“Man’s best friend” is a phrase that we attribute to our dogs. It’s an old phrase. According to Wikipedia it’s first recorded use was by Frederick the Great, who was King of Prussia from 1740 until 1786. Anyone who has owned and loved a dog, knows it to be true. They are indeed the best of friends.
I was late to be among the ranks of dog owners. I started with cats. My first pet as a child was a cat. What an elegant animal he was. We later owned a dog, but he was a family pet and his strongest bond was not with me, (even though I loved him dearly). Later, I got to know the first of countless horses that I would ride over the course of 30 plus years. They each had a huge impact on my life, some more than others. Not long after that, I acquired two cats. They had good, long lives. Then I got a dog of my own. She was like no other. My time with her was short, as her life was ended by disease. Before her loss, I introduced the Kats of Mayhem into my household. Shortly after that, I got another dog. And that is where I am today. I’ve two mischievous cats and a rambunctious dog with whom I have a very special relationship.
The thing with animals, is that they will leave an indelible mark on your life, if you let them. That mark is more than just the layer of hair on the back of your pants, (because you sat where the cat had been sleeping), or the smell of your car, (after years of packing around horse gear). It’s a whole lot more. It goes deep. It goes into your psyche, your heart, your soul. It shapes who you are, and who you’ll become.
Animals teach us compassion. They also teach us loyalty. They help us understand how important it is to leave judgement at the door. There are so many lessons if we take the time to listen. There are so many gifts that they can give us. The animals in my life seemed to have an uncanny ability of tapping into the gaps I may have at the time, and filling them. They have kept me whole.
I first got Ziggy when I was working from home. What a privilege it was to have a puppy sleep beside me on a little cushion as I worked away taking call after call, and tap-tapping on my computer. I loved getting up from my desk and having a stretch while I waited at the door for him to take the frequent potty breaks that all puppies need. I relished the walks we took each morning and evening. The antics between my cats and this new addition were heart-warming.
On the day of my accident, the idyllic little lifestyle with my three pets was thrown upside down. They were separated into two households as my sisters generously took on their care. Weeks later, when I was between times spent in the hospital, I was reunited with Ziggy. He was my companion for the months I spent at my mother’s. His love was constant. His attention was a welcome distraction.
Aysha Akhtar, a neurologist, writes of our relationship with animals and their importance for our social development. She outlines how animals can improve our well-being. One of the positive outcomes she presents is the release of Oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that I first knew about in my experience breeding horses. It is released when a mare first starts nursing her foal. It creates a bonding experience among other things. It is also released in humans and other mammals under the right circumstances.
Can animals love each other? Can they love us? Or is love a uniquely human experience? Akhtar cites studies by Paul Zak, who suggests that positive experiences with animals not only causes a release in the Oxytocin hormone in humans, but our pets may experience the elation that comes from it as well. This experience is perhaps the physical manifestation of love, which was once considered a strictly human experience. Reducing our most cherished human emotions to a chemical reaction may not be the direction we want to take. Either way–-emotional or chemical-–the experience is just the same. Being around our pets makes us feel good. I believe it makes them feel good too. It’s a mutually beneficial union.
This line of thinking debunks, in part, the term “anthropomorphic”, where one attributes human traits to animals. Specifically, emotions such as love may be more universal. Who are we, after all, to think ourselves superior or unique in the giving and acceptance of love?
My goal with both of my dogs was to train them as therapy dogs. I wanted to be able to take them to visit the old and infirmed, to brighten their days. I believe my dogs had a whole lot of love and they had plenty to share. While I did the training and accreditation with my first dog, our efforts were cut short by her untimely death. My second dog, Ziggy, only had a chance to take part in early obedience training before I had my accident. But perhaps he’s had the best training of all. He learned to rest his front paws on the side of my wheelchair so that he would not scratch my leg. He knows now to trust that I won’t strike out at him with my crutches as they come down so close to his little body. The rehabilitation hospital that I did part of my recovery in, welcomed all dogs. There Ziggy got to visit me. He got to interact with the other patients as well, to feel and give all the love he could handle. He got to associate the tools of the disabled with warmth and acceptance.
Once I’m firmly on my feet again I’d like to take Ziggy back to the hospital. I’d like to see him strike up new acquaintances and let other people experience what I get to experience every day. Maybe he can develop deeper relationships. Perhaps he can become everybody’s best friend.