Building Confidence in Foster Dogs Through Passive Observation

Written by Irene Perrett

How often do we use observation as a tool? We tend to monitor, assess, and weigh whether what we observe is what we would like to see. We question ourselves and judge the responses we observe to assess whether we are getting closer to our goal or nearing the outcome of our agenda. How do these observations cause us to feel? Do they enhance or detract, create insight or a barrier?

Please bear with me, I’ve been mulling this over — by removing preconceived perceptions from observation, we can develop the skill of passive observation, that is, observing with no agenda or judgement, but instead just using our senses to absorb the activity of the living that is taking place all around us. Gradually the things that initially seem to be so obvious and important start to drift into the background as we learn to notice the micro-world that exists alongside us and, through its subtlety, offers gifts which heighten our awareness.

As the noise of human activity dulls, we realise that we are surrounded by birdsong, the wind rustling the leaves in the trees, the buzz of insects, the footsteps of a beetle, the vibration of the earth — as each level of sound diminishes, we become aware of the quieter layer beneath until we are absorbed within the sounds themselves. We place no agenda on the birds to sing a certain song, or the beetle to choose to take a particular path, yet we find each fascinating in their own way. They are living their own lives, just as the trees above us and the soil beneath us hold millions of lives in their midst. These lives are beings beyond the human hand, though it is our choice whether to enhance or destroy, or to simple observe. Passive observation gives us the chance to step aside from the treadmill of life where we so often find ourselves, and to wonder at the beauty and connectivity of Earth’s inhabitants.

The day Martha arrived from Romania – photograph Irene Perrett

How is this relevant to dogs, and in particular, to a rescue dog like Martha, who has been traumatised and learnt to withdraw from interaction with humans? To one extent or another, we all use observation throughout our day; it is a part of our continuous learning process. If we think about it, when we observe, we are already adding to that observation — adding our own bias, history, and expectations. Our thoughts and interpretations will colour what we see; the action we observe creates an emotional response within us. None of us are a purely neutral observer. We each are made up of the genetics handed down from our ancestors and the experiences we have held over our lives. It is sometimes hard to leave this emotional, judging part of us aside and simply observe without adding meaning or expectation to what we are absorbing. Perhaps we can remember back to our childhood and the fascination of discovery, in a time when observations were noted and left to float away.

Imagine quietly watching a dog from a distance, reading a book and glancing across now and again, feeling her presence without any expectation, walking away to create space — until one day you notice that she is lying a little closer to you, that she doesn’t feel the need to move when you move nor hold her breath as you walk past. The subtleties of breath, the movement of the skin beneath the hair, the placement of the bodyweight over the feet as she moves, the rhythm as she laps the water she drinks — each we passively observe without expectation.

Within this context, we start to observe the nuances of conversation between one dog and another. A traumatised dog will often just lie and watch, not wishing to become involved but gradually learning about the happenings around her. As she becomes more familiar with the ebb and flow, she starts to assimilate information about others in her environment, taking in the routines and relationships, the dynamics that create a family. She watches the other dogs, she learns from their actions, their body language, their emotional state, until she feels ready to attempt interaction. From tentative steps, she begins to find courage; the responses she gains from the others show her how to adapt within her new world. Each day as I passively observe, I notice that she releases; she lets go of the smallest pieces of her story of trauma — the years she spent growing up while chained in a yard with her mother, the trauma of separation and further years fending for herself in a Romanian shelter — and the hidden chapters that only she knows. Recovering from trauma, she learns first that she can find safety, and from that place of safety she can start to trust herself, to gain resilience and self-reliance. I doubt this journey would happen as it does without the other dogs who live here: Maggie the calm overseer who reads every situation completely, and interprets the emotional state of others in a language I understand; Walter the wise and independent guardian; and Tibbsy, who is quietly companionable and gentle. They work in unison to enable a traumatised dog to understand that humans can be kind and trustworthy.

Walter and Martha walking on Exmoor four weeks later. She would check in with him if she was unsure, and preferred him to stay fairly close to her. She gained confidence from absorbing scents in each environment and having time to process what she learnt from this. Photograph: Irene Perrett.

Through my authenticity, I can help Martha to understand that humans are okay to be around. She has autonomy to choose how her journey moves forward. My role is non-judgemental observation and guidance. The insights I gain through periods of passive observation allow me to understand her more fully, simply being rather than doing.

If we reflect on work with humans, both infant observation and psychoanalytic therapy using non-interpretive mechanisms draw upon a similar pattern to an extent. Daniel Stern and colleagues (1998) tell us that a powerful therapeutic action occurs within implicit relational knowledge.1 Though our communication with non-human animals to a degree lacks the dubious clarity of the spoken language, the essence of authenticity within each person-to-person moment creates what Stern terms as “moments of meeting,” or moments when we gain a mutual connection and understanding with another being. Sometimes the ebb and flow of these moments allow us to quietly move the relationship forward; they are often transient but may bring an intense clarity to the precipice on which we stand for that brief time, the times when we know our next thought, movement or action will influence the fundamental balance of our relationship. In these moments we intuit how to respond, and only through empathy — by recognising the world through the eyes of another — can our thoughts attune to their needs.

We can probably each remember moments when our intuition led us through those brief seconds in which our life appears to pause as the world goes on around us, when the intensity of the present slows our actions but quickens our mind. Doctor Rachel Clarke (2020) describes it beautifully:

There are moments in medicine when what you what you say next feels as pregnant with risk as a surgeon’s first incision. The right words, used wisely, can bridge the airiest expanse between you and your patient but, if misjudged, may blow trust to pieces.2

One misjudged action can cause any tenuous glimmers of trust to dissolve before our eyes, but through passive observation we are able to build an understanding of another within ourselves; it enables us to intuit and respond to another’s emotional needs.

A walk on the moor few weeks later just before Martha was adopted. She had spent several weeks observing and absorbing her environment at her own pace – and developed the skills to interact confidently, and have fun! Photograph: Irene Perrett

When I live beside a foster dog, I know only one thing for certain — that each will teach me something more about myself, almost by osmosis and without conscious thought. Through passive observation we are able to absorb the clarity of thought that is the wisdom of non-human animals. I suspect that none of us who have the honour to work with an animal who has suffered from trauma will forget the moments that reflect their courage as they begin to explore and expand their world, the world that from necessity has been reduced as a part of their mechanism to cope. The art of combining observation, guidance, and monitoring environmental factors is key to engendering feelings of safety; but beyond this practical application, we can hold regard through calm, mindful and non-judgemental intention. We cannot put on a front and expect a dog to respond, we have to be genuine and authentic in our regard, or give them space and come back another time. The lessons that a rescue dog may teach us can be profound. They show us how to be at peace with ourselves, even for just a while. Passive observation is simply a term I use to describe those moments when we feel complete within ourselves and hold the capacity of intimate awareness of the world around us.



  1. Stern, D.N. et al. (1998) Non-interpretive mechanisms in psychoanalytic therapy: The ‘something more’ than interpretation. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 79, 903-921.
  2. Clarke, R. (2020) Dear Life. London: Little, Brown.

Irene has spent a lifetime working with and studying equines, and over recent years has fostered Romanian rescue dogs. She has written and tutors courses for The DoGenius, and is presently studying an MA in Anthrozoology at the University of Exeter. In her ‘spare time’ she and the dogs love exploring Exmoor.