On November 3, 2016, my dog, Timmy, turned thirteen years of age. I could hardly believe that my little guy had been my devoted companion for well over a decade, and I know that he would stay with me forever if he could. I’ll take all the time I can get with him, and in that time I’ll do my best to make him feel healthy, balanced, and secure in his place in our family’s pack and in our hearts. Having him in our home and in our lives over these past 13 years, it’s not hard to see why so many people have formed strong, loving bonds with their canine companions over the course of several millennia.
Even in a historical sense, the role of the dog in human’s lives cannot be denied. Going back at least 4,000 years, we see the importance of canines to human culture in the ancient Wolf Rites of Winter, performed in the Russian steppes and in several other regions. These events are subject to speculation, but we do know that people would ritualistically butcher dogs, wolves, and other types of canines that can’t be classified as either, during the winter. What’s truly strange is that modern biological testing can prove that most of these canines were aged, well-fed, and cared for by the humans. This implies that these canines were their companions, and not just some random dogs that they encountered along the way. The dog’s skins were then worn by groups of warriors working in tandem, like a wolf pack, who may have seen their actions as the invocation of the canine spirit. As brutal as their actions were, it is clear that humans idolized and even tried to imitate the standard of the wolf pack for their own benefit. From the earliest of days, we have always looked to canines for guidance and companionship. (Powell, 33-36)
A lot has changed between humans and dogs in the past 4,000 years, but it’s still easy to make the rookie mistake of thinking that because we’re people and intellectual by nature, that we do all of the teaching when it comes to dog ownership. After all, we’ve cleaned up after numerous accidents, we’ve taught them how to behave on a leash and around other dogs, and that it’s not okay to bite human hands, so we can sometimes forget how much the dog teaches the human in return. However, without verbal language, dogs are more likely to role-model their lessons in a subtle, but highly meaningful way. That type of lesson can sometimes take a while to fully sink into the human’s mind, especially if they weren’t paying attention to the message in the first place.
Timmy role-modeled what true strength looks like for me many years ago when he became partially paralyzed for a short period due to a back injury. From my perspective, I feared for the worst, but I was also determined to do everything I could do restore his health. He was only six years old at the time, and I couldn’t imagine what the future had in store for him if he didn’t even have the strength to relieve himself without help. Timmy went about a month without the ability to walk, and my father and I had to help him with everything he needed to survive. After that long of not being able to walk, he became content trying to drag himself around with only his front legs. I eventually realized that the more I sat around feeling sorry for him and his situation, the more he would respond with complacency adapting to his new life without four working legs.
Even through all the pain he experienced, Timmy’s appetite never ceased. In fact, he’s always been a little bit of a piggy! I gambled that his drive for food would outweigh his want to stay still due to pain, so I used sliced American cheese bits to catch his attention. I would then place a bit of cheese in front of him, but out of his reach. He would instinctively try to drag his body over to the food, but I would correct him by helping him to stand up on all four legs instead. Treat time! It didn’t take him long to catch on that using the back legs was what I really wanted, and more importantly from his perspective, what was going to get him those cheese bits.
This eventually evolved into standing up, then taking a step, and then getting a treat. It continued on to him taking several steps to get to the treat, and I wish I could adequately describe how joyful his first attempts at running, which looked more like galloping, were. With every step Timmy took, my feeling of hopefulness and optimism increased. I wondered if I were ever in the same position, if I would have the strength to get up and try to walk again. Maybe cheese would motivate me, maybe not. Either way, I witnessed the strength of determination as my little dog slowly returned to his normal ways, one cheese bit at a time. Also, in a happy twist, Timmy eventually became even more fit and healthy than he was even before he hurt his back! He enjoys frequent walks around the neighborhood and in several local parks, even in his golden years.
What I learned from this event is that you can’t underestimate the value of determination and the strength of will. I didn’t realize how important those things truly are to the recovery process, for both dogs and humans alike. I also came to understand that responding to my dog’s problem in an emotional way was literally the worst thing I could have done for him. Instead, I had to place trust in his instincts, and know that he would respond to things in a way that is natural for his species. I had to let go of how things felt as a human, and do my best to understand it from his perspective and set of needs. I never gave up on him, and he never gave up on me. I trusted him, and he trusted me; I led, and he followed. Despite all the negative aspects of Timmy’s experience, it solidified our bond more than ever.
Timmy used to have a dog companion, a Pomeranian named Harley. When it was Harley’s time to leave us, Timmy once again showed me the natural way of things and kept me from getting too far off-balance. He reminded me that it was okay, and even normal, to grieve. But, he also demonstrated that grief cannot last forever, and that you need to eventually raise back up, strong as ever, even if that means that you’re now different. A lot of things about our pack changed after we lost Harley, but we will love him and keep him in our hearts forever, so he will never truly be gone.
I know that Timmy is now in his final years of life, and I feel a cloud of dread hovering over me in anticipation of losing him. But, just like when poor Timmy couldn’t walk, I have to let go of the emotional aspects of that situation and just be present with him right now so that I can give him my all until the end. His only legacy that he can leave will be me, and who I am to another dog looking for a home. Through the experience I gained raising Timmy and Harley, I will be much more suited to responsible dog ownership than I was before. Although I may not be a perfect dog owner, (cheese bits) I am continually learning how to be better. When the day comes for me to select another canine companion, I trust that the lessons I’ve learned from their companionship will be my guide.
What I’m really trying to say is that we can’t give up after the pain of losing a pet. No single person can be a perfect dog owner on their first try. We need time, practice, and patience, not unlike a puppy trying to control his bladder while you’re away at work. One day, I hope to become an ideal dog owner who is both responsible and intuitive, that can provide a stable environment for any type of dog. On that day, I can look back and know that it was only possible through the collective experience of raising several different dogs over the course of a lifetime, learning from each individual canine. From the times of the ancient Wolf Rites of Winter, we humans certainly have come a long way.
Perhaps the reason dogs live such short lives in comparison to humans is because they have innate wisdom of how to live life that humans typically have to gain experience to understand. For that same reason, they are naturally noble and dignified teachers to the humans to which they have bonded.
Powell, Eric A. Wolf Rites of Winter. Archaeology Magazine, September/October 2013 issue.