Dog Lessons

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

by Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

Today I am writing about dogs. I used to have this sweet, traumatized rescue dog named Odie. We got Odie when the twins were eight years old. We had prepared for months, watching Caesar Milan dog training videos and discussing principles of behavior training, the importance of exercise and how to use treats to reward good behavior and ignore bad behavior to extinguish it according to the principles of operant conditioning. I felt well prepared to use my graduate school education and earnestly thought my state certification as a child mental health specialist would apply neatly to dog parenting.

Odie came from a home where he had been so neglected that when he first joined us, he couldn’t walk around the block without sounding like he was having an asthma attack. He licked the fur on the tops of his paws clean off. He licked the glass of the backdoor until his salvia etched it into a permanently cloudy surface.

Whenever someone came over or I talked on the phone, he would rocket out the doggie door into the backyard and leap up repeatedly against the door and bark as if the hounds of hell were on his tail.

When company came over, he would take out his girlfriend/dog bed and vigorously hump it in the middle of the gathering.  Having been neutered did nothing to deter his motivation.

I did all I could think of to help Odie become a better-behaved dog. I got him a variety of treats. Sprayed bitter apple spray on the back door. Held and petted and walked him daily. Tried picking him up when he was misbehaving, as well as leaving him alone, as well as putting him in time out in another room, as well as distracting him with toys.

I wish this were a story where my persistence and patience resulted in the eradication of these whacked out behaviors, but it is not. Instead, I changed. I became less distressed when he came back in through the doggie door with saliva streaming down his chin. I learned to leave the room when I made or received a phone call so the person on the other end wouldn’t have to worry that we were beating our dog. I learned to take less personally his pillow humping during social gatherings. Odie taught me high strung, traumatized dogs don’t necessarily get better.

This spring, Odie was killed by Coyotes. It happened early in the morning, before I woke up. I found his collar and a significant amount of blood in the backyard, and later found his skull under a sage bush.

There is a mathematical equation that equals the exact amount of time each of us gets on earth, but no one knows the value of any of the variables. It’s only when their time is up that we know how much time we had with our human and non-human beloveds.

Hedonic adaptation is the psychological term that describes the common tragedy of developing a tolerance for, and then subsequently ignoring, every single familiar source of joy in our lives. We forget to notice the beauty of the garden, the sweetness of ice cream, the scent of our child’s scalp, the warmth of our spouse’s sleeping body. It takes conscious effort to fight the development of immunity to joy.

Dogs never develop hedonic adaptation. They eat their treats with gusto every single time. They greet us with total focused enthusiasm. Odie, as crazy as he was, celebrated each family member with sniffs and licks and tail wags and demands for belly scratching. He had terrible breath and was banned from dog gatherings and destroyed the back door and was still the sweetest, most loving creature. Flawed is not unlovable.

Equity versus Equality, or why “Black Lives Matter” instead of “All Lives Matter”

Photo by Jumana Dakkur on

by Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

In our fantasy world, everyone has access to education, employment, healthcare, housing and support services like therapy.  In this fantasy world, we have achieved equality.

In the real world, the messy, imperfect one we all live in right now, access to all the best offerings of society are based on economics. The more money you have, the easier it is to go to college, to hire a tutor if you are struggling, hence get good grades which then sets you up for a higher paying job. The more money you have, the easier it is to live in a neighborhood with fully stocked grocery stores which makes it easier to eat healthy and be physically fit and live longer.  The more money you have, the easier it is to live in neighborhoods with quality public schools for the best possible education and socialization of your children. The easier it is to maintain stable housing. The easier it is to afford legal counsel and avoid incarceration or exploitation. The more money you have, the more likely you will have medical insurance that both provides you with medical care and prevents bankruptcy in the event of a medical crisis. The more money you have, the easier it is to pay for therapy when you feel stressed, depressed, or anxious. This helps you think about things in a way that decreases your discomfort and results in better overall health and productivity.

And it’s not just your money, it’s the money of your parents and their parents and their parents that sets you up for success: Many of us live in homes we couldn’t have placed the down payment on without parental assistance. Many of our children receive music lessons because of intergenerational money.

Meanwhile people of color have consistently been economically subjugated.  From slavery to chain gangs to sharecropping they were denied the ability to accrue wealth from work. From the segregation of schools which denied access to education, discrimination in hiring practices which solidified poverty, the redlining practices that eliminated access to better neighborhoods, to the refusal of banks to make loans to people of color.

The past four hundred years have involved extensive series of political and Supreme Court decisions that have echoed and reinforced discrimination and economic subjugation.

The reason why the Black Lives Matter movement is so important is not only due to the deaths of unarmed Black men at the hands of police officers. It’s because the whole underlying economic structure of our country has been completely unfair to people of color. African Americans have labored without the just economic benefits of that labor for four hundred years. In a capitalist democracy such as ours, there is a direct line between personal safety, resilience and well being and access to money.

Black Lives Matter because for four hundred years, they haven’t been treated that way. I don’t know how to fix this systemic problem. I don’t even know the right questions to ask. But I do know it’s my moral responsibility to learn more about the Black experience and to better recognize the systemic barriers to equality.

Inhabiting Solitude

Photo by from Pexels

By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

“All I want to do is eat chocolate cake and sleep.”

“I accidentally tried to hug my neighbor whose brother just died, and she shrank back like I was a cobra.”

“Some guy told me to stop petting his cat.”

These are weird times.

My therapist friends and I have all been messaging each other about the transition to telehealth in response to the pandemic.  We miss the immediacy and vibrancy of in-person sessions. Between audio glitches and freezing screens, we miss the ease that being in the same room as our clients provided. Like all of us, we are doing our best, figuring it out as we go along.

None of us know how long this situation will last. We don’t know how bad it will get. We don’t know if all of our loved ones will survive. We don’t know if the supply chain will be interrupted. We don’t know the long-term effect on the economy.

Humans like to quantify. We want to know what to expect and how to prepare. To feel safe, we want know what’s coming and how to endure or enjoy it.

And that is precisely what we don’t get to know right now. In the absence of certainty, many of us default to following the news as closely as we can. In this new landscape of invisible enemies, virologists and epidemiologists are the leaders. Doctors and nurses the front-line soldiers.

We must take this pandemic seriously enough to radically change our behavior for the foreseeable future. No more get togethers. No more movie theatres, or restaurants or nights out on the town. No more school. Every surface that someone touched is a possible transmission spot.

On the other hand, we still need to walk the dog, cook meals, vacuum, fold laundry. Focusing on small, doable tasks brings a sense of normalcy, of continuity to our lives.  We need to balance taking appropriate personal responsibility for protecting others along with continuing to have a full life that includes love, learning, exercise, joy, mindfulness, flavor, progress, and creativity.

As we drill down deep in to our time at home, with family if we are lucky enough to have them in the same household (and you’re right, it doesn’t always feel like luck) I wish for you an opening into realms you haven’t visited since childhood. I wish for you thinking time, staring into space time, imagining time. Dream time is slow and mysterious and a rich source of creative inspiration.

On the other end of this situation, we can emerge rested and connected to our deepest selves, ready to engage with one another from a place of deep gratitude.

Viral Fears

By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

Here in Seattle we have the unfortunate claim of being the epicenter of the US outbreak of the Novel Corona virus. Diagnostic criteria are still being refined, and confirmed cases increase daily. Most public gatherings have been cancelled, some schools have closed, and travel is being put on hold. This flu seems to be most dangerous for our elderly and immunocompromised, so it is unlike the influenza epidemic of 1918 which was especially lethal for young adults and children. It does however seem quite contagious.

For the majority of us, even if we get it and must quarantine ourselves, the most likely negative consequence is loss of income/education and a certain degree of cabin fever. These are inconvenient but luxurious concerns compared to death.

A good citizen is one who cares for the group as a whole. Even though we may be below age seventy and free of underlying health issues, we are each responsible for doing our part to care for the tribe that is the public. It is likely that a good number of us will need to quarantine to slow the progress of this virus.

Here are some measures that can be taken to reduce transmission:

  1. Wash all of your clothes each time you wear them. It appears that the virus can live on fabric for up to a week. The dryer is a germ-killing machine.
  2. Clean “high touch” areas such as door knobs, light switches, faucets and handles daily. At work don’t open doors or turn on/off faucets with your bare hands.
  3. Wipe your phone screen and computer keyboard daily.
  4. Wash your hands like an OCD person: hot water, twenty seconds of lathering, plus a paper towel equals clean.
  5. At home, switch out your kitchen and bathroom hand-towels every day. Or switch to paper towels for the duration.
  6. Try not to touch your face. This is hard! With every itch, I’m going through tissues like a fiend.

In preparation for your mental health needs, under self-quarantine:

  • Put together a list of projects for yourself and your kids in the categories of household, yard and bedroom tasks as well as creative/intellectual projects so you can still experience purpose and progress in your life.  
  • Pull out those books you’ve been meaning to read.
  • While you’re still healthy and mobile, get the ingredients to tackle cooking something new and challenging. An hour of prep is nothing for someone with two weeks of 24 hours to fill.
  • Maintain a normal sleep/wake schedule. Late nights watching Netflix plus isolation are a recipe for depression.

No matter what happens:

  1. The amygdala and limbic systems are the portions of the brain responsible for recognizing potential danger. The news is a constant amygdala stimulation event. The prefrontal cortex can calm the hindbrain down with conscious and soothing self-talk. Use your prefrontal cortex.

We will get through this.