A Meditation on Death

As many of you already know, Shine, my oldest dog, has a tumor in her lungs.  It showed up on an X-ray that I requested because her breathing had been off recently.  

Shine is dying.  It might not actually be the tumor that causes her death (or, more likely, the reason I decide to humanely end her life), it could be her kidneys failing.  It could be her ability to stand and walk.  She has a few health issues going on and depending on the speed that the tumor grows, something else may get to her first.  She’s old: 14 years and 6 months at the time I write this. She is dying.

But here’s the thing: she always was. 

Shine, 2022

The discovery of the tumor hit me like a punch in the gut, it somehow made her mortality more real to me.  We all know intellectually that our dogs will die, but the immediate and pressing truth of that somehow still comes as a shock.  

I believe there are two kinds of knowing: there is knowing something to be true intellectually, and there is knowing something to be true deep in the marrow of our bones.  

I always knew that Shine would die, but the bone marrow truth didn’t hit until the tumor was revealed. Now my body felt the reality of the truth that was always there: she was going to die.

She is sitting up on the couch looking at me as I type this.  I say “Hi, Beautiful,” with a bittersweet laugh.  I love this dog.  She is dying.

In the days that followed finding the tumor, I went into a knee-jerk emotional response of wanting to cater to Shine’s every desire and impulse because she was dying, because I wanted to make her as happy as I could.  Because the end felt SO CLOSE and I wanted her to have all the joy.  

And then I wondered why I hadn’t felt that way for the past 14 years.  

Our dogs (and, lest we forget, every single other living creature on this planet, ourselves included) could die any day.  My first cat had a heart attack and died without giving me two weeks’ notice; he just walked out on the job of being my cat.  Kisa, my first dog, showed me that her heart was failing but gave me less than 24 hours to come to grips with that fact and make a difficult choice for her.  

Accidents happen.  Organs fail.  Illness and death may interrupt our lives with our dogs with little to no time to “spoil” them the way we might want to.  

My friend Sandy, who has an ineffably huge heart, fostered a dog for what felt like forever.  Darla was a funny, quirky, bully-breed mix.  She was in foster care with Sandy for ages, then Sandy and her partner gave in and adopted her. After a short time as an “official” member of their family (and after Sandy and Matt forked out for a very expensive cranial cruciate ligament repair surgery for her), Darla ate something weird (she was ALWAYS eating something weird!) that caused something to happen. Sandy says, “To this day we don’t 100% know what happened, but we’re pretty sure she had eaten some shoelaces that caused damage in her stomach and potentially caused her to go into sepsis at the end (that was the vet’s best guess).” She went into cardiac arrest before they could even operate. 

Sandy and Darla on adoption day

Sandy and Matt didn’t get a chance to “spoil” Darla, they didn’t get to know what was coming.  Does that matter?   

To whom?

I believe that most dog parents have a (possibly unarticulated) idea of the best possible last day and moments for their dogs—some sort of walk or play at the dog’s level of interest and ability, all the treats and snacks, all the cuddles and belly rubs (if they’re into that sort of thing), and then a nap on the comfiest bed during which they release that long, soft, last exhale.  No vets, no pain, no needles, no fear, and no regrets or remorse for the human.

This is a fantasy.

One of the shelters where I worked would often allow dogs who were going to be euthanized a “spoil period” of 24 hours for staff and volunteers to spend time with the dog, feed them cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets, and help them enjoy the last day of their lives, maybe a little more than they’d enjoyed all the ones leading up to this one (or at least since entering shelter care).  At this particular shelter, dogs who remained behaviorally and medically “adoptable” were able to stay in care indefinitely—euthanasia was reserved for dogs with significant behavioral or medical concerns—so the added spoil time didn’t change the dog’s chance of survival, it was just to tack a day of pure pampering onto the end of the dog’s life.

Who is this spoil period for?  Is it for the dogs or the people? Does a sudden increase in fun, snacks, and affection really take the sting out of death? For the dogs or the people? 

In the shelter world, quality of life is an important and constant consideration, and if a dog’s life is extended by a full day, that means one more night spent in a kennel, surrounded by stressed, fearful, barking dogs. Is that worth the cheeseburgers? Or is it more important to make sure that the staff and volunteers who are at high risk for compassion fatigue and burnout get the opportunity to say goodbye, maybe find a little more peace for themselves with what is about to happen by being able to say, “I did this thing for the dog, I made their last day more pleasurable.” 

Are there times when a life was extended to the detriment of the animal but to the benefit of the caregivers?  

Yes, without a doubt.

Is that a fair trade-off if it means that they, the humans, will be able to avoid burnout and continue to provide care for other animals at a higher caliber or for a longer period?  

Is that last day of any value to the dog? 

Darla had an unknown past, ended up in a shelter, then a loving foster home where she became a “foster fortune” for Sandy and Matt, and then a sudden and tragic death. 

Do we add that up to a number value?  Bonus points for ending up with Sandy and Matt but minus points for tragic death?  Is that how it works?  If she had a final few days of endless treats and play would the final sum be different?  For her?  For them?

Was there anything lost by not having time to prepare for the end of Darla’s life*? Is there anything to gain when we can curate the end of our dogs’ lives?

When we spoil (And what a word that is!  Something to dissect at another time.) our dogs who are at the natural or unnatural end of their lives, what are we really doing? 

Are we wrapping up our dogs’ lives like presents when we engage in these final acts of devotion?  Are we taking whatever is already there, the life already lived, and putting nice paper and a bow on it? Is this final bow-tying an attempt to give a last gift to our dogs or an attempt to feel like we have some control over the uncontrollable?

When I think about the changes I started making in my life with Shine now that the finish line was in sight, were they for her or for me?

A day or two after learning about the tumor I was eating a meal and felt a PUSH to share my food with Shine.  That’s not something I do.  I am all about sharing when I’m preparing a meal, but once it’s plated I do not offer tidbits to the dogs.  This is a personal boundary I adhere to religiously, which means that I always enjoy meals without the pack “begging” for food when I sit down to eat.

And then I felt that urge to dismantle my own firm boundary for Shine because I wanted her to have all the good things.  

I stopped myself.  I don’t know how long she has.  It could be two months, it could be much longer than that depending on how fast the tumor grows, how her joints, her organs, and her mind hold up.  It could be another year. 

Do I want a dog who expects snacks from the table for a year?

I do not.

Does that mean LESS JOY for Shine?

Not really, because she never expected table-treats to begin with, but I know that I’m withholding something from her that she would enjoy. 

What is the value of the joy that could have been but wasn’t?

What is the value of last-minute joy? 

What is the value of last-minute joy compared to a rich and joyful life, regardless of its length?

I know a wonderful couple, Morgan and Joe, who recently lost a very young dog—he was only 2—to sudden and unexplained liver failure.  I’m thinking of them and Ace a lot as I write this.  

They got no warning, no, no time.  The extent of “spoiling” they were able to provide for him was small, but it was still a gift: “We were able to make one decision that made him more comfortable and it was opting to do the euthanasia right where he was, which was in the operating room area where customers never get to see. They wanted to do the procedure in one of the exam rooms, but our sweet boy was so sick that we wanted him to be comfy right where he was. That was such a great decision we were able to make.”

They couldn’t give him that fairytale last day, but would his loss have been less painful if they had been able to? Of course not.  A curated death does not make the wounds in our hearts smaller or faster to heal.  I doubt anything does that, but maybe knowing that your dog was well-loved makes the weight of the grief a bit more bearable.  And Ace was well loved—his whole life with Morgan and Joe was wrapped in love and care—both felt and expressed.  But his death was painful, for him and his family.  

Ace. May 7th, 2020 – July 12th, 2022

Darla didn’t get that soft ending either; does that make her death more tragic or her life less rich?  Because she didn’t get a few weeks of Puppuccinos, extra walks, or bonus snuggles as a tradeoff for impending non-existence?  

Will Shine’s death be more painful for me or for her if I don’t find some way to get some horse shit for her to roll in one last time before she goes?

Here are the root questions behind all these other questions: 

When and why do we prioritize our dog’s happiness over our own convenience and preferences?

We pull out all the stops when we know a dog has just a few days to live.  When it’s a few weeks to a month or so, we make a lot of concessions. What about when it’s 6 months or a year?  When and why do the scales tip from human preference and convenience to canine joy or vice-versa? 

For Shine, I filled up her kiddie pool a few extra inches, because the increased amount of wet dog mess in the house is totally worth her happiness.  Was that not always the case? Did anything change?  

I don’t have a clear answer.  I have some murky thoughts.  

The big deep question is what are you willing to sacrifice for your dog’s joy?  Time? Clean floors? The cost of a Bark Box subscription? Hair and dogdirt on the couch or the bed? What feels like a COST to you, what are you willing to pay?  What do the stakes have to be for you to pay that price?

And our dogs will never know that we make these choices.  They will never know the calculations we make to determine if we can literally or figuratively afford pricey vet care, the time to drive to that park they love, the discomfort we feel when a 25-pound dog somehow takes up 85% of a queen-size bed.  They will never know what could have been, they are only experiencing the moment.

The scales tip in our minds.  When we feel we have infinite time with our dogs (we don’t) we are less likely to make sacrifices of time, money, and convenience to get through each day in a status quo that we are satisfied and comfortable with.  

When we know that there is a finish line in sight, depending on how close that finish line is, the scales will tip more or less heavily towards dog-joy.  

But there is always a finish line, even if we don’t see it approaching. 

Are you living with your dog right now in a way that would cause you some regrets if tragedy struck tomorrow? 

Think about your last walk with your dog.  If you had known it was The Last Walk you would take together, would you have done anything differently?  Would you have allowed more time to sniff? Taken a different route that your dog likes more? Tugged on the leash a little less or been less frustrated?

Look, I don’t have any answers here.  This is a very personal question about what feels right and true and warm to you. 

I’m feeling the shift of the scales in my heart every day.  On the days that Shine coughs a bit more I am more generous with her, kinder and softer.  After the few occasions that she’s had mobility issues, stumbling and taking a minute or two before she seems able to use her back legs, I treat her with greater tenderness and care. But doesn’t she deserve that same amount of kindness and manifested love every damn day regardless of her physical health?

“You see this goblet?” asks Ajahn Chah, the Thai meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

~ version by Mark Epstein (from Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective)

Here are the changes I have made:

  • More generous with the “fancy food” that Shine requires before she’ll happily eat her meals
  • More water in her kiddie pool
  • Found a Sniffspot with a big pond where she can swim
  • Allowing longer sniffs on our walks
  • Created a category in my budgeting software to save for the cost of at-home euthanasia and private cremation (around $600 for a 50lb dog)

Here are the things I am planning as we get closer to The End:

  • Getting ahold of some horse poop for her to roll in/eat
  • More snacks.  LOTS more snacks.
  • Probably a change to her meals so she only gets her favorite foods—and take out the supplements that don’t taste good
  • Take time off work to be home or out on ability-appropriate adventures with her

Let’s look at these lists:

My current changes are all in line with joy for Shine and are not significantly detrimental to my resources (time, money, patience, emotional energy) and are sustainable long-term.

The second list includes items that are of greater consequence to me or Shine’s health (don’t forget that she has renal issues, too!) and are not sustainable long-term.

These lists will likely grow and change as time passes and I see more ways to make Shine happier each day.

But why did I need a tumor to make me think about this?

Many years ago, I think it must have been 2006, I took a day-trip adventure with my first dog, Kisa, to Calistoga to see California’s Old Faithful geyser and explore the surrounding attractions.  While we were walking through the petrified forest up there we crossed paths with an older German woman who approached me to talk about Kisa (not an uncommon occurrence given her enormous size and strikingly good looks).  The woman reminisced a bit about her dog who had passed away.  She looked me in the eyes and with so much softness and sincerity in her face she told me, “Enjoy every moment.”  That moment, that directive planted a seed in my heart that has since rooted deep.  I’ve shared that sentiment with others, told that story a number of times, and hopefully helped some people enjoy, or at least accept, moments with their dogs that might otherwise have felt neutral or unpleasant.  

If I enjoy or accept “every moment” does that change my dog’s experience of their one wild and precious life?  Can I change the world for my dog, make it softer, more joyful simply by embodying that mantra?   

Yes, but it doesn’t get Shine any horse poop. 

In the recovery community, there’s a phrase, “You can’t keep it unless you give it away.”  In that context, it means in order to maintain your own healing/recovery/sobriety you must help others on their path. I believe this sentiment holds true for our lives with our dogs: we can not keep the joy and love they bring us unless we give it back to them.

Those final moments may or may not matter in the grand scheme of things.  Whether the end is tragic and painful or carefully curated and peaceful may be significant or not when all (and I mean all) is said and done. 

But I believe that when we are able to look back over the lives of our dogs, whether they were long or short and say, I performed my love actively, I expressed my gratitude for them in my small daily choices, I did not wait until time was almost up to offer love through gesture.  I did not hold my love close, expressing it in words but rarely through action: I held out love with open hands to give back to them the joy and happiness they gave me with the gift of this shared life. When we can say those things at the end of our dogs’ days, then we know that we have loved them well and generously.

The practicalities of what generosity of love could look like are as unique as your dog.  For Shine, when I choose to walk her past the fire station that has the patch of grass she loves to roll in, that is an expression of love.  When I place a cat food garnish on her meals, that is an expression of love.  When I buy one more damn supplement to support her failing body, that is an expression of love.  When I check my own frustration at her demand barking for dinner, that is an expression of love.  When I stop my writing to look up at her resting, walk over and offer gentle belly or ear rubs, that is an expression of love.

Right now I am living every day with the deep, bone marrow truth that this life, my beautiful Shine’s life, will end, and this deep knowing has changed the way I share this life with her for the better. The texture is softer; I am more gentle, I am more generous. 

Is feeling death close at hand what we need to really show our dogs the truth of our love?  What really matters?  

Knowing that they will die, what really matters? 

Love your dog well, every damn day.  Let that love pour through your speech and your actions. 

Enjoy every moment.

The glass is already broken.

And it’s all so beautiful.

*Sandy has noted that one thing she wishes she had done differently with Darla was to get more pictures of her, specifically more pictures of Sandy and Darla together—something that would have been possible if they had time to prepare.  This is something for us all to take to heart, but also something to recognize as being just for the people and of no benefit to the dogs… unless the photoshoot includes really good refreshments.


Goals, Intentions, and Invitations

In many yoga classes, students are encouraged to set an intention at the beginning of practice. Intentions are not quite goals.  I see goals as some kind of finish line, a completed achievement.   In the context of yoga, a goal could be to be able to accomplish a particular feat such as touching your forehead to your knees in a forward fold, tucking your legs into full lotus position, holding a challenging arm balance, or (maybe hardest of all)  not fidgeting or thinking about to-do lists during savasana, the final pose of asana practice. Goals are about where you are going, while intentions are about how you get there. 

For me, in my yoga practice, intentions are thoughts or feelings I want to carry with me through the class or an energy or attitude I want to be carried by.  I have set the intention to focus on my breath, to let my inhales and exhales be the source of my movement.  I have set the intention to move with love for myself or to send love to someone else.  Sometimes my intention is to focus on correct and careful alignment of my posses rather than depth or intensity.  Sometimes it is to stay grounded in the present, to keep my mind from spinning on events in my life.  It changes, but when I’m on my mat, my intentions are always “good:” they are meant to offer support, stability, softness, or something similar.  Whatever they are, my intentions always come from inside me: they are something I want, something I want for myself and my practice that day. 

A month and some change ago I injured myself. First I pulled a hamstring on my right side and then, shortly after, I sprained my left ankle. It was a “true sprain,” as I was told, meaning I did some real damage that will take quite a long time to heal.  The hamstring, too, will likely take several months of babying before it’s fully recovered from whatever I did to it.  

The first time I was back on my yoga mat for a vinyasa class was exactly two weeks after the sprain. I went in with intention: to have an easy practice by being soft with my body as I go through the poses. My mantra was going to be, “if it doesn’t hurt, be gentle; if it does hurt, don’t do it.”   Good intention, right?  I thought so, too.

The class I chose to start with was one with a teacher I feel safe with, trust, and respect, someone who I know would support me doing whatever modifications I felt necessary, even if my body was making a very different shape from the rest of the class.  This was an important choice: I needed as much as possible to feel familiar and safe because I knew my body would not.

I laid down my mat in the furthest corner of the room without a mirror in front of me.  I wanted to turn inwards, not be affected by what I looked like, and only barely be able to see what everyone else was doing.  Comparison is a toxic, toxic drug for me, and the less I could see of others the better I knew I would be able to care for myself.  I didn’t want to feel “inspired” by what the other students were doing to push my body further than what was smart or safe. I didn’t want to see all the beautiful shapes their bodies would make that mine could not.  I even opted to wear glasses instead of contact lenses because when I take my glasses off for practice I am rendered basically blind. This would mean that when I did catch a glimpse at what was happening around me it would literally be out of focus; the reduction of external information would encourage me to stay inside myself, to focus on the sensations in my body, not the bodies of others.

I really tried to set myself up for success, to manifest the “easy” class I had intended for myself but it was punishing.  The greatest difficulty was not the poses (although I did physically struggle through learning what asanas were and were not accessible to me), and it wasn’t that I found the flow of the sequence particularly demanding. For those 75 minutes, I suffered not from physical pain, but because it was an emotionally devastating experience for me.  My heart was breaking for myself with frustration and—to be completely honest—deep self-pity. I took care of my body, but taking care of my body’s needs was, for all my good intentions, not enough to be true “self-care”.

My intention to care for my body was wise.  My intention to allow my practice to primarily be guided by softness to my physical abilities was appropriately conservative, practical, and necessary, but it wasn’t enough. I thought I prepared myself for the emotional experience of being back on my mat because I had put so many safeguards in place against external influences, but I wasn’t even close to shielded from what came up in my heart and mind.  I fought my way through that class: I fought myself through that class.

Every twinge of my ankle, every limit of my hamstring, every newfound tightness or inhibition of my body landed on me like defeat.  Never mind that in some distant, rational part of my brain I understood that injuries heal and I would recover.  Never mind that I was still basically able to practice. I was consumed by everything I couldn’t do, so deeply attached to the way I used to be able to move, that I was unable to step out of the river of suffering that I created through my own narrative to open myself to the invitation that my new circumstance offered.

In yoga, no matter one’s intentions when beginning a practice, there are other forces at work that will determine how your practice goes.  In a studio class, your practice is affected by the instructor, the music, the energy of the students around you, the temperature of the room, the sequence of poses offered, and so on.  When practicing at home you may be affected by a different set of sounds, smells, or events around you: anything from dogs barking, phones ringing, other people moving about and living their lives, even the sight of unwashed dishes may help or hinder your intentions.  You will be touched by all the elements of the environment you are in whether on a beach, in a studio, at a park, or on the floor of your living room.  In addition to our surroundings, regardless of where you practice, there are also internal factors at play.  How both your body and mind feel that day and how they react to what occurs both inside and outside of you over the course of your practice will affect your experience on the mat. 

The events, internal and external, that occur as you practice may support your intention: the sound of the next student’s strong breath may keep you in tune with an intention to maintain mindful ujjayi breathing, the music you play may support an intention channel strength, a feeling of openness in your hips may aid and intention to move smoothly in and out of postures.  You may also feel your intention frustrated. It may be challenging to manifest a sense of deep peace if your dogs explode when a package is delivered, to focus on careful alignment if the instructor offers a particularly vigorous sequence with quick transitions, or to work towards greater balance and stability if your mind, unbidden, keeps replaying a difficult conversation. 

When our intentions, our desires for how we want our yoga practice—or anything else in our lives—to feel and flow are hindered by what is happening inside or outside of our bodies, when our practice doesn’t go the way we want it to, there’s more possible than “making the best of it” and pushing through towards what we want for ourselves. Sometimes the barriers in the way of our goals and intentions, instead of being obstacles are detour signs: they may in fact be an invitation to have a distinct and precious experience independent of the one we intended. But we must recognize and accept that invitation in order to receive its gifts.

When I adopted my dog Kit I had a whole world of goals: he was going to be my adventure dog.  We had a future of road trips, weekend hikes, camping trips, playdates, and outings to dog-friendly places.  My intention in adopting a third dog was to have a “good” one, a dog who was not so fearful that they couldn’t do the things that “normal” dogs can do.  After three successive dogs with fearful behavior (two of whom are still with me), I wanted to have the experience of having an easy dog*, I had specific things in mind that were going to be in our future.  It was gonna be rad.  

I made plans, and the universe laughed.  Hard.

The experience of learning who Kit was and what he could or couldn’t do was excruciatingly painful.  Wall after wall shot up in front of my goals and my intention to adopt a “good” dog was crushed by reality.   Nearly everything I wanted was clearly vetoed by Kit’s unfolding personality and behavioral (ahem) quirks.

No to hikes at high-traffic times or in high-traffic places.  No to dog beach.  No to road trips or being in urban environments. No to easy vet visits. No to making friends with other dogs.  No to peaceful neighborhood walks. No to being my demo dog for classes.  No to being my “helper dog” with clients. No, no, no.

And every “no” from Kit felt like a failure.  Every “no” made our world smaller, with fewer opportunities, and left me smoldering with grief and disappointment because Kit was not the dog he was “supposed” to be.  He was explosively reactive, anxious, and unable to tolerate frustration.  He had meltdowns over dogs, children, doves, holding still, visitors to my house, car rides, vet visits, …the list went on.  I took the loss of my should-have-been dog harder at some times than others, but it always felt like something was taken from me, a promise broken. 

Everything I wanted from him seemed dead on arrival, or nearly so, but for a very long time I still kept my eyes on that impossible horizon of our never-to-be future.  I was looking at what I had wanted, not what was in front of me.  

It took years to shift my gaze and see that Kit and my life with Kit offered me something else, something completely unrelated to what I wanted: an invitation to have a life-changing experience, an experience I never would have asked for but have grown from ten thousand times more than I would have from any number of dog-accompanied road trips or visits to dog beach. 

The invitation I was offered was not to do, which had been at the front of my intentions and goals, but something much more valuable: I was offered the invitation to take each struggle with him as a gift of insight and opportunity to grow.  

To re-learn the emotional reality of life as an overwhelmed new dog-parent, to have my fresh experience of being at a loss, crying with frustration, and feeling helpless open me to greater empathy for the people I work with.

To learn a new understanding of stress, anxiety, and reactivity, both Kit’s and my own, and discover gentler ways of responding to them when they arise in each of us.

To learn the power of acceptance itself, to sit with grief, frustration, and shame when they emerge and give those feelings room to breathe.  To offer love to those feelings because they are true and deserve to take up space. 

To learn what it truly means to meet my dog where he is each day, to respect his limits.

To begin to learn what it means to meet myself where I am each day and respect my own limits.

Kit: not the dog I wanted, but the dog I needed

When I adopted Kit I unknowingly traded desired external experiences for difficult and demanding internal experiences. I traded adventures for perspective and I traded all the things I wanted for so, so much that I didn’t know I needed. 

Invitations often come with conditions.  In order to access what is on offer, we have to agree to the terms presented.  You may attend an event but have to abide by a particular dress code, you are welcome for Thanksgiving but have to leave politics at the door, you are admitted to a college but have to pay tuition.  Whatever the invitation is, the terms are set by the inviter.   

The terms of my invitation from Kit were that I had to truly let go of my attachments to everything I wanted my life with him to look and feel like.  I had to voluntarily, without bitterness or resentment turn away from my goals and release my intentions.   I had to surrender what I wanted to what reality made available.  Instead of feeling frustrated by Kit’s behavior, I had to learn to see the invitation to grow and learn from those daily moments of conflict between who he is and the idea of who I wanted him to be.  

Accepting his invitation didn’t happen in a sudden flash of enlightenment.  Nearly four years deep into our life together, I am much more at peace with the reality of who Kit is, but I still—often—struggle to accept his behavior in the moment.  It’s been a slow trudge, an often painful process that is ongoing, but the hardest part is over.  The hardest part was to see the invitation to begin with: to take off the blinders of attachment to my goals and intentions, and open myself to what was being held out with open hands paws.

On my mat, during that first class back after the sprain, I couldn’t see the invitation I was being offered.  I was paying all my attention to my body, my physical experience, which was in line with my intention but did not serve all of me well.  By keeping my focus on tuning in to the edge of where possibility ended and pain began, I was unintentionally clinging hard to all the nos I was receiving from my body.  No from my ankle.  No from my hamstring. No from all the muscles in my hips, low back, and upper body that had tightened and changed to compensate for my injuries.  I took each no like a rejection, like a failure.

At the end of class, in savasana, I took a restorative pose, legs-up-the-wall. This pose has always felt comforting to me, but this time I chose it primarily because it allowed me to elevate my ankle. I lay there thinking about how I needed to put an ice pack on it when I got home and I cried. I was grieving the loss of the body I had just a few weeks ago. I was grieving the loss of access to poses. 

It pains me to admit the intensity of my self-pity in that class, but it was profound, and I was buried in it.  I’m not going to say I was ashamed of my lost mobility, it wasn’t quite like that, but I had—unknowingly—so closely intertwined my ability to move (mostly) confidently on my mat with my idea of who I was as a yoga practitioner, that my suddenly reduced range of motion struck a huge blow to my ego.  I felt like I was failing and being the person I wanted to be. I felt like something important was taken from me, some crucial piece of how I thought of myself, again forgetting the temporary nature of injury.  Despite the fact that I claim to believe that “real” yoga is in the heart and the breath, not the postures, I felt like my ability to have a “real” practice was lost.

It was days after that class that I finally saw the invitation.  The blinders of attachment to my asana practice, the deep waters of self-pity and ego that I was drowning in, and my own good intention to focus on discovering the edges of my ability closed me off from seeing the invitation that was extended to me.  

The invitation was an opportunity to soften my heart to my own emotional experience, an opportunity to care for myself—however that may look from the outside—without judgment.  To change my perspective from seeing the edge of discomfort not as the place where movement ends, but as the place where nurturing begins.  To stop viewing the limits of my body as a “no,” but as an opportunity to show compassion for myself, to respect the boundaries of my physical body, and even take pride in doing so.  To recognize each modification and moment of doing less as an act of love myself, not as a failure of ability.  To remember the truth that I keep tucked away somewhere deep in my marrow, so deep that I often forget it: that I am deserving of my own care and tenderness, no matter the shape of my body or the shapes I can make with my body.

There are some invitations that are easy to take.  If I had intended to spend the day in the garden but the weather is cold and rainy, it would be easy to let go of my plans and take the day’s invitation to snuggle on the couch with a book and some tea.  When Shine, my 14-year-old dog, stops to roll in a patch of grass while we’re on a walk, it’s easy for me to pause from the goal of our activity to take the invitation to delight in her delight.  

The invitations that are harder to accept are the ones that have steep terms, the ones that require us to give up something dear, but those are the invitations that offer the most.  The terms of the invitation I received that day on my mat, just like the terms of the invitation I received from Kit, were that I must surrender my attachments to the way I want things to look and feel, that I must step outside my intentions to see what is truly possible. 

Letting go of my goals, intentions, and attachments–many of which are deeply rooted in constructs of who I think I should be, what I think my life should be like, how my dogs should behave, or what my body should look like or be able to do–is hard.  It’s really, really hard. 

I’ve been back on my mat several times since that class, and I’ve tried to remind myself of the invitation waiting for me in that room.  I don’t always remember and I lose myself in my attachments, grasping for everything I wish I could to do and be.  When Kit is sky-high on adrenaline and cortisol I don’t always remember that it’s an invitation for me to soften and open to a new understanding of how each of us responds to our respective triggers.  

The ability to become aware of those pivotal invitations and then choose to accept them, willingly setting down my goals to reach for something harder and greater, to accept the terms of all life is inviting me to experience will be something I struggle with until the day I die.

But slowly, I’m learning.  I’m learning to see when my intentions are serving me, when they are supported and elevated by what life holds out.  I’m learning to see when they are well considered, but need to be adjusted by the reality of the present moment.  And, most difficult of all, I’m learning to see when it’s time to leave the baggage of my best intentions, my hopes, and desires on the side of the road, to accept life’s invitation to ride unencumbered and discover something unanticipated and beautiful. 


The Role of Ego in Dog Training (Part 2)

As I said in my last post on this topic: ego has no role in dog training. Unfortunately, ego frequently appears, sometimes subtly and under the guise of something else; other times ego screams its presence from the rooftops. To be the best trainers, handlers, and dog parents we can be (not to mention the best human beings) it is our duty to root out ego and excise it from our interactions with our dogs*.

For clarity’s sake please note that I’m not talking about the Freudian ego which–in that line of psychology–is an essential part of the psyche.  Here I’m referring to the Buhddist idea of ego: the individual’s idea or construct of self: the self we think we are, which at its core is illusion.

This ego is self-important, self-absorbed, and fragile. Ego is the root of many of the “shoulds” in our lives and the driving force of much of our unhappiness. Ego (along with its cruel twin, attachment) creates a false narrative that our self-constructed view of the world (ourselves included) is right.  This narrative propagates the sentiment that things should be the way we want or expect them to be, and anything other than–that contradicts–our “should be” version of reality is wrong, bad, or undesirable. Ego frequently creates blame, judgment, and shame, often turned on our dogs, but sometimes turned back onto ourselves.   When ego exists in training or handling our dogs, it shows up in our self-absorbed motivations and reactions.

Manifestations of Ego: Proactive and Reactive

The most odious and obvious version of ego in dog training is seen in folks who insist on being the “alpha” (which is just the contemporary version of the old fashioned and ugly term “master”). These are the people who pride themselves on being in charge, on dictating their dogs’ every move. An old neighbor of mine was like this: she kept her dogs marching in step beside her on walks, never allowing them  to sniff or explore, leashes short and attached to pinch collars. She loved her dogs, but her need for visible control over them was more clear to me than her affection. These owners, trainers, and handlers often do not hesitate to use pain and fear to get the behavioral results they want, because the most important thing is the result they want. This is the proactive ego:

This ego says: I present my control over my dog to the world as an object lesson on my construct of importance, power, and worth.

A more subtle manifestation of ego can be seen in the person who does not require full-time compliance but “corrects” or otherwise punishes their dog for doing something (typically normal and predictable dog behavior) that falls outside their perception of “appropriate” behavior. I saw this recently when a young man harshly jerked back on the leash and scolded his adolescent Golden Retriever for attempting to say hello to another dog in a public space. The dog went outside of the young man’s unconscious (and uncommunicated!) list of what he felt was appropriate or tolerable public behavior, and the dog was punished. This is the reactive ego aiming away from the self: the internal upset caused by the conflict between desire and reality is shifted away from the self.  The handler’s negative emotions are discharged onto the dog.

This ego says: my dog’s misbehavior contradicts my construct of appropriate or good; I will take action to show the dog they are wrong for this.

Reactive ego can also point its arrows inward: the person who experiences feelings of failure or shame when they perceive their dog’s behavior as being outside what they think it “should” be. I personally have experienced this more times than I can count when Kit, my 30 pounds of fury, completely loses his marbles over some trigger or other and spikes into an explosion of reactivity. 

I’m a professional, my dog shouldn’t be like this, his behavior is supposed to be different, and because I am responsible for his behavior, I am failing as both a dog mom and trainer. 

Do you see how completely self-absorbed that thinking is? While in this example I’m not reacting with any response that is directly injurious or aversive to my dog, the foundation of the sentiment is about what I want and who I think I should be.

This ego says: my dog’s misbehavior is a reflection of my own failings.

Again: when ego exists in training or handling our dogs, it shows up in our self-absorbed motivations and reactions.

Wanting a Trained Dog Doesn’t Make You a Bad Person

Here’s the thing: in so, so many cases, there’s a really valid reason out there to want our dogs’ behavior to match our idea of “good” or “correct” responses to situations. There are very good reasons not to want a dog to leap forward to greet another dog, react to environmental triggers, or even to want your dog to walk at heel, but when the primary motivation to curtail undesired responses is rooted in ego, the training process becomes soiled with judgment, attachment, pressure, and impatience.

If our motivation for wanting a dog to sit quietly next to us in public is because it’s “correct” or makes us look good, there is automatic judgment on anything else the dog does. Our ego response to anything outside the realm of “correct” will cause dissatisfaction/suffering in us and our feedback to the dog will be tainted by that unhappiness. Woah. Uncomfortable truth, much?

But what if our motivation is different? What if we want our dog to sit quietly next to us for the safety and comfort of our dog, other dogs, and the people around us? How will that motivation change how we respond to that joyful leap to meet another pup? Are we worried about ourselves and our constructs of good and bad? Or are we concerned with the wellbeing of our dog and others?

What is the opposite of an ego-driven motivation?

In part three of this series, we will explore motivations rooted in compassion, community, and relationship, and how moving from these spaces is better for humans and dogs, alike.

*and everyone else, including ourselves, forever. 


On Attention, Engagement, and Connection

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about what “attention” and “connection” mean when we’re discussing training and living with dogs. 

I hear from private clients and students in group classes that they want their dogs to “pay attention” to them, but I think it’s important that we, as thoughtful and well-intentioned pet parents, take the time to examine what it is that we truly want, ask, expect of our dogs.

So, what gets packed into the picnic basket of “attention”?

Looking at us?
Responding to cues?
Moving with (not against) leash pressure? 
Relegating the rest of the world to a backseat to focus on us?

I think for many people it means that when we ask the dog to pay attention, that they should switch ON like an electronic device and remain attentive to us until we’re done giving commands.

All of these versions of “attention” are active on the part of the dog, and passive on the part of the human. We place ourselves in the position of being at the receiving end, with no responsibility to act.  The term “pay” as in to pay attention to is plainly one-sided and indicative of a inherent separation in the relationship: one pays attention, the other is the recipient of attention.

Additionally, asking for or requiring our dogs to “pay attention” makes no room for the dog – there is only room for the human’s priorities, and while in some emergency situations that’s a very relevant place to come from, the vast majority of the time it is in everyone’s best interest to recognize the validity of both partys’ experiences and perspectives.

I truly don’t feel like I’m just being pedantic here: words have power, sometimes so subtle that the indirect implications of the words we use are absorbed and soak into our subconscious. I do not ever want to feel that my dogs are obligated to pay attention to me because I exist, walk on two legs, feed them, and take them to the vet. I DO want to feel that my dogs are willing (and happy!) to connect with me because I give them the respect of being engaged with them.

Engagement as the direction of connection

I think about engagement with dogs as reaching for or being actively open to connection. I can engage with my dog Kit by attuning myself to his individual vocabulary of body language so I can interpret his mental and emotional state based on the signals and behaviors he displays.  When I see where he is at that moment, I can tune my communication with him to be best received and understood.  By doing this, by giving him acknowledgement of his existence as a thinking, feeling, expressive being, I am inviting Kit to engage with me. Through my actions I let him know (whether he’s cognitively aware of it or not) that I hear him when he speaks, I see how he feels that day, I recognize how is focus and interest may be split at that moment, and I make room for all of that in how I interact with him.

(Does this sound like coddling?  You could look at it that way if you think your dog is able to see the world through your eyes and make decisions large and small with your desires and priorities in mind. Guess what?  Your dog can’t do that, but you can, and that’s why it’s on us to go the extra mile for our pups.)

So, what is the dog’s responsibility here? What does it look like to have a dog who is engaged (again, that’s a dog who will reach for or being actively open to connection) with his person? How do you get that?

I think of an engaged dog as one who keeps his person in his sphere of awareness, even if the person isn’t his main focus at that time. On a walk this could look like a dog who is able to sniff and explore but primarily stays within the parameters of the leash voluntarily, responds to his name with a glance and a tail wag when called, and checks in with his person with reasonable frequency without being cued to do so. That pretty much describes what most people want from a walk with their dog.

Some people are lucky and have dogs who are like this naturally from day one, even if the person on the other end of the leash is not actively engaging with the dog (have you seen these pairs? The dog who keeps looking to his human for some semblance of interaction while the human twiddles on his or her phone?). For the rest of us, especially those of us with adolescent or reactive dogs, it takes a lot of work to build engagement.

Work, and patience.

If you have a dog who isn’t innately tuned in with you, whether at home, on a walk, at the park, wherever, that means it’s your responsibility to cultivate that engagement by giving your dog a good reason* to engage. And that’s what well executed positive reinforcement training does: it gives dogs a really good reason to choose to do the stuff we would prefer they do.

I’m not going into the nuts and bolts of creating engagement and connection here, that would be a much longer post, or possibly a separate one) and I also don’t want to dictate what connection with your dog should look like for you. The way I engage and connect with Kit is different from how I engage and connect with Stormy or Shine: each dog has different skills, vocabularies, priorities, interests, and motivations.

Think of this as a starting point for your own journey with your dog, where you, maybe for the first time, make space for your dog’s experience of the world and allow that to gently shift how you interact with him; you can turn interactions into dialogues and walks into conversations where you each have a voice.

When Kit and I are connected, when we are each listening to the other, we are dancing with one another (or sometimes acting out a comedy routine; I am always the straight man!), we are moving together, with as much synergy as a dog and a human can. That doesn’t mean our dances, our training sessions or walks are always easy, but they are always performed as a partnership between to beings who are open to each other and willing to listen.

And that feels so good.

*To be clear, that’s a good reason from the dog’s point of view, not yours.