For the past few months I've been volunteering at Garden Court, a senior home in Santa Barbara. Each week I teach an art class to the residents, and every now and then I'll go just to spend time with the people living there. Recently the facility adopted two dogs, Coco and Kiwi, as sort of communal pets for the residents. Each time I go to GC I play with the dogs, and the residents all love having them there (with the exception of a few who have complained about having them in the common area). I decided to try to spend more “quality” time with Coco and Kiwi based on Barbara's workshop.
To start I took the dogs outside in the courtyard so there wouldn't be the distraction of having other people walk by. I sat on the floor with them and remained quiet for a while, observing the way they interacted with each other and occasionally came up to me. I tried to push away my own thoughts and simply focus on their behavior. To be honest it felt a little forced—usually when I spend time with dogs I play with them and get excited, and being quiet and still was odd. Yet by not interfering with them I was able to notice more about their individual personalities. The residents often confuse the two dogs because they look so similar, but both Coco and Kiwi have distinct traits of their own. Kiwi in particular (the one with the blue collar) seemed deeply affected by her surroundings. Whenever Coco would leave, Kiwi immediately seemed upset, looking around for where she went. Both the dogs were raised together, and it was obvious they have a bond much like human siblings.
I have difficulty believing in animal communication because there doesn't seem to be a way to prove that it's real. I've always been skeptical of psychics and fortunes because I feel like the psychic can pick up on a person's attitude or how they act in the room during the session and then simply make broad statements that the receiver will attach to a personal problem. Yet when Barbara was telling Hector about his dog in San Diego, she was describing things without ever interacting with her or seeing her. This long distance communication was in the movie as well, and it's hard for me to accept such a practice as possible. I really enjoyed the breathing exercises and mental exercises Barbara had us perform because they made me feel more connected to my own body, but I'm still hesitant about being able to read the thoughts of animals, especially when they aren't present.
Coco & Kiwi in the courtyard.
Coco and me in the Garden Court common area.
05/06/13 09:59:12 - Exploring Sibling Relationshipshttp://www.caninedevelopment.com/Sibling.htm
Raising two dogs together can be detrimental to their growth as individuals, and may cause behavioral problems such as separation anxiety or aggression. It is important to raise them as distinct individuals and allow them to be separated when being fed, walked, or played with. The dogs need not be separated constantly, but it is essential to their initial development to give them individualized attention and space. Dogs raised without these boundaries may develop “littermate syndrome,” leading to their inability to interact with other dogs and humans because of their relationship with their sibling.
In the case of Coco and Kiwi, I have noticed a small degree of this “littermate syndrome.” While they do spend time apart, Kiwi is often distressed to be by herself. When they are not together I see her roaming around the senior home, looking for her sister or a human to fill that void. Their beds are directly next to each other, they are walked at the same time, and even the residents have difficulty telling the two dogs apart because of their appearance and similar behavior. While I did not know them as puppies, I think their attachment issues may have developed or gotten stronger since being taken in at Garden Court. Their previous owners left to travel, and the dogs became communal pets for the residents. Such a change in ownership and environment must have been an adjustment for Coco and Kiwi, and while they do receive much more attention due to the sheer number of people around them, I wonder if there is some sort of complex around abandonment which causes Kiwi's separation anxiety.
In continuing my collaboration with these dogs I wish to give them one-on-one time and treat them as separate individuals rather than a pair of siblings. I think it would be interesting to conduct the same project with each dog and see how the outcomes differ.
Many of the articles I've found while researching dog sibling behavior involve the topic of sibling aggression. Especially in the case of male dogs, sibling rivalry can lead to intimidating fights and stand offs for territory, food, and attention. Such fights usually derive from a change in the dog's social environment—for instance, if a younger dog is brought into the home and an older dog feels threatened. Defining dominance and hierarchy within the home may cause siblings which previously got along well to begin fighting.
Based on my reading so far I've noticed rivalry develops primarily between “siblings” which are not from the same litter, whereas “littermate syndrome” is obviously developed between genetically related dogs. I consider my dogs back home, Harley and JD, to be brothers, but such a connection is an arbitrary human construction. They are not the same breed and were bought from separate litters. Their relationship did not begin at birth but rather when we decided to get JD as a second pet. Their struggle to get along as loving brothers causes occasional bickering and growling, which, although upsetting to us as owners, is completely understandable from their perspective.
I am interested in further researching the difference between female siblings raised together since birth, such as Coco and Kiwi, and male “siblings” placed together by human choice. I think the difference in gender and the actual biological relationship of the dogs will lead to a good behavioral study which will allow me to choose my collaboration approach more successfully with each type of dog.
When I first read about Kiwi's passing, I was sad because I was interested in seeing what you might discover through your investigation of animal sibling relationships. However, I am really glad you decided to center your project on Kiwi to honor her life. I feel like the bracelets you made allowed the audience to participate in Coco's mourning as well as focus on any mourning they might have had in their own lives.
05/11/13 12:39:50 - Kiwi's Passing
This week when I arrived at Garden Court, Coco was sitting by herself in the middle of the common room. There was no one else in the room, and Kiwi was nowhere in sight. I walked up to her and asked why she was being so silly and sitting in an empty room all alone. I didn't think much of it and went on to teach my regular art class.
After about an hour, I noticed Coco still wandering by herself. I asked one of the residents where Kiwi was hiding, and the woman looked at me sadly. “We had to put Kiwi down this week,” she told me. I was shocked—the last time I had seen Kiwi she was perfectly fine, and I didn't notice any signs of poor health or any problems walking or playing with the residents. The woman told me for the past few days she had been acting strange and seemed to be in pain. One of the employees took her to the vet and decided it would be best to put her down so that she wouldn't be suffering. It all seemed so sudden. What was wrong with her? What type of sickness did she have? No one could answer these questions for me with anything other than a sad shrug. All people knew was that she wasn't well and was no longer with us.
I looked back at Coco with a new sense of understanding. Her entire life had been spent side by side with her sister, and now she was all by herself. She must realize that Kiwi is gone, but how do you tell a dog her companion is gone forever? That she's not just out on a walk or away for a few days, but that she's never coming back at all? I wonder if she can tell, or if it'll take her a while to realize her sister's passing. It must be confusing to have humans take away your friend and not tell you what's happening or when she's coming back. Does she think she's been taken in by another facility, or another family? How can she know what truly happened to her?
One of the women who works there told me Kiwi came up to her a few days ago and just sat in front of her looking up with a sad look on her face. She didn't make any noise or try to touch the woman, but she sat staring, as if she was trying to ask for help. I wish someone knew what was actually wrong with her. I feel sort of helpless for not being able to see she was suffering or being able to at least say goodbye.
Originally I had wanted to create a project about sibling dog relationships, with Coco and Kiwi as my participants. Now that Coco is by herself, I'd like to create a project in honor of her sister's passing. I want to create something that celebrates Kiwi's life and helps alleviate some of Coco's confusion. I'm not sure how exactly I'll be able to do so, but I think it would be therapeutic for both Coco and me to have some sort of closure through my art project.
Coco with a boutonniere I gave to her in honor of Kiwi.
Coco laying in the common room. The blue leash used to belong to Kiwi.
05/19/13 20:50:26 - Exhibition Ideas
This week when I went to spend time with Coco she seemed more content than she had the week of Kiwi's passing. Although she continued to roam aimlessly and spent a lot of time laying in bed, I think a lot of her behavior is related to her own old age and not purely the absence of Kiwi. I asked everyone how she'd been doing, and they said she seemed well but hadn't been sleeping much. I made sure to let her rest whenever possible, but tried to keep her company with soothing strokes, and spoke softly to her when she was awake.
After my visit at the senior home I sat outside the facility on a bench in the garden waiting to go home. All of the sudden I noticed something gray wandering out the front door, and turned to see Coco by herself walking toward the busy street. I quickly ran over to her and held her by the collar to lead her back inside. For some reason the doors had been left wide open (sometimes people use the handicap automatic button and they don't close) and no one had seen Coco walk outside. I asked the front desk people to make sure they kept an eye on the door so something like that couldn't happen again. I would be horrified to find out Coco had been hit by a car or gotten lost somewhere downtown. I'm not sure what would have happened if I hadn't been there to stop her. It would be tragic for the residents and employees of Garden Court to lose both dogs.
I've been thinking a lot about what I want to do for the exhibition involving my relationship with Coco and Kiwi. I would like to do something commemorative of Kiwi's previous presence in my life and in Coco's, and I'm trying to come up with a project that would act as a sort of memorial for her. I'd like to incorporate photos I've taken of the dogs with a sculptural element. The current idea I'm toying with is having a large printed photograph split into two, with one dog on each half. One will hang on the wall, and the other will hang on the wall directly opposite. I would then use intertwined red and blue leashes/collars to connect the two images across the room. The colors are symbolic of Coco and Kiwi's identities and personalities in the senior home, and are meant to symbolize their bond despite no longer being together. I would like the leashes to be hanging in midair, but am not sure if this would be too intrusive in the gallery space. So far I'm mostly committed to the use of photographs connected by some sort of red and blue colored leash/rope, and I will continue to think of how best to honor Kiwi's spirit while celebrating Coco's survival. [Write Comment]
05/27/13 11:13:59 - A Scrapbook Memorial
In the dining room at Garden Court I noticed a scrapbook off to the side dedicated to Kiwi. I found this to be a very sweet gesture, and I feel as if it further inspired me to make my exhibition piece in memory of her. Each of the residents had written a short message to Kiwi telling her how they would miss her and what a good pet she had been.
What I find most interesting about the scrapbook is that while it is in Kiwi's honor, the process of creating a book and having individuals sign it and write about their feelings seems more beneficial or cathartic for the human than the animal. Perhaps it is because I am not very spiritual, but I don't necessarily believe in the afterlife or the possibility of Kiwi being able to feel or sense our presence on Earth after her passing. I feel as if the scrapbook served as a therapeutic release for the residents, allowing them to grieve and release themselves of the sad/negative feelings surrounding Kiwi's death. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with this, as it is healthy for us to have something tangible like a book to contain our emotions, and it is certainly a lovely idea. But this class has encouraged me to think of human-animal relationships as mutual rather than one-sided. How can our interactions be therapeutic for both parties? How can we honor Kiwi after she is already gone without simply making ourselves feel better? These are the things I am struggling with as I think about my final exhibition project.
I suppose one would have to think in terms of spirituality if they wanted to connect to an animal who has passed on. If I wanted to connect with Kiwi, I would have to accept the possibility of her spirit being present despite her physical absence. Yet I feel as if Coco's existence is another way for me to focus on honoring Kiwi. By looking after Coco and showing her compassion and love, I feel as if I am continuing their sisterly bond and helping Kiwi's legacy of being Coco's support system live on. While I could never replace Kiwi in Coco's eyes, I would like to think that my relationship with her would at least show her she is cared about and important in my life. Rather than trying to connect with Kiwi's spirit, which I have a hard time imagining, I can instead put my energy toward benefitting the family she left behind. My exhibition piece will definitely be much like the scrapbook in that it will be a sort of catharsis for me, but I hope to also reassure Coco that everything is going to be ok and despite Kiwi's passing she can still thrive and have a happy life at Garden Court.