Updated: Dec 29, 2020
Someone asked me via Instagram DM -
Is it possible to co-regulate with a pet? ...I am incapable of trusting/liking/enduring people enough to get to a safe co-regulation situation, so I'm trying to find holes in the system 😅 to be able to heal myself and get unstuck, otherwise I'm screwed 🙄. My dog seems to be my only safe space in the world.
YES! It is absolutely possible to co-regulate with a pet. Especially if you have a mammal. Let's break this down. But first, here are my 2 doggies, Daisy & Ginger -
What is Co-regulation?
Co-regulation is one of the three pillars of the polyvagal theory along with the evolutionary hierarchy of the autonomic nervous system and neuroception. Co-regulation is something that happens between two mammals. It's a social interaction that helps to regulate their physiology and thus optimize bodily resources.
For example, the parent that gently looks into the eyes of their toddler who is throwing a tantrum. The parent is in their safe and social state, giving cues of safety spontaneously and easily. The child is in a more sympathetic state, highly energized but dysregulated. The parent's safety cues might help that toddler to regulate back into their own safe and social state and to calm down. The child is receiving passive co-regulation versus active self-regulation.
Why is Being a Mammal Important?
It's a mammalian thing though. Because mammals are the only organisms that stay in families and require social engagement to optimize bodily resources. Porges does a better job at explaining though in this short clip -
Mammals have a ventral vagal social engagement system. These are biological pathways unique to mammals that allowed for social bonding and an increased chance of survival. These pathways also allowed for the first tiny mammals to be able to hear each other as distinct from the larger reptiles that dominated the world at the time. And allowed for vocalizations that were distinct from those same reptiles.
So mammals have our own unique physiology. Those unique pathways give us the ability to signal when we are safe or not. It allows us to be close to each other and provide. It allows us to make families and tribes on top of that. And that includes our mammalian pets, like dogs. They become a part of our families and our larger human tribe(s).
Birds and reptiles don't have those same biological pathways. They don't need to co-regulate with each other. There is no social engagement system or facial affect. They are basically constantly in a state of mobilization or immobilization.
Our mammalian third autonomic pathways take those older pathways of mobilization and immobilization and repurpose them for connection (and health, growth and restoration). Our biology for pure flight/fight becomes used for play when combined with the safety system. The immobilization pathways becomes a meditative stillness when combined with the safety system. Mammals are unique.
Can a dog co-regulate?
Hell yeah. And they're really good at it.
If you have a dog, you know exactly how they feel. They show it all over their bodies. When they're in a state of safety, they instantaneously get closer to you and cuddle. They look you in the eye. They become more playful. Their tails, ears and eyes all express their safety.
Our individual nervous systems pick up on their safety cues, causing a neuroception of safety within us. This safety neuroception helps our own autonomic nervous system to climb up the polyv agal ladder.
The co-regulation from a dog or other mammalian pet is just like from another human. It's spontaneous. When we're in our state of safety, we instantaneously give cues of safety to those around us. It's not a conscious, planned thing. It's just something that mammals do passively for each other.
I didn't include co-regulation in my Building Safety Anchors course, but this could be a potential anchor for you. If you can purposefully surround yourself with safe mammals, you're going to increase the amount of safety cues coming your way. Safe friends, safe family, safe coworkers and even safe pets. Co-regulation is passive, but you can increase those passive cues and chances for neuroceptions of safety.
Do Animals Get Traumatized?
As long as you treat your animal well, they are fantastic self-regulators. Animals know what they need. They know how to utilize their flight energy. They know when to be aggressive and use the energy. For the most part, animals don't really get traumatized, especially wild animals. If they were traumatized in the wild, they would make for easy prey.
Domestic animals are different. Domestic animals don't have as much space as a wild animal. Domestic animals are confined within the walls of the home or the fence of the yard. There are less opportunities to do their natural instincts, like hunting and digging. And these are the methods they would use to utilize their defensive energy. Instead, they tear up couches and rip up toys.
Domestic animals are also living with humans. Humans who are potentially not very good co-regulators. Humans who are not accessing their state of safety. Animals in these homes are potentially being saturated in danger cues from their human family. Combine this with being confined and you have the ingredients for a traumatized animal. Not to mention those that might be downright mistreated.
If you're ready to do your own ladder climbing and can commit to 30 days of learning and doing, I've got a great option for you. My Building Safety Anchors course is exactly that. Every day I guide you through a small step that is designed to help you ground yourself more in the present moment, build the strength of your vagal brake and help you get unstuck.