My Friend Willow

My Friend Willow

by Dr. Will Henson

My friend Willow came and visited our house last week. Willow is a little white dog and she’s a rescue. I don’t know what happened to Willow but she certainly has plenty of signs of trauma. She is afraid of new people, especially men. She growls when unknown people come too close. But it’s pretty easy to win Willow over. In fact, what I find is that most people intuitively know how to work with her as long as I tell them she’s had trauma. Once they get that she’s had a difficult past, they move slower, talk softer, and allow Willow to approach them. I think all this is made easier because Willow can’t talk. You can’t reason with her – instead, everything is communicated through the body.

Now imagine Willow comes to your house. Willow starts growling and barking and immediately you get mad at her for being a bad dog. Is that going to work? What if you take her food away or give her a long lecture about how the barking impacts you? None of these are going to work very well, because Willow is coming from a place of automatic, reflexive behavior that is a result of trauma. She won’t be able to stop and make a more logical or disciplined choice because she’s feeling unsafe. Her survival instinct that kept her alive as a pup has kicked in.

Willow can teach us a lot about behavior – specifically that when we understand the impact adversity has on children, we can become more empathic and change our approach: Not drop our expectations or make excuses for behavior, but start with the foundation of being able to learn, which is helping someone feel safe.

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