Why is my spouse shush/hissing at me?

Oh yeah, she’s been binge-watching Cesar Millan on Disney+

Maybe I’m doing something she doesn’t like. Perhaps I’m running out the door without permission … or not getting along with my packmates. Should I have chosen a different sock to chew on?!? Have I been too aggressive in some way?

Or maybe it is my fear of the vacuum cleaner?

Actually, I’m not afraid of the vacuum cleaner. I know my way around the attachments, the ones of the sofa, the extensions to get the ceiling fan, and how to empty the canister when I am through.

See, who’s a good boy?

I’m a good boy.

So, yes, since we subscribed to Disney+, after watching the Mandalorian and a bunch of Marvel movies, the Dog Whisperer has been streaming at our house. And while the “good boy” question may not be interesting to anyone but me, what is interesting is the way that thinking about the behavior of the two dogs with whom we live (our packmates) and our children (also packmates?) is affected by the behavior of my wife and myself.

“Calm-assertive energy”

This is one of those phrases that frequently pops up when you watch/read about the training techniques of the “Dog Whisperer”. And yes, there is an element of leadership, whether in an organization or in a family/pack, that does necessitate a sort of calm confidence. Without clear and calm leadership, the pack feels anxious and worried about what might happen.

This is part of why for myself, as a clinician who works with children and families, when I see a child exhibiting signs of anxiety, I begin to wonder about the “leadership style” of the parents.

  • Are the parents leading together?
  • Are these parents revealing their own anxiety about parenting?
  • How can we all work together to provide a calm, consistent environment for this child?

Families are systems. And while difficulties with “packmates” can have multiple sources, having a safe, stable pack helps us master our difficulties when we are away from our pack (or home).

Exercise

My wife has been walking the dogs more lately … and as a side consequence, we have been walking together more too. Walking and talking. And while part of the benefit of the walk is the physical exertion and the way in which that reduces stress hormones and boosts “feel good” neurotransmitters, it also benefits our relationship to have this time away from the home, away from the children, away from the responsibilities of home and work and writing.

Part of the benefit of physical activity is that it keeps us in the present moment, one foot in front of the other. This is all we need to do.

As I understand from my wife, Cesar recommends exercise for similar reasons … to help with our pack feel relaxed after the mutual exertion. And there are ways in which walking together (as a pack) helps with the relationship of dog with human, and between the humans walking together too.

Discipline

Consistent, reasonable structure helps. Even for us as individual humans, having a clear routine of waking and sleeping, work, eating, and rest helps us be better humans. Certainly the same can be said for the dogs and other humans in our life too.

For me, I call it “reasonable” structure because this is also easy to take too far so that there is no flexibility within the context of the structure.

Yes, the routine is important, but it is not all-important.

Having a consistent set of boundaries and routine help us feel safe, but also having a parent/leader who is willing to recognize times when it is important to deviate from that routine is important too. Which gets us to something else that is important …

Affection (or relationship)

Yes, dogs and children will obey out of fear. But that does not necessarily benefit the relationship that you have with them. And a parent-leader can show affection without confusing the relationship between human and dog, or parent and child.

Building a good trusting relationship in our families takes time and takes consistency of structure and being present with them … at meals, at play, and at work around the home together.

Showing affection, telling them that they are in fact “good” and that you love them even when they may make mistakes is vital to feeling safe in the context of the relationship.

Again, this doesn’t mean that all boundaries and structure disappear, but that all of this continues to be held in the caring arms of relationship.

So no, we are not some sort of automaton shoved in a Skinner box that making a few “shhhhhhh” noises will manipulate. But it is helpful to remember that our actions as leaders of the “pack”, as parents, affect how safe and secure and stable our children feel.

And yes, sometimes as the leaders of the pack we might try whispering to each other too … but hopefully not the shush/hissing sort of whispering. Right? Sweetheart???

I promise, I’m good with the vacuuming. I’m a good boy ….

clinical social worker, spiritual director, author, husband, father, son, runner in Georgia, co-author of When Anxiety Strikes from Kregel Publications.

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