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Required Reading

 

In a recent New York Times article, Alice Walker was quoted as praising an author whose works are notoriously and outrageously anti-Semitic. First this brought up the question, Can you judge a person by what she reads? But, as a result of the publicity, many people went looking back at Alice Walker’s previous works, and found that she had her own history of anti-Semitic writings.

Prior to all of that, I had, of course, read The Color Purple as part of my American education, and the rabbi at my synagogue had used a number of Alice Walker’s poems in religious services over the years. Most likely we won’t be reading her work in our services from now on, but the question is, Should we continue to read her books, or any books by authors that disturb us? My own answer is yes, with the caveat that I always want the chance to speak out about those things that disturb me, or disturb others. I don’t want to shove everything that offends me into the back of a dark closet, where I can’t do anything about it.

But, I still find it very difficult to push myself to read, and watch, things that disturb me. Over the years, I’ve had to develop a way to manage that sort of difficult reading. I’ve put together a pile of books by my bedside that I read a little bit at a time, mixing together books that challenge me and books that I enjoy, as a brain cleanser, so that I don’t have to feel overwhelmed by other people’s points of view, at least when I don’t want to be. I’ve pushed myself to read all sorts of political tomes, including books about the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and when the emotions (anger, frustration, confusion, and often fear), get to be too much, I just switch over to a chapter of something else, to balance the scales.

I’m in a bit of a quandary, though, now that my official schooling is over, to decide which books to put on my required reading pile. I know that I need to continue to challenge myself going forward, but in which particular areas? And exactly how challenging do these books need to be?

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“Can’t we just watch TV?”

 

As of now I have about twelve books on my reading pile, with another thirty on standby. I’m still plodding through Harry Potter in Hebrew, though I’m not sure why it’s so much harder for me to read than the Harry Potter books in French. It undermines my confidence in all of those years of Jewish education that I never learned the Hebrew word for magic wand. I’ve also been reading through the Hebrew bible, in Hebrew, for years now, a page at a time. Biblical Hebrew is even harder to understand than Harry Potter Hebrew.

 

When that gets too frustrating, I can move over to my Beginning Spanish Reader, though that has recently become too hard for me, and I had to go back fifty pages or so for remedial reading. And then there’s a Spanish vocabulary and phrase book for Social Workers, but most of that just flies over my head.

I’m also reading the review book for the social work licensing exam, slowly, because it’s so freaking tedious, and balancing that out by reading a book of essays by David Rakoff that is even funnier than I remembered. Then there are the psychology books, most recently on Addiction and Body Therapy and Non-Directive Play Therapy, which sometimes interest me and other times make me very angry, and then books on Jewish philosophy by Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel, and others, which I don’t really understand. I’ve been trying to cushion that particular torment with a book of dog essays that I got as a present for my birthday.

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Ellie prefers being a dog to reading about them. Weird.

Oh, and I am very proud of myself for finally finishing Hamilton, by Ron Chernow. It only took me three and a half years. And as a reward for that effort I let myself add a book of memoir essays to the pile, by fellow blogger Sheila Morris, called Deep In The heart. Unfortunately I finished that one too quickly for my own good, and I will need to go and buy her new book to fill the void.

Of course I’m also reading mysteries, but they don’t go on the study pile; they get pride of place next to my writing notebooks, because I can read whole chapters of them at a time without wanting to scream at anyone. I take as much time as possible to revel in books by writers like Rhys Bowen, and Louise Penny, and Jacqueline Winspear, and Donna Andrews, and Ellen Crosby, and Charles Todd, and Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling). And more recommendations are welcome!!!!

I’m not quite sure why I need to have such a tall pile of books to read at any given time, except that there are too many parts of my brain that need to be satisfied. Having a brain that likes to run in twenty directions at once is kind of inconvenient, but I don’t really want to go back to having someone else tell me what to read either. I’m sure Cricket would agree with me on the subject of reading autonomy, if she could read. As it stands, she finds all of my reading annoying, and time consuming, and she thinks I would much prefer sniffing individual blades of grass with her for hours at a time. At the very least, she would enjoy that more. Ellie would too, come to think of it. Though she’s more of a squirrel chaser than a grass sniffer.

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“This is the only grass I could find!”

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“There was a squirrel! I had to go!”

 

While we’re on the topic of required reading, if you haven’t had the chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review for the book, I’d be honored!

YG with Cricket

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment.

 

Cooking, Again

 

For the past couple of years, with internships and school work, most of the cooking was left to Mom, again, just like when I was little. I had taken over most of the cooking years ago, while she was working and I was huddled in my room, shaking, but switching back to having Mom do the cooking was part of our plan for how I would manage graduate school in social work. I still helped choose the recipes, and did a lot of the food shopping and cleaning, but it was a relief not to have to cook every night. I had spent so many years building up my cooking skills, with classes and recipes and hours and hours of Food Network shows, but I was ready for a break.

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And then my last internship ended, and I should have taken back the responsibility for cooking, at least somewhat, but I was still exhausted and weird and dragging my feet about it. I didn’t even want to bake, though it was summer at the time and there’s no air conditioning in the kitchen, so that was understandable.

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“Cookies?”

Gradually, much more gradually than Mom was probably hoping, I started to help make dinners again by going back to my old job as vegetable chopper. Mom did her best to tolerate my impatient knife cuts, even when she really would have preferred a smaller dice on the onions. And then I made a dinner or two on my own, because I was hungry and Mom was sleeping. And then there was all of the cookie baking around the holidays.

I’m still not reconciled to cooking every day, but we’re closer to a fifty-fifty arrangement than we were before. My favorite things to cook lately are turkey chili (do some chopping and defrosting, dump everything in the pot, set a timer and wait), turkey meatballs (defrost ground turkey, mix with egg, breadcrumbs, and spices, shape into balls, stick in oven, set timer and wait), and Rocky Mountain toast (rip a hole in a piece of bread, break an egg into the hole, cook) which I learned how to make a million years ago at sleepaway camp. I’d still rather make cookies for every meal, or just eat the raw cookie dough, and there are days when I can’t even imagine peeling a carrot because my body hurts too much, but I’m getting there. It’ll be a while before I volunteer to make Coq au Vin, or Maki rolls, or even Risotto (keep stirring, keep stirring).

Miss Cricket is back to her role as sous chef, a.k.a. waiting for red bell pepper scraps to fall on the floor, and Miss Ellie has been trying to convince me to make chicken pancakes with cheese on top, but she has been unsuccessful. The best I can do for her is open a can of tuna and pour the water into her kibble, which is good too. I feel guilty for this lapse in responsibility, but not enough to work much harder to fix it.

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“More, Mommy.”

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“I could eat, too.”

Next task up: fill out the forms to take the licensing exam for social work, which seems to involve a lot of waiting, and then more forms, and then some really stupid questions. But my real objection is that once I have my license I’ll actually have to get a job. I’d like to put that off for a while, or ten or fifteen whiles, if possible. I finished all of my coursework, but there seems to be a delay before the paperwork says I’m an official graduate, which gives me one or two whiles, at least.

If anyone wants two shelves full of really tedious, probably already out of date textbooks, you’ll have to wrestle Ellie for them. She has some art projects in mind.

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I want to thank everyone who read and reviewed and commented on and thought about Yeshiva girl and cheered me on along the way. I feel truly honored! If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl.

yeshiva girl with dogs

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment.

 

 

Who do I want to be when I grow up?

I still want to be a novelist when I grow up. I want to write about people’s lives and about all of the things we don’t usually tell each other about ourselves. I want to connect. My favorite thing about social work is when people stop feeling judged and defensive, and can just tell their own stories, with all of the unique zigs and zags their lives have taken. I’m often surprised when people don’t realize how interesting their own stories are, and how unique their choices and circumstances have been. It’s like reading a really long, really good, book.

I still wish I could be a Mom and a wife, but that’s starting to seem unlikely. The thing is, both social work and writing put me in an observer role, and no matter how much I like my work, I still need some way to feel like my life, in itself, is important. I need the chance to be the star of my own story. Dogs definitely help with that. They seem to make everyone feel more central and more important. I’ve considered having a side practice focused on dogs, where we’d sit on the floor and I would give ear scratches and commiserate with the long journey each dog has had to go through. I would love that.

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“I have a lot to say!”

I’m still unclear about what actually constitutes growing up. I used to think that, at some point, I’d feel more secure and confident in myself, and my choices, and I’d finally feel like I have a clue how to live my life. This has clearly not happened to me yet, and it doesn’t really describe most of the people I know who would generally be considered grownups.

The more external signs of being grown up, to me, were always about career, and home ownership and parenthood. But as time goes by I’ve had to question those markers, because a lot of people do not own homes, or have children, and still seem like grownups to me. And, even though it’s less popular, or possible nowadays, a lot of women still seem very much like grownups to me, even if they never had a professional career outside of the home. It’s something in the way they take responsibility for themselves, or have authority over others, or seem to accept themselves for who they are at a basic level.

In my mind, being sick, with whatever it is I have, prevents me from being a grown up. Grownups are people who can do things all day and take on big responsibilities, not people who need three hour naps and wrap themselves in icy hot strips on a regular basis. Grownups know how to take care of everything that needs to be taken care of, and don’t have an excessive amount of anxiety wafting around them at all times.

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“You can fix it, Mommy.”

Cricket has no aspirations towards being a grown up. She’s focused on her daily needs for food, exercise, and love. She insists that being a grown up is overrated if it means spending too much time away from her.

It’s hard to argue with Cricket.

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“Why would you even try?”

 

 

More School

 

I am officially a part time graduate student in social work, which is why it will take me three and a half years to finish a two year program, but to me, this program feels like full time. I have classmates who are getting it all done in two years, while still working, and raising families, and I have no idea how they’re doing that. Part of my problem is that I insist on doing all of the reading for my classes, and writing multiple drafts for each assignment. I’ve been told that I’m a perfectionist, but I honestly don’t know how to do it any other way without setting off severe panic attacks that are much more disabling than the extra work. The other basic problem is that I don’t have the energy I’m supposed to have. Fourteen hours of internship a week, plus driving, is pretty much my limit, because I still have to do food shopping, and laundry, and maybe go to synagogue or a doctor’s appointment. I’m not hanging out at the mall during my downtime, I’m either napping, or doing schoolwork. Every once in a while I’m writing, but not anywhere near as often as I’d like.

It doesn’t help that large portions of my education have felt like busy work and endless repetition. There’s so much more I want to learn, and once I’m working, even part time, I won’t have the energy to read about, and train in, all of the techniques I want to learn. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing now. I would have loved to skip both statistics courses, or even scrub them from my memory. And I’d love to forget everything I’ve ever learned about writing in APA style while I’m at it.

Cricket and Butterfly both played a big role in my decision to pursue social work. Butterfly, because of her eight years in the puppy mill and her heart problems and diabetes, made me see that taking care of her made me feel whole and more myself, rather than more burdened. But she also made it much more clear to me that dogs can help heal people. Just by being around her, with her endless capacity for joy and strong sense of self, healed something in me, and I wanted to be able to share that with other people.

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Miss Butterfly, full of joy!

Miss Cricket is a different story. She is certainly a role model for speaking your truth and putting your needs first, but she also struggles with what I can only describe as a neurological disorder, an inability to tolerate her own emotions, as if they are magnified to a hundred times normal size. She is on high alert at all times, aware of dangers that no one else can see, and unable to recover easily from excitement, anger, or anxiety.

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Grumpy Cricket

I’ve tried all of the traditional routes for helping a reactive dog, with training classes, and medications, and calming treats, and love and compassion, but she still struggles. I see people like her all the time, diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder or ADHD or Oppositional Defiant Disorder and on and on. And I know that they can be helped, by medication and therapy and other interventions, and I wanted to learn more about those interventions, in the hope that they could be of help to Cricket.

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Cricket and Grandma, practicing Cricket’s favorite kind of therapy

Unfortunately, I haven’t found much support in graduate school for working with dogs, either as clients or as therapy supports. This seems like a huge hole in the curriculum. Cricket needs a boatload of therapy, but none of the techniques I’ve learned has really worked for her. Yes, I do my active listening and show compassion for her feelings, but then when I try to offer insight, she shuts me out. The fact is, not everyone can express themselves in words, though Cricket tries her best. Some people, and dogs, need other avenues of expression and support, but we haven’t really touched on that much in school. Phooey.

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We are both disappointed

I still have three more classes to finish before I can graduate, and then I have to take my licensing exam, so, there’s still about a year to go before I will be a licensed social worker. It feels like a lot, but it also feels like barely a moment. I’ve always wished I could have help figuring out how to use my writing to help with social work, and to build my writing career and social work career at the same time, without sacrificing either one. But I haven’t seen any courses in that yet.

This blog has been my saving grace throughout school, reminding me that I still have a self and my own stories to tell, but I miss writing fiction, and getting involved in long projects, and developing characters. I don’t miss sending my work out to endless rejections, that’s a soul killing enterprise, but writing itself is something different altogether. That’s where I can come to life and be fully myself and work though every different part of who I am.

And Cricket really wants me to write a mystery starring a brilliant little dog with a nose for clues. Hopefully we’ll be able to work on that someday soon.

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The Social Work Detective

 

I keep thinking about writing a mystery novel with a social worker as the protagonist. I never took a class in forensics or criminalistics (they weren’t offered at my schools), but I think one of the things that draws me to social work is the craving to be a detective; to find out the mystery of the person or family or couple sitting in front of me, telling me they have no idea what went wrong. My protagonist would be curious about everyone she meets, though, so I’d have to be careful to try to limit her focus to the people who are pertinent to the particular case at hand, or else the book will be never ending.

In real life, death and destruction, or any kind of physical pain or gore, horrifies me, but in a novel, murder calms me down. Maybe murder mysteries have the same paradoxical quality as Ritalin or caffeine: calming a hyperactive mind with a stimulant. The intensity of murder, in a novel, helps me to focus on one thing at a time, instead of on the thousands of priorities running through my mind: I need to lose weight, pay off my student loans, do my homework, find a second dog, get to work on time, keep up with friends, fix the world, and find the right outfit to wear on Thursday.

But would it be as calming to be the writer of the mystery instead of the reader? Would I have to do a ride along with the local police in order to get the details right? Would it be a cozy or a thriller? Would I have to kill off characters I like? Or worse, make one of my favorite characters into the murderer?

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Cricket, with the trowel, in the garden.

I don’t even know why I’m trying to plan a new novel right now, given all of the work I have to do for school. I feel swamped this year. The work seems harder and more all-encompassing, and the stakes seem to be higher too. But, it’s not so much that I want to write a mystery, it’s that my mind goes there on its own. Some part of my brain is always working on story ideas, and coming up with plot points and character names. Taking the time to put it all down on paper at least gives me some sense of order for these random thoughts, so that they don’t think they have to repeat themselves, endlessly, out of fear of being forgotten.

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“Listen to me!!!!!!”

The only thing I know for sure about my social work mystery is that there would have to be a dog in the book. This isn’t a social worker thing, just a me-thing. I would feel bereft trying to write a whole novel, or even a short story, without a dog in it. Cricket is auditioning for the role, but I’m worried she’d want to be the protagonist herself.

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“I am always the star of the show.”

 

Social Policy 2

My current social work course for my Masters in Social Work, is Social Policy 2. Social policy 1 was a history of social policies in the United States, from child protective laws to voting laws, to Medicare and Medicaid, to civil rights and food stamps. The current course, though, is about advocacy: learning how to advocate for changes in policy when you notice a problem in the system. First we have to choose a particular problem area, then we research endlessly, and articulate the problem and who is impacted by it, and then (we haven’t gotten to this part yet) we figure out who to badger to successfully make change.

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“I can badger! I’m a really good badgerer!”

I have been overwhelmed by the research part so far. In one week, I read thirty articles, wrote eighteen pages, and did at least ten drafts to whittle that down to a two (and a half) page proposal for my project. My focus: the gaps in Medicare, both as a result of the 80/20 split between what Medicare covers and what the beneficiary is responsible for, and in what is covered (not dental, vision, hearing aids, or long term care). Why is long term care designated to Medicaid (the health coverage meant for low-income individuals), rather than to Medicare (which is meant for the elderly and disabled)?

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“This is exhausting.”

This all led me into the weeds of Medicaid, which is one of the primary targets for budget cuts, both of the current presidential administration and the Republican House and Senate plans to replace Obamacare. Many of the billions of dollars they plan to cut from Medicaid will inevitably come from long term care services for the elderly and disabled.

This led me to the backdoor legal schemes people are allowed to use to hide their income and/or assets, in order to qualify for Medicaid, and the difficulty of those low income people, who are not low-income enough, to afford the elder care lawyers who can competently advise them on the different types of trusts available.

If you have absolutely nothing ($845 a month income, for 2017), Medicaid will catch you when you start to fall through the safety net. But if you have even a drop more than nothing, you are screwed. There is the option of a spend-down plan, where you must incur medical bills in the amount of the difference between your income and the Medicaid income cap every month, in order to get Medicaid coverage, a month at a time. But publicly financed advisors (AKA Free) are not allowed to advise you on the trusts that could hide your extra income, and don’t have enough hours in the day to help each person who needs help to organize a viable spend down plan.

This leaves a lot of seniors without dental, vision, hearing aids, long term care or medical transportation, and in fear of the 20% of any doctor visit or procedure that is not covered by Medicare. Which leads people to skip even the services that Medicare covers, because they can’t afford the fifteen dollars for a cab, or the fifty dollar copay for even routine appointments.

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“You mean I could skip going to the doctor?”

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“I really don’t want to go to the dentist, Mommy. Ever.”

There is a campaign slowly going around the United States called Medicare-For-All, with a version that passed in Vermont, and one that made it through the New York State Assembly three or four times now (but has not been able to pass the state senate), and one in California too. What interests me is that what they are calling Medicare-For-All is really not Medicare as we know it. Someone decided that in order to create universal health care, we’d have to fill in the gaps in Medicare as it is, adding dental, vision, and long term care, and limiting co-pays.

So my question is, even if we as a country are not ready to pursue universal health care for everyone in the form of Medicare for all (and it seems obvious that we are not there yet), could we be ready to fill the holes in the health care system that covers the elderly and disabled among us? Is that a step we could tolerate?

Once I fix Medicare and Medicaid, my next project will be to figure out how to add pets onto our existing health insurance plans. Because, really, my dogs are family members. If human children get to stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26, to make sure they can earn a living on their own before they have to buy their own insurance, surely my puppies, who will never be allowed to work for a living (anti-puppy prejudice!), should be covered by their family’s health insurance too. No?

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Cricket is not excited by this idea.

The Secret Keepers

 

One of the primary concerns in social work is confidentiality. It is important for clients to feel secure enough with their social worker to share difficult information, and many social workers make a point of telling clients, right away, that anything they say will be kept private, expect in cases of danger to self or others. In the case of a social work intern, though, confidentiality has to include a few more caveats: What you tell me is just between you and me, and my supervisor, and my coworkers, and my teachers, and my classmates. You don’t mind, do you?

I read instructions from a social work class, at another school, where they specifically told the students to camouflage not just the name of the client they were writing about, but also identifying details in their physicality, personality, and life circumstances. We were not told to be that thorough in our classes. My fellow classmates and I tend to use initials in our assignments, if identification of a client is necessary, under the assumption that since we do not work at the same agencies the initials will not be identifiable to fellow students. But some people choose to use false names instead, to make the prose flow more smoothly. I’ve been tempted to go whole hog and use “Cookie Monster” or “Voldemort” for some of my class assignments, just to see if people are actually paying attention, but I haven’t done that, yet.

I don’t think dogs care about confidentiality, but I’m not sure. I’m hoping my dogs don’t care, because I share an awful lot of their personal information online. Cricket doesn’t seem to experience shame when her behavioral quirks are uncovered, like pooping on the mat by the front door overnight, or peeing in the quilting area in the back of the living room (though that could be because she believes it is my fault, because I failed to get up when she asked for an outing at three o’clock in the morning). Butterfly is unconcerned with her missing teeth, or any leftover poopy on her butt, when she goes outside to meet new people.

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“The pee was up to my eyeballs, what did you expect me to do?”

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“What? I think I look great!”

Dogs are the ultimate secret keepers, actually. Cricket has never told anyone information she alone was privy to about me. And Butterfly lets people think that I am strong and confident and secure, even though she knows different. The dogs accept me as I am, with all of my facets intact. They’ve never suggested that I should be fired as a dog Mom because I have this or that imperfection, though they do expect me to make it up to them in extra chicken treats.

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“Secrets are yummy!”

Maybe we should all go to doggy therapists, instead of the human kind, and then we’d never have to worry about confidentiality (unless you believe that dogs are capable of speech, and are just barking to keep up the ruse that they are dependent on us, and there is actually a secret network of doggy spies collecting information about their humans to send to the doggy version of the NSA, or the real NSA).

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“You’ll never know.”

The fact is, humans are not built for unconditional positive regard, even though that’s what therapist’s try to offer to their clients. Even the most generous-hearted therapist will find herself looking askance at a client for one or two of his decisions. Most dogs, though, have unconditional positive regard down pat. Human therapists carefully guard their boundaries, conscious of how physical behaviors, and offers of support, can be misconstrued by people in desperate need. Dogs don’t do this. Human therapists are also taught to hide their own needs and vulnerabilities from their clients, both to protect themselves and to protect clients from feeling responsible for meeting the therapist’s needs. Dogs have no problem walking up to someone, even someone in deep and unrelenting pain, and asking for affection, and offering affection in return.

Dogs listen openly and without an agenda, whereas most human therapists have a goal in mind for each session: to find out the client’s story, to uncover the blocks in their life, and to offer healthy options for forward movement. Dogs don’t interrupt; they are more classically Freudian in their approach, allowing the client to free associate, and just know that someone is listening to them.

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“We’re listening.”

But, there are a few ways that human therapists can be more helpful than dogs, especially when you are ready to move past the venting stage of the work. It’s possible that, while the unconditional positive regard of a dog can be healing, you may take the positive regard of a human more seriously, because you know that their regard is conditional and you must have done something right to be winning their approval. Human therapists are also more knowledgeable about problem solving, unless the problem you need to solve is where to find the best place to pee, or how to fully appreciate the sounds of the backyard.

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“I can help with that!”

 

The fact is, human therapists are more than just secret keepers, or a safe place to confess the things you don’t want anyone else to know, they are bridges and teachers and support systems to help you make the connections to the life you really want to be living. A life in which, hopefully, you will have a faithful dog at your side to give you unconditional love.

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