearly sets me apart from it. I love the way college-aged students-- really all college students--are tossed together and end up saying "What the fuck?!" It is easy to be an angry progressive these days. It is delightful to live around people who are questioning why things are the way they are and what should be done about it.

Being an adjunct professor is about the best job ever, as far as I'm concerned. I've been an Associate Professor and a College Administrator, and these roles place way too much "tar" on my feet. I have things to teach, and I just want to get right up close and teach them. I don't want to sink deeply into academic bureaucracies, advocate anyone's 'viewpoint' except my own.
I want to be like the college student, him or herself, a free agent struggling with just how much I can be myself and get away with it. It is that pull of "fitting in" and "being your own person" that comes up for me again, now close to 50.

That's probably why I like September so much. Once again, I get to learn new things, and try to get across a confusing message to students who take my course: I want you to disagree with me, you don't get punished for that. And I also want you to work hard and come to class and do the readings. So yes, I do have classroom power and I do make demands. And I make them because that is my role: to teach you something I know. And one of those demands invites you to test out the role of having your own opinions and disagreeing with me. That's how I learn and grow. I learn and grow from people offering their own ideas, once they've come to understand mine. My job is to have the ideas and to clearly present them to you. Your job is to understand them and then to make them your own by rejecting some, clarifying others, accepting a few more. It isn't the ideas themselves you have to accept as "truth." It is the process of thinking.

I am fond of the line that states “Thinking is one of the hardest things people can do. That’s why it is done so rarely.” If, at times, a student find herself frustrated, confused, or anxious, and she doesn’t immediately look for someone or something to blame, I consider that she's made great progress in understanding the often contradictory theories I’m trying to teach. I know it is easier at times to just be doctrinaire. "Just the facts, Professor." No. Don't take my word for it. Dust off a few books, and find out for yourself. It's September. It's the month for learning new things!

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

For the Love of Dogs

People are crazy about their dogs, and I know why: Dogs look after their humans. It is the opposite of what most people think. Most people think that humans “own” dogs and “care for” dogs, and dogs hang around naked, don’t work, and expect free handouts. That is just the kind of stupid human perspective that would never occur to a dog. Dogs don’t see the world in that way.

Since humans were first around, dogs have been hanging around them, and from a dog’s point of view, it hasn’t been easy. Dogs are exceedingly flexible, and as the saying goes, are loyal and true. They really are. While in this culture when we live in major cities, there is little dog opportunity to show it, but it is true none the less. And they like to work and would do so if given half a chance.

I love reading stories about dogs. I once read a story about this village in which the people are starving and naturally, the dogs are more so. When a villager comes across a dog eating anything at all, they assume the dog has stolen it and beat it viciously. Nevertheless, these dogs still hang around and alert the villagers to the approach of lions. That pretty much sums up a dog’s basic nature. A human’s basic nature, too, I suppose.

Another story I like is one about a woman who credits her dog for saving her life when she was about to commit suicide. She had lost her handsome, talented son to a tragic accident, and after weeks of laying in bed in severe depression had decided to overdose on pills. That day, her dog started to act strangely. For weeks, he had laid beside her quietly on the floor, expecting very little. This day, however, he knocked over the table that had the pills on it, brought her shoes to her, then his leash, and whined and moaned until she could stand it no more, and in a state of utter annoyance got up, got dressed, and walked him. He had a destination in mind, and he literally dragged her there. The rest of the story is a bit of a blur, but I believe her son was a runner, and he took her to his running track, and she saw the image of her dead son, blah, blah, blah, and decided to live. My point is this: a non-dog owner would see this as a dog that had enough of lying around and wanted a walk, and a woman who gave it great meaning. A dog owner, however (or the more politically correct term “dog companion” or “dog guardian”) would understand the woman’s conviction that the dog saved her life. Dogs, from the very start of their relationship with humans have learned to read them emotionally very well. And this incredible dog empathy is the reason why humans invest literally millions of dollars a year in the world on dog toys, dog treats and the like.

I have three dogs that I have the good fortune of living with most of the time, because I work out of my home. I have a large lot of land, and have invested a lot of money running an invisible fence around several acres of it, to give the dogs a lot of open space. I consider it a dog’s paradise, but of course, I could make it even more appealing if I were less ‘human focused.’

Dogs see things from a dog’s perspective, and while people have written volumes on it, all of the writings are usually from a person’s point of view, even if they try to write from a dog’s perspective. We can’t help it. A lot of it talks about the dominance relationships of dogs and how we humans have to establish our dominance with the dogs we live with. That’s because we humans are obsessed with our place in the pack, and that’s what we focus on in our dogs. There are even books that give you the “inside tips” on how to establish your dominance by doing things like eating first and never letting a dog on your bed because the higher the sleeper the greater the dominance. People sometimes make me sick.

First of all, a dog isn’t stupid. They know who fills their bowls every day, and who has access to the food, and who picks the timing of the feedings. However, while a dog isn’t stupid, the same can’t be said for a lot of people who live with dogs. They do a lot of crazy behavior that confuse the dogs: they act very capriciously, and as a result they end up with “bad dogs,” and need so-called ‘dog experts’ to help them out. Like that show I saw once about the British Nanny who comes out and straightens out a family in a week, it is the parents that need straightening out so the kids can behave. It is the same thing with dogs.

Dogs each have unique personalities, likes, and habits, although they can be very flexible and forgiving if their human(s) take the time to understand. First off, I believe all dogs like to have a job and they like to be appreciated and loved for doing their job well. If you want a bad dog, give it nothing to do, and then hate it when it thinks up its own job to do that you don’t like. People want to own these highly intelligent dogs and then leave them all day, unattended, and wandering around the house looking for something to do. Then, when the dog does find something, like chewing the leg of a chair, or a shoe, or creating a large hole in the ground, they are yelled at or worse. The dog has been waiting all day to see his or her human, and keeping itself busy, and then, the moment when the human they’ve been waiting all day to see comes home....WHAM! No warm greeting. No “I missed you so much” which of course is what the dog says the minute they see the human. No, they get yelled at, or worse.

Then, the dumb human says “My dog is a pain in the ass.” Still, even when the dog should really ignore or hate the owner for this incredibly insensitive behavior, they don’t. The dog just tries to forget about it, and let by-gones be by-gones.

I repeat: Dogs need a job, and if they are left alone all day, they need, at least as puppies, to be given a crate, water, and a few toys or bones to while away the time. Dogs can be exceedingly good at waiting.

My first husband believed that that was a dog’s job, to wait, but I don’t think so. I believe your average dog has two jobs that intertwine: to protect the property and to look after their human or humans. Some dogs really like to focus on just one human, and are called “one man dogs” or some such thing. They don’t make good family dogs, because they can’t keep the idea of all those people being their responsibility in their heads. They aren’t “family dogs” and shouldn’t live in families.

Other dogs see the whole world as their “families” and make lousy watch dogs, except when they bark excitedly at the prospects of seeing anyone new, including the burglar. Don’t get a dog like that if you want to be exceedingly special to just one dog. They will love you as much as the next guy.

Dogs have personalities, and my three are no exception. I have two German Shepherd Dogs, one from the “German” line, and one from the “American” line. The Germans take their dogs very seriously, and expect any good dog they breed to be a “working” dog. This means that they can do the things that a working dog does, like track, follow orders, and protect. And, by the way, the name of the breed IS German Shepherd Dog, to distinguish them from the guys with the sheep, apparently. They are one of the few breeds that have the word “dog” in the title. Maybe the only one, I don’t know.

German Shepherd dogs are on a list of dogs the insurance companies have to exclude you from getting insurance, because they are considered ‘dangerous.’ They are dangerous to the insurance companies, because when other people are bitten by the German Shepherd dog, the companies have to pay for the law suits. This makes sense if you are an insurance company. If you are a German Shepherd dog, however, which is a “family” type dog, you have to know who is in your family, and this can be very tough, especially in the city. Ok, maybe you introduce the dog to your mail carrier and repair guy and housekeeper, and the dog knows these humans are okay. But what if there is a substitute mail carrier that walks through the fence? What’s a dog to do? And while most Shepherds are excellent with children, what about that bratty 12 year old who sneaks over the fence with a stick, and tries to hit the dog? Should the dog just ignore the territorial encroachment and belligerent aggression?

If you are owner of one of these “barred breeds,” don’t expect any help from the law. Dogs are treated like, well, dogs, according to the laws in most states. Bears and other wildlife have more rights than dogs do. Birds can sing as loudly and as long as they want, but even in the country, if a dog barks more than twenty minutes it can be “arrested.” Dogs aren’t allowed to wander and visit friends in the neighborhood without getting arrested either, even if they are doing no harm.

One of my dogs, Malaka, was arrested recently, for visiting his girlfriend down the street. We didn’t know Malaka had a girlfriend, and we were surprised he had broken his “invisible fence.” The neighbors, on the other hand, knew all about the illegal tryst. They found the love affair harmless and cute, as Malaka is the largest Shepherd I’ve ever seen, and his paramour was a small black and white mongrel. They enjoyed strolling down the lane together and doing other things that dogs do when in love. Nevertheless, we never knew of this secret life, as Malaka always came when called, and we assumed he was just in another part of our rather large yard.

We learned differently when he didn’t come. He didn’t come because he was in Doggie Prison, as a convicted Dog Roamer. That was his crime: Roaming. And, because he never leaves the yard, or so we thought, he didn’t have his address on his collar, so the dog officer didn’t know who to call. It finally got all straightened out, and he came back, and we updated his invisible fence battery, but my point is the same: deer and bear can roam freely, and even steal your food and eat your shrubs, but they get no jail time. Shoot them for doing it, however, and you will. You can’t shoot wildlife without a license, but you can shoot a dog for being “menacing” on your property, and you can have him put to sleep if you believe he is “menacing” to you repeatedly, even if he is on a leash and never bites you. Kill a chicken, and a dog is dead meat. Literally. One bite of fresh chicken meat and the dog gets a lethal injection.

As I said before, dogs have personalities and some like other dogs, some don’t. Some prefer the company of other dogs to humans, and I don’t blame them. Most dogs prefer to be around other dogs because dogs act sensibly and frankly, humans don’t. My other Shepherd, Greta, never liked other dogs very much, until she met Jack. She loves Jack, and it is a very unlikely pairing. Jack is an 11 pound Coton de Tulear, while Greta is 75 when she slims down. While she hated Malaka when she first met him, and tolerates him to this day (only his towering size saves him from utter annihilation), she took to Jack almost immediately.

Jack is her kind of dog. He is absolutely fearless as only a puppy can be, but it is more than that. Coton’s were once wild on the Island of Madagascar, and therefore had to live by their wits, while the American line of German Shepherds were bred for their beauty. In other words, Malaka is too dim for my girl, while Jack is quick and spry. Jack outfoxes her, and she admires him for it. They play endlessly, while Malaka pines away in the corner. Greta will attack Malaka if he dares come near Jack, so he just avoids him, even letting Jack eat his food if I don’t intervene. Malaka is a broken man.

I have seen Jack take flying leaps off our bed and onto Greta’s back, all with no harmful effects. He runs after her, biting her stomach and knee caps until I pity her. Still, she patiently plays tug of war with him, even giving up a few steps in his direction to keep him hopeful and involved, before claiming her ultimate victory. She likes the game, and will “play tug” for a long time, pretending she is into it sincerely. Jack, on the other hand, could care less about winning, and cares more about playing. When she does claim the toy, Jack just bites her muzzle, her legs, her chest, her ears, as she’s walking away. It is usually enough to re-involve her in the game. It isn’t that he’s completely disinterested in winning, however. He’s just crafty. He’ll grab it back the minute she isn’t looking. He knows his own toys, too, and loses his mind if she steals them and won’t give them back. I’ve seen him pee on her bed to get even: a dog equivalent of graffiti. Or swearing, I suppose.

Out of doors, Greta has the advantage of speed, while Jack is smaller and therefore more agile. He does this weave and dodge through the bushes, and in one spot, a barrier to keep water out of the basement prevents Greta from proceeding in the chase, but not Jack. She has had to figure out from which bush he’ll reappear again, and continue the chase. It is endlessly amusing, as only a good dog game can be.

In Frisbee play, Jack knows he can’t outrun her for it, so he hides in the tall grass, in her likely return direction, and pops out as she passes to try for a sneak grab. Malaka has long since learned not to grab for the Frisbee, even if he’s able to, because he’ll get a terrible beating by her. But Malaka resents this condition, so as she runs for it, he’ll often hip chuck her on her return trip to us. Hip chucks were bad enough. Now, Greta has to contend with a “Jack Attack” as well, poor girl.

One thing humans fail to understand about dominance is that dog dominance is a constant and exhausting process for the head dog. Like the worried Chief Executive, the dog in charge has to not only keep things running, but also reminding the others who is in charge. It isn’t just size and strength that gives one the title. It is the intense desire, and that is what Greta has: The desire to lead, but unfortunately, it takes its toll. As the dog kingdom has expanded, so has her responsibilities. Now she has two dog bowls to steal from, instead of one. Now a whole new set of toys to covet. Now a new boy who vies for the affection of her preferred human. A little guy, too, who can sit on laps and sleep on beds.

This week, she has a new challenge, and I think she’s handling it gracefully: My friend Jassy, has come to stay on vacation, and brought her dog, Ziggy, a Shit-zu/Maltese mix. She’s keeping up her job of trying to steal Ziggy’s gated food, and snarling when the puppy tries to steal her Frisbee, but frankly I don’t think her heart is in it. She has Jassy to contend with, who is naturally nervous about a 75 pound dog snarling at her 9 pound snuggly. Also, Greta’s natural exuberance is a danger to Jassy, whose legs are wobbly from pain. Jassy calls Greta “a vexation to the spirit.” Greta would call Jassy “that woman who yells at me” if she spoke at all. Greta tried to get on Jassy’s good side, by running up to her, rubbing against her, etc, but it is a set of unfortunate efforts. The more Greta approaches, the more she gets yelled at. To make matters worse, from a dog’s perspective, Jack has taken to Jassy, and the feelings are mutual. Jack will enthusiastically jump onto Jassy’s lap, licking her face, snuggling into her, and Jassy speaks warmly and reciprocates. Greta looks on from a distance, with a worried look. While she recognizes that “you can’t win the heart of every human,” it lowers her status as Jack take another homosapien out of the running, by claiming it for his own.

The only thing that evens the score just a bit is that Ziggy is also displaced when Jassy shows Jack affection. For Malaka’s part, he has decided that his only way to win back some self-respect is in the desperate attempt to dominate Ziggy. This has lead to his further isolation, as his attempts are met by extreme displeasure by all the humans. While still cold consolation, he continues to be fed before the little ones, and continues to run faster than the little ones, as well. Still, I know in the world of dogs, he’s on the bottom, so I give him as much love and affection as possible. And, on a brighter note, Jassy does find his slow moving, gentler approach more endearing, and will give him affection on occasion, when he isn’t being mean to Ziggy.

How dogs ever manage to live with humans and remain in such good spirits is beyond me. The politics are incredible.