I loved Cosmo from the moment I met him, but it wasn’t until he became ill that I realized my love was self-serving. I had discovered, shamefully, that I was a bad friend.
Cosmo was a European import German Shepherd with a pedigree that would make any dog jealous. He was the quintessential working dog; the dog I had always wanted. In my early years as a trainer and behaviorist, I had worked with many German Shepherds in Schutzhund, police work, and search and rescue, but I’d never had one of my own. When Cosmo unexpectedly came into my life, I was excited to work with him. Although I loved him, a true friendship would not happen for the first six years of his life. Those years were spent training and shaping him into my “demo” dog. In other words, I had made him into my “trophy” dog; one that I could show off. From his majestic and imposing looks to his precision obedience, GPS-like tracking, and hard-hitting protection skills, Cosmo had it all. That all changed suddenly right before his seventh birthday.
It began with him having difficulty with bowel movements, and progressed to a point where he wasn’t eating. In only a few short weeks he went from having vigor and energy to becoming a frail, shell of a dog. A trip to the veterinarian’s office revealed he had a double perineal hernia. I was faced with expensive surgery and a long recovery if I were to save his life. I had to make a decision. I remember thinking to myself, “Are Cosmo’s best days behind him? He’s past his prime. If I go ahead with the surgery, then what?” This was the trainer in me speaking. I was only thinking of Cosmo in terms of his usefulness to me. I had regarded him as just a pet; a dog, a showpiece. This way of thinking, which I had learned from many of my former teachers, cost me many great relationships with dogs. It had cost me the first 6 years of this special dog’s life. That was about to change.
I clearly remember the day my epiphany happened. Cosmo was lying on his bed next to my couch and I was looking at him. I ran through these questions in my mind. He looked so pitiful. As I looked at him, my eye drifted up to the picture I had hanging on the wall above his bed. It was a signed Stephen Huneck print of a hand reaching out to a dog with a stick in his mouth. The caption read: “PALS * STICK * TOGETHER”. All at once, something inside me shifted and I had a sudden sense of clarity. In Zen, this is called “satori” – a sudden awakening to the truth. At that moment, it was a reminder of what I had known all along, but had forgotten. Cosmo was not just my dog – he was my friend! I saw Cosmo for the first time as a friend and not something to manipulate and exploit for my own selfish desires. He looked at me at that moment and I felt ashamed that it took me so long to rediscover what I had already known as a child. Right then I made a promise to Cosmo and to myself: that if we got through this, everything would be different. I would strive to be the best friend to him that I could be. I would always put our friendship first, above all else. For better or worse, I’d help him be the best Cosmo he wanted to be, not what I wanted him to be. All the training and ways I could “show him off” were secondary now. That stuff was all an ego trip for me. From that moment forward, our friendship, and all that it meant, would come first.
Friendship First eventually became the first principle of my Path of Friendship™ program. It is the root of which all the other principles stem from. This attitude and perspective is the founding basis for all that I now do with my own dogs, and what I help people realize with their dogs. I believe this paradigm is the most natural relationship between a human being and a dog, and the way it was always meant to be. Putting the friendship first provides the fertile ground where the roots of the relationship can take hold and a true connection can grow and flourish. Friendship cannot be made, forced, manipulated, or trained; it is an organic process that must be grown, where each friend has the freedom they need to be themselves. And only when the friendship is unconditional can it grow into a deeply connected, kindred spirit friendship, what the Japanese call “Kenzoku”.
The Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers spoke of this unconditional friendship as the essential foundation to achieve self-actualization. He called it UPR or Unconditional Positive Regard. This is what Friendship First is about. It doesn’t say, as the behaviorists do, that “I’ll only be your friend if…, if you behave the way I want you to, if you obey my commands”, etc. It isn’t a self-serving friendship, like what Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski calls “fish love”. It’s an unselfish relationship where, as Hugh Prather so eloquently put, “two can walk in different directions, yet alway remain sided by side.”
The principle of Friendship First is a complete and unwavering commitment to each other, in spite of any problems and difficulties. Friendship First means you do not abandon your canine friend when things go wrong. You don’t give up your dog when he doesn’t act the way you expect him to. You must believe in each other and completely accept and embrace each other for who you are, not what you believe the other should be. It is said in the Tao Te Ching, chapter 64, “A journey of a thousands miles starts from beneath your feet.” Your commitment and acceptance of your dog is the ground beneath your feet. You cannot take another step on the path without this firm footing.
What you can achieve with your dog is an incredibly empowering relationship. When your dog feels this security, only then can she be free to grow to her fullest potential, secure in her knowledge that she’s valued and accepted. She will feel validated as an individual. She will not be restrained by the anxiety that she might lose your love if she makes one incorrect step. This will create an incredibly free and nurturing environment that fosters individual growth and leads to self-actualization. Yes, even in dogs. Here’s a secret: Friendship First is already how your dog feels about you – that unconditional love that we so often hear about. This love and commitment needs to be reciprocated. This first principle of the Path of Friendship™ is the most important one. This step will take you and you dog anywhere you want to go together.
Luckily, Cosmo made it through his operations just fine. I felt incredibly grateful that I learned (actually remembered) what it meant to be his friend before it was too late. Cosmo and I shared this friendship for the remaining five years of his life. He no longer was the best trained dog, nor was he physically imposing or majestic, but none of that mattered one bit. We were friends, we were kenzoku. I will never again forget that: PALS * STICK * TOGETHER.