Repairing The Fractures: The Art Of Kintsugi

It was late November, about a week before the Thanksgiving holiday, when Oliver, my 10 month old St. Bernard and I went hiking up Mt. Lafayette in New Hampshire.  It took us a few hours to get to the Ridgeline, when the wind started picking up and it began snowing heavily.  

“Time to go!” I shouted to Oliver, who was standing about 100 feet away.  It was getting hard to see in all this blowing snow, and I wanted to head home quickly before it got too bad.  

Oliver wouldn’t budge.  

“C’mon, let’s go!” I shouted again, but he still just stood there.  Now I became angry.  I trudged my way over to him,  ready to grab his collar and give him a tug, when I saw something that instantly changed my anger into humility.  

Oliver was standing in front of the trail marker.  He was waiting for me to come to him, because he knew the way down the mountain. 

 I made my way back to where I originally stood.  I discovered that what I thought was the trail was really the top of a steep ravine that I could have easily fallen down.  I was confused by the snow, but Oliver was not.  I apologized to him profusely, and we made our way safely down the mountain, thanks to Oliver.  

That brief rupture in our relationship lead to a deeper and more profound connection between us.  My arrogance turned to respect, and Oliver seemed to feel that.  We repaired our fracture with gold, and it was more beautiful as a result.  This is the art of Kintsugi.

Kuntsugi is the ancient Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold.  The unique patterns created adds a dimension of uniqueness and individual beauty that is better than the original.  It is the perfect metaphor when we are in conflict with our dogs.  

Friendships are never always smooth sailing.  There will be conflict from time to time, but if we see that friction as an opportunity to grow, it becomes traction to move the relationship forward.  

Many of my clients over the years have been concerned with being the “perfect” friend to their dog.  They become stressed when they feel they’ve made mistakes, and often lament that they’ve ruined the relationship.  I reassure them that they have nothing to worry about, that it’s the repair that matters, not the rupture.  I help them by explaining the simple art of Kintsugi:

Step 1: Collect the broken pieces.

Rather than obsessing about what caused the fracture, focus on the problem itself.  This is not a time for blame, its a time to collect your thoughts and objectively see the problem.  For myself and Oliver, I didn’t trust him and I wanted to be in control.

Step 2: See how the pieces fit together.

Here is where we use our empathy and understanding skills.  We need to see the problem from our dog’s perspective.  Oliver knew the correct way down the mountain, and he knew I wanted to leave.  He wasn’t being stubborn – he was being caring.

Step 3: Clean off each piece.

This is where forgiveness becomes crucial.  If we don’t forgive, it leaves a residue that will interfere with the broken pieces fitting back together.  I definitely forgave Oliver for not coming to me, and I think he forgave me for being so arrogant and commanding. 

Step 4: Prepare the gold.

This is where we change our mindset from wanting to be “right”, to seeing the bigger picture and the value of the friendship.  When I remembered what was really important – and put my friendship with Oliver first – it became easy to move forward.  It become the glue that held us together.

Step 5: Connect the pieces and join with gold.

The act of reconciliation and repair strengthens our friendship, and adds to its resilience.  Forgiveness is not about forgetting, it’s about remembering that we came through a difficult time and are stronger and more connected as a result.  

Whether we disagree on what is acceptable to chew on, feel stressed out and accidentally lose our temper, or don’t see eye to eye about barking at the neighbors, the inevitable conflict between us and our dogs is bound happen.  We need to look at that as an opportunity to grow and learn.  We don’t want to hide the scars the fracture may have left – we want to display our scars proudly.  When we repair them with gold, often the repair is better, stronger and more beautiful than the original.

Time-In’s vs. Time-Out’s: The African Way of Ubunto

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“I am because we are.”
– Ubunto philosophy

 

Rather than giving our dogs a Time-Out when they act up, we should give them a Time-In.

When our dogs have a continued experience of attachment that is secure, they will change their basic “operating system” from Fear, (of not being in control, of relational severance) to an operating system of Faith (faith that things will be safe, faith that we will always be there for them).  This is what friends do for each other.  This is how we can help our dogs feel safe, secure, happy and loved, and as a result help them behave in a calm and confident manner.

A very common piece of advice many dog trainers and behaviorists give to their clients when the dog is acting up is to put them in a Time-Out.  They suggest removing the dog from our presence by putting them in a crate, closing them off in a separate room, or simply banishing them from our presence in order to punish or control the dog.

In psychology, this is what’s know as a technique of “love-withdrawal”, and studies have shown this can damage confidence, drastically increase stress and stress hormones (such as cortisol), and have long-term detrimental effects on the relationships.  

Advice like this basically says to our dogs: “You’re not worthy of my love you when you act this way, and I will only love you if you behave according to my standards.”

For many dogs, especially rescue dogs and dogs from shelters, this is particularly harmful to their psychological well-being, as these dogs have already suffered a number of severed relationships and relational trauma.  

The goal of a Time-Out is to calm the dog down, and although it can have the effect of subduing the dog, they are far from being calm and relaxed.  Instead of creating calm, it creates anxiety in the dog.  The fear of losing the relationship they have with the person is too hard to bear, so they often just simply surrender.  This is what psychologist Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness”.  This feeling of having no control at all leads to anxiety and depression, especially with repeated instances.  In many cases, it can put the dog into what’s known as “dorsal vagal shutdown”, where  they basically give up.   As a result, we have a seemingly calmer dog, but in reality we end up with a dog who has just “cried Uncle”.  This is not how friends treat each other.

A better approach is based on the African philosophy of Ubuntu, which means “shared personhood” (shared humanity).  It states: “I am because we are.”  This is a philosophy of equality and inclusion; that we are in this together as friends, not as a hierarchical, punishment or reward based transaction.  

With Ubuntu, when someone does something wrong, rather than punishing them by rejecting them and withdrawing love, love is given in abundance.  They are taken to the center of the village and reminded of how valued and wanted they are, and of all the good things they have done.  This helps them feel safe, secure and loved.  Their disruptive behavior is recognized as a cry for help, and they are reminded that they will always have the village’s support.  This is precisely what a Time-In is.

In the lingo of polyvagal theory, we must help our dogs change their [behavior] patterns of protection into [behavior] patterns of connection.  When our dogs behave in a way that is disrespectful or inconsiderate, our job is to help them feel safe, secure and loved.  We must remember that our dog’s behavior is really a symptom of an underlying problem – most often a feeling of insecurity or unsafety.  Shunning them will only add to their fear and anxiety.  We want to stay with our dogs, and remind them they are valued and accepted.   

To facilitate this,  stay with them and involve their Social Engagement System, consisting of tone of voice, eye contact, facial expression and touch.  This sends the message that our dogs are safe and loved.  We must calm them, not through fear, but through safety and acceptance.  Take the time to sit with them, speak softly and comfortingly to them, make eye contact and smile – our dogs are very adept at reading even the subtlest of our facial expressions.  Gently pet them or give them a massage; make them feel accepted, wanted, valued and that they belong.  Shared Mindfulness is a great way to enhance this experience.  

We must remember that our dog’s behavior is only a way of expressing and communicating an underlying feeling or emotion.  Most so-called “bad behavior” is a result of stress and the arousal of the sympathetic nervous system.  When we help our dogs reconnect with us, we will help them feel calmer and more secure.  This is when our dogs need us the most – not through separation from them, but by being with them.  

Face Mask Anxiety

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Our dogs look up to us to assess how things are – literally.  A dog’s ability to read emotions and feelings from our faces is second to none, and it is the main way that they communicate with us.  Our expressions and micro-expressions tell a much richer and more complex story than our words ever will.  In fact, the closer the relationship we have with our dogs, the harder it is to deceive them – they read us better than the world’s best poker player.

When our faces are covered up, like during Halloween, our dogs can become stressed because they find it harder to tell how we feel.  It becomes more difficult to get information from us about the state of life at that moment.  I often get phone calls the first week of November about dogs who were acting either unusually fearful or aggressive because of the anxiety they felt during Halloween with everyone wearing a mask.  Now, with the coronavirus pandemic, wearing masks may become more commonplace, and our dogs may have a hard time to adjust to the potential “new normal”.

Once we begin emerging from this lockdown and we bring our dogs out in the public, there may be issues with them acting out, possibly due to everyone’s face covered up with masks.  Even more upsetting to them is not being able to read our own faces because we’ve hidden them.  How will they know how we feel when they cannot easily read our expressions?

There are a few things that we can do to prepare our dogs for this:

  1. Take the opportunity now to show your dog that wearing a mask is a common occurrence by occasionally putting one on random times during the day.  Don’t make a big deal out it, just wear it for a while when you’re feeding them, walking them, or just sitting and watching TV.  It’s also good to have it on when you are talking with other members of your household, and they should be wearing one as well. 
  2. While wearing a mask, talk to your dog as you normally would – the sound of your voice is comforting to them, and they can gather a lot of information from your tone, even if they cannot read your expressions.
  3. Smile when wearing a mask when with your dog.  I can’t stress this enough.  When you smile, it shows up in your eyes.  In fact, a majority of our expressions comes from our eyes, and our dogs are very adept at seeing that.  As Shakespeare wrote, “The eyes are the windows to the soul.”  When we gaze at our dogs with love, we release the neurotransmitter Oxytocin in both ourselves and our dogs, giving each of us a sense of comfort and security.
  4. Practice shared mindfulness with your dog while wearing a mask.  The sense of peace and serenity your dog will feel during these times will show your dog that the mask is nothing to fear and be concerned about.  

The world has changed since this virus reared its ugly head, and it has many of us feeling stressed and anxious.  It may be a while before we can all go back to normal.  Our dogs feel our stress as well through emotional contagion.  Getting them comfortable with seeing ourselves and others covering their faces will help ease their anxiety, and subsequently ease our own.

Mindful Mutt Moments

During these stressful times, we need to take a few moments to help our dogs relax and heal.  When we share a few mindful moments together, as friends, we help ourselves as well.

Alone, Together

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During this time of social distancing and isolation, there is one bright spot.  We can learn to be closer with our dogs and enrich our friendship.  The quiet, snuggle times that we have with our dogs usually fit neatly into our daily routines, without much thought. But now that most of us are sequestered in our homes, our routines have changed.  We can take advantage of this time to connect more deeply with our dogs. We can also take this time to work on any problems we see in our relationship. This is a time to focus on connecting, which brings us closer, and not controlling, which further distances us. 

A great way to do this is through what I call C.A.R.E.S., which stands for Companion Animal Relationship Enrichment Strategy.  Based in part on trans-species psychology and ideas such as polyvagal theory and attachment theory,  it asserts that most of the problems we experience with our dogs, and much of the fear and anxiety our dogs suffer, can be be more effectively healed through enriching our relationships and not through training and behavior modification.  I have used this approach for more than 30 years, and have had great success with it.  This period of social isolation is the perfect time to put this approach into action.

The eight dimensions of the Companion Animal Relationship Enrichment Strategy (C.A.R.E.S.): 

  1. Regard your dog as an equal.   This may seem like a radical idea, especially since we’ve been told by trainers and behaviorists that our relationship with our dogs is hierarchical, with humans being on top of the ladder.  However, nothing distances us more than inequality. When we view our dogs as subordinates, whether as a pet, a “child” or a tool, we eliminate the possibility of a true friendship from ever forming.  This is because true friendship, as Plato and countless other great minds have expressed, can occur only between equals. 
    Equality is not “sameness.”  Our dogs are different from us in many ways. Our differences are complementary, and that is precisely why we have developed a friendship over tens of thousands of years.   Although our dogs are not the same as us,  we are of equal value – just as our hearts and our lungs are not the same, but are of equal value.  We cannot exist without either; they complement each other and therefore give us life.  This is what the concept of being equal with our dogs suggests.
  2. Have complete faith in your dog.  Our dogs are perfect creatures, even if they don’t act that way all the time.  The truth is, neither do we.  When we have complete faith in them, we send them the message that we believe in them and we are committed to them. The more we have faith, the closer we are.  The more we doubt, the further apart we become.
  3. Un-cage your dog.  I am speaking metaphorically here.  When we attach labels to our dogs, such as “aggressive,” “shy,” “wild,” etc., we are putting them in a box and don’t see them for who they are in the moment.  Our dogs are not one-dimensional, fixed objects that never change; they are ever-changing, multi-dimensional living beings that are completely unique moment by moment.  When we recognize that and see them as they are in the present moment, our friendship will deepen and flourish.
  4. Love and accept your dog unconditionally.  When we put conditions on our love for our dogs, we greatly increase the distance between us.  If we tell them, “I’ll only love or accept you if…” you obey me or you stop chewing up shoes or you don’t jump, etc.,  we communicate to them that we don’t love or accept them for who they are.  This message will destroy our relationship and add tremendous insecurity and anxiety to our dogs.  A friendship cannot survive if it’s based on “quid pro quo.” 
    This love is not only a feeling; it must also be an action.  Never withhold affection for your dog or hold back on tenderness because they may not be behaving the way you expect them to.  Love shouldn’t be rationed as if it’s in short supply.  The more you give your love freely, the more you will receive it.
  5. Let go of control and support your dog’s autonomy.  When we make control a priority with our dogs, we lose the very foundation of our friendship.  Love is not how much we can control them, it’s how deeply we connect with them.  Our dogs are unique, self-determined individuals and we must respect that.  As equals, they deserve the same freedom of choice that we do.  When we micro-manage everything they do, we send them the message that they are incompetent and inferior.
    This does not imply that dogs have “carte blanche” to do whatever they want.  As friends neither of us is entitled to that.  It means that we support their decisions and choices and don’t stand in the way of the freedom for them to be themselves.
  6. Resolve conflicts with your dog with compassion and empathy.  When problems between you and your dog inevitably arise, if we respect each other’s needs and wants and use compassionate communication in finding mutually beneficial solutions, these conflicts will ultimately strengthen our friendship.  On the other hand, if we see ourselves as the “boss” and don’t take our dog’s feelings and needs into consideration by attempting to “train” them, then we further distance ourselves from them.  This requires tapping into and expanding our capacity for empathy.  As friends, we should focus on win-win solutions to our difficulties.
  7. Learn from each other and share wisdom.   We have complementary skill sets and can learn a great deal from each other.  We can help each other be happy and flourish.  As humans, we have an incredible capacity of prediction and the ability to see the “big picture.”  Our dogs have an equally incredible  ability to notice the present moment in astonishing detail.  When we tap into this harmony between us, we create a synergistic relationship where we become better together than we’d be separate.  When we ignore our dog’s input so we can be the “boss,”  we damage our connection.  
  8. Prioritize spending time connecting with your dog.   The more time we spend with our dogs, the closer we become.  I realize that this is not always possible, so the time we do have with them should be spent on connecting, not controlling.   If our precious moments together consist entirely of manipulation and training, we have lost time together that we never recover.  Instead of teaching useless “tricks” to show off to the neighbors, spend time in activities that enrich and enhance our friendship.  This can include, but is certainly not limited to: shared mindfulness, queen for a day, mindful walking, hide & seek, massage, hiking, playing ball, and more.  When we do this in the spirit of equal friendship, rather than of owner and pet, we decrease the distance between us and remove the barriers that block the bond between us.

This pandemic will ultimately end and there will be a return to normalcy.  If we use the time we now have with our dogs to enrich our relationship, we’ll get past this time of social distancing and become closer together as friends — the way we are supposed to be.  

Emotional Contagion

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“Life is ten percent what you experience and ninety percent how you respond to it.”
~ Dorothy M. Neddermeyer

 

This is a tense time for all of us.  We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, the stock market is in free fall and everywhere you turn there is division and discord.  We seemed to be gripped in fear, and the panic is going viral.  And even though we diligently wash our hands, avoid crowds and practice “social distancing”, we are still contagious and can infect our dogs – not with a virus, but with anxiety. 

Our feelings and emotions, and how we express them, can directly trigger similar feelings and emotions in our dogs.  When we become excited and happy, our dogs tend to become excited and happy along with us.  When we are anxious and stressed, our dogs can “catch” those feelings from us as well.  The closer our relationship is, the more contagious we are.  This phenomena is known as Emotional Contagion, and is defined as the: “tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally.”   

These days when we are all on edge, we have to think about how we’re effecting, or infecting our dogs.  

This hit home for me the other day when I was sitting on the couch watching the news with my dogs Bodhi and Bhakti.  I was paying attention to the “talking heads” on television and their gloomy report, when I noticed that Bhakti jumped off the couch and went upstairs.  Now, the only time she really does this is when there is tension in the room, such as when my wife and I engage in lively discussions, so I wondered why she did this when I was the only person there.  I looked over at Bodhi, and he had a worried expression on his face.  My first thought was that they had heard a noise outside that disturbed them, but as I got up to look out of the window, I noticed that Bodhi was fixing his worried gaze on me, as if I had done something to make him anxious.  I realized, in fact, I had.   I was agitated and upset while engrossed in the news report about the corona virus pandemic, and Bhakti and Bodhi became “infected” by my agitated state.  It was a clear case of emotional contagion.

I immediately turned off the television, sat down and took a few deep, mindful breaths.  This is like hitting a reset button and I felt much more relaxed.  I smiled at Bodhi, who was still a bit unsure.  After a few moments of talking to him and rubbing his chest, which he loves, he calmed right down.  A moment after that, Bhakti came back into the room with her “Is everything alright?” look, and she calmed down as well.  I gave them both a hug and we all went outside to play.

I have always depended on my dogs to help ease my own stress, and now it’s my turn to do the same for them.  I making every effort to spread good feelings in order to infect my dogs with love and calmness, and taking specific actions every day to maintain this, even as the world’s chaos surrounds us. 

First, I limit my exposure. Not just to crowds and large gatherings, but to the news and social media. I only read the latest updates and then close my computer. Period. I use this time to connect more with my dogs by taking a walk together, playing in the yard, or simply sitting on the couch with them while watching Netflix. 

Second, we practice more Shared Mindfulness and metta meditation together.  This helps reduce our stress and bring us closer together as friends. 

Finally, I practice reverse social distancing and engage in random acts of affection – they get hugs and kisses often throughout the day, even more than usual.  This affection seems to be going viral, as I’ve seen them spread this amongst each other.  I even witnessed Bhakti give my cat Rocko a kiss, which she never does. 

I’m confident this crisis will be over in time, and that our lives will return to a state of normalcy. Until then, my dogs and I will be certain to fight this viral infection with viral affection – and from that, hopefully, we will never recover. 

Honor or Betrayal?

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Last week I wrote about loving and losing our non-human friends.  It was a difficult essay for me to write because of the recent losses my family and friends endured.  It also opened some old wounds when I had to say goodbye to my dog Cosmo, just four short years ago this month.

When Cosmo died, I was devastated.  I wasn’t sure how I would continue to function on a daily basis, especially since my work is helping people and their dogs live happily together.  How would I be able to council someone on developing a great friendship with their dog when my own beloved friend was now gone from my life?  

After he died, I didn’t want to leave my house without my best buddy riding next to me as he did for almost 12 years, and yet I didn’t want to stay in my house either – the void was just too great to bear.   It was even more difficult when I’d see my other dog Cecil, watch the door,  waiting for his friend who would never come home again.  

Struggling with my loss, I swore up and down that I would never replace him.  Not only did I not want to endure the pain again, but that getting another dog would be a dishonor to him and his memory.  Besides, I told myself, I’d always compare another dog to him and that wouldn’t be fair to the new dog.  No, I thought firmly, I will never betray my friend Cosmo.  

Three days later…  

I wasn’t strong enough to bear the emptiness.  I needed bring another dog into my life.  I decided that since Cosmo was no longer with me, I’d give another dog in need a chance at life.  Of course, that dog would never replace Cosmo. 

My wife and I took a ride to our local shelter.  We looked at many dogs there, all of them in such desperate need of a home of their own, but I needed to give more thought to bringing another dog home so soon.   That evening, I looked at some photos that a friend who runs a rescue had posted online.  One picture grabbed me.  

I can’t say what it was about her picture that made me pause and really look deeper.  The dog in the photo wasn’t exactly the type of dog I would normally look at.  I had a preference for larger dogs and this one was small to medium.  Yet there was something about her that prompted me to inquire further.  I messaged my friend and we set up a meet and greet a few days later.

Vanora, what the rescue was calling her, was nothing like the type of dog I was partial to.  First of all, she was a she, and I always had a preference for males.  Secondly, she was smaller than I usually liked and was brindle-colored, which I didn’t really care for.  Meeting her didn’t go so well, either.  She never really looked at me – she kept shifting her gaze to the squirrels and chipmunks that were running around in the field we were in.  It’s not that she didn’t want to engage with me, but she preferred viewing the wildlife more.  How could I ever connect with this small, distracted, brindle female?  

I’m happy to say that Vanora, now named Bhakti (which means devotion in Sanskrit), has been the light of my life for the past four years.  She is different than any dog I’ve ever had the privilege to share my life with.  We have a connection that is on the same level that I had with Cosmo.  

In the beginning, I struggled with the thought that I had somehow betrayed Cosmo by loving Bhakti.  It felt almost like I was cheating on him, and that he would be jealous.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wasn’t  betraying Cosmo, I was honoring him.  I remembered a line from my all-time favorite film “Harold and Maude”.  In a scene where Maude was dying, Harold tearfully said to her, “Don’t die, Maude, I love you!”  Her response was the most profound message I ever heard when it comes to loving and losing: “That’s wonderful! Now go and love some more.”

There is a quote that is credited to the Buddha which says: “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”    I believe this is true with love, too.  When our beloved friends leave us, sharing our love with another dog does not diminish our first love, it only strengthens it.  Our friends will always occupy unique places in our hearts; nothing can ever replace them.  By adding more love to our lives with another dog who needs us, we greatly honor the memory of our departed friends. Not just tucked away in our hearts, but in the daily expression of love we give the friends that are with us.

As We Love, So We Grieve

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“When one person is missing the whole world seems empty.”
– Pat Schweibert

This has been a tough few weeks for my friends and family.  My daughter unexpectedly lost her cat, Tiggy.  A friend of mine had to say goodbye to several of her non-human friends she cares for at her sanctuary, and another friend lost her dog.  It seems as if the Universe is reclaiming its precious jewels all at once.  

Most of us know that when we choose to share our lives with a dog or any non-human friend, the day will come when we will ultimately part ways.  Our dogs and other animal friends become so woven into our lives. We calculate with confidence that we have years before we must say goodbye to them and we store it into the far recesses of our minds, taking comfort in the fact that it’s not imminent. We avoid thinking about how delicate and fragile these threads of friendship are that hold our world together.   Yet, as much as we push this thought away, it persistently and stubbornly surfaces on occasion to remind us that the fateful day will come soon enough. 

I often wonder why our dogs live only a fraction of the time we do.  It would seem that a friendship that’s been thousands of years in the making would last both our lifetimes.  Then I remembered what a friend once told me long ago that brought me comfort during a difficult time when one of my dogs passed.  Dogs live shorter lives than we do so that they don’t have to endure the pain of losing us.  We care for them, protect them and nurture them through the entirety of their lives.  They depend deeply on us and we become their whole world.  Losing us would be devastating for them, so it stands to reason that by them leaving before we do, they are spared that pain.  That is our burden to bear.  

We should have no regrets for our dogs when they leave us.  They live each moment of their lives to the fullest – not because they do any grand or ambitious thing, but rather because they are completely engaged in the present, and don’t look away from it.  Dogs extract every moment from life, whether it is 15 years or 15 days. Their ability to be totally present means they are complete and full, with no residue of regret or unfulfilled dreams.  As the philosopher Michel de Montaigne put it:

“The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man [dog] may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you. It depends upon your will, and not upon the number of days, to have a sufficient length of life.”

To lose a friend is a painful and traumatic event.  They are a part of us; a piece of our tapestry that is torn away, only to leave a gaping hole.  As much as we try, that hole will never be repaired completely.  The scar will always be there.  But is this a reason not to become friends in the first place?  Or is it, as Tennyson said:  “’Tis better to have loved and lost, Than never to have loved at all.”  

 Our friends are never replaceable, nothing will ever fill that void.  But to avoid friendships because we fear the pain of losing them will only create deeper voids.  How empty and hollow our lives would be if we never had the privilege of sharing a piece of it, however brief, with our dogs.  At least when we remember the friends we have lost, for that moment the hole is filled; the empty space is lined with love.  It becomes a testament to them and how they’ve changed our lives for the better.  If we were never friends in the first place, we’d still be hollow, but that hollowness would always remain empty.  The gaping hole in our life’s tapestry would still be there, but we wouldn’t be aware of it.  It would be a small, but persistent feeling of emptiness that we would never be able to identify, like a vague itch that can never be satisfactorily scratched.  Yes, it is better to have loved and lost.

As we love, so we grieve.  We will have good days and bad days, and that will stay with us always.  Through the years I have lost many friends.  Some were expected, some were not, none were easy.  Sometimes, when I least expect it, a memory of a long gone friend will arise and bring a sharp pang in my heart, but always with a subtle sweetness to it as if to say: “I’m still here.  I’m still with you.”  The writer Elizabeth Gilbert put it so perfectly: “Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted.  It comes and goes on its own schedule.  Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes.  Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants.  In that regard, grief has a lot in common with love.”

As I write this, I see the photographs on my wall of the dogs I had the privilege to share my life with.  I look at the dogs who are with me now, sleeping peacefully on my bed, and know that I wouldn’t trade the love or the pain for anything.  Because I have both, I am blessed.

Our Dogs: Family or Friends?

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“A friend is a single soul dwelling in two bodies.”
Aristotle

I read an interesting statistic from animalsheltering.org the other day stating that 80% of people felt their pet was part of the family.  At first, I was encouraged by that statistic, but the more I thought about it, the more it troubled me.  

One of the first things I noticed was the wording of the question.  It seems to be asking if you consider your pet to be a family member.  The dog was given the category “pet” first; “family” seemed to be a subcategory. The assumption is that the dog is a pet, and you are the owner.  I don’t know of anyone who really believes they “own” their family members, with the exception of some archaic and machismo concept of “king of the castle” control freaks.  People don’t own each other, and that includes family members.

The second, and more important thing that jumped out at me was the assumption that being a family member meant the two of you have a great connection. But that’s not always the case with families.

 When we say our dogs are part of our family, it doesn’t speak to the quality of the relationship.  I have family members who love and would do anything for, yet I certainly wouldn’t want to hang with them!  This sentiment is probably experienced during uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinners in many homes.   There are many instances where families have a deep love for one another, but rarely spend much time together or have any other bond aside from being a blood relation.  This is certainly not the way most of us feel about our dogs.  Family members love one another, but that does not automatically mean that they will be close, or enjoy the company of these relations.  This is why I prefer to use the term “friend” rather than “family,” because it more accurately describes the type of relationship and its qualities.  

When we speak about a loving family or loving our friends, we are often speaking about love as a feeling and a noun.  I’m speaking about love as an action and a verb.  Sometimes, we treat our friends differently than our family members.  We love our family members, and we connect with our friends.  

“True friendship can only exist between equals,” as Plato famously said.  Very often, we don’t consider our family members equals.  For example, when people say their dogs are “family,” they usually consider them as their children, as the term “fur baby” is becoming increasingly popular. However, this doesn’t accurately describe the relationship. When we look at the relationship between parents and children, it becomes clear.  As parents, we want our kids to listen to us and obey our wishes.  We do this out of love and concern for them, because our job as parents is to protect our children and prepare them for adulthood and independence.  This is a very different relationship than we have with our friends.  We are not preparing our friends to go off and become successful and independent adults.  We may advise and council our friends, especially if we possess certain skills or wisdom, but it is not a command, nor do we insist that our friends obey us.  We treat each other as equals, and respect each other’s differences.  

I think the family relationships most analogous to friendship are spouse or sibling.  In these cases there is more of an assumption of equality, although it doesn’t guarantee that siblings become friends, or even that spouses like each other and want to spend time together.  One only has to look at the rate of divorce in our culture to see what I mean.  

The relationship we have with our dogs is healthiest when we consider each other, and treat each other, as friends.  This means we live together without hierarchies, conditions and contingencies.  We respect each other for who we are, and do not resort to manipulation or coercion to get our way.  When we are faced with a conflict, we work it out together with cooperation and collaboration, and never entertain the concept of “winners” and “losers” or blame each other.  As friends, we respect each other’s autonomy and independence, and offer guidance and advice with compassion and concern, yet never force or bribe.  It also means we are open to receive guidance as well.  As friends, we spend time together and enjoy each other’s company, not just with structured activities. We find peace and comfort just being in each other’s presence.  We have undying faith in each other and are completely committed to our friendship, through good times and bad.  This is unconditional love and acceptance, and the only way our friendship will grow and flourish.  

The love we feel about those we consider our family is deep and unshakable.  It is written into our genetic code.  We will often go to “the ends of the Earth” to help our our family out.  The love we feel for our friends is equally profound.  We see our friends as part of ourselves, and reflections of our souls.  With our dogs, the ideal relationship to strive for is to be both friend and family.  We must love them as family, and treat them as friends.

Early Morning Reflections

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It’s early morning, about 10 minutes before sunrise. As I’m lacing up my hiking shoes, Bhakti is anxiously whining in anticipation of the morning’s hike. I call her over and put on her collar and orange vest. She patiently lifts each paw up for me as I apply Musher’s Secret to protect her feet, while Bodhi watches from the other room. I call Bodhi to me and he hesitantly comes over, excited about what’s to come, but not too happy with the preparation. He stands still while his collar and vest go on, begrudgingly allowing me to apply the Musher’s to his paws. I explain to him that it’s important to take these precautions, and that I want him to be safe on the trail. With a look of reluctant acceptance, he abides. I fill the water bottle, grab the leashes, my backpack and my walking stick and we head out the door into the brisk morning air.

Hiking with my dogs is one of my favorite ways to connect with them. I have been an avid hiker for many years, starting when I trained my St. Bernard Oliver for search and rescue work in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, many years ago. These days my hikes are not as ambitious, but I cherish each one, even though waking up before sunrise is not always fun. The experience of walking on the peaceful morning trails with my two best friends is enough to motivate me to drag myself out of a warm bed.

It’s a short drive to the trailhead. I’m fortunate to live in a community located in the Delaware State Forest of Pennsylvania, so access to a variety of trails is only minutes away. The dogs sit quietly in the back seat, waiting to arrive and begin our walk.

Once we’re on the trail, the dogs get a burst of energy. Bodhi does his “trail dance,” as I call it, where he rubs his butt on every branch, rock and tree stump that he can find. Bhakti, on the other hand, immediately puts her nose to the ground and tracks the most recent visitor to the trail — a squirrel, rabbit, deer or bear. After the first few minutes of walking the trail, the dogs are usually a few paces ahead of me. They constantly look back to see where I am, and I feel they’re saying to me, “Hurry up, human, there’s so much to discover!” or “Don’t lag behind!” I tell them to slow down a bit, that I have only two legs and they have four. Soon, though, we all start to settle down into a steady rhythm together.

During the hike, I like to close my eyes for a few moments at times to listen to the symphony of sounds that surround us: The wind that blows through the branches, the crunching noise from each step I take, the birds calling out to each other and the trickle of a tiny stream. The sounds are ever changing, shifting with the current weather conditions and time of year. I will hike in just about any weather conditions except for sub zero cold, (which is not pleasant for my dogs), heavy rain, strong gusty wind, or heavy ice and snow. Other than that, seasonal changes and the different conditions make each hike new and interesting.

Each time we are on the trail, it seems that for Bhakti and Bodhi it is their first time there. They never seem to have a “been there, done that” attitude. They meticulously explore every inch of the path as if they were asked to write a descriptive essay about the trail when they get home. They spend up to a full minute engrossed in some obscure scent on the end of a leaf, or stand motionless, ears perked, as they look into a dense thicket of trees. It’s during those times that I stop and follow their lead. Very often they’ll spot a deer or a bear that I wouldn’t have seen if not for their superior abilities for scent and sound. I’ve been alerted to many beautiful and sometimes scary creatures by deferring to my dogs’ more advanced senses. One time, what I though was a tree stump, was a large black bear. I would have walked right by him if my dogs hadn’t frozen in their tracks and stared at him. Fortunately, he was uninterested and walked into the woods. Sometimes, the dogs find a skull of an animal; usually a deer. When I see it, I feel a bit sad — the final destination of that animal’s life, I think, recalling the sentiment from Tom Brown, Jr.’s wonderful book about the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, “The Tracker.”

We usually hike between four and five miles, and when we’re finished, it seems like Bhakti and Bodhi can go ten miles more without hesitation. For me, I’m usually satisfied and look forward to getting into a nice hot shower, resting, and eating a big breakfast.

For Bhakti and Bodhi, our hikes immerse them in a world I can never be a part of. My world is from my human perspective, where I’m always thinking ahead, trying to be safe and planning my hike so I can get home in time to begin my day’s responsibilities. For them, they are simply connected with the ground beneath their feet, the scent of the forest in their nostrils and the melody of the wind through the trees. I try to take time to become more mindful of these experiences, but compared to my dogs, I’m just scratching the surface. Our time together on the trails is something I cherish deeply. I learn so much from my two friends on our morning treks, and try to carry it with me through the rest of my day. I don’t know where our future trails together will lead, but wherever it takes us, we will always be learning, living and loving together on the Path of Friendship.