Learning (and Unlearning) Experiences

My pug Miles and I were thoroughly enjoying our walk when we ran into a neighbor and her puppy.  The puppy was twice the size of Miles, but that never bothered Miles before. In his head, Miles thinks he’s the size of a Great Dane.  The two dogs had never met before, so we let them sniff each other and become acquainted.


It wasn’t long before the two of them started playing and running circles around each other.  It also wasn’t long before our two leashes were wrapped around the dogs and us.  As they became out of control and totally tied up, the other playful dog had Miles in a position where he couldn’t move. There was no slack on the leash and the puppy, totally in control, had him down on the ground. That’s when Miles, the always even-tempered, happy-go-lucky Pug became the devil dog.


Miles definitely made the first move and attacked. While he had been playing a minute ago, now he was growling and ferociously trying to bite.  The puppy reciprocated with the same behavior as we tried to control the situation.  I apologized profusely as I pulled my growling pug off the dog.  At that moment I felt like a mom that was apologizing for my son’s bad behavior.


As I left the scene of the crime and continued walking, I thought about the incident. I hadn’t ever witnessed that behavior before and I was perplexed. Miles was the most unaggressive animal on the planet. Everyone knows that Pugs, by nature, are not aggressive dogs.  And then it occurred to me.  Less than a year ago, we were taking a walk when a dog sitting in his own yard suddenly lunged at Miles.  He hardly saw it coming, and neither did I. It was terrifying to both of us. A couple hours later, I realized that he had a rather large wound and he ended up in surgery.


Even though Pugs have absolutely wonderful temperaments, Miles had learned a valuable lesson from the incident.  He now knew that he needed to be on his guard with every dog because they couldn’t be trusted.  His brain was now imprinted to approach each dog interaction with wariness and high alert; chances are, they will attack. Therefore, he now knew that at the first inclination of aggressiveness, he needed to attack to survive.  Biology ruled this interaction.


Why am I sharing this with you?  Human brains process fearful situations in a similar way.  If you have experienced a situation from the past where you felt seriously threatened, that information has been stored away for future use. Your brain has imprinted this experience so you can protect yourself in the future.


So now I want you to think about your own life.  Have you ever been in a bad relationship that ended in a hurtful manner?  If you have, you probably had difficulty trusting and believing in a new relationship because of those old feelings popping up. Maybe it was the pain and trauma of being fired from a job that left your emotions raw. Because of it, you no longer can view your new employer in the same trusting manner. The truth is that you will never go back to that original person that you trusted so blindly.  You’ve had an experience that has changed you forever.  Instinctively, you now scan for clues to make sure that your situation is safe.


But here’s the good news.  Unlike Miles, you are not tied to your instinctual behavior.  You can recognize your behavior and learn to question your actions.  You can make sense of your reactions and remind yourself that you don’t have to respond in such an intense, aggressive manner.


The bottom line is that you’re lucky. Unlike Miles, you can choose how you want to view the world and react to your surroundings. You can move forward in life and change the way you think. Do it!