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What our dogs are here to teach us

Your task is not to seek love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.


Every animal is different, and each one of them has something unique to teach us. They come into our lives when we are ready to learn what they have to teach. I believe that one of the reasons their lives are relatively short is because we need to let them go when we have learned what we need to be taught by them and are ready for our next teacher.

Every one of them teaches us to love more deeply, and every one of them teaches us how to grieve, and how our attachment causes us suffering. I have learned a great deal from each of my dogs:

  • Nellie: My first dog as an adult, Nellie was a badly abused Australian Shepherd mix who had been saved because she showed so much heart and resilience to the rescue group. When we adopted her, she was 15 pounds underweight with multiple health issues. While she presented very few behavioral issues, bringing her back to health was a tremendous challenge. It was in learning to care for her that I learned how to care for my physical well-being. Perhaps more importantly, she taught me how to trust: when she wanted to do something I knew would hurt her in some way – like cross a busy street or eat something she found in the park – she didn’t like that I said no, but she had to accept it. In much the same way, I’ve had to learn to trust that there are patterns I’m subject to that I simply can’t comprehend. I have to trust that what I have to deal with is happening for a bigger reason. Like Nellie, I don’t know why things are as they are, but I trust it’s for my overall well-being.

  • Macduff: My second dog was really Nellie’s dog – she picked him up at an adoption fair and said, “he’s the one – let’s take him home” (that’s my translation, anyway!) Macduff was a glorious, beautiful, joyful creature who made Nellie happy. But he bit. He bit a woman at a dog fair when she touched his toy, which led to a lawsuit that we thankfully won. That taught me that no amount of vigilance can prevent something bad from happening. He bit my husband. That taught me that forgiveness has more power than any anger one can express. And he ultimately bit me, very badly on the face. At first, I didn’t learn anything from that, wanting to hide the fact that it had happened for fear I would lose him. But a kind friend asked me the question, “How do you want to live?”, and we finally had to accept that he wasn’t safe, for us, for our neighbors, or for other dogs. Macduff taught me a kind of humility I don’t think I could have learned without the pain and heartache: no matter how much I tried to control the situation, there were some things I simply couldn’t prevent.

  • Edgar: My third dog was a rescued police dog. I had been told he was a shepherd mix, but later learned from people who know the breed that he was a Belgian Malinois, one who looked almost like the breed standard on the AKC website. He was gorgeous. He knew his jobs were to protect our property and chase after anyone moving fast. Edgar wasn’t particularly a leader… until my husband died, and he found a vacuum where his leader used to be. I wasn’t stepping up, so he had to become the leader of the pack, vigilantly protecting me and our home to the extent that he scared people. He became my spouse, who I came home to. He was the one who allowed me to grieve and keep my heart open, because my love for him was so powerful. He took on the pain in my heart figuratively, and possibly, literally: four years after my husband’s death, he contracted hemangiosarcoma, a cancer of the blood vessels – his tumor formed in his heart, and he died four months after diagnosis. I learned from him what it means to love unconditionally. Even more powerfully, I learned what it means to sacrifice for love, and how to stay open to grief even when it hurts more than seems possible to endure.

  • Deena: My fourth dog is a pit bull mix, rescued as a stray who was pregnant, who delivered nine puppies in a foster home. I adopted her because I’d been told she was good with cats, as she’d been fostered with one, and I had two elderly cats at the time. Unlike my other three dogs, Deena is fearful, and she expresses her fear by aggressively barking and lunging after other dogs. Not people though: she adores people, especially men. Pit bulls are wonderful, and they are strong. Deena and I are learning together how to turn strength from a weapon for self-defense into a resource to stay centered and make good decisions. And she has been an excellent mirror for my own reluctance to step forward into unknown territory: when she doesn’t want to go somewhere, either because she wants to go a familiar way or is worried about something ahead of hear that is unknown, she plants her feet and won’t go anywhere. There is no pulling her – it’s like trying to pull a 65-pound cement block. I’ve recently realized that’s what I’m doing – planting my feet so I don’t have to step into the unknown in my life. I’m trying to invite both her and myself to take some small safe steps forward so we aren’t forever frozen in place. It’s a work in progress.

While all my animals teach me every day in small, significant ways, each one has had a different theme or two that represent overarching messaged they offer me. I am trying to pay attention. I realize that by paying attention to what they have to teach me, I am able to develop along spiritual lines I couldn’t otherwise pursue. This is the work I would like to help others do: by paying attention to what our animals have to teach us, we can do more interior work that leads us to greater compassion, equanimity, and care for the world.