Meet “The Shredder"

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We adopted our dog Owen in 2008 from a rescue organization. He is a West Highland white terrier, but when we met him, we could not find the “white.” Owen had never been bathed or groomed. Our new 11-month-old puppy was filthy and stinky but very sweet. Owen is fairly smart and remarkably not a troublemaker. We kept an eye out for any shoe- or toy-chewing but found none. He seemed to know the difference between the boy’s toys and his. Owen is an affectionate and sweet dog—with one mischievous habit: he removes used tissues from the wastebasket and shreds them to pieces.

This seems to be his only naughty habit. He leaves the other garbage cans alone, is friendly to visitors, keeps us protected from dangerous squirrels, and is always deliriously happy to see us. But this tissue shredding thing has remained a mystery.

I know, I know. Before you take to the comments section with your advice, I know. We could move the wastebasket; we could stop throwing tissues in there. But part of me is curious about this behavior and wants to get to the bottom of it.

Owen does not seem to shred out of boredom. We do not find tissue remnants after we’ve been out all day. He usually does this when we’re home. And I think it’s related to when he needs to release pent up energy.

Chasing and retrieving tennis balls is one of Owen’s favorite past-times. He loves to cuddle and play. But being a terrier, he wants attention immediately and for extended periods of time. And if we don’t play with or nuzzle him for as long as he wants, he gets antsy and will then disappear into our bedroom. That’s when we find the tattered tissue remains.

Therapist, author, and researcher Peter Levine, PhD, has observed that animals in the wild do not seem to suffer the effects of trauma. When able to escape from a predator, the prey animal seems able to discharge the energy that builds up from all that adrenaline. They might shake it off, jump around, re-enact the event, or show other behaviors that allow their nervous systems to reset.

In humans, the “logic” part of our brains overrides the “mammal” part. Levine theorizes that our trauma responses occur when we don’t discharge the energy like prey animals do. The nervous system remains heightened and the bodily sensations are re-cycled. Emotions erupt as if the traumatic event were happening in that moment. Some individuals remain hyperaroused, while others cope by disassociating and becoming numb. Others toggle between both states.

Because of Levine’s research along with advances in neurology, therapists are increasingly using mind-body-based models so that healing reaches deeper areas of the brain and clients learn to calm down their nervous systems.

I am not 100 percent sure that Owen is resetting his nervous system when he shreds the tissue. Perhaps he’s just expressing his rascal side. But he helps me appreciate the value in engaging our mammal brain and remembering that coping with stress goes beyond simple logic and cognitive problem solving. But don't expect me to start patrolling the backyard for squirrels, bunnies, or other critters. I'll leave that job to Owen.

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