Juliet once questioned Romeo as to what’s in a name, like maybe her and Romeo might be able to just disregard their names. In truth, though, names are unbelievably powerful: as healing as a hug and as destructive as a bullet. Though all of us have heard the “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” line, we all know that it’s simply not true. Names are constantly hurting us. If we get into the habit of calling ourselves stupid or ugly (even if we’re not ugly or stupid), the simple act of calling or thinking about ourselves in those terms has the ability to completely influence the way we view ourselves. Speaking something can definitely bring it into existence. That’s why we need to find a different and more compassionate way of seeing ourselves! And what better way could there be than seeing ourselves as a dog! Considering that dogs are universally loved no matter how goofy or odd they are, finding our inner dog makes it possible for us to transform not only how we see ourselves but how we see everyone around us.
One of the greatest hopes that I have for this book is that it might give each of us a chance to reinvent ourselves, to experience a rebirth of sorts by allowing us to break out of our fixed self-images and our entrenched ways of viewing ourselves. If we can do that for ourselves, then we can also do that for the people in our lives.
When I first started trying to figure out what kind of dog I was, I actually didn’t have to work too hard. I seemed to naturally intuit that I was some kind of oddball mixture of a Labrador retriever and a Jack Russell terrier (what I call a “Laberrier.”) In my thirty plus years as a veterinarian, I’ve never actually encountered a Laberrier in the flesh. Since Labs and Jack Russell terriers are at the opposite ends of the height spectrum, it’d require the strategic use of a ramp or possibly artificial insemination for these two breeds to ever have puppies! Yet, despite the fact that I’ll probably never meet a Laberrier in real life, I definitely know that I’m an oddball mixture of the Lab’s need to please and be of service and the Jack Russell terrier’s need to be forever busy and in control.
Labs are so predictable! They’re convinced that the whole wide world is their playground and, because of that fact, they’re persistently jumping fences: boundaries mean nothing to them! Pathologically friendly, a Lab’s affection will never be in doubt: with their big goofy grins, lolling tongues and wildly wagging posteriors, they love anyone and everyone. Never do they think twice about putting their big muddy paws all over someone in an effort to get up close and personal! Slinging slobber is the Lab’s specialty: the more the better (though, as a Lab, I try to keep my own slobbering to a minimum!)
Due to the Lab’s never ending exuberance, they can be emotionally draining at times as they frequently cross the the line between simply being friendly to being inappropriately invasive. A Lab’s burning desire to connect with everyone causes it to carelessly trample the boundaries of others. Yet, even though they can be a bit of a pain in the butt, Labs always have the best of intentions: they really do mean well!
Jack Russell terriers, on the other hand, are self-centered control freaks. They possess a never ending supply of energy and the one thing you can be sure of is that energy is going to be used to make sure that life goes the way the terrier wants it to go! Incredibly stubborn, terriers have the ability to whittle down the resolve of almost anyone. Do or die, they are going to prevail! As one might imagine, Jack Russell terriers aren’t the most considerate of breeds to lay claim to as being part of one’s pedigree!
Of course, I didn’t know that I was a Laberrier in my twenties and thirties. During those formative years, I didn’t have a clue who I was or how to take charge of my life. At that time, life felt like some kind of raging river where I was simply an inconsequential leaf that was along for the ride. There was never any doubt that the river was in control and, consequently, I felt out of control. I don’t think I ever once experienced a moment of peace in all those early years: I was simply a student, then a wife, then a mom, then an owner of a veterinary clinic. I was flailing along at best.
Finally, in what was must have been an act of mercy from above, a life-changing wind blew through my life. In 2002, after a series of unexpected events, I made the decision to sell both my home and my veterinary clinic. The veterinary clinic (which I’d started and run by myself for seventeen years) had been the complete center of my universe and the main source of my identity for years. What had happened was that, after years and years of watching tending sick dogs and cats, I’d simply reached the point where I couldn’t do it anymore: I just couldn’t endure the heartache of one more sick animal and one more grieving owner. Completely depleted and exhausted, I realized that I had to take a break, to see if I couldn’t find something that wouldn’t tear my heart out on a daily basis.
So, after selling my home and clinic, I was suddenly completely on my own (as my twin daughters had already graduated high school and moved out on their own.) I had no home and no profession to tie me down. Due to the proceeds from the sale of my home and clinic, I knew that I’d be okay if I didn’t immediately go back to work but what do I do from here? It was both terrifying and liberating to know that for the first time since I’d left home for college, I was completely and totally free. All I had to do was figure out where to go from here.
What I never expected was that it would take me three long years to finally decompress from the crazy life I’d been living as a veterinarian and a mother. Apparently, before I could get a glimpse of my new yellow brick road, I had to first unwind from the crazy rat race that I’d been living for so many years. Oddly, it was during this limbo period of time (when I had time to actually reflect and just think about life) that I first realized that, somewhere in my years of being a veterinarian, I’d developed this about people being like dogs.
Though the idea of people being like dogs had to have been rummaging around in my brain for awhile, it wasn’t something that I’d ever been consciously aware of. What was even more weird was how the idea was so complete and cohesive once it finally popped out of my head. Clearly, the People Are Like Dogs philosophy had to have been incubating somewhere inside my head and all it finally took was the right set of circumstances to bring it to life.
Those special circumstances presented themselves one morning in 2005 when I was living in San Francisco. On that morning, I’d absently picked up my ringing telephone only to be shocked by the tearful voice of my best friend of twenty years, Dee.* I actually heard her sobbing even as I said “hello,” which was all the more frightening since Dee wasn’t one to cry. It took her a few moments but she finally explained that she’d been getting sicker and sicker over the past few months and now things were so bad that she thought she might actually be dying. Stunned, I stumbled around asking her questions and finally told her that, if she could hold on for a bit, I’d rearrange my schedule and drive up to her house that night (she lived about four hours away.) Dee calmed down and promising her that I’d be there as soon as I could, I hung up the phone. Here was life (once again) turning someone’s life upside down. Though I wasn’t sure what I could do to help Dee, I knew that I had to try and do something.
When I made it to Dee’s house, she told me that she hadn’t yet gone to a doctor partly because she didn’t have medical insurance but mostly because she was terrified about what the doctor would say. I finally talked her into letting me take her to a nearby hospital the next day and, luckily, we were able to get an appointment with a doctor who diagnosed her condition. The diagnosis wasn’t good but the doctor did say that Dee had a chance of improving though, for the meantime, she’d need someone to take care of her.
Since Dee was an extremely independent and private person, this was hard news for her to swallow. But, after a lot of complaining, she finally decided to reach out to her older brother, *Donald, who lived fairly close by in Washington state. Donald didn’t hesitate a moment and actually drove down the very next day. Together, Donald and I packed up all of Dee’s belongings and Donald took her back to Washington to live with him until she got better.
If only things could have been that simple! Because there was a twenty-year age difference between Donald and Dee, problems kicked up between the two of them almost immediately. On top of the generational differences, there were major lifestyle differences that had to be managed. Dee was an outside-the-box, hippie-at-heart who hated the regimentation of rules and who wasn’t the tidiest of persons. Donald, on the other hand, lived his life as a holy testament to his twenty years as a Marine where each and every item had its place and each and every task was executed with precision and mastery. As one might imagine, Donald and Dee’s worlds collided with a bang.
One evening, several months after Dee had moved in with Donald, she called to complain about how horribly things were going between the two of them. She said over and over again that Donald hated her and that she couldn’t wait to be well enough to move.
As Dee and I had become such good friends when we’d both worked at the same veterinary clinic, we often brought up dogs in our conversations. Still, I can only imagine how shocked Dee must have been when I suddenly blurted out: “Dee, you’ve simply got to start thinking of Donald as a Chihuahua!”
Silence. It wasn’t normal for Dee to ever be at a loss for words!
At long last, she said, “Say what?”
I just started blabbing. The truth was, I’d simply been trying to come up with something to make her feel better and to snap her out of her bad mood. I really wasn’t clear about what I was going to say about Donald being a Chihuahua as I’d never really consciously thought about my belief that people were like dogs. In other words, I was winging it.
I started out by saying: “Dee, after all the years you’ve worked at veterinary clinics, you know Chihuahuas. And, I know that if you were to reach down to pet a Chihuahua and it suddenly tried to bite you, you’d never ever say, “Oh my goodness, that Chihuahua hates me!” What you’d say is “That’s a Chihuahua for you!” You know that Chihuahuas are incredibly touchy and opinionated and that their grumpiness is nothing personal. Chihuahuas are Chihuahuas: touchy and grumpy is just who they are.
I told her that if she could start thinking of Donald as a grumpy, opinionated, I’ll-bite-you-if-you-mess-with-me Chihuahua, she’d quickly understand that his grumpiness has nothing to do with her! The truth is: Donald is grumpy and opinionated with everyone (not just Dee!) He’s simply a very regimented person and if everything in his life doesn’t go the way he wants it to go, he’s not going to be happy..
The more we talked, the more Dee and I laughed. She started pointing out all the ways that Donald acted just like a Chihuahua: how when he got mad, he’d stick his neck out and curl his upper lip; how, even though he was short and lean, Donald never let his size keep him from taking on someone twice his size. Donald snapped without warning just like a Chihuahua! From that moment on, Dee and I started calling Donald “Big Dog.”
Whenever I’d call to check up on Dee, the first thing I’d always ask was how “Big Dog” was doing! Even though still hurt Dee’s feelings from time to time, things definitely improved. As long as Dee could keep picturing Donald as a Chihuahua, Donald’s negative remarks just didn’t seem to sting as badly as they had before. She told me that there’d even been a few times when she’d actually laughed out loud when Donald had done something completely Chihuahua-like and he’d whipped around and said, “What’s so damn funny?”
In the months and years after Dee and I dubbed Donald “Big Dog”, I found it increasingly easier to transform people into dogs. Not only was it fun but it helped me to turn someone’s bad behavior (including my own) into something comedic.
One funny example of this concerned an elderly woman who’d lived in my apartment complex in San Francisco. The woman absolutely loved gossiping and she was constantly trying to light a match to any rumor going around in the building. She was forever ambushing me as I came and went doing her darndest to cram the latest gossip down my throat. She drove me nuts and I constantly dreaded the next time I’d run into her. Then, one day, a thought suddenly occurred to me that this woman was the exact replica of a peevish and prickly Pomeranian! She even had the wild, frizzed-out hair of a Pomeranian that she persistently kept dyed an abrasive Lucy Ricardo red. Now I could see that she simply loved to yap like any self-respecting Pomeranian! As anyone who’s ever been around a Pomeranian knows, Pomeranians are small but they’re mighty and as tough as nails. What was crazy was, once I transformed her into a stressed-out, ankle-biting Pomeranian, all her endless snipping, snapping and yapping didn’t seem to bother me as much! Just like any Pomeranian, the woman simply wanted to voice her opinion about what’s annoying her in the world!
Being able to think of someone as a dog also helped me with a particular classmate of mine who, despite being a very nice person in many ways, had an extremely annoying habit of constantly giving unwanted advice. It had finally gotten to the point that I found myself trying to avoid her whenever I went to class (which made me feel bad!) Luckily, as I was getting better and better at turning people into dogs, it finally occurred to me one day that my friend was simply being an Australian Shepherd. For centuries, Aussies have herded all kinds of animals in order to keep them safe and under control and my friend was simply trying to the same thing with me. She obviously felt that it was her job to nip at my heels whenever she thought that I was going off track. Once I saw her as an Aussie, the frustration I’d previously felt lessened as my attitude softened. With my new perspective, I just allowed her to rattle on to her heart’s content realizing that it was simply her way of showing her concern for me. Once again, the less I resisted her advice, the less her advice bothered me and, even better, the less she felt compelled to give it to me!
Transforming people into dogs also helped me with a boyfriend I had once who constantly frustrated me when he laid around all the time and repeatedly put off things he needed to do. Things instantly got better once I started thinking of him as a lay-on-the-couch-do-nothing-all-day Bassett Hound. I had to laugh because he actually looked a little like a Basset Hound with his heavily-lidded eyes and bit of a dangling jowl. If I squinted my eyes just right, his shoulder length hair looked a lot like long, floppy ears. Seeing him as a Basset allowed me to stop nagging him so much about what I’d perceived to be a lazy, lackadaisical approach to life. He couldn’t be blamed if he’d been born a Hound and, If he was a Hound, he’d naturally prefer lounging to exertion! When I accepted him as a Hound, I simply abandoned all my efforts to pry him loose from the couch. Crazily, I actually went so far as to try and adopt some of his low-key behaviors because, being a Laberrier, I was way too anxious and hyper for my own good!
One of the most interesting things that I discovered was the minute I transformed someone into a dog, it instantly made that person a lot more likable! In the same way that all the different ingredients in a stew impart their individual flavors to one another, thinking about someone as a dog naturally imbues that person with the delightful essence of dog. And, since most of us adore dogs with all of our hearts, some of that adoration is bound to be transferred to a person once we start thinking of that person as a dog!
One aspect of transforming people into dogs, though, took me by surprise: I found that the process caused a metamorphosis in me: whenever I transformed someone into a dog, I became a nicer person! Whenever I shifted my perception of someone into a dog, I automatically became more thoughtful and compassionate in the same way that I would if I was dealing with a real dog. Transforming people into dogs caused me to treat people just as nicely as I’d treat a dog!
Over time, countless relationships have been altered for the better as a result of my learning how to think of people as dogs but, without a doubt, the relationship that was altered the most (to the point that it changed my life) was the relationship I had with my mom.
Growing up, my mom was so lost inside the tumultuous relationship she had with my dad that she couldn’t think of anything else. My mom was the kind of person who is always upset about something and, because she lacks the ability to be just a little upset, when my mom gets mad, she blows her top like her head might come off!
My mom has always cussed like she was the person who invented cussing and it doesn’t matter if she’s out in public, she lets it rip. When I was child and my brother and sister and I were all in the car with her, she’d be mad at my dad over something and she’d insanely swerve all over the road swearing that she might just kill us all if that’s what it took to get back at him.
I was forever on edge, never knowing what she was going to do next. Sometimes, she’d drive us around half the night as she searched for my dad’s truck outside one of the endless bars in Amarillo. If all of us were at home, it was like being trapped inside a lion’s den. It’d start with a lot of yelling and screaming until dishes started getting broken and it progressed to shoving, hitting and grappling on the floor. I think the neighbors felt that it was their duty to call the police because the police seemed to be the only ones who could force my mom and dad to quit fighting for at least a little while.
Even years later, when I was an adult with grown children of my own, the relationship I had with my mom remained painful and confusing. My mom is only ever concerned with what is happening to her. She simply doesn’t possess the ability to be concerned about someone else. What most people do naturally as a way of being polite (such as inquiring about another person’s life or well-being) is completely foreign to my mom. She doesn’t understand the concept of give and take. For my mom, it’s all about receiving. The only time she’s ever interested in someone else’s life is when she spies an opportunity to tell someone what they’re doing wrong. Finally, after years of her unwavering orneriness, I’d simply given up hope of ever being able to be close to my mom. Yet, when I started turning myself and other people into dogs, I decided that I’d give my mom one more chance just to make sure that something might not change for the better if I could start thinking of her as a dog.
It wasn’t hard to pick out a breed of dog for my mom: her intensely antagonistic attitude simply screamed “Schipperke.” Schipperkes are the Tasmanian Devils of the dog world and are quite aptly nick-named “LBD’s” or Little Black Devils. If anyone is ever foolish enough to go head-to-head with a Schipperke, they need to know that blood is going to be drawn and it won’t be the Schipperke’s!
As it turned out, my mom actually reminded me of a Schipperke that I’d once seen as a patient at my veterinary clinic in southern California. The first time I met this feisty little dog was in an exam room where I was chitchatting with the dog’s owner about diet and other preventative care. In hindsight, I can only guess that the pint-sized ruffian started getting bored when he realized he wasn’t the center of our attention. He must have decided that it was past time to express his displeasure and he indignantly sauntered over to me, righteously took my pants leg in his mouth and gave it a violent shake! Never in all my years as a veterinarian had I ever had a dog do that! The owner and I cracked up over his little temper tantrum and, after much speculation as to what might be going on in the dog’s head, we went back to our discussion. Now, feeling even more snubbed and insulted by our inattention, that thoroughly pissed-off pooch promptly trotted over to me, lifted his back leg high in the air and thoroughly peed all over my shoe! THIS, DEAR READERS, IS MY MOM! If my mom doesn’t get what she wants when she wants it, she’ll shamelessly ratchet up the ante until she’s given whatever it is she wants!
Most people, when dealing with my mom, are quick to pick up on her volatility and will choose to simply give her whatever it is she wants in order to get her out of their hair. But, every now and then, my mom is forced to go too far. Not too long ago, she was throwing a royal fit at the local Home Depot store when she wasn’t getting the price she wanted for some carpet. She got so out of hand that one of the supervisors told her that, if she didn’t quit screaming and cussing, he was going to have security escort her out of the store! This is when my mom was in her eighties…can you only imagine how it was when she was young and totally up to speed? What’s crazy is that the whole time my mom was telling me about the Home Depot story, she was all proud of herself, carrying on about how she’d finally gotten what she’d wanted in the end! In the past, I’d asked my mom on more than one occasion if she didn’t feel bad about how she’s always fighting with everyone. I wanted to know if she didn’t sometimes long to feel a bit more harmony and camaraderie with other people. She didn’t hesitate for a moment when she said, “Hell no, I just want what I want!”
Considering all of this, I didn’t have my hopes up too high as far as hoping for a miracle as far as the relationship with my mom was concerned. In the end, I was happily surprised to find that, once I started thinking of my mom as a Schipperke, her behavior didn’t seem to hurt quite as badly as it had before. There’s no doubt that my mom still has the capacity to hurt me at times but it’s not as frequent or as painful as it used to be. What’s best of all is that I find that I’m able to be more patient and tolerant around her and that has made me feel a lot better about myself.
One of the biggest problems that I’d had with my mom revolved around the fact that I’d somehow convinced myself back when I was a child that, if my mom was ever mad at me, it had to be something that I’d said or done that had set her off. It was somehow my fault and it was me who was the problem. As a result, I kept believing that, if I could change myself or the way I behaved around my mom, that she’d finally quit getting mad at me. I now know that that’s simply not the case; my mom’s never going to quit being a Schipperke and that means that she’s going to keep getting upset with me and everyone else. What’s good is that I also understand that my mom doesn’t have the ability to control her behavior: she can no more stop the way she behaves than could that feisty little Schipperke that peed my shoe! And, just like the Schipperke that peed on my shoe, my mom’s behavior has absolutely nothing to do with me! My mom behaves the way she does because that’s who she was genetically born to be and there’s nothing that I or anyone else can do about it. Most importantly, my mom doesn’t want to change. Even though it’s never easy for any of us to change, if someone truly wants to change, there might at least be some hope. But, if someone has no desire whatsoever to change then, most definitely, it’s not going to happen.
It wasn’t easy to accept the finality of my mother’s temperament (her Schipperke-ness) and that I was left with no choice but to accept and somehow be at peace with the fact I’m never going to be close to my mom. For the entirety of my life, I’ve clung on to a tiny spark of hope that maybe some day, some miracle would happen and my mom would finally become the Golden retriever that I’ve always wanted her to be: someone who’d not only be loving and sweet but someone who’d be interested and concerned about me for a change. I know now and accept that that isn’t ever going to happen. On some level I know my mom loves me as much as she can (as much as a Schipperke can) but it’s never going to be the kind of love that I’ve wanted from her. All that I can do at this point is to keep striving to be at peace with the reality that this is the mom I got and she’s never going to be anyone other than who she is.
The harshness of this can still break my heart from time to time but it’s gradually gotten easier to deal with over time. Though it’s true that I didn’t get what I’d wanted when it came to a mom, I have certainly been blessed in other ways and I have to continually remind myself of that fact. I don’t want to let the sadness and regret get so big in my head that it tries to swallow me up thereby tainted all the good that I’ve experienced in life.
I’m sure that my mom will still catch me off guard from time to time, that she’ll find a way to push my buttons. I can’t expect myself to be a robot without feelings even though I understand intellectually that she’s a Schipperke. I will always have feelings because I’m human. That’s our curse and joy because feelings can be both wonderful and horrible and we’re bound to have some of each. Though I now accept our relationship for what it is, acceptance isn’t enough to protect me from ever getting hurt. That’s why I’ve also learned that it’s important to maintain a healthy emotional and physical distance from my mom in the same way I’d maintain a safe and healthy distance from a biting dog (something that’s discussed in detail in a later chapter.)
On a positive note, there’s a new and unfamiliar emotion that’s found its way into my heart as far as my mom is concerned: compassion. I actually now have the ability to feel sorry for my mom: sorry that she’s had to live her life as a Schipperke that’s always at war with the world. I know that if I’d had to have lived my mom’s life, I would have been totally miserable. I can’t imagine living a life where all I do every day is argue and fight. Most tragically, my mom’s not close to anyone. Of course, since she’s a Schipperke, my mom doesn’t at all feel that there’s anything wrong with her or her life! She’s completely convinced that being a Schipperke is the only way to be because, as she likes to boast, it guarantees that she always get her way. My mom doesn’t trust anyone and her overall strategy is to get the best of someone else before they get the best of you. That’s how my mom sees the world. She’s someone who’s actually energized by conflict and her life is a never-ending battle to prove to everyone that she (and only she) is right! To me, that’s sad and is why I’m finally able to feel some sympathy and compassion for my mom.
But, to have ever been able to reach this level of peace with my mom, there were two vitally important things that I had to first do: accept what is so and quit clinging to what I wished could be so. I don’t know if I’d have ever been able to have done either of those things if my perception of my mom hadn’t been so radically changed by my learning how to think of her as a dog.
The peace of mind that I now have towards my mom has radically changed my life because I no longer have to struggle with what to do and I no longer feel that either of us is at fault. I know that she can’t help being the person that she is and I can’t help being the person that I am. To have been able to achieve any peace at all towards my mom is the absolute best testimony that I could ever give to the People Are Like Dogs philosophy: thinking of people as dogs can heal relationships and not only the relationships we have with other people but the relationship we have with ourselves.
I hope you’ll read on so that you too might find some peace of mind towards yourself and others. The simple truth is: we’re all so much more lovable as dogs! Woof!
(*The real names of Dee and Donald have been changed.)