Lessons From My Four-legged Friend

Recently my family expanded; we welcomed a furry, fluffy four-legged friend to our home. This is my first experience with a puppy. This is the third dog that I have grown to love, but our first two were dogs that we adopted from a shelter shortly after getting married. We had been married just a few months when we purchased our first home. Unlike my husband, I had not had a dog growing up, but as we were moving our furniture in my husband said, “Now we can get a dog!” So that was our first Christmas present to one another, a one-year-old corgi we adopted. Soon after we brought home a terrier to keep the corgi company.

I was ready the night we brought our new puppy, Tucker, home to have crying and lots of accidents and to have him be hesitant around us. After all, we just picked him up on a Friday night and his whole world changed. Yet, he surprised me. On the ride home, he cuddled my kids in the back without whining. Within minutes of being at our house he was laying on his back to get tummy rubs. For dogs, laying on their back is a very vulnerable position that they only go into if they feel safe and comfortable. I sat there petting the dog in awe. He didn’t know us, so how was he already so comfortable? It was very different that my previous experiences as a dog owner. But to this puppy, who came from and EXCELLENT breeder, humans meant love and comfort and fun and that his basic needs were met. He was not frightened of us, because all of his life experiences had told him that people were positive and brought love and attention. He willingly followed us anywhere we went in the house. He showed no signs of hesitancy or distrust. He just wagged his tail, played with his toys, and happily explored his new home.

Our experience bringing home our other dogs was different. Our corgi came to us because his previous owner had taken a job where he travelled. The dog was nervous at first and took a bit of coaxing to settle in and eat, but after a few days in our house, we had earned his trust. He had been trained well and taken care of, so he quickly adjusted. Our terrier we were told had been abused. His owners moved and left him in the home. We did not quite understand the extent of his abuse (and we will never know what all he endured), but he showed extreme fear aggression. He ran out of the room whenever my husband took off his belt at the end of the day or his baseball cap. We invested a lot of time and energy into showing him love and consistency and that he was safe. Eventually, he would snuggle with my husband and myself, but he was leery of other people being in our home and never really warmed up to anyone else besides the two of us. It took weeks and weeks to gain his trust. His experiences with people and the world were vastly different than those of my trusting new puppy. His experiences caused him to automatically distrust people, because he had been harmed in the past. He was acting on his instincts to protect himself.

So there I was, one week ago, with a new puppy snuggled on my lap just thinking about how different the first night home had been with each of the dogs we loved so much. In that moment, all I could think about (other than how cute my puppy was) was the ACES and trauma informed care. You see, just like trauma effected my four-legged friend, it impacts humans too. ACES stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. Researchers found a correlation between a higher ACE score and more health issues and risky behaviors. ACEs look at a person’s childhood for emotional neglect, physical neglect, parental incarceration, parental substance use, parental death, divorce, parental mental health concerns,

physical abuse, and sexual abuse. According to the 70/30 campaign, people with ACE scores of 4 or more are:

-3 times more likely to have lung disease and smoke

-14 times more likely to attempt suicide

-4.5 times more likely to develop depression

-11 times more likely to use IV drugs

-4 times more likely to begin intercourse by age 15

And

-2 times more likely to have liver disease

At this point you may be wondering, “Where is the hope? Those statistics sound so discouraging.” Yes, ACES can help us to understand a correlation, but adversity does not have to be a determinant. THERE IS HOPE. Work is now being done to promote resiliency. Resiliency is reducing risk factors and increasing protective factors. We can learn and practice resiliency skills, and we can encourage skill-building in those around us who have experienced trauma.

So what are resiliency skills to learn and practice?

Cognitive Strategies for Learned Optimism

*Temporary (versus permanent): example- “I made a mistake that comes with consequences.” Vs. “I will never be good enough.”

*Local (versus pervasive): “I messed up on….(insert something specific).” Vs. “I never do anything right.”

*Controllable (versus uncontrollable): “I didn’t put enough time or effort into (specific event). Now I know what I need to do for next time.” Vs. “I’m a total screw up.”

Using these cognitive strategies can help each of us to see hope for the future and remember that stresses and setbacks are not permanent and pervasive.

Self-Care

Life is hard at times. We all experiences stressors to one degree or another. It is important for developing resiliency to practice self-care. Answering the following questions can be helpful:

What helps me to relax and feel recharged?

When can I work self-care into my daily routine?

What are signals my body gives me that indicate I need to dedicate some extra time to self-care?

Self-care can look different for different individuals. For me, going out for coffee and having a long talk with a friend is energizing and relaxing, even if we are talking about the tough stuff of life. My husband

would rather go for a solo walk at Palisades to get recharged. My daughter uses art, and my son turns to karate. What is important is that you learn how to integrate your self-care into your routine of life.

Emotional Awareness

Life gets busy, and we do not always stop to take time to reflect on how we are feeling. It is important to know what emotions we are experiencing and how they impact our body.

What “red flags” does your body send you to indicate stress, worry, anger, fear, or frustration?

Where do you feel that each of the above emotions impacts your physical state?

What is your plan to handle those tough emotions when they arise?

We are all going to experience negative emotions as we go about our lives. Therefore, it is important to take time to recognize how we are feeling and its impact. What we do with that information leads us to the next resiliency strategy.

Self-regulation

Regulation is the ability to manage your own system.

When those tough emotions arise, what is a positive and healthy way to deal with them?

Deep breathing, tapping both your legs with both hands, prayer, meditating on scripture, and mindfulness are several self-regulation strategies. Find what is most effective for you!

Social Skills

As I shared above, trauma can impact our worldview. After traumatic experiences, a person may have to work diligently to learn to trust and let their guard down. But with practice and over time, there is hope!

Coping skills

When memories of the trauma are triggered or life is tough for new reasons, it is good to have coping skills. These are the things that can help us to get through that hard moment or season without turning to negative behaviors. Taking a walk, calling a friend, reading a book, taking a bubble bath, hitting the gym, reading the Bible, praying, and journaling are just a few examples of coping mechanisms. It is ideal to have several that you can fall back on, because depending on the level of the stressor, it may take more than one to help you to cope.

There is hope for each one of us! Whether you have experienced a traumatic event or just are in a hard season of life, resiliency skills can help you to navigate through while keeping your eyes on hope for the future. Our God is a God of second chances. He created each of us uniquely and loves you and me more than we can even begin to fathom. He loves us so much He sent His son to pay the penalty for our sins that we may spend eternity with Him. I don’t know about you, but knowing Christ as my Savior, the HOPE OF HEAVEN is the greatest hope there is when life gets tough down here on earth!

Amy DeLay, Patient Advocate