Our Best Teachers

Dogs have served humans in a myriad of ways over the millennia. They have accompanied us on hunts. They have been beasts of burden. They have guarded our encampments and homesteads. More recently, they have become the eyes, ears and sixth-sense of people with disabilities.

But, undoubtedly, the most valuable and enduring role they have played is that of companion.

The oldest known evidence of our emotional kinship with canids is about 26,000 years old: a 50-meter trail of footprints deep in the Chauvet cave, in the Ardeche region of France, showing a 10-year old boy and “proto-dog” walking side by side.

In the late-1970s, archaeologists discovered a 12,000-year old grave in northern Israel in which the skeletal hand of a human cupped the head of a puppy.

Clearly, humans are bonded with their dogs. It is only in recent years that we are beginning to understand the full extent and potential of this bond.

Anyone who has experienced a deep bond between themselves and another – human or not – can tell you that they cannot help but have been changed by that bond. Two elements together produce a whole new element blending the best of both elements. This is the power of synergy. This is hydrogen and oxygen fusing to form what we thirst for above all else.

To allow one’s self to be changed by another is a conscious and brave choice. As humans, we sometimes welcome this opportunity with other humans – and sometimes we resist it, as if our very existence were threatened with extinction.

Somehow, we are more open to being changed by our four-legged companions. Perhaps it is the gleeful way they tilt their heads back toward us as they feel the gentle stoke of the sun on their coats as we walk them. Or how they streak with total abandon after just about any object we hurl away from us. Or how they intuitively curl up next to us when we sniffle and sob, because they seem to just know that we’re doing our best.

Or perhaps it is their total lack of guile, especially under adversity.

While volunteering at a booth for at an animal adoption event last year, I just happened to look up and saw a three-legged pit bull, cooing in ecstasy as she was scratched by her new, adoptive pet parent. The fresh, Frankensteinian scar arcing across her entire left hind-quarters appeared, to me, to be a stark testament to what she would always have to live without. She, on the other hand, appeared to be focused on nothing other than the love she would be living with from that day on.

Dogs, and for that matter, all companion animals, have chosen to live beside us, to be transformed by us and to have endured the consequences of our presence. Over the years, they have been alternately venerated and reviled, enslaved and rescued, tortured and liberated. Through selective breeding, we have shape-shifted them into hundreds of varieties for our pride and pleasure while leaching them of the chromosomal variety needed to protect them against a host of vile afflictions. We have even pit them against each other for hideous spectacles of sport.

Through this odyssey, their trust in us has been remarkably preserved and their desire to remain steadfastly by our side remains unshaken.

Now, how can one think about that for just one second without being forever changed for the better?