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There are a few things that Theodore dreads in this world, and wind storms top the list.
A particularly loud morning storm is usually accompanied by a request from Theodore to join his humans in bed. He makes this request by resting his pointy nose on the edge of my side of the bed, his ears pulled back while proffering his most mournful look. And despite the overall prohibition: ‘No Dogs On The Bed’, at moments like this, I cannot refuse. Lucky for Theo that his Other Favorite Human finds him as charming as I do.
So, a few, blustery mornings ago, as Theodore cuddled up to me, finding the perfect position to keep the scary wind monsters at bay, my heart melted into a puddle of warm goo, and I thought about the symbiotic nature of our relationship.
We take turns soothing and protecting each other; we rely on one another to remain grounded. He comes to my aid, placing his head in my lap, whenever I feel out of sorts or anxious. In turn, I talk him through long, bumpy car rides and confrontations with wildly flapping banners and other unsettling disturbances.
And as Theodore hunkered down for his late morning snuggle, tucking his long limbs under his narrow frame, he gazed up at me with the sweetest, most grateful expression, and I found myself musing about what it is that makes our bonds with dogs so strong.
Why have I, and so many of my friends and loved ones, felt such an intense affinity for dogs and animals for as long as we can remember?
What is it that made us into dog people? In my case, it seems that from an early age, dogs provided for me a sense of safety, calm and belonging. This is powerful stuff for a child yearning to establish a sense of independence, but not wanting to feel alone in the world at the same time. And for me, once that bond was formed, it could never be broken.
A recent New York Times article by the pediatrician Dr. Perri Klass entitled ‘Can Fido And Whiskers Enrich Children’s Lives?’ explores current scientific studies seeking to document the ’emotional and psychological effects of pet ownership’.
“There is evidence that some individual kids seem to benefit from their relationship with these animals,” said James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania. “Everyone wants to know what the mechanism is.”
While I applaud that researchers are using scientific methods to explore these questions, my pet owning friends and loved ones have a preponderance of anecdotal evidence to support the belief that pets are beneficial to our health and our emotional development and well being. And, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that quite a few may not be interested at all to know ‘what the mechanism is’ but would prefer to simply enjoy the profound benefits of that pet-human relationship.
Not long ago, I took a walk with my close friend, Kiersten, and as we pondered this topic together, the stories began to flow. For Kiersten, her love of dogs began when she was just a little tyke.
Her first doggy soulmate was a yellow Lab named Sandy.
The two met one summer on vacation in Northwestern Connecticut. Kiersten’s siblings were all considerably older, and there were few kids her age near their lake home who were eligible for playmate status. So, she was naturally and magnetically drawn to the neighbor’s retriever, who spent her days tethered to a run.
Kiersten would sit and talk with Sandy for hours on end. Can you imagine the fascinating conversations they shared?
Kiersten describes the scene this way:
I think in part I spent a lot of time with Sandy because I felt that she must be lonely being tethered outside most of the day while Darby (her sibling) roamed the neighborhood (usually turning over a lot of trash cans in the process). But she was also the easiest kind of friend for me. It’s an uncomplicated relationship with dogs, you never feel any judgement. With dogs I always felt an immediate connection, and empathy.
I definitely had a hard time socially, particularly with other kids, and I was quite shy until I felt comfortable around someone since making friends was not that easy for me.
But I think more than that, it was that I always preferred the company of dogs.
My memories of Sandy are not so much fresh, in that I don’t remember what I would talk to her about and such, but I remember feeling connected to her, even at night when she would go inside her house and I would go inside mine. Her owners were lovely people, and cared about their dogs, but I still worried about Sandy. I wanted to be with her all the time.
I love this image of Kiersten and Sandy.
When I think of Kiersten sitting in the summer shade, chatting away with her best friend, I’m reminded of the feeling that comes over me when Theodore is reading with one of his young friends at the library. They’ll take his paw in one hand, and turn the pages of the book with the other, and I’m so touched by their connection and the trust they share, it’s overwhelming, in the loveliest way.
Like Kiersten, my earliest and fondest recollections are also dominated by dogs.
I have a vivid memory of visiting family friends in a small apartment, who kept an enormous Great Dane in the kitchen behind a baby gate. My sister tells me I was an infant, far too young to remember such things, but, indeed, I can see that majestic fawn beauty with her cropped ears, gazing at me from behind that gate as if it were yesterday. She stood much taller than that old fashioned collapsible barrier. A giant compared to me. And yet that memory, the first visual memory I can recall, registers no fear, only curiosity.
I’ll never forget my father taking me to see a litter of Labrador pups one hot August day. It was my 4th birthday and it seemed I’d wanted a dog FOREVER. I was mesmerized by the yellow and black furballs, romping and playing, their pipsqueak barks were music to my ears. I wanted to take every one of them home. I relished the idea of my own pack. But forced to choose, I picked out a sweet and rambunctious black pup whom we promptly named Cougar. His coloring didn’t match his name, but what did I know? I liked the sound of it.
Not long after, while he was still in his adolescent stage, he nipped me hard in the bum, and I wailed and cried, and my Mother put me in a warm bath to soothe me. But I forgot the bite as soon as I was out of the tub and back on my feet. I knew he hadn’t meant to hurt me. He just hadn’t learned proper manners yet.
I loved that dog. In my mind, he could do no wrong.
As I grew older, my interest in dogs (and horses, but don’t even get me started on that ) didn’t wane, it bloomed.
To shore up my knowledge as the family dog trainer, I watched the Brit dog expert Barbara Woodhouse on PBS religiously, I read The Monks of New Skete, Mordecai Siegel, and even the AKC Dog Breed Bible…from cover to cover. I memorized every dog in the book so that I could name even the most obscure breed with just a quick glance at a photo. Over the years, before I went off to college, we had three beautiful dogs: that legendary Labrador, a Beagle (Shiao Dee) and a Keeshond (Dutch Boy).
Working to communicate with these canine family members, learning to comprehend each other’s language, was far more alluring than playing with dolls or toys. And when there was chaos in our house, my furry best friends offered comfort and protection. I’d sequester myself and the dog in my room, and along with my books, paints and sketchbooks, I had all that I needed to feel secure. It was my dogs who taught me how to be comfortable and happy with being quiet, on my own. I was understood. I was seen. And most brilliant of all, with my dogs I could be alone without being alone.
From an early age, I rarely succumbed to peer pressure, and I credit my unflinching ability to be my own odd self to the example set by my confident, expressive mother, never a shrinking violet, and to my dogs, whom I knew would befriend and adore me unconditionally.
How could my parents have known what a tremendous influence having dogs in the house would have on me? I don’t think they could have possibly predicted how much these animals would shape my life, my perspectives, but I couldn’t be more grateful…
Years ago, when I was struggling to put an end to an unhealthy romantic relationship, I found the clarity I needed when my beloved shepherd mix, Mei Mei, died at the age of 15. Mei had seen me through some of the most dramatic changes in my life…I could not bear to lose her. With her at my side, I felt that I could tolerate anything, handle anything. And indeed, I did. She’d protected and comforted me for so many years…But the instant I said goodbye to dear Mei, I felt so desperately alone and unsafe. Without her companionship, there was no longer a buffer between my relationship misery and myself, and I finally realized that I’d tolerated far more than I ever should. It was a revelation. I could see that it was a double edged sword, that sense of safety Mei had provided. I had been safe with her, but not in the relationship. Still, I had no regrets. I knew that I’d needed to experience it all: the good and the bad, in order to be who I was meant to be. It all made perfect sense. I moved to act and finally cut that pitifully frayed cord, and began the journey to create a wiser, stronger, more joyful me with the memory of ebullient, steady Mei as my guide.
Protection, understanding, a sense of belonging, comfort, unconditional love…
These are the gifts of the human-canine bond. Some may say that it’s going too far to anthropomorphize dogs in this way, but in talking to my friends and loved ones, I know that’s not true.
Whether that dog-love germinates in our early years and blossoms into something grand and beautiful, or the connection with our canine friends begins later in life, it is an unbreakable bond, expansive and transforming. Dogs teach us humility, presence, patience, fairness and how to love.
I look at my beloved friend Kiersten, so gorgeous and grounded. Sensitive and kind. Wise and radiant. Kiersten will tell you that Fern makes her a better, happier person, (and there’s no doubt that her husband is equally devoted to their sweet, furry kid.)
I understand what Kiersten means. Dogs have helped me to be the person I want to be for as long as I can remember. They have helped me to stretch and evolve.
I can only hope to give back to Theodore and all the other dogs I know now and will come to know in the future, that pure love and devotion they’ve so willingly and enthusiastically shared with me. And I vow to try my best to never to take my soulmates (furry or human) for granted, because they are blessings of the most glorious kind.
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