How Do Animal’s Past Experiences Influence Them?
Q: My animals are all rescues. I feel like some memories they have are strong and not positive ones. I have a 14-year-old dog that was a street dog. With all the training, reassuring etc. he still, after many years, has separation anxiety. We deal with it. I just wonder how much is so ingrained in these babies that it will never be forgotten. I guess, generally, what do you think of animals’ past experiences and how they influence them?
This is a multiple part answer. First, we need to note that there are no absolutes. Just like with humans, no two animals are alike, even if they went through an identical set of circumstances. Just like with humans, how they see the world, their personality, their past experiences, and their physical and mental health all play a role in how they react to and process events in their lives. No two will be the same. So, with that understanding, I will answer this in a broad generalization.
Animals experience trauma just like humans do. They can experience PTSD just like humans and they also can heal and move on. What I have found in my experience is that animals often heal faster and a bit more readily than humans because they tend to keep more focused in the present moment. In other words, when they are moved into a safe and loving environment, they move into that new phase and move on. Again, these are broad generalities.
I, personally, have worked with many animals who have experienced great traumas both physically and psychologically. I have always been amazed at how willingly they move on to heal. Having said that, however, we humans often unintentionally keep them in trauma longer by some of our actions. Let me explain what I mean with some examples.
Often, when we adopt animals into our families who have been “rescued” and knowingly were in bad circumstances, we tend to always talk about where they came from and how bad it was. Our actions of labeling them as “abused” or “rescued” sometimes keep the energy of their traumas very much alive for them. I learned this lesson from one of our horses early on in our Spring Farm CARES history. We had a large open house as a fundraiser for our sanctuary. I had very carefully and meticulously placed signs in front of each horse stall telling each horse’s story. Every one of them had come from either an abuse or neglect situation. We laid it all out there on the sign so that people could see where their donations were going and what we all had rescued these animals from. I was quite proud of all of those signs. One of our horses was stationed right by the front door. She fancied herself the head greeter horse and she was quite eager to have visitors. She lit up, eyes gleaming with every visitor that came in the door. I felt so happy for her and went on my way making sure the volunteers at their various stations were all set. About an hour had gone by when I came back through to the barn. The once bright eyed and excited mare stood there looking totally depressed. She refused to come over to the gate for people to see her and she was literally moping in the corner.
“Tara, what is happening? What’s wrong, I asked her.
“Why did you have to put that sign there like that, she answered.”
I was puzzled. I didn’t understand. “Stand here a while and watch,” she said.
So, I did. There was a steady stream of people coming in the door. Person after person came up and read the sign before they even looked at Tara. They cringed at her story, which was dramatic, and they walked away saying…. “oh I just can’t stand stories like this.” And not one of them looked at or acknowledged her.
It only took me three people to see what I had done so very wrong. We quickly went around and removed the signs. Instantly, people were coming in and seeing each horse as an individual, eager to meet them and learn about them, without being turned off by their past.
At the end of the day, with all of the people gone, Tara said to me, “This was important today. I am not what I went through. That is not who I am, it is just something that happened to me. It didn’t break me. It didn’t define me. Because I am here now and I want people to see who I am.”
Trust me, I have never made that mistake again.
We must be careful when we have animals who we know have been abused or suffered neglect, to understand that they are not in that situation anymore. They are with you now. They are loved. They are safe. And we need to allow them to heal and move on. If we keep on telling their sad stories to others, it affects how others react to them. Often, that keeps the animal in their pain.
Part 2 of this answer is just as important. Many times, animals act shy or they may cower at loud sounds or be afraid of men or tall people or people with hats, etc. It is our human nature to automatically assume something bad had to have happened to them for them to act that way. While that is possible, it also is possible that there is something else at play. I have personally had dogs and cats in my life that I’ve had since they were 5-8 weeks old and I knew for sure they came from good places. Yet, one would cower any time she heard a loud noise. Another would flinch if you moved your hand quickly around them. Yet, I knew for sure he wasn’t hit or slapped. Sometimes, something as simple as a broom handle falling on a floor next to an animal can startle them so badly that they react to quick movements or loud sounds for years after that. Sometimes it is just their personalities or who they are and how they are expressing themselves in this lifetime.
Yes, animals can hold on to trauma, but they also can heal. It is just as important to remember to give them the space and opportunity to heal and watching how we talk about them and label them is a good first step. All of us, no matter how good or bad we have been treated in our pasts, hold on to memories and those experiences can and do shape the way we see and respond to the world.
We help animals and people who have been through trauma the most through compassion and empathy and reassuring them how brave they are for having gotten to where they are now. And then we love them for who they are and allow them to heal without labels.
When you walk in the doors of our small animal facility or our barn, I guarantee you that you would not be able to tell which animals have come from the greatest traumas. Yes, it’s a part of their past, but it is not where they are now and it does not define who they are. Instead, we try to give them a safe place to be and to relax and unwind and show us who they really are. Then we let them find their way in their own time.
What is the Most Memorable Message from an Animal?
Q: What is the most unusual response to a question you have received from any animal? Or the most memorable one?
This is a question that I have been asked a lot over the years and it is one I have such difficulty answering. I have talked to over 50,000 animals professionally since 1987. It is really hard for me to single one or even a few out as all of them are deeply meaningful to me. I have had my share of mind-blowing consultations that taught me so very much. I treasure all of them and am always humbled by the experience of doing any consultation.
However, I will answer this with what has touched me so deeply over the years and when I share this with people they are equally as touched. The one message that I am given the most is when I have been working with an animal or human who has crossed into spirit. Early on in my career, I was amazed that every animal or person I worked with in spirit basically sent the same message to their loved ones in the physical. And I still experience that to this day.
What they want their loved ones to know is that no matter where they are in spirit, they still feel the love of their loved ones in the physical. Love is not an energy solely based in the physical realm. Love is an energy that is just as real and alive in spirit as it is here. When we love someone, a permanent energy path is created one heart to the next. And that energy survives even after the physical body dies.
Every animal or person I talk to in spirit tells me to tell their loved ones they feel them and they also send their love back to the physical plane. We who are in the physical have the harder time hanging on to that truth. Because we are in physical bodies, we rely on the physical experience of seeing our loved ones there and being able to touch them, and hear them, and feel them. So, when we cannot reach them physically, we perceive them as gone. We forget though that we can actually still feel them. When we are deep in our grief, we are actually feeling the most disconnected from them and it is harder for them to get through to us. But when we remember them and how we feel about them and our hearts fill with that love, that is when our loved ones in spirit feel us and reach back.
I have always found this to be such a profound comfort. And I have heard this message from literally thousands of beings who have crossed into spirit.