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What Beowulf Taught me about Playfulness

Since my involvement as RO DBT, I have learned a lot about playfulness.  Clinically, I have learned that bringing playful irreverence into the therapy room and skills class functions to model to people who lean to overcontrol (OC; of which I am one) that chilling out is therapeutic. After all, if we are not playful in session and class, we smuggle in that playfulness is somehow not ok. And as we know, OC people do not need to work harder, attain more perfection or learn how to inhibit emotions more. Personally, I have learned that being playful gets me closer to those I want to improve my relationships with and serves to reinforce living by my values. The most amazing teacher in this journey was my first dog, Beowulf.  Beowulf, or Mr. B as younger kids called him, was a handsome husky-lab cross who worked as a co-therapist with me for a short 4 years.  I joke with clients that he passed his therapy test with a C+ – his startle response was a little high but his forgiveness response was higher. As a brief example, therapy dogs are tested in my region for this by replicating things that might happen in actual therapy events; tail pulling, toe pinching, and sudden, loud noises.  But the most important thing, he sure knew how to have a good time! The vet assessing their therapy capacity actually includes their propensity for play on the test, just as I ask my OC clients what they do for fun when I assess them.

In my early days with a then 1 year old Beowulf, I laughed everyday (and pulled my hair out once in a while) because he could spontaneously play, do silly things, and to my amazement, recover from social interactions that he did not do well in.  It was unlikely when he napped after a big walk that he was ruminating on his interactions or considering his to-do list for the next day. And at the time, these were all deficient areas in my own life.  When he and I would arrive at the dog park, he would jump out of the car like it was the first time and run up to other dogs and people like he was having the best time of his life.  Of course, there are social signals that dogs give to one another to “introduce” play (play bows specifically) that we as humans do not but it is kinda cool to think about how we engage others in play.  It is also cool to think about how we deflect play via social signals as well.

For example, Beowulf was a favourite dog to be at the park when the local University students would come with their clip boards to record canine social behaviour, and not because he was so damn handsome (tee-hee 😀 ).  They had a manikin dog with which they could manipulate typical canine signals, such as tail, trunk and ear posture. The students then record how other dogs respond to these postures. While some dogs in the park ignore the “statue” in the middle of the field, (some peed on it), other dogs, including Beowulf, would attend.  When the manikin dog was in an aggressive stance for dogs, Beowulf would circle the “dog,” bark and generally display his own postures of threat; which often included “whale eye” which is when you can see the whites of your dog’s eyeballs and they tend to hold a frozen facial expression.

But since RO DBT is not about our companion species per se or necessarily making analogous parallels to all species, it made me ask a new question. As a human at the dog park, what were my social signals for engagement or disengagement from other dog owners?  In other words, how was I “bowing” to other owners or displaying “whale eye”? In RO DBT we teach hunting dogs, swords and shields and this might be a helpful way to conceptualize this. There is no rule that you have to engage with other humans at the dog park but it was very much my tutorial in learning to “chit chat” outside my professional realm.  As I teach my clients, this was difficult at first but got easier over time with practice.  For example, I would practice Match + 1, I would use bigger gestures when arriving at the park, and try to tease a little. With such heat off topics as our dogs, their antics (like Beowulf popping up behind a log with a dead seal’s head); and the never ending cycle of picking up poop and subsequent discussion of the same, the interactions lent themselves to practicing an easy manner which our clients are working on. And this little doggy tribe grew more intimate over time even under pounding West Coast rain.  I would actually anticipate getting to the park by ten to hang out with the other owners of young and silly dogs and felt disappointed if I did not run into them.  And this- anticipatory reward – was a very new experience to me.

Our little doggy tribe began to dissipate over time – people moved, our work schedules altered and sadly, dogs died. I learned not to avoid the good byes but to celebrate them, human and dog alike. Beowulf was my trusted co-therapist until August 2017.  Despite being a cancer survivor, he died unexpectedly just prior to the RO DBT trainers retreat in France.  It was at this retreat where I was introduced to the RO grief protocol (forthcoming).  It was helpful to know, as someone who leans to OC, that I don’t have to abandon my relationship with him to avoid painful emotions, but rather I can “touch” the grief in a way that I don’t fall apart. In that way, he continues to be my original teacher.  I can hold the dialectic of love and loss because of him.  And I can honestly say it is likely the only relationship I have ever fully grieved.  Due to his previous reputation as a therapy dog, he continues to get direct “referrals,” so I am reminded often how affection and openness can impact people; how they remember such love.

So my question to readers is what are your play bows and what are your whale eyes in your social contexts?  When do you get your hackles up and when do you wag your tail?  Because humans, like it or not, are expert social safety detectors even without tails or manikins to test us!

About the author: J. Nicole Little, Ph.D., R.C.C.

Nicole is a therapist specializing in eating disorders and other conditions of overcontrol in Victoria, B.C., Canada.  She has also taught for 13 years at Universities and colleges. Her passions are RO DBT and animal assisted therapy.