“Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace.” – Milan Kundera.
For me, getting a dog is a spiritual experience. It may be rescuing one, or it may be buying one, but it not a moral decision for me; it a spiritual one.
Since the pandemic began, more than 12 million Americans have added a dog to their lives. For me, a dog is a profoundly spiritual experience. This piece is about how I do it. The first piece in the series ran yesterday.
There is this idea that there is only one way to get a dog, which is to rescue it to prove our compassion and morality. I respect that and have done that.
But I’ve landed – perhaps evolved – to a different place. The moral part of getting a dog for me is making sure I get one that can love me and be loved by me.
If I am careful, I can be almost 100 percent certain that my dog will not be disliked, resented, ignored, exiled to a yard or basement, returned, or neglected even before it comes.
And I am careful.
Until I met Maria, my dogs were my best and only friends.
They sat by me while I wrote, they walked with me, grounded me, and led me to some of the best and richest experiences of my life – moving to the country, writing books about dogs, meeting Maria, my therapy work in hospice, and eldercare and with refugee children.
They have consoled and loved me during my six years of living alone on a farm. I could not have done it without them.
Dogs led me to my life as a book writer and my subsequent life as a blogger and writer with a farm. Dogs kept love alive for me when it was absent from my life.
Dogs did not replace people in my life; they helped me find people and learn to love them.
Like Kundera, I sat on a hillside with dogs on a glorious afternoon countless times when I moved to the country, and it was Eden. It was peace, the kind I have rarely found with humans. It was what I dreamt of.
Sometimes I bought my dog from a breeder. Sometimes I went to a shelter. Twice I went to rescue groups.
I’ve learned how best to get the dog I wanted and could love and train fully and lovingly in all of these instances.
But I stopped asking other people about it. My point is that finding a dog for me is an intensely personal and individual experience.
Just as there are no two dogs just alike, there are no two people.
That’s why nobody can tell me how to get a dog or what kind of a dog to get because I am the only one who can know.
The answer is inside of me, not outside. I would never dare to tell a person there is only one way to get a dog or what that way might be.
I have to go inside. I have to see the dog in my head, so I will recognize it when I see it.
I have to sit on that hillside in my mind and picture the dog. I did this for Zinnia just last year. I pictured a quiet dog who could sit silently by my side while I wrote along. Writers work alone. Dogs are important.
The more I put into it, the more I get back. It usually takes me between one and two years.
In the case of Zinnia, our newest dog, I pictured a dog who would never threaten, frighten or harm a human or another dog. For me, getting a dog is all about love and nourishment. I can’t and won’t have a dog that will hurt people or frighten.
I thought long and hard about dogs’ trainability because training is our spiritual connection with them and our way of communicating with them. Training is the language by which we teach them how to live harmoniously with us and safely with the rest of the world.
I read a lot about dogs and breed temperament. I saw that the dog that fit into my dreams and plans was most likely to be Lab, a dog bred for centuries to hang out with hunters and fishermen and have a soft mouth for retrieving ducks and fish and be so safe around children that kids can often ride them.
They are also one of the smartest breeds.
They are active but able to be still. They love to be around people.
They don’t bark much or excessively; they aren’t territorial. They are not aggressive to dogs or people, give and expect affection, are highly trainable, and bark when strangers appear, and housebreak quickly and easily.
I wanted a therapy dog to train and replace Red, my border collie who died last year.
I’ve had Labs before Zinnia, but not for a few years. I researched them all over again. I contacted four breeders I heard about, read about, or were recommended to me. Good breeders know good breeders.
I found one in Connecticut; her name was Lenore Severn of Stonewall Labradors.
She and a vet had been breeding Labs together for nearly half a century. I knew would have the data I needed, the histories I wanted to see, the medical records I needed.
I would have to wait a long time for a puppy.
I wanted to know that back for five generations, no Lab of hers had bitten anyone, harmed a dog or child, or suffered from joint and leg problems.
Lenore loves her dogs, and I warn people who ask about her that she will fight for them. I appreciate that about her.
I explained to her in great detail what I wanted and needed in a dog – the therapy work is important – and asked her to monitor her little carefully for the right dog for me.
Zinnia is exactly the dog I imagined, precisely the one I asked for, in every way the dog I have.
I can’t describe the powerful experience when you come across the dog in your mind, the dog of your imagination. You know, and they know.
That is the spiritual part for me. I love this new dog more than any living thing other than my wife and daughter. In our training, I barely have to speak. She intuits what I want and what I don’t like and does what she needs to do.
I have never had a dog. I can train so well without even thinking about it. When I walk to the road to get the mail, she sits down 20 or 30 feet away; she knows I don’t want her near the road. But I never had to tell her.
She is not the perfect dog; there is no such thing. And I didn’t need to buy any books about it.
During the covid assault on our lives, I couldn’t go inside an assisted care facility because it was quarantined; I open the car door.
She sits by the front door until she was let in, visits the residents from room to room, and when she was done, she was let out and came to the car and jumped in.
She didn’t really need me at all.
Those visits were so important to the residents. And to me. On a sunny day, I sit out in the yard or on the back porch and look up at the sun and close my eyes.
She lies by my side and stays with me. We watch the clouds together.
That’s Eden; that’s the spiritual dimension.
So is walking in the woods with her and knowing she will never run off, even if she sees a rabbit running on the path. She comes to the Post Office to get a biscuit.
People and children run-up to her on the street, something that isn’t a good idea. I love seeing the pleasure she gives them.
I am selfish. My dogs are important to me. Had I gone out and taken the first dog who needed a home, I would probably not have these experiences.
Had I allowed others to tell me what to do, I probably wouldn’t either.
I try to do good in other ways.
Having a spiritual relationship with a dog is not all that hard. There are millions of dogs, purebred and rescue, that would love to come home with us.
Rescuing a dog is absolutely the right thing for so many people to do.
It is not the right thing for every person to do all the time.
To get a dog like Zinnia, I knew I had to go to a conscientious and accomplished breeder. There was no other way to be sure. And in my therapy and hospice work, I have to be sure.
Dogs are an extension of me. They bring out the best parts of me and expose the worst.
They support me and my life in many ways. Zinnia and Fate and But are worth every minute of the time I spent looking for them and deciding about them.
But every dog is not the right dog for every person, and every person is not the right person for every dog. That takes clarity, thought, meditation, and some work and time.
I don’t advise strangers, but so many people are getting dogs now.
I think it’s important to offer some. All I would say is this:
I can’t tell you what kind of dog to get or where or how; I’m not that arrogant.
I can suggest that you make it your personal and individual choice. And that you wait for it.
That you think about it and ask a lot of questions, that you picture it and define the spiritual connection you seek with one of these remarkable animals.
I have been surprised to learn that what I imagine as my intent often becomes what is true. When I first saw Zinnia, I saw the dog in my head, and she rode home in my lap, where she fell asleep. I had my dog; she had her home.
What makes it a spiritual experience is getting the dog you want and need. I’m afraid that isn’t an instant moral decision, as gratifying as that can be. A spiritual dog is your dog, not somebody else’s dog.
The good news is that it is possible. The hard news is that nothing so precious in life is easy or quick.
Photo/sketch from The Domestic Dog: It’s Evolution, Behavior And Interactions With People, by James Serpell.