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Dogs As Conflict Mediators

I am a professional mediator, retained by two or more warring parties to be in the middle of their dispute to help them survive and arrive at some accommodation short of violence or costly litigation. The conflict may be labeled a business matter or divorce but it is invariably over money, property or some other perceived personal slight, violation of right or entitlement. It’s a tough business; people are often at their worst and trust is at low ebb. Frustration and anger flow freely or gather force just under the surface. I am not a therapist; I take a no-nonsense, business approach. So even though I have always had dogs around, I did not immediately recognize their potency in managing conflict.

Dogs know about conflict. The term “dogfight” was coined in their name, although they have perhaps been maligned. While dogs can be aggressive, they won’t usually fight unless they have been encouraged, cornered, or threatened. Many of the disputes I deal with closely resemble dogfights; one or more people usually feels cornered.

At the same time, there are those who romanticize dogs and believe they are without guile. I have been suckered on too many occasions by that innocent look that is the prelude to stealing the steak or the turkey right off the table the second my back is turned to slip into that kind of anthropomorphic sentimentality. There evolutionary psychology shares much in common with humans, not the least of which is the penchant for deception. Some suggest they only pretend to like us and we humans have merely been primed to interpret their languishing eyes and countless ‘too cute’ poses as love and fidelity when they may be nothing more than slick strategies calculated to get a handout, a paw in the door, or a warm bed. (Budiansky, S. Why Dogs Pretend to Like Us, 2001)

Dogs may be so alluring because they remind us of ourselves. The close physical resemblance between dog and owner has struck me more than once and I regularly check the mirror to check for signs of my own metamorphosis. Not in spite of their basic canine nature but because of it, dogs are uniquely attuned to and synchronized with human behaviors. That makes them valuable aides-de-camp to the practicing conflict mediator. My dogs, Rugger, a 14-year-old Yellow Labrador, and Reilly, a 9-year-old Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier, have been my professional associates for several years now.

I don’t include the dogs in the first sessions, being necessarily wily and cautious about the risk of injury to my professional image. The idea of mediation of disputes is already ‘counter-culturish’ enough in an America built with ‘no-negotiation’ icons like John Wayne. Most people who come to my office are distrustful and skeptical to begin with— of each other, of me, of the strange notion that they could actually settle their dispute themselves—without adding the novelty of dogs into the mix. While mediation may be an eminently sensible approach to dealing with conflict, effective marketing requires that I dress it up and disguise it to appear legitimate, professional, and established. I also have to be mindful of those people who are uncomfortable around dogs, (although I admit to a bias against such folks that has to be scrupulously suppressed). After careful screening, my canine co-mediators will attend some or all of the subsequent mediation sessions.

At the very least, their presence helps divert the clients’ attention away from all the negative stuff that is preoccupying them. For those who are “dog people”, their affinity can be a reminder of a remaining thread of understanding between them when everything else appears to be in shreds. But most strikingly, dogs have an uncanny ability to sense and ease emotional tension in humans that is not unlike their ability to sense an impending epileptic seizure. Most of us have at some point experienced those pained moments in discussions where what is not being said sucks the air out of the room; the atmosphere is choked and stifled by the unstated agendas and closely guarded secrets.

I stumbled upon the value of canine co-mediators quite by accident. Some years ago, both dogs were present in a session with two Ph.D. psychologists in the throes of a divorce. Both had, as one would expect of professionals in general and child psychologists in particular, presented themselves as reasonable, committed to their children’s’ welfare and to the importance of cooperation. Seasoned practitioners are of course wary of such positive weather reports and know that divorces between professionals, especially therapists, lawyers or doctors, can quickly turn ugly. They often bring to a dispute an intensity and passion that few others can muster. Maybe it is because as experts they know so much, or maybe it is because for all their training and education they are as confused as the rest of us and have a harder time admitting it. In any event, professional people, despite claims to a higher level of rational discourse, can be the most angry, least reasonable, and most difficult clients. These two confirmed my suspicions, but no matter how prepared, you can never be ready enough.

In this particular mediation session, He was screaming something about how she had betrayed him and the children. She, his wife, sat momentarily still, readying herself to respond in kind. Rugger, who up to this time had been laying quietly, now looked up and away, ears down with an apparent expression of dismay that Labs display when humans are angry and heated —they seem to take it personally. Being opportunistic, I seized the moment for my intervention: “Folks, I’m sorry to interrupt, but your discussion seems to be upsetting Rugger.” They stopped on a dime and apologized. While all of my previous best-devised and well-studied efforts to manage the conflict were to no avail, they accorded Rugger the special consideration and courtesy he deserved. Dogs are, after all, a special breed.

But it only worked for a while. Conflict mediators know that any particular tactic, no matter how good, seldom works all of the time. You need a broad repertoire so that if one technique doesn’t work, there’s another in reserve. Suffice it to say, the verbal battle between the parties resumed with a vengeance later in the session. This time however, it was Reilly who offered up an even more potent intervention strategy unavailable to human conflict moderators. As ‘He’ again became agitated and animated with arm outstretched and forefinger pointing toward the heavens, shrieking about how ‘She’ was destroying his family and was the sole cause of his and the children’s ruination, I looked again toward Rugger for my salvation. This time, however, being old and half deaf, he was fast asleep. I would learn in later months to surreptitiously nudge him so that he would lift his head, if for no other reason, because he was bewildered by the interruption, so that I could pretend he was disturbed, but this time I was regrettably stumped. Then I noticed that Reilly, usually next to Rugger, was not there.

Terriers in general, don’t seem to be as sensitive to human stuff, so I didn’t immediately think much of it. In the same instant I realized the man’s tone had suddenly calmed and I watched the blood in his flushed angry face, visibly recede. I followed the gaze of his eyes downward down toward his legs. There was Reilly; he had walked over and gently placed his chin on the guy’s knee in mid scream and with what I gauged to be a quizzical expression so as if to say “what’s wrong, can I do anything?” looked up at him. A calmness seized the room and by the time I looked up at him, he was smiling, patted Reilly, and apologized for the outburst.

No mere mortal mediator could have done the same. Dogs have a capacity to trigger a human response and dissipate stress in ways unavailable to other humans. Since then, there have been countless other examples revealing their talent as conflict mediators. Even if dogs merely pretend to like us for the security and comfort they obtain, we as humans gain more than a fair trade-off in support and service. It is a pretense that works to our advantage. nd, as further benefit, that would to do any wily dog proud, all expenses—food, toys, vet bills—can be bona fide tax write-offs, although I might need to bring Rugger and Reilly with me to the IRS audit to soften their hard hearts as only dogs can do.

Postscript: Reilly and Rugger died within three weeks of one another in 1999. Their work was carried on by Bean, a beguiling Wheaten Terrier, who passed in 2016. They are deeply missed.

Consider co-mediating with a dog. Not only will he or she likely be amenable to all your fancy human tricks, unlike other mediators you might team with, but the presence will help you appear to be the person your dog seems to think you are.

This article is a revised version (2003) of one originally published in: MEDIATION NEWS, Vol. 19, No. l, 10-11, Dec. 2000; DOG NOSE NEWS, Portland, Oregon, July, 2001


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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