This is the introduction to Your Dog is Your Life Coach series.
You love your dog. You probably consider him or her smart, cute, and full of love. We usually think we have a good relationship with our dog if we live together peacefully and share affection. Maybe you go on long walks, play fetch, and sleep in the same bed. You probably do have a good relationship. But how deep is that relationship? Do you or your dog want more?
There are different levels of relationship, none inherently better or worse than another. For example, you may have very good relationships with people you work with. You get along, share a laugh, and work cooperatively eight hours a day. That’s great. You probably don’t have to invest a lot of yourself in work friendships. Just keep the peace while you’re together at work and do your part. You’re not required, or perhaps even encouraged, to go deeper.
You probably also have several close friends with whom you spend meaningful time, bring chicken soup when they’re sick, share interests, and who you genuinely love. It’s deeper than the work relationships, but still short of that very best friend, spouse, or other emotionally intimate relationship. Close friends expect each other to notice when something is wrong and to offer a hand, to express sympathy at a loss, and to celebrate the other’s success. As importantly, to share good times and just hang out! These relationships are nurtured through shared experiences, good and bad. They’re very important to us, but they don’t necessarily change the course of our life.
Our deepest relationships are with people we trust the most. The ones who keep our confidences. Who tell us the truth when we don’t necessarily want to hear it. (Yes, that dress makes you look fat. No, what your boyfriend did is not okay.) These relationships are the ones where we dare to share who really are, hopefully without fear of rejection or judgment. They’re with the people who can watch us eat a pint of ice cream from the carton when we’re broken hearted and not think less of us or say a negative word. They grab a spoon. Mostly, they’re with the people from whom we learn the most by sharing life together. Some of us have no such person in our lives. For our own reasons, we find it too scary to be that vulnerable. Whichever category you fall into, I think you can experience love and trust with your dog that is the same or better than you have with people.
So much of our learning in life is through relationships of all kinds. We learn when we hurt someone’s feelings not to do that again. We learn how another’s open and non-judgmental heart can feel like salve on a wound when we have done something to hurt someone and feel miserable about it. These highest quality relationships are the ones we grieve terribly when we lose them, through death or otherwise, and the ones that make the biggest impact on our life.
It’s not possible to have profound relationships with everyone, and we wouldn’t want to. We really click with some people, and some we don’t. Same with individual dogs. I’ve had a different level of relationship with each of my dogs. I think that was by mutual choice. You can’t have a deeper relationship with someone/some dog who doesn’t want to – no matter their reason. Ever had a great friend and wanted more, like a romantic relationship? If your friend doesn’t also want more, you can’t have it! It takes two to tango.
There’s no right or wrong among the different kinds of relationships so long as both parties are happy with the level of connection. So I ask you: Which kind of relationship do you think you have with your dog? And do you think that your dog would say the same?
It’s pretty easy to have a coworker level relationship with your dog. They’re usually easy to get along with and are always happy to see you. (A reactive or abused dog can be a notable exception, but I’ll get to that later.) If that’s what you both want, great. That’s enough.
It takes more effort to have a close friend relationship – you do a lot for your dog and your dog probably does a lot for you. I would guess that many of us have a close friend relationship with our pups. We do things together, enjoy hanging out, and protect each other. You feed him chicken and rice when he’s sick just like you would a close friend; he hugs you and listens to you when you’re sad. That may be the perfect level of connection for you both.
But maybe you want more. Maybe your dog wants more. If so, it’s possible. Like all great relationships, you have to work at it consistently over time, just the way you work at a marriage or any other intimate relationship. It doesn’t happen by coexisting in the same house, playing fetch, and going for walks together. There’s nothing wrong with that life at all, but it’s not going to get you to the deep level of connectedness that I’m talking about.
If you and your dog want to strengthen the quality of your relationship, you can. In doing so, you’ll find that you live with one of the wisest life teachers you’ve ever known. Your dog can compassionately teach you and help you practice relationship skills. If you’re like me, a deep understanding with your dog will change the way you deal with everyone, not just your dog, and will positively affect your life.