Many of you know that we breed Bernese Mountain Dogs here on Whidbey Island. Recently, we had our first “litter” – a singleton who ended up with the name Gus. Through a whole host of emotionally challenging information that required us to make a series of difficult decisions, Gus became the product of artificial insemination and had to be birthed by Caesarean. At a little over one pound, Gus felt like a miracle puppy. He and his mother, Emmy – who’s the most affectionate and responsive of any of our extremely affectionate and responsive Berners – bonded powerfully. Gus and Emmy both thrived. When he was finally ready to be placed into a good home, Gus was up close to a woolly and whirling 20 plus pounds.
The innocence of babies and puppies is a huge draw for me. It’s been hard not to project memories of my own early life of innocence and confidence onto Gus. To see him come greet Gracie the Cat with excitement and openness, only to receive a loud hiss and several rapid whops across the nose that sends him scurrying with tail between his legs, can’t help but tug on the heartstrings (Gracie never extends her claws on Gus, interestingly enough. She apparently is only wanting to teach him to respect boundaries). This interaction recalls a time for me at around age three: I am swinging on a swing in our local park when a little girl walks up to me and, for no reason I expect or can understand, she smacks me hard right in the face as I swing forward into her fist. The end of innocence and trust.
But not for Gus. Later on any day, he will once again come bounding up to Gracie, tail wagging. Eventually, she simply gets tired of abusing him and darts under a chair whenever he approaches.
When it is time for Gus to go to his new owner, I have mixed feelings. I am going to miss the little guy, but I am not going to miss him constantly being underfoot, tripping me, feeling his needle-teeth on my ankles, nor will I miss the 30 pounds of pee and poo I have to clean up every week (I actually weighed it!). When Gus finally leaves, it is like a psychic windstorm has cleared the premises.
Just When I Think He’s Gone, He’s Back
And then Gus comes back. The people who initially take him decide he is too much work and that their little kids are afraid of him. Plus, he chews their furniture.
Again I find myself with mixed feelings, this time of a different sort. How can people take a puppy as cute and innocent and as exuberant as Gus and not be willing to put in the work to keep him? If we didn’t already have Gus’s massive dad, Olliebear, he would definitely be a keeper.
So, now we set about trying to find a second home for Gus. This time it’s with a professional dog trainer who loves everything about puppies. Well, it turns out that the older dog she already has, doesn’t love puppies in the least – to the point of vicious attack. So once again, Gus comes back. And now I’m finding myself even more disturbed.
On the third try, two grandparents with two grandchildren who are previous Berner owners agree to make Gus their dog. The four of them show up, spend a short time with him and right there on the spot decide NOT to take him.
Now I’m REALLY upset, way out of proportion to this chain of events. How could these people not want this sweet, innocent baby? And that’s when the light goes off. The Wisdom Teaching, “We are rarely upset for the reason we think” surfaces in my brain. My upset isn’t just about Gus at all. It’s my own brain filled with pictures of myself at age 4 and my little sister at age 2. It is about the sweet, innocent “puppies” we once were, puppies who weren’t wanted. My father treated me and my sister much like these prospective “parents” are treating little Gus. He abandoned the family right when those pictures in my brain were taken.
Somatic Marker Theory
Noted neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has a pretty convincing explanation for my upset with the way Gus’s journey has unfolded. He calls it Somatic Marker Theory. Basically, things happen in life that trigger emotional reactions. These emotional reactions affect various parts of our body, including our brain. Primary emotion inducers are actual events, like being hit in the face while swinging on a swing, or being handed a puppy by my father on the day he left for good. These experiences get stored in brain and body as somatic markers or brain/body memories. Secondary emotional inducers are triggered thoughts and memories of these kinds of earlier events. Thoughts and memories can be even more powerful stress generators than actual direct experiences.
When a parent abandons a family, a lot of adverse emotions get generated. Survival feels like it’s perpetually at stake. Stress hormones skyrocket for everyone as if a contagion. Most of the stress never gets expressed in words. Rather, as it did in my family, it gets acted out as sub-optimal self-regulatory behavior – my mother significantly increased her alcohol intake to the point of daily intoxication. Needless to say, this and many other events that unfolded as a consequence, generated any number of painful somatic marker memories for my sister and me.
And Gus’s placement drama turned out to be just what the doctor ordered to begin dredging them up. Now begins my hard personal work of neuro-somatic integration. It better happen fast. We have another litter of puppies due next month.