Sunday, December 27, 2009

Walks That Love

I often receive emails from people who read my blog. They share with me the ways that they've found themselves waking up in the company of a dog. Melissa Bachynski is one of them and her recent message to me is one that I'd like to share with all of you.

Two things have recently changed in my life: first, a dear friend of mine sent me a gift of an Ipod. I'm finally in the 21st century with the rest of the world. I love listening to all types of music and now that I'm bussing to work, I can enjoy that love while in transit. The other day I was prepared with my Michael Bublé as I approached the bus stop, ready to enjoy the 20 minute wait for my connection. As I put an earphone in one ear, the woman beside me started up a conversation. So much for Bublé. Because I'm of Irish decent, I cannot pass up a conversation...ever. This woman recently emigrated from Iran and we discussed the cultural differences between her home and her experience in Canada thus far. We eventually started talking about food (primarily because it was close to lunch, but I imagine the fast-food restaurant next to our bus stop helped). She expressed disgust for fast food, but not because of the nutritional value. Instead she said, “It has no love, no attention. There is no connection between the person that made it and you. You don't even know that person. There is no love.” It struck me as an odd concept, food that loves. Her point was that the person that made the food didn't care about the person eating the food. And, given the sheer numbers of burger-toting teens at the stop, they made the food quickly without paying attention to it. She said this was why the food was so bad for us. Interesting.

What does this incident have to do with dogs and Ipods? The second thing that has changed in my life is my sweet dog; he has lost almost all his hearing and his vision is at about 50%. We are learning to cope. When I realized his hearing was going, I started to teach him hand signals. The most important one of all has been the “yeah, you're fabulous” signal. Since he can't always distinguish my facial features, the "yeah” signal (which is the ASL sign for applause) is dramatic and obvious. When I got home after my discussion with the bus-stop woman, I suited my dog up for a walk. I thought I would take the Ipod on our walk to finally indulge in my Bublé desires. I've seen many people out walking or running with their dogs while plugged in to an Ipod, and, given my boy cannot hear me babbling away to him anymore, I thought listening to music wouldn't make a difference. We stepped out the door and headed towards the park. Within about two minutes I realized my dog was heeling beside me, staring up at me with a look of consternation on his face. Something was definitely wrong with him. I turned off Bublé and squatted down, which earned me a giant sloppy lick only a Boston can deliver. He started trotting ahead of me, and then turned back as if to say, “Aren’t you coming?” It was at that moment I realized I wasn't treating our walk as an important bonding moment, but as just another thing I had to do that day. There was no love in our walk, no attention.
Once again, my dog has taught me in actions what a person told me in words...and the actions made a larger impression than the words.

I now leave the Ipod in the stereo dock for impromptu dancing sessions with my dog while cooking, as well as keeping a careful watch of those humans around me while waiting for the bus. But Bublé can always sit on pause because I don't intend to miss an important moment in which I can connect with another being in a positive way.

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted,
And human love will be seen at its height.
Live in fragments no longer.
Only connect...

--E.M. Forster, Howards End

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Holiday Miracle

I once erected a Christmas tree which I adorned with a whole society of little grey mice ornaments - all dressed in colorful period clothing. The dog with whom I shared my home pulled it down the first night. She decapitated the mice, undressed them, ripped body parts, and tore the tree asunder. I called in sick from work that morning and triaged the patients. I sewed and glued them back together, working them back into their tiny hats, coats, scarves and muffs. There were some casualties but I retrimmed that tree and it looked just as fine as the evening before. I woke up the next morning to the same tragic scene.

I remember being plenty mad at that dog. I'm sure I shouted and made ugly faces at her which she couldn't possibly connect to the carnage she had carried out hours before. I don't know why it didn't occur to me to close the bedroom door. I gave that tree and those cute little mice to the dog not once, but twice and because I didn't think, we both had tons of stress and upset over the situation. I was quite aware of my stress, of how bad it felt and of the need I had to relieve it. But I wasn't aware of the dog's stress and me trying to relieve mine only made hers worse.

Today's dogs are exposed to a variety of stressors that are unconsidered and therefore, invisible. They can cause dogs to live on the edges of their tolerance and coping. They include endless hours in monotonous environments, the lack of stimulation, engagement and excitement, constant punishments or negative attention, illness, injury, exposure to toxic environments and extreme stylizations that present anatomical challenges. And for many dogs, the most significant source of stress in their lives is our own.

We too are living with stressors that interfere with equilibrium. Our daily routines are often tedious, without meaning and can be quite overwhelming. Stress is accompanied by the release of hormones that excite certain systems within the body and suppress others. When it is significant enough in frequency and/or severity that the ability to cope or adapt is lost, physical, mental and emotional systems exhaust, the immune system is weakened and “adaptation diseases” arise. While promising to bring out the best in us, the added stress of the holidays can actually bring out the worst.

As our schedules change and our activities and responsibilities increase, things also change for the dog. Many will experience increased inactivation, social isolation and long hours in confinement. Strangers will arrive. Food will be left within snatching distance. New things will appear in the environment and not realizing and not being taught that they can't interact with them, many dogs will interact and this will plunge us both into stress and upset. Without thinking, our "ho, ho, ho" becomes the dog's "no, no, no."

This year, as we embark upon our traditions and contemplate our sacred connection to the wondrous essence of life, let's resolve to give the dog the greatest gift of all – our full and present awareness. Even for just five minutes here and there. If we've never seen magic, we'll see it firsthand as this simple change causes the dog to explode with possibility and crackling excitement. If we've never experienced a holiday miracle, we will when we realize that the peace, love and joy that the season promises are actually ours any time that we are present and aware enough to consciously choose them. And for the love of Dog, if the tree is so alluring that the canine in your home can't leave it alone, give it to someone who needs it and put a smaller tree on a table out of reach. (Bless you Lori for being the model of such accommodation.)