Lessons from My Dogs
The smallest member of our family, mice and bugs notwithstanding, is a miniature dachshund named Flash who is also the only male of the household. Traditionally, though perhaps not historically, it is the male who represents courage and virility and the female, at least in recent human society, who stands for matters of more sensitivity. This tiny dog is all of the things the great male is supposed to be: brave and courageous, exemplified most often as he charges animals many times his size, hackles up, barking, when the much bigger dogs hang back. At such times the words my sister once used on me run through my mind, “Careful Kay, there’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity.” But imagine for a moment the burden of one ten-pound dachshund, male of the household, to uphold this role as protector of his three women, Chance, Sasha and me.
I tell Flash he doesn’t need to protect me, and that in fact I am here to care for him, for the
quality I most admire in this little dog, no different from that which I admire in human males, is his sensitivity. He is not as stoic as the girls, to be sure. If they are hurt, they carry on hunting or with whatever adventure they’d begun while Flash wears his distress on his face.
When trauma or upset enters our household, it is Flash on whom it falls most heavily, for Sasha is young and not always as perceptive, and Chance, an old and very wise soul, retreats to stillness, sending me silent messages, seeming to know that all troubles pass. But Flash, who not only teaches me about sensitivity but also about living in the moment, cannot bear for any part of life to be amiss.
His is a world of sunlight and warmth, of chasing birds and butterflies in the back yard beyond his reach, of simple walks and lots of treats and love and affection every day. When this world is disturbed by discordant energy he walks up to me, sometimes whining, sometimes trembling, sometimes wagging his tail to get my attention, but always imploring me with dark chocolate eyes.
And what can I do? Sometimes it’s a gust of wind pushing through open windows and a clap of thunder behind. Or a hunter’s shot echoing off the hills. I stroke him pledging eternal love and protection, but in the fearful moment, he doesn’t care about that.
So I soften and try to enter his world. What is it like to be six inches tall? From Flash I’ve learned to put myself into the shoes (or paw prints) of others. Just as he has his reasons for fear, so too do others have grounds for behaviors or defenses built up over years that I might judge wrong.
I can understand the hunter’s rifle or crack of thunder is far away from harming us, but perhaps this is the exception, for I think more often than not my dogs see the larger picture of how all of us fit together while I remain painfully limited in thought.
When I soften toward Flash, which is easy to do, I am also practicing softening toward all of humanity which is not quite as easy. But in time practicing with Flash when he’s in need creates a conditioned response that springs up in me at a gas station when a man is angry (Flash has taught me this is but fear) or in the workplace when a colleague belittles. I think when we can learn to be sensitive to realizing that we seldom know the whole story behind other people or animals’ actions, we can be more compassionate toward them. When we’re sensitive to what others have borne or are currently enduring that, invisible to us, is all-consuming to them, we will more readily offer kindness in place of misunderstanding, risking fewer hurt or angry feelings.
Everyone has a story—every dog, cat, ant, rabbit, fish—a story that to him or her is the most important story there is. Together our stories overlap and merge creating one beautiful whole, like rivers flowing into one sea, and show us why reacting toward all other beings with kindness, sensitivity and compassion affects each of our own individual stories.
Awareness, compassion and sensitivity toward all life help us realize that our material pleasures and luxuries such as eating meat or buying drugs tested on animals are not worth taking away the life of an animal who cannot control his fate at the hands of human force. It is time for us to become sensitive to the billions of animals sacrificed each year for our appetites or convenience. As Dr. Albert Schweitzer said, “By ethical conduct toward all creatures, we enter into a spiritual relationship with the universe.”
I pick up Flash holding him high off the ground for a different perspective. The air is soft and warm. Clouds hang quietly above, as incomprehensible yet familiar as my dog’s gentle brown eyes. I thank him for his sensitivity, seeing it as virtue and not flaw. And I thank him for helping me become sensitive to all of life around me.
Kay Pfaltz is a writer and animal activist. Visit her website at www.kaypfaltz.com to order copies of Lauren’s Story: An American Dog in Paris, the true story of a sick and abandoned beagle whose zest for life triumphs throughout adversary. Kay donates 100% of profits to animal organizations as listed on her website.