• vzaffos

Paws & Reflect: Life Lessons from My Dogs

Updated: May 28, 2020

I have always been a Dog Person. Socially anxious as a kid, I preferred the company of the family pet over that of my own peers. So I was devastated to discover as an adult and new mom that I had developed a dog allergy.

My obstetrician told me this can happen after pregnancy. “Hormones do all sorts of crazy things,” he explained. The thrill of mommy-ing a new human baby – and not long after, a second one – distracted me for several years. The fact that our firstborn (a son) was as afraid of animals as I was allergic to them helped curb my craving. No such luck with our youngest (a daughter) whose first word after “dada” was “doggie.”

I braved weekly allergy shots (just in case Firstborn suddenly grew out of his distaste for furry creatures). Maybe the hormone thing would work in reverse once he reached puberty. By the way, the shots were useless and after a year, I gave up.

Husband and I brainstormed a series of stop-gap measures to satisfy Daughter. First there was a fish tank. Until Army Crab latched on to Puffer Fish with one pincer, and flayed it strip by agonizing strip with the other. Next we tried Hermit Crabs. Somehow I overlooked the fact that, not unlike their Army Crab cousins, Hermit Crabs also have pincers. A tip: Running water works better than a salad fork when trying to force a crab to release its death grip on the palm of your child’s hand.

Next bright idea: Daddy & Daughter visits to pet store once a week. We should have anticipated Daughter would fall in love with one of her temporary playmates. As much as Daddy explained why we couldn’t bring home the object of her Puppy Love, Daughter begged with the tenacity of a terrier on a shoe. Worn down, I agreed to at least take a look.

Big Mistake. The moment we walked into the store, this adorable puffball stood on his hind legs, two disproportionately large puppy paws perched on the top edge of the glass enclosure where he was displayed. We locked eyes. Even though smiling is anatomically impossible for dogs, I swear this one was doing just that. It was as if he was saying “Oh, I’ve been waiting for you. When do we go home?”

Of all the breeds in that store, did Daughter have to give her heart to a Sheltie? This dog was a scaled-down doppleganger for my beloved childhood pet and confidant, a Collie named Mr. Beaujangles. Since Mommy’s allergy wasn’t enough to end Daughter’s relentless campaign, we brought in the Big Guns: her brother’s fear of dogs. We brought Firstborn back to the pet store two days later (I was hoping someone else had bought the dog in the meantime), but Son promptly threw me under the bus. “If we had to get a dog,” he said, “I’d want this one.” He was about to turn 13. Maybe my Hormone Theory was correct after all.

And so it was that Sparky joined our family, as he had seemed to know he would from the moment he laid his big brown eyes on each of us. Long story short, acupuncture cured my dog allergy. Or maybe all it took was finding the right dog. Either way, I’m not going to question it.

So what’s the big deal about dogs? As much as people like to think we can train our pets, the truth is, they are the ones training us — imparting life lessons simply by their example. My favorite joke says it best: A man tells his buddy, “My wife is my best friend.” The other man says, “That’s impossible. Your dog is your best friend.” The first man, offended by his buddy’s suggestion, insists once again, “Yes, she most certainly is!” The buddy proposes a test: “Tell you what — Lock both of them in the trunk of your car for an hour. When you open it, tell me which one is happy to see you.” There you have Lesson #1.

Lesson # 2: Dogs remind us how to find joy in even the smallest of life’s pleasures. Who among us can resist smiling while watching a dog chase a slobbery tennis ball, or its own tail, for that matter? One of Sparky’s favorite pastimes is sniffing the wind. Clearly he’s in a state of bliss when he can stick his snout out the car window for a whiff of “Doggie Cocaine”. Dogs also give us the courage to experience our most unpleasant emotions. As a child, the safest place I could think of to let the tears flow after The Mean Girls had bullied me yet again, was with my face buried in Beau’s silky mane. He never failed to show up for me when I suffered in sorrow. That much I know because he would sit stock still in front of me, his chin resting on my shoulder, until the last sob subsided. Then he would lick my face as if to say “There, there. I’m here for you and I love you no matter what.”

Animal behaviorists guard against anthropomorphizing. They say we are simply projecting our own feelings onto the dog (Or cat. Or narwhal. Okay, maybe not a narwhal.) Anyway, I find it hard to believe Beau wiped my tears away with his tongue just because he was thirsty, or because his electrolytes were low and he lacked the dexterity to untwist the cap on a bottle of Gatorade.

Lesson #3: Everyone Needs to Be Needed. As much as I have always depended on dogs, I need them to depend on me as well (especially since our children have become young adults.). Dogs and I, we are a perfect fit in that respect The research backs me up: Scientists say that even full grown, canines can cognitively grasp only as much as your standard-issue human toddler. Plus they lack opposable thumbs. For these reasons Dogs need us to give shelter, to fill the doggie bowls with kibble and water, and to take them on walks (in Sparky’s case, not just to poop and pee, but to save him from the inherent dangers of his instinct to herd — barking and lunging at the end of his leash, no doubt convinced he has successfully re-directed the 2-ton garbage truck. Or the jogger. Or the Muscovy duck that waddled too close).

Three years after Firstborn left for college and just before our youngest Human Child was to fly the nest, I brought home a second dog. Mother and Daughter had decided to go for a good-bye dinner, just the two of us. Walking toward the restaurant, she pointed to a pet shop two doors down. “Let’s go in, for old time’s sake.” I don’t even remember which one of us said it, but we have always been of like-mind (at least on the subject of doggies), so in we went.

As I scanned the rows of cages, a tri-color Mini-Australian Shepherd caught my attention. She locked eyes with me, lifting one disproportionately large forepaw and placing it on the cage door, as if to say, “Oh, I’ve been waiting for you! When do we home?” Sparky all over again.

And that is how our family of five became six. We named her Ozzi. (Get it? Australian Shepherd? “Ozzi, Ozzi Ozzi Oi! Oi! Oi!”) It didn’t take long to realize my Ozzi-Girl was meant to be a stand-in for Human Daughter. It soon was clear that Oz was also my Doggie Doppelgänger: We are both intrinsically socially anxious creatures. When a stranger enters our home, she spins in frantic circles (always counter-clockwise at hurricane-force speeds. Don’t ask me why). Outside, the sound of a bouncing basketball or the high-pitched voice of a child literally stops Ozzi in her tracks. I am moved to love her through her fears in a way I had never been able to do for myself. Each time she tentatively allows a new person to pat her on the head, she’s training me to expand my own comfort level with social connection.

Ozzi also has given Sparky a new lease on life. His energetic young companion was a worthy substitute for the two two-legged ones who no longer live at home. He’s almost 13 now. I’m tearing up as I write this, looking at that number, knowing he’s nearing the end of his natural life. (And yes, he did just jump onto the couch and curl up next to me, tracking my tears, as Beau had done for me so many years before.)

Spark sleeps a lot more now and his joints are a bit creaky when he stands after a snooze.The vet tells us his vision is cloudy, though Sparky still delights in catching a ball (for now). And he’s gone deaf. Shepherds are working dogs; they need a sense of purpose. Without his hearing, he had no idea when to scare away the UPS guy at the door. When to appear in the laundry room, alerted by the rumble of the garage door when one of his pack was returning to the den. When to race to the master bedroom window that overlooks the back yard — barking savagely to protect our territory from the workers armed with all manner of evil lawn-care equipment.

Ozzi became his Early Warning System. Sparky quickly figured out that when Oz lifts her head and stares with laser focus, pricks her ears to listen, then takes off running — nails skittering on the wood floors in a futile effort to gain traction — it’s Go-Time. The Most Important Lesson my dogs have imparted is one I have had the most difficulty learning. Buddhists call it “non-attachment”. Alcoholics in recovery call it “serenity”. Spiritual Seekers call it “letting go”. I took Sparky to the vet recently, concerned about a limp he had developed. He is now the canine equivalent of “pigeon-toed.” The doc checked it out and determined our “pup” has a touch of arthritis. Part of aging. To be expected. The rotation I’d noticed in his left foreleg is the result of compensating for the condition. “Don’t feel sad,” Vet said, obviously noticing my pained expression. “Dogs don’t feel sorry for themselves. They don’t worry about getting old. They just find a way to keep going”.

Initially I resented Vet’s callous and cold hearted attitude. Until I allowed myself to see that he was right. Spark never whimpers or whines. He simply adjusts to his limitations: He sleeps a lot more (going deaf is actually an advantage, since loud noises no longer disturb his slumber). He wrestles with Ozzi first thing in the morning, when he’s fresh from a good night’s sleep. And when we play ball (while his vision still allows for mouth-eye coordination), he chooses to catch it on the fly from 5 feet away — instead of exhausting himself chasing it across the cul du sac. I know Sparky remains happy as ever, because when he drops the slobbery orb at my feet for yet another toss, he flashes a doggie grin with the very same intensity as that moment in the pet store when our eyes first met.

Now I am an Empty Nester, reluctantly checking the fourth box on forms requesting which age range I belong to. Just like Sparky, I too, am slowing down, albeit at about 1/7th the rate he’s going (if what they say is true about calculating “dog years”). But Sparky has shown me by his shining Sheltie example the difference between biding my time and taking it. It’s simple, really. Wag more. Bark less.

“A dog’s only fault is that they don’t live long enough.” — Agnes Sligh Turnbull

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