About five years ago, I needed a dog. We’d just lost our beloved golden retriever, Abby, to cancer and I was lonely. My wife was out of town, so I stopped by the local pet rescue place to check out any puppies they might have. As karma would have it, they only had one puppy left, a seriously shy black pup who was hiding at the back of the puppy pen, trying very hard to avoid any eye contact with humans. I asked the woman at the front desk what the story was with this guy, and she said that he and two litter mates had been rescued from a “kill shelter” downstate a couple of days earlier (they’d been 12 hrs. from the gas chamber at the time.) His brother and sister had already been adopted and this little guy was left behind, mainly, she thought, because he was so shy.
I got down on the floor and picked him up. He wasn’t crazy about the idea and looked away from me the whole time as I tried to give him a scratch. Not exactly the golden retriever “lean” I’d come to expect from a dog after 30 yrs. of goldens. I was bothered by this, but like I said, I needed a dog, so I told the woman at the counter that I’d take him. He wasn’t a golden, I’d never had a black dog, and I hadn’t had a male dog since high school. What could go wrong?
They thought he was about eight weeks old, a Labrador-border collie mix (wrong- he’s lab for sure, but also pitbull and pointer and…) Like I said, my wife was out of town, so it was just the two of us for several days. He was scared and I was sleepless, having forgotten how often a puppy needs to go “out.” Many was the time we looked at each other and asked- who’s bright idea was this?
I could have returned him- the rescue folks would take him back anytime up to three days post-adoption. But for some reason, I decided we’d hang on and see what we might work out. Picking up on his readiness to play and hike anytime night or day, I named him Jackson after the cartoon character from my childhood- “Action Jackson.”
Well, as I said, we’ve been together for over five years now. I can say without reservation that he’s the finest dog I’ve ever known. He’s smart, gentle, athletic and, in his own individual way, very affectionate. In the days, weeks and months after he came to live with us, Jack set about training us in how he wants to be loved. He still isn’t big on “cuddling,” or on direct eye contact, and please don’t reach toward his face to scratch his head. But if you’ll let him hold a ball while you’re petting him, he loves the “carwash” (scratching both sides as he slides between your legs), loves a belly rub on a sunny afternoon, and would absolutely accept an invitation onto the bed at night, though he always jumps off when its time to sleep.
In short, we couldn’t make him something he isn’t. He’ll never be a golden retriever. But he’s been patient with us, and over time, we’ve come to understand who he is and how to respect that. I was thinking about this history over Christmas this year as my kids, friends and family gathered in our home to celebrate the holiday. Inevitably, a human behavior laboratory like this can create frictions and irritations. No one, it seems, behaves as we’d like them to. Especially for family members and children, if they’d just listen and maybe take a hint, things would go so much better, no? No
Why can’t I treat my sons, for example, as I’ve come to treat Jack? Why can’t I tune into how they want to be loved and do my best to give them that? Why, in other words, can’t I just treat my kids as well as my dog? I remember stories of students meeting with the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of Shambhala. They say that CTR always spoke directly the basic goodness in everyone, not to their superficial neuroses. Maybe this “like a dog” thing is similar. My projections for Jack didn’t fit, and he shook them off, well, like a dog shakes off water. So I dropped the projection and began to see the real black dog in front of me. Suffering was reduced; love grew.
So that’s my New Year’s resolution – I’m going to try to treat everyone close to me like a dog. Try genuinely to see them as they are in themselves. Try to slap down my projections for them when they arise. Let them show me how they want to be loved, and try my best to give them that. My wife is always telling me that I give Jack too many treats — I tell her that one day, Jack is going to die (as dogs do,) and when that happens, she’s going to wish she’d given him more treats. So that’s on the New Years list too- more treats, fewer “corrections.”
We’ll see how that goes. In the meantime, I have a dog. A beautiful one who I love to distraction, and for that I’m profoundly grateful. By the way, Jack and I have talked at some length about this business of dogs dying. He’s promised me that he’ll never die, that he’ll stay with me forever.
I plan to hold him to that.
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