Juliet questioned Romeo once 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 point 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 naturally intuited that I was a combination of a Labrador retriever and a Jack Russell terrier (what I now call a “Laberrier.”)
In my thirty plus years as a veterinarian, I’d never actually come across a canine Laberrier. As Labs and Jack Russell terriers are at the opposite ends of the height spectrum, it’d take the strategic use of a ramp or artificial insemination for these two breeds to ever produce a litter of pups! So, though I’ll probably never encounter a Laberrier in the flesh, I’m quite clear that I’m the perfect example of the human variety as I embody 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 presume 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 can be emotionally draining, though, as a result of their never-ending enthusiasm: frequently crossing the the line from being friendly to being invasive and inappropriate. A Lab’s desperate need to connect and to be helpful tends to blind them to the boundaries of others. Yet, despite their bumbling faults and good-natured intrusions, Labs always have the best of intentions. So, even though they’re sometimes a pain in the butt, they do mean well!
Jack Russell terriers, on the other hand, are self-centered control freaks. They have energy to spare and that energy is used exclusively to ensure that life goes the way that they want it to go! Incredibly stubborn, they have the ability to whittle 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 know that I was a Laberrier in my twenties and thirties. During those difficult years, I felt more plant than animal: like some kind of discarded leaf that was alternately dunked and buoyed down the raging river of life. It was quite apparent that the river (life) was in control, not me and I never experienced a moment of peace during those early years. I felt constantly overwhelmed on a daily basis as there was never enough time to accomplish all that I needed to accomplish as a single mom of twin daughters and the sole owner of a veterinary clinic.
Finally, in what was clearly an act of mercy, a life-changing wind blew through my life. In 2002, an unexpected cascade of events magically fell on top of one another like a chain of dominos stacked to tumble and, as a consequence, I ended up selling both my home and my veterinary clinic (which, up to that point, had been the focus of my life and the primary source of my identity.) But, after enduring day in and day out the intensity of my veterinary clinic for seventeen years, I’d simply reached the point where I could no longer handle the heartache of another sick animal in addition to the pain and suffering the grieving pet owners. Depleted and exhausted, I knew that I had to find a simpler and less heartrending way of life.
So, single and essentially childless (as my twin daughters had recently graduated high school and moved out on their own), I had no home or livelihood to tie me down. And, since I had a nice chunk of cash from the sale of my home and clinic, I knew that I’d be okay for awhile if I didn’t immediately go back to work. It was a bizarre and liberating feeling to hold in my hands for the first time since I’d left home for college the amazing gift of freedom. I was actually going to have a chance to take time for myself: to soul-search for awhile so that I could figure out where I needed to go from here.
I didn’t expect that it was going to take me three years to actually decompress from the crazy life I’d been living as a veterinarian and a mother. Apparently, before I was going to get a chance to see what my new yellow brick road might be, I’d need time to simply mellow out and unwind a bit. It was during this weird limbo period of time that I discovered that, somewhere during my many years as a vet, I’d concocted this interesting theory about how people were a lot like dogs.
Though the idea must have been rummaging around in my head for awhile, it wasn’t something I was consciously aware of. What was particularly odd was how cohesive the idea was when it suddenly popped up like the weeds do in my yard after a hard rain. Apparently, the People Are Like Dogs philosophy had been forming inside my brain for a long, long time and, consequently, it was ripe for expression and just waiting for the right set of circumstances to bring it to life.
Those right set of circumstances presented themselves one morning in 2005 when I was living in San Francisco…
I’d 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 since Dee wasn’t the crying type. She chokingly managed to tell me through her sobs that she’d been getting sicker and sicker for several months now and that things were getting so bad that she was terrified she might be dying. As I tried to console her, I told her to hang on and I’d rearrange my schedule so that I could be at her house (about four hours away) that evening. When Dee had finally calmed down and I’d hung up the phone, I simply sat there for awhile feeling shell-shocked. I just hoped that there’d be something that I’d be able to do to help her.
When I got to Dee’s house later that evening, she explained to me that she hadn’t yet gone to a doctor partly because she didn’t have any medical insurance but mostly because she was too afraid to hear what the doctor was going to 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 diagnosed her condition. The doctor said that Dee’s illness might eventually resolve itself with treatment and medication but that, in the meantime, she was going to need someone to care for her.
Dee decided to reach out to her older brother, *Donald, who lived only a few hours away in Washington state. Donald graciously rushed to the 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.
Unfortunately, there was a twenty-year age gap between Donald and Dee that not only engendered generational differences but extreme differences in lifestyle that proved to be quite problematic. Dee, as it turned out, 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 where each and every item had its place and each and every task was executed with precision and mastery. Donald and Dee’s worlds collided with a bang.
Late one evening, several months after she’d been living with Donald, Dee called me to complain about how horribly things were going between her and Donald. She kept saying that Donald hated her and that she desperately wanted to move out but that she couldn’t since she was still sick. As Dee and I’d become such good friends when we’d both worked at the same veterinary clinic, I decided I’d try to give her some advice using a canine analogy.
My doggie words of wisdom must have taken Dee by surprise when I suddenly blurted out: “Dee, you’ve got to start thinking of Donald as a Chihuahua.”
S I L E N C E…all the more profound since Dee was never at a loss for words.
“Say what?” she finally said.
As I’d been simply trying to find something to make Dee feel better and since I’d never said anything before about how people were like dogs, the words came out of my mouth but it was completely ad libbing.
I think I said: “Dee, considering how you’ve been around dogs and have worked at veterinary clinics for years, I know that if you were to reach down to pet a Chihuahua and it suddenly tried to bite you, you’d never say, “Oh dear, that Chihuahua doesn’t like me!” You’d say, “Yep, that’s a typical Chihuahua for you!”
I told Dee that if she could think of Donald as a grumpy, opinionated, I’ll-bite-you-if-you-mess-with-me Chihuahua, she’d see that his grumpiness had absolutely nothing to do with her. The truth was Donald was that way with everyone! He insisted that he be in control and he wasn’t going to be happy unless everything was going the way he wanted it to.
Dee and I got to laughing as she started pointing out all the ways that Donald acted like a Chihuahua: how his neck would stiffen and his upper lip curl just before he got mad; how, though he was short and scrawny, he’d march around all puffed up and tough like he’d be glad to take on anything twice his size; and how he tended to snap without warning! From that moment on, we called Donald “Big Dog.” It was amazing how a switch just seemed to flip inside of Dee such that she was no longer shocked or even taken by surprise when Donald decided to snap and growl for no reason.
Whenever I called to check up on Dee, I’d always ask how “Big Dog” was doing. She’d tell me how things were so much better between her and Donald ever since she’d started thinking of him as a Chihuahua. She was actually able to deflect most of the sting from Donald’s occasional petty remarks and negative comments. She even told me there’d been a few times when she’d hardly been able to stop herself from laughing when Donald happened to do something that was very Chihuahua-like. One time, she hadn’t been able to completely suppress a little snort of laughter and Donald had turned around and snapped, “What’s so damn funny?”
In the months and years after Dee and I had dubbed Donald Big Dog, my brain got better and better at transforming people into dogs. Not only was it fun but it allowed me to turn someone’s upsetting and problematic behavior (even my own) into something comedic. it was actually a bit shocking how much less frustrated and annoyed I was with people once I’d transformed them into a dog.
A perfect example of this concerned an elderly woman who lived in my apartment complex in San Francisco. This woman absolutely loved spreading malicious and hurtful rumors about everyone in the building. Whenever she could, she’d corner me and try to cram the most recent gossip she’d heard down my throat. She absolutely was driving me nuts until the day it suddenly 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 kept dyed a Lucy Ricardo red. Once I’d transformed her into a stressed-out, ankle-biting Pomeranian, her snipping and snapping no longer seemed to bother me! As anyone who’s ever been around a Pomeranian knows, Pomeranians may be small but they’re tough as nails. And, just like any self-respecting Pomeranians, the woman felt the strong compulsion to make her presence known in the world!
Being able to think of someone as a dog also helped me with a female acquaintance of mine who was actually a very nice person but had the extremely annoying habit of constantly giving me unwanted advice. It’d finally gotten so bad that I’d actually started avoiding her. But, as I started getting better at transforming people into dogs, it occurred to me that my friend’s behavior was very much like that of an Australian Cattle dog. For centuries, Aussies have been bred to herd all kinds of animals in order to keep them safe and under control. My friend was merely doing the same thing with me that Aussies did with their flocks. She simply couldn’t stop herself from feeling that it was her job to nip at my heels whenever she thought I was going off track. Once I started thinking of her as an Aussie, all the frustration I’d previously been feeling seemed to magically dissipated as my attitude softened. With my new perspective in hand, I simply allowed her to rattle on to her heart’s content realizing that it was merely the Aussie inside of her trying to show her concern for me. Not surprisingly, the less I resisted her advice, the less advice she seemed to give me!
Transforming people into dogs also made my life easier with a boyfriend I had at the time. I was frequently frustrated with him because he laid around too much and was constantly putting off things he needed to do. Things transformed between us when I finally started thinking of him as a lay-on-the-couch-do-nothing-all-day Bassett Hound. It made me laugh because he actually looked a bit like a Basset Hound with his heavy-lidded eyes and his slightly dangling jowl. I found that if I squinted my eyes just right, his shoulder length hair looked like long, floppy ears. Seeing him as a Basset allowed me to quit nagging him so much about what I’d perceived to be a lazy, lackadaisical approach to life. Being a Hound, it now made sense that he’d naturally prefer lounging to exertion. Understanding that, I was able to ease up on my constant criticism along with my efforts to pry him loose from the couch. Oddly enough, I even went so far as to try and adopt a few of his laid-back behaviors since, being a Laberrier, I was way too anxious and hyper for my own good!
One thing I quickly discovered about turning people into dogs was that it made them much more likable! In the same way that the different ingredients in a stew impart their individual flavors to one another, thinking about people as dogs imbues 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!
Many of my relationships have been altered for the better as a result of my being able to transform people into dogs. The relationship that was transformed the most and that completely changed my life is the relationship I have with my mom.
Growing up, my mom was so caught up inside her tumultuous relationship with my dad that there she couldn’t think of anything else. My mom was persistently upset with my dad and she never knew how to be just a little mad: when my mom got upset, she flipped. If my brother, sister or I happened to be the one that she was mad at, she never hesitated to scream or hit us with whatever was handy (a hairbrush or spoon were her favorites.) My mom could cuss like she’d invented cussing and it didn’t matter if we were out in public or around a bunch of complete strangers. If we kids were in the car with her when she was in the middle of a fit, she’d careen all over the road and swear to us that she was going to kill us if that’s what it took to get even with my dad. We never knew what was going to happen next. Sometimes, she’d drive around half the night with us kids huddled in the back as she searched for my dad’s truck outside one of the countless bars in town. If we all happened to be at home, it was like being trapped inside a ready-to-blow-at-any-moment pressure cooker: the tension between my mom and dad would steadily escalate until the yelling and screaming progressed to shoving, hitting and grappling on the floor. The neighbors frequently called the police because the police were the only ones that could get them to stop for awhile. That was simply how it was for my family.
Even countless years later, when I was an adult with grown children of my own, the relationship with my mom was painful and confusing. To this day, my mom’s life is a never-ending series of upsets in which she’s only concerned with what is happening in her life. She’s simply doesn’t know how to show any 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 doesn’t understand the 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 point out what the person is doing wrong. Due to her unwavering contrariness, I’d essentially given up hope of ever being close to her. Yet, once I got better and better at thinking of people as dogs, I decided that before I gave up on my mom completely, I needed to try to think of her as a dog.
As it turned out, it was actually easy picking a breed for my mom since her 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, blood will definitely be drawn and it won’t be the Schipperke’s!
Specifically, my mom reminded me of a Schipperke I’d once seen as a patient at my clinic in southern California. The first time I met this feisty little dog, I was in one of the exam rooms at my clinic and I was discussing preventative care with the dog’s owner. In hindsight, I can only guess that the pint-sized ruffian became perturbed when he realized he wasn’t the center of our attention. He evidently decided to express his displeasure and, sauntering over to me, he took my pants leg in his teeth and gave it a violent shake! The owner and I laughed at his little temper tantrum for a moment or two and then went back to our discussion. Now, clearly perturbed by our continued inattention, the thoroughly pissed-off pooch promptly trotted over to me and, proudly hiking his leg, he indignantly peed on my shoe! THIS, DEAR READERS, IS MY MOM! If she doesn’t get what she wants when she wants it, she’ll shamelessly ratchet up the ante until she gets whatever she wants! Most people, when dealing with my mom, simply give her what she wants so she’ll shut up and leave. But, recently, when she was throwing a fit about something at the local Home Depot, a supervisor told her that if she didn’t quit screaming and cussing, he would call a security guard and have her escorted out of the store! My mom was actually telling me this story and bragging about how she ended up getting what she wanted in the end!
I wasn’t expecting any positive results but, surprisingly, once I started thinking of my mom as a Schipperke, I actually noticed that her behavior didn’t bother me as much. And, though she can still quite capable of hurting my feelings at times, it’s not nearly as frequent as it used to be. Best of all, I find that I’m more patient and tolerant around her and that makes me feel better about myself.
Over the years, I’d managed to convince myself that, any time my mom was upset with me, it somehow had to be my fault: that I’d either done or said something to set her off. I believed that, if I could somehow change the way I behaved around her, she’d no longer have a reason to be constantly mad at me. Unfortunately, that simply wasn’t ever going to happen. Once I started thinking of my mom as a Schipperke, I was able to finally realize that my mom had no control over her behavior: she had no more control over her behavior than did the feisty Schipperke that had peed on my shoe! And, just like that Schipperke, my mom’s behavior had absolutely nothing to do with me! My mom behaves the way she does because that’s simply the person she is born to be and there’s nothing that anyone can do to change that.
Sadly, accepting this forced me to concede that my mom and I weren’t ever going to be close. Before, I’d always held on to a tiny spark of hope that maybe some day, my mom would become the Golden retriever that I’d always wanted for a mom. As a Golden Retriever, my mom would not only be loving and sweet but she’d be interested and concerned about me for a change. I knew now that that wasn’t ever going to happen.
Though I know my mom loves me on some level (just as Donald loved Dee), there’s simply no evidence of that love on a day-to-day basis. Our relationship will be as it’s always been: extremely one-sided.
The harshness of that reality broke my heart for awhile and I had to mourn the fact that I was never going to be close to my mom. Yet, once I finished mourning the mom that I was never going to get, I was able to make peace with the fact that this is simply the way 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 blessed in other ways. I just have to remind myself to try and 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 will always be the occasional setback in the relationship I have with my mom. She will probably always have the ability to push my buttons and to sporadically catch me off-guard with one of her hurtful remarks. Though I’m now able to accept our relationship for what it is, acceptance isn’t enough to completely protect me. That’s why I’ve had to learn how to maintain a healthy emotional and physical distance between from my mom in the same way that I’d keep a safe distance from a biting dog.
Unexpectedly, there has been a new and unfamiliar emotion that’s managed to wriggle its way into my heart like a sneaky worm determined to snake its way through an apple. It’s an emotion that I’ve rarely (if ever) felt towards my mom: compassion. I actually feel sorry for my mom at times: sorry that she’s had to live her 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 the people around you. My mom’s not really close to anyone. Of course, because my mom’s a Schipperke, she doesn’t feel that 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 how my mom sees the world. The truth is she’s actually energized by conflict. It’s as if she’s forever going off to war in defense of always being right! That seems incredibly sad to me and it’s why I now feel sad for her.
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 doubt that I would have ever been able to do either of those 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 changed my life. I no longer feel that our bad 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’ve been able to attain any peace of mind at all concerning my mom is the best testimony that I could ever give that the People Are Like Dogs philosophy heals relationships (and not just the relationships we have with other people but the relationship we have with ourselves.)
I hope you’ll read on so that you’ll be able to find the same peace of mind in your own relationships. The simple truth is: we’re all so much more lovable as dogs! Woof!
*The names of the real people have been changed.