By Suzanne E. Harrill
I am a dog person. For those of you who do
not understand, let me explain. Dogs are important to my well
being. I love dogs and find it difficult to live without one. I
am in rapport with most dogs. Some of my earliest memories as a
child include a dog. Wherever I go, I notice dogs. I have helped
lost dogs find their way home and stray dogs find new homes. I
have owned many dogs in my life. I had no idea that I would have
so much to learn from my animal friends. How, you may be asking,
can one learn lessons from a dog? Let me illustrate with three
of my dear pets.
Before children arrived, my husband and I
bought our first dog, a beagle named Cecil, short for Cecilia.
How I loved that dog. Cecil was treated as if she were a child,
at least during her first two years. Before going to my teaching
job, I would get up early to spend time with Cecil. Many times
she rode along with us in the car to the grocery store or to
visit friends. Besides giving us so much joy, one of Cecil's
early gifts was to bring to our awareness how different our
parenting styles would be. We received a preview of things to
come and it showed up in conflict with how we each treated the
dog, like when she bit off the corner of our china cabinet. This
sparked lots of helpful discussions.
The happiest I remember seeing Cecil, was a
job transfer move to live in a small town out in the country, in
Louisiana. Here she ran freely, experiencing freedom and
independence, chasing rabbits each day. Life was good for Cecil,
that is, until the shock of the birth of my first daughter.
Cecil no longer was invited to sit on my lap and I began patting
her with my feet. Once our daughter Lindy was mobile, the dog
grew more and more unhappy. In addition, we moved back to
Houston and Cecil had to live without rabbits and was again kept
in a small, fenced backyard in suburbia.
At the birth of my second daughter it become
even more difficult to give Cecil the attention she needed,
which saddens me now looking back. The dog became very ill at
only four years of age and the veterinarian suggested
euthanasia. There was relief, mixed with sadness and guilt for
not having enough energy to give attention and affection to the
dog once the children arrived.
In my unaware state of awareness, I did a
poor job of talking about it with my then four-year-old
daughter. I was totally unprepared to talk about death.
Wondering what to do, I told her three days later that the dog
died at the vets. The good news is we cried together.
What were the gifts that Cecil gave me?
Besides catalyzing parenting issues and bringing them to
surface, I had to think about death and dying. What did I
believe? What were my fears? What was grieving all about? Cecil
taught me a lot about unconditional love, bonding, and
responsibility. I also learned the difference between a dog and
a human once my children were born. I still smile when I
remember my first dog, Cecil, with her long, floppy ears flying
in the breeze while running.
I made it about two and a half years before
weakening. I could not live one more day without a dog. I did
not listen to outside advice or inner promptings and bought a
cocker spaniel puppy. Buffy was so cute with her buff colored
hair. But, it did not take long for me to become stressed.
Janna, then two, picked her up constantly and dropped her
occasionally. The dog thought it was a great sport to bite the
bottom of the disposable diapers, which made a huge mess. I had
to keep one eye on the two of them constantly.
Three months later Buffy was hit by a
neighbor's car. Again I felt tremendous relief, then sadness and
guilt again. Yet even though this little puppy was with us only
a short while, I gained an important gift. She gave me the
opportunity to talk about death and dying differently with my
young children, in a more open and expressive way. My two
daughters were able to see the whole process: they saw life,
then a body without life, me crying and showing my sadness and
grief, my husband burying the dog in the back yard, and both
parents available to answer the many questions that the children
needed to ask. The experience was so timely because a couple of
weeks later I had a miscarriage. The death of Buffy helped the
children, even the two-year old, understand this loss better.
I decided after this experience that maybe we
were better off without a dog at this stage of life. Then one
day my older daughter was drawing in a book that encouraged
creativity. There was an outline of a package on the page, with
a ribbon on top. The directions said, "Draw what you would
like for a surprise." Can you guess what she drew? You're
right, a dog. Well that's all it took to get my inner desire for
a dog rekindled. I decided to do some reading so I could choose
the "right" dog this time. I liked what I read about
English sheep dogs. They are big (so Janna could not pick it
up), good with kids (a dog for the children), and did not shed
(helpful for keeping the house clean). That sounded right. I was
happy to find a five-month-old, housebroken, affectionate
English sheep dog who did not bark much.
Molly needed one little thing, however, one
little thing that I had no idea would become such a
challenge-brushing. For those of you who have not been around an
English sheep dog, they have a beautiful mane of long
silver-gray hair that needs to be brushed daily or else the hair
gets matted and tangled beyond repair. To take care of this
beautiful, sweet dog was quite a commitment and more
responsibility for me, two words that were themes for me at that
stage in my life. This dog underwent a lot of stress to give us
her special gifts.
About a year later Molly moved with our
family to Louisiana for my husband's job. Sound like a repeat?
Patterns do repeat themselves. In the back seat of our Volvo
there was not much room for two kids and a large dog on the
six-hour drive to our new home. Then the poor dog had to undergo
being tied up as the house did not have a fenced-in backyard. So
we tied the dog up or left her in the house all day when we went
to work. I worked full time during our short stay in Thibodaux.
This full-time job did not leave me the nurturing energy to take
care of Molly. Neither did my third pregnancy; I became pregnant
shortly after arriving there.
Ten months later we were transferred back to
Houston for my husband's job. Yes, moving again was very
challenging. We had learned that there was not enough room in
the car for all of us, so I flew with the three girls while
Rodney and Molly drove the car. We moved back to familiar
Houston, but into a house that needed help. The neighbors had
nicknamed it the "jungle house," as the yard was
totally overgrown with vegetation. The first thing Rodney did
was to mow a path for the dog out back. My stress level was high
with the new house that needed a lot of repairs, a new
neighborhood, a new baby, and my husband's new assignment was
very stressful for him as well. I felt that I had reached the
limit of having responsibilities and that more was being asked
of me than I could handle.
More dog lessons. Poor Molly could not relax;
every time I stood up or went from one end of the house to the
other she got up too and followed me. My mature self now sees
that she was insecure and needed me to comfort her to help her
adjust, but I just had nothing to give. My solution, after three
months of this, was to give the dog away. As heartbreaking as
this sounds to me now and even though it placed a lot of guilt
on my shoulders, I can now see this was a wise choice under the
circumstances. It was tough. I vowed to never have another
dog-that is until three months later when Molly returned.
I knew it was no accident when I received a
call from another dog person. Was I by any chance the owner of a
lost sheep dog asked the caller on the other end of the line? I
said, "Yes," and wrote down directions to his house.
All day long I meditated and prayed. Could I handle the
situation now that I had had a three-month break? Would I betray
the dog again in a couple of months when I was stressed? Did I
have some energy to spend on her? All kinds of questions went
through my head as I waited for my husband to return from work
that evening, so I could go get Molly.
I am truly happy that I had the opportunity
to reconnect with this loving dog again. We had a good year
before she left us; she became terminally ill a year later. It
was no accident she needed to come back to us. I learned to go
further in understanding how to acknowledge and work through
grief. I am happy with how I handled her death.
Near the end of her life, I knew Molly was
not responding to medical help and I wanted to say good-bye to
her. Against the veterinarian clinic's advice, I brought her
home. I spent the day with her, loving her, patting her, talking
to her, apologizing to her, and thanking her. When the two older
children came home from school, I explained my decision to bring
Molly home so we could say good-bye to her. We cried and, as we
were getting into the car to go to the vets to "put the dog
to sleep," Molly, who could barely walk, saw a squirrel
across the street. She bolted as if she were a puppy and chased
the squirrel up a tree. We all laughed and felt the lightness of
joy for a moment.
Then we took Molly to the vet's crying and
holding the dog and each other. About an hour later while trying
to eat dinner, all of a sudden we all felt lighter and started
laughing and joking around. I said, "I think Molly's just
died and her spirit is watching us right now, happy and not in
pain." Everyone agreed and we began laughing and
remembering lots of happy moments with Molly. I believe she had
a good death and my kids and I had a spiritual experience
together. I had progressed so much in my awareness from the
first time I went through this experience with Cecil.
There are many other lessons that I will not
go into here--lessons with seven more dogs. Two difficult times
were moving to Australia, both times leaving dogs behind. There
were many more lessons with separation, loss, and grief. The
latest dog a toy poodle was born in Australia. She is an
affectionate, joyful little pet. So, all my lessons have not
Can you understand a dog person better now
and get a better picture of what one can learn from one's pets?
Each pet has contributed to my awareness and helped me go
further on my journey. So, now I encourage you to think about
the lessons you have learned from your pets or from observing
others with their pets.