Lessons from My Dogs

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 been sad.

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.

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