Today I was asked what I get from living and working with my dogs. While the list is so long that it could take all day to enumerate, the short answer is simple: They are my teachers.
Teachers of what? Why, of how to be human, of course.
I honestly don’t know who I would be without my canine teachers. Each one has helped me along my path, opened new doors, introduced me to new ideas, given me new insight. More importantly, they act as mirrors, reflecting back to me what I project out to the world and – gently, lovingly, non-judgmentally, and forgivingly – showing me how to make that output something kinder, gentler, more positive.
Today I am going to share the story of one of my canine guides: Mojita the Malinois. Moji came to me as an eight week old pup, a gift from a breeder friend who had a left over puppy needing a home. I was excited to get her, but it was a terrible time for me to be getting a puppy. My beloved Jake was in end stage renal failure and needing all my attention and energy, and died a few weeks after I got her. We also moved from Boston to Chicago and then back to Canada in our first few months together.
Malinois are very high drive, intense, fast, and powerful dogs who can also be exceptionally sensitive in their nature. Mojita (pronounced mo-HEE-ta) was particularly soft, with a very sweet and kind nature. She was a really incredible dog, although at the time I didn’t appreciate it. High strung and hair-triggered, she was very difficult to live with. She never stopped moving. She would bark non-stop when bored, or separated from me. She chewed. Especially expensive things like my designer sunglasses and critical power cords. She peed on my bed. Often.
The more I worked this dog, the more energy she seem to have. I would train and exercise her up to three hours a day, only to have her spin in her crate all night long while I attempted to sleep. I taught her all the obedience I could think of, invented games to tire her brain, and then discovered nose work. She learned to track almost instantly. We taught ourselves the foundation for search and rescue work and at our first practice she out-performed all the dogs in the group, including the instructor’s.
Today I would give my left arm for such a dog. At the time, I found her overwhelming, exhausting, and, much of the time, annoying. Desperate to find more outlets for her, I decided to try agility. I set an appointment for our first lesson in hopes of finally finding something to calm her down.
When the day came, I was stressed and rushing around as usual. I popped her into the cab of my pickup and sped out the driveway. When we got to the first stoplight, worrying that I was going to be late, I looked over to see my dog plastered against the passenger door. Her ears were stuck to her head and she was leaning as far away from me as possible, avoiding eye contact. Stupid dog! I thought. Quit acting like I’m going to beat you!
Fume, fume, FUME! Boy was I cranky.
I then reminded myself that I was supposed to be doing this for fun, and perhaps it would be best for me to calm down a little before meeting my new instructor. So I took a few deep breaths and focused on relaxing. The light turned green, and I gently drove on, keeping to the speed limit.
What happened next changed my life: Mojita quietly unstuck herself from the door and sat in the middle of the seat.
I didn’t notice. I was busy driving and working on my breath. I had recently started a yoga class and was learning how to relax through breathing. So I practiced the rhythm we’d been taught: Deep deep breath in, hold, slow release over a count of five. Repeat.
By the time I had taken a half dozen such breaths, my dog had moved to the center of the truck bench. A few more deep breaths, and she lay down and put her head in my lap.
That I noticed.
This was over twelve years ago, but I can still feel her head on my knee. And my heart exploding with the realization that this dog was a reflection of the energy I was projecting to the world.
Oh. My. God. It hit me like a wall what a miserable person I must have been to be around! What a giant, seething ball of anger and stress I was, launching energy daggers at anyone within close proximity. No wonder so many of my friends were fading out of my life. Who could blame them?
All of this I learned from my sweet, soft, gentle girl. Mojita was my mirror, showing me exactly what kind of energy I was out putting at any given moment. All she had to do was pin her ears, tuck her tail, or silently slink into a corner for me to recognize that my mood was darkening. She showed me quite clearly when I was unpleasant to be around, and helped me begin to control my negative outbursts.
What was particularly healing was how she unconditionally loved me, even when I was hard to be around. The second I changed gears, took a deep breath, calmed myself down, she would come to my side and lean. She forgave my temper each and every time, letting me know that I was still a good person even if I had bad moods. Letting me know that she saw who I really was, deep down, and who I could become all the time if I could just let go of my stress and allow myself to be happy.
I wish I could say that I changed in that moment and that Moji and I lived happily ever after together. Unfortunately, this is not how the story ends. What she taught me was just one step toward becoming a better human, albeit a critically important one. It took many years, many changes, much work on my part, and several more canine teachers for calm to become my norm.
Not long after our inaugural agility lesson, I moved to a new city to start my PhD. Once living in a townhouse I discovered that she had extreme separation anxiety (she barked non-stop when I was out, to the great distress of the neighbors sharing my walls), and, with a turbulent mixture of relief and sadness, I re-homed her. Mojita died in a tragic freak accident two months later, at just over the age of two.
Thinking about her at times still brings me to tears, and always evokes deep feelings of both guilt and gratitude. The lesson she taught me changed me forever, even though it has taken many years to fully sink in. I now realize that all my animals reflect my energy, as do the humans in my life. Thanks to Mojita, I now understand that we receive what we project, and so if we want joy, love, and peace, we need to find it in ourselves first.
Thank you, Mojita. You were an incredible teacher and will forever be in my heart.