Juliet questioned Romeo as to what’s in a name? The truth is, names are incredibly important as they not only identify and bestow meaning but they define and clarify. One of the most exciting aspects of this book is that it offers each of us the opportunity to rename, redefine and reinvent ourselves (and others) as dogs. This book promises the reader a rebirth of sorts: the chance to break free from a fixed self-image and an entrenched points of view. The very heart and hope of this book is to inspire transformation through the exploration of the breed of dog that best reflects our own temperament and personality (as well as those of the people around us.)
When I began the search for the breed of dog that best described me, I didn’t have to look far: I seemed to naturally intuit that I was a mixture of a Labrador retriever and a Jack Russell terrier (what I now call a “Laberrier.”)
In my thirty plus years as a veterinarian, I’ve never actually met up with a canine Laberrier since Labs and Jack Russell terriers are at the opposite ends of the height spectrum. For these two breeds to ever produce a litter of pups, they’d probably need the strategic use of a ramp or artificial insemination! So, even though I most likely won’t encounter a Laberrier in the flesh, I’m quite clear that I’m an excellent example of the human variety: embodying both the Lab’s quest to please and to be of service along with the Jack Russell’s need to be in control and to stay constantly busy.
Labs are an interesting breed. They assume without question that the entire world is their personal playground. Consequently, they pay very little attention to boundaries. Pathologically friendly, a Labrador’s affection is never in doubt. With their big goofy grins, lolling tongues and wildly wagging posteriors, they love nothing more than planting their muddy paws all over someone’s chest in order to get up close and personal! Slinging slobber is their specialty (though, as a Lab, I try to keep my own slobbering to a minimum!)
Labs tend to be quite emotionally draining as a result of their never-ending enthusiasm. They often cross the the line from simply being friendly to being overly invasive and inappropriate. Their desperate need to connect and to be helpful tends to blind them to the boundaries of others. Yet, in spite of their bumbling faults and good-natured intrusions, Labs always have the best of intentions. So, even though they’re frequently a pain in the butt, at least they mean well!
Jack Russell terriers, on the other hand, are extremely self-centered control freaks. They have energy to spare and that energy is used exclusively to ensure that life goes the way they want it to go! Incredibly stubborn, they possess a natural talent for whittling down the resolve of anyone and everyone. Do or die, they will prevail! Unfortunately, Jack Russell terriers aren’t the most considerate of breeds to lay claim to as part of one’s pedigree!
Of course, I didn’t realize that I was a Laberrier in my twenties and thirties. During those years, I felt more plant than animal, as if I were a hapless leaf being arbitrarily dunked and buoyed along a perilous journey down the raging river of life. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that the river (life) was in control, not me. I don’t believe that I ever experienced any lasting peace during those early years. There simply wasn’t enough time each day to accomplish the bare minimum of what I needed to accomplish as a single mom of twin daughters and the sole owner of a veterinary clinic.
At long last, in what was clearly an act of mercy, a life-changing wind blew through my life. In 2002, a fortuitous cascade of circumstances magically fell atop of one another like a chain of dominos stacked to tumble and, as a result, I ended up selling both my home and my veterinary clinic (which, up to that point, had been the epicenter of my life and the major source of my identity.) After having the veterinary clinic for seventeen years, I’d simply reached the point where I could no longer handle the heartache of another sick animal and the resultant pain and suffering the grieving pet owners had to endure. Completely depleted and exhausted, I knew that it was time for me to find a simpler and less heartrending way of life.
So, single and essentially childless (my twin daughters had recently graduated high school and moved out on their own), I had no home or livelihood to tie me down. Yet, since I’d acquired a nice stash of cash from the sale of my home and clinic, I knew I’d be okay for awhile if I didn’t immediately go back to work . Miraculously, for the first time in many, many years, I held in the palms of my hands the amazing gift of freedom. I was actually going to have the opportunity to take time for myself: to soul-search and to discover where exactly I should go from here.
Unexpectedly, it took me three years to finally decompress from the hectic life that I’d been living as a veterinarian and mother. Apparently, before I was going to get a glimpse of what my new yellow brick road would be, I was going to have to learn how to mellow out and unwind a bit. It was during this weird limbo period of time that I discovered that, somewhere in the middle of my many years as a vet, I’d concocted a personal philosophy about how people were like dogs.
Though the idea must have been rumbling around in my head for years, it wasn’t something that I’d ever been consciously aware of. What seemed particularly odd was how the cohesive totality of it all seemed to pop up over night just like the weeds in my yard do after a hard rain. Apparently, the People Are Like Dogs philosophy had become so ripe and ready for expression that it simply took one serendipitous set of circumstances to birth it into existence.
It all began one morning in 2005 when I was living in San Francisco.
I picked up my ringing phone and was surprised to hear the panicked voice of my best friend of twenty years, *Dee. I heard her sobbing even as I said “hello,” which was all the more disconcerting as Dee wasn’t the kind of person who was quick to cry. She haltingly managed to convey through her hiccuping sobs that she’d been getting progressively more and more ill over the past several months to the point that she was afraid that she might be dying. As I tried to think of how to console her, I told her if she could just hang on a bit, I’d rearrange my schedule and head out on the road towards her house (which was four hours away) that very evening. Once Dee had calmed down and I’d hung up the phone, I felt a chill pass over me as I realized that I was a lot more terrified for Dee than I’d let on. I found myself praying that there would be something that I’d be able to do to help her when I finally got to her home.
When I arrived at Dee’s house later that night, she explained that she hadn’t yet gone to a doctor partly because she didn’t have any medical insurance and partly because she was afraid to hear what the doctor might say. I talked her into letting me take her to a nearby hospital the next day where she was fortunate enough to be seen by a doctor who was able to diagnose her condition. The doctor stated that Dee’s illness was something that could possibly resolve itself in time but that she was going to need someone to care for her in the meantime.
At this point, we contacted Dee’s older brother, *Donald, who lived only a few hours away in Washington state. Donald graciously rushed to Dee’s rescue, driving down the next day. Together, Donald and I packed up Dee’s belongings and he took her home to live with him while she got convalesced.
Regrettably, there was a twenty-year age gap between Donald and Dee that not only engendered generational differences but differences in lifestyles that turned out to be quite incompatible. Dee was an outside-the-box, hippie-at-heart who scoffed at the regimentation of rules. She was the farthest thing from tidy that a person could be while Donald lived his life as a holy testament to his twenty years as a Marine with each and every item in its place and each and every task executed with precision and mastery. Donald and Dee’s worlds unavoidably collided with a bang.
Late one evening, months after she’d been living with Donald, Dee called me to complain about how horribly things were going between her and Donald. Dee kept saying over and over again that Donald hated her. Since Dee and I had become such great friends while working together at the same veterinary clinic, I felt comfortable couching my advice in a canine context familiar to us both.
My first stab at giving Dee some doggie words of wisdom must have taken her completely by surprise because, without any preamble at all, I simply blurted out: “Dee, you’ve got to start thinking of Donald as a Chihuahua.”
Total silence (all the more profound as Dee was never one to be at a loss for words.)
“Say what?” she finally responded.
As I was simply hoping to come up with something to make Dee feel better and since I’d never verbalized my feelings as to how people were like dogs before, the words may have came out of my mouth but it wasn’t like I really knew what I was saying.
What I said was: “Dee, after all the years that you’ve being hanging around dogs and working at veterinary clinics, I know that if you were to reach down to pet a Chihuahua and it tried to bite you, you’d never say, “That Chihuahua hates me!” You’d simply say, “Man, that’s a typical Chihuahua for you!” You’ve got to start thinking of Donald as being a grumpy, opinionated, I’m-gonna-bite-you-if-you-mess-with-me Chihuahua! If you can think of him like that, you’ll be able to recognize that his grumpiness has nothing to do with you: that’s how he is with everyone! You know that Donald loves you: he’s just not going to be happy unless everything is the exactly way he wants it to be. Like any other Chihuahua, he’s extremely touchy and crabby!”
Dee and I immediately started giggling and gossiping about all the ways that Donald acted just like a Chihuahua: how his neck would stiffen and his upper lip would curl just before he got mad; how he paraded through life, all puffed up and proud, ready to take on anything twice his size; how he’d snap with no warning! From that moment on, Donald was “Big Dog the Chihuahua” who would predictably snap and growl at the least provocation.
Whenever I called to check on Dee, I’d always ask how “Big Dog” was doing. Dee consistently told me how it was so much easier dealing with Donald as long as she kept thinking of him as a Chihuahua. She said thinking of him as a Chihuahua allowed her to deflect some of the sting from Donald’s petty comments and negative attitude. She even told me there’d been a few times when she’d almost burst out laughing when Donald did something extremely Chihuahua-like. On one occasion, when she hadn’t been able to completely suppress a little snort, she told me Donald had turned to her and snapped, “What’s so damn funny?”
In the months and years after dubbing Donald a Chihuahua, my mind became a fertile playground where I was able to transform anyone into a dog. Not only was it a lot of fun but turned someone’s upsetting and problematic behavior (even my own) into something comedic. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised but I was in truth a bit shocked at how much less frustrated and annoyed I was with people once I started thinking of them as a dog.
A good example of this concerned an elderly woman who lived in my apartment complex in San Francisco. This woman absolutely loved to spread malicious and hurtful rumors about everyone in the building. When she could, she’d corner me and forcibly cram down my throat the latest gossip that she’d either discovered or invented. She absolutely drove me nuts until the day that it occurred to me that she was the epitome of a peevish and prickly Pomeranian. She even had the wild, frizzed-out hairdo of a Pomeranian that she dyed a Lucy Ricardo red that persistently flopped around her pudgy little face. As soon as my perception shifted and she was transformed into a stressed-out, ankle-biting Pomeranian, her snipping and snapping no longer made me want to tear my hair out! As anyone who’s ever been around a Pomeranian knows, they may be petite but they like to act tough. The woman was just making her presence in the world known and all she wanted was for someone to take note of the fact that she was there: just like any other self-respecting Pomeranian would do!
Being able to think of someone as a dog also came in handy with a female acquaintance of mine who was actually a very nice person but who had an annoying habit of giving unwanted advice. It’d gotten so bad at one point that I started avoiding her. But, once I started thinking of people as dogs, it occurred to me that my friend’s behavior was just like that of an Australian Cattle dog. For centuries, Aussies have been bred to herd all kinds of animals so as to keep them safe and under control. I could now see that my friend was simply doing the same thing with me: she felt compelled to nip at my heels whenever she thought I was going off track. As soon as I was able to think of her as an Aussie, all the frustration I’d previously felt magically dissipated as my attitude softened. With my new perspective in hand, I’d simply allow her to rattle on to her heart’s content understanding that it was just her Aussie way of showing her concern for me. Her constant advice just didn’t seem to bother me that much once I knew she wan’t insulting my judgement or decision making capabilities. Oddly enough, the less I resisted her advice, the less she gave me!
Another example of how thinking about people as dogs seemed to make my life easier concerned a boyfriend I once had. I’d actually been feeling a bit frustrated with some of his personality traits but I was able to experience a dramatic improvement in our relationship once I started to think of him as a lay-on-the-couch-do-nothing-all-day Bassett. Once his Bassett nature became apparent to me, I had to laugh because he actually looked a little like a Basset Hound with his heavy-lidded eyes and his bit of dangling jowl. If I squinted my eyes just right, his shoulder length hair could almost look like long, floppy ears. Picturing him as a Basset allowed me to quit nagging him so much about what I perceived to be a lazy, lackadaisical approach to life. Being a Hound, it made sense that he’d naturally prefer lounging to exertion. Understanding that, I was able to ease up on my constant criticism and my efforts to pry him loose from the couch. I actually went so far as to try and adopt some of his laid-back behaviors since, being a Laberrier, I was way too anxious and hyper for my own good!
One thing that I quickly discovered was being able to turn people into dogs made them instantly more likable! In the same way that the various ingredients of a stew impart their individual flavors to one another, thinking about people as dogs imbued people with the delightful essence of dog. And, since most people absolutely adore dogs, a certain amount of that adoration is naturally transferred to people when we start thinking of them as dogs.
One consequence of being able to think of people as dogs completely took me by surprise: it had unexpectedly created an metamorphosis in me. Apparently, at the same time that I was busily transforming people into dogs for my own edification and entertainment, I was also becoming a much nicer person! Each time I shifted my perception of someone into a dog, I’d immediately become much more thoughtful and compassionate. Obviously, thinking of people as dogs had caused me to start treating people as nicely as I treated dogs!
When I reflect on all the relationships that have been altered for the better as a result of transforming the people I care about the most into dogs, the greatest benefit has been to the relationship I have with my mom. Growing up, my mom was so completely embroiled inside the tumultuous relationship she had with my dad that there just wasn’t any time or attention left over for me or my siblings.
My mom never got a little mad: she erupted. Her temper tantrums were a child’s worst nightmare as she’d scream, slap us kids for the least thing, curse a blue streak in front of complete strangers, break things, careen the car all over the road in the middle of a fit, swear that she was going to kill us just to get even with my dad. It was insane and we never had a clue what was going to happen next. There times when she’d drive around half the night with us kids huddled in the back seat as she hunted for my dad’s truck outside one of the countless bars in town. When we were all at home, it was like being trapped inside a pressure cooker: the steadily mounting tension between my mom and dad would continually escalate until the yelling and screaming progressed to shoving, hitting and grappling on the floor. The neighbors frequently had to call the police so that they could come in and break things up. That, unfortunately, was simply how it was for my family.
Now, all these years later, even as an adult with grown children of my own, nothing has changed between my mom and I. To this day, my mom’s life is a never-ending procession of upsets and she’s only concerned with whatever is happening with her life. She’s simply not capable of exhibiting the least bit of interest in anyone else. What most people do as a way of being polite, such as inquiring about another person’s life or well-being, is completely foreign to my mom: she absolutely has no concept of give and take. For my mom, it’s all about taking and receiving. The only time she has any interest in someone else’s life is when she sees the opportunity to critique them and point out what they’re doing wrong. Due to her intractable contrariness, I’d essentially given up any hope of ever being close to her. Yet, once I started to think about people as dogs, I decided that before I gave up completely on my mom, I’d try to think of her as a dog as see what happened!
It was actually quite easy picking out a breed for my mom: her antagonistic attitude screamed “Schipperke.” Schipperkes are the Tasmanian Devils of the dog world and are aptly nick-named “LBD’s” or Little Black Devils. If anyone’s ever foolish enough to go head-to-head with a Schipperke, blood will definitely be drawn but you can be sure that it won’t be the Schipperke’s blood!
My mom reminded me specifically of a Schipperke I’d once seen as a patient at my clinic in southern California. The office visit began with me inquiring as to how the dog was doing while I gave the owner some preventative care information. In hindsight, I can only guess that the pint-sized ruffian became perturbed when he realized that he wasn’t the center of our attention. He churlishly decided to express his displeasure by sauntering up to me and taking my pants leg in his teeth in order to give them a violent shake! The owner and I cracked up over this little temper tantrum and went back to our conversation. Now, completely perturbed by our continued inattention, this thoroughly pissed-off pooch promptly trotted over to me and, hiking his leg, indignantly peed on my shoe! THIS, MY FRIENDS, IS MY MOTHER! If she doesn’t get what she wants when she wants it, whether she’s dealing with me or anyone else, she’ll shamelessly ratchet up the ante until people gladly give her what she wants just to get rid of her!
Once I started to think of my mom as a Schipperke, it did notice that her behavior didn’t upset me as much. And, though she can still hurt my feelings some times, it’s not nearly as frequent as it used to be. Most importantly, I’m more patient and tolerant when I’m around her and that makes me feel better about myself.
In the past, I’d convinced myself that every time my mom was upset with me that it’d somehow been my fault: that I was either saying or doing something to set her off. That’s why I believed that, if I could somehow alter the way I behaved around her, that she’d no longer have a reason to be constantly mad at me. The truth was that that was never going to happen. I realize now that my mom has absolutely no control over her behavior: in fact, she has no more control over her behavior than did the feisty Schipperke that peed on my shoe! The reality is: my mom’s behavior has nothing to do with me. My mom behaves the way she does because that’s the person she is genetically and there’s nothing that I can do to ever change that.
Sadly, accepting all of this has forced me to concede that my mom and I aren’t ever going to be close. Before I was able to accept this truth, I’d always held on to a tiny spark of hope that, some day, my mom would become the Golden retriever that I’d always wanted as a mom. As a Golden Retriever, my mom would not only be loving and sweet but she’d be interested and concerned about other people (including me.) I now know that that’s never going to happen.
Though I understand that my mom loves me in the best way that she’s able (just as Donald loved Dee) but there’s simply no evidence of that love on a day-to-day basis. Our relationship is going to remain as it’s always been: extremely one-sided.
The harshness of that reality initially broke my heart and it took a while for me to mourn the finality of that truth. Yet, once I finished mourning for the mom that I was never going to have, I was able to make peace with the fact that this is simply how life turned out for me. Though I didn’t get what I’d wanted as far as a mom was concerned, I’ve certainly been compensated with other blessings to spare. I have to be mindful to stay grateful because, if I don’t, regret and sadness can sneak up on me, tainting all the good things that I’ve been given in life.
There’s always going to be the occasional setback in the relationship I have with my mom. She’s probably always going to have the ability to push my buttons and to sporadically catch me off-guard with one of her hurtful remarks. Though I now accept our relationship for what it is, acceptance isn’t enough to completely protect me. That’s why I’ve learned how to maintain a healthy emotional and physical space between me and my mom (the equivalent of a protective barrier around my heart as discussed in Chapter 8’s managing difficult relationships.)
Unexpectedly, there’s been a new and unfamiliar emotion that’s sneakily wriggled its way into my heart like a worm determined to snake its way through an apple. It’s an emotion that I’ve rarely (if ever) experienced with my mom: compassion. I sometimes actually feel sorry for my mom: sorry that she’s had to live her entire life as a Schipperke. I know that if I’d had to live my mom’s life, I’d be full of regret. I can’t imagine living a life where all one does all day is argue and fight with people. Of course, due to the fact that my mom’s a Schipperke, she doesn’t have a clue there’s anything wrong with her or her life. She’s convinced that being a Schipperke is the only way to be because, as she likes to boast, it guarantees that no one is ever going to take advantage of her in a world where no one can be trusted. This is my mom’s perspective. The truth is she’s actually energized by conflict: as if she’s going off to war in defense of an honorable cause: that of always being right! That seems incredibly sad to me and it’s why I can be heard to mumble whenever I’m around my mom: “God, you’re the most pathetic and cantankerous creature alive!”
To have been able to reach this level of peace with my mom required that I do two important things: accept what is so and quit clinging to what I wished could be so. I don’t think I would have ever been able to do those two things if my perception of my mom hadn’t been so radically changed through thinking of her as a dog..
The peace of mind that I now have with my mom has been transformative. I no longer feel that our poor relationship is either of our faults. I know that she can’t help being the person that she is and that I can’t help being the person that I am. That I’m able to have any peace of mind concerning our relationship is the absolute best testimony that I could ever offer for the People Are Like Dogs potential to heal not only the relationship we have with ourselves but the relationships we have with others.
I hope you’ll read on so that you can find the same peace of mind in your own relationships. The truth is: we’re all so much more lovable as dogs! Woof!
*The names of the real people have been changed.