What My Dog Taught Me About Hope

by RENEE SKUDRA

Most people are familiar with the old adage “when it rains, it pours.” In the past several months, I can personally testify to the veracity of that saying. My son and I suddenly experienced job losses, car problems, unfulfilling relationships and medical ailments. Throughout all of the pandemonium, one thing alone remained stable and a star through which I could chart my course in a barely navigable and obdurate world – my Bichon Frise, Jackson. His unconditional love and companionship provided an emotional anchor dropped in the midst of a raging and formidable sea, with currents that tossed me hither and thither in an ocean which surged with calamity on a daily basis. This story is about what my dog taught me about hope through simply being there – in place – when one’s world seems to be falling apart. A favorite biblical quote I lean on tells me “God will carry you through the storm” (Isaiah 43:2). A neighbor wryly remarked “remember, God is ‘dog’ spelled backwards.” I told her that I’m a person of faith but that faith also extends to my canine buddy who lifts me up by his example since he cannot do so by prayer.

What my dog has taught me:

  1. Lessons about unconditional love, loyalty and devotion. He doesn’t care about how intelligent I am, what I’m wearing or how much money or influence I have. He has an uncanny way of sensing that I’m experiencing distress and settles down next to me on the couch, quietly resting his head on my knee. It sure feels like empathy. The writer Eckhart Tolle once said that he had many Zen Masters and all of them were cats. I get what he means because my dog, by keeping close and allowing me to hug and hold him and just share space and time, reminds me of a spiritual lesson I need to know – that being alone is no way to go through life. Dogs and people? We’re both pack animals and need the community of others to make everything sensible and worthwhile. More than 54 million dog owners in the United States certainly can’t be wrong.
  2. Strive to live in the moment. I notice that when Jackson is running around in the park, he is always really happy to be there. It doesn’t matter if the weather is good or inclement. He is fully in that park, focused on the moment, rolling in the grass, chasing a ball or squirrel and affectionately greeting all the children who are drawn into his exultant orbit. This insight has been really helpful in my own life where the impediments to my happiness have often seemed endless, causing me grief and anxiety – thinking about all the things I’ve done or need to do.    
  3. Play more and do it with joy. The game is irrelevant – just play. Jeffrey Bruno wrote in his article entitled “Dogs Teach Me About God” that “The pure sense of joy that dogs have is a mystery to me. Their happiness seems to be connected to how much they are willing to hope, to be vulnerable and to be satisfied with small things.” When I come home from my job, Jackson leaps up and down like crazy, giving me wet kisses, clearly thrilled to see me. His exuberance, like all good joy, is contagious. Sure, he provides a sense of security and protection, but more importantly, I’ve learned what it means to be grateful for the smallest and least momentous of things – sighting a flock of Canada geese in formation in a burnt-sienna sky, frost hanging on the branches of a towering fir tree, the smallest of answered prayers, the kinship of people. I am grateful for my dog’s time and attention and, by extension, for that of other living, sentient things.  

On a brisk morning in September, in a nearby vacant field, I let Jackson off his leash. A moment later, he gleefully bounds up to me with a bright pink tennis ball in his mouth. In black writing are the words “hope” imprinted on one side. At that second, it feels like nothing less than a message from the Creator, an epiphany from the Great Beyond. That ball is now a sacred object placed upon my fireplace mantel. On a living room wall is a framed print that I bought at a yard sale that same day. There is a picture of a red cardinal sitting on a tree branch with the message “If I keep a green bough in my heart, the singing bird will come.” I greet each day with hope. This dog, whom I rescued six years ago from a county animal shelter, has ironically, in fact, rescued me.

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