How does your dog love you?

In moments of frustration with the dogs, there is always one thought that makes me slow down, pause, and smile. It is this: I think these animals really like ME.

And I think they like me because they express happiness in my presence and seek affection from me, even when food isn’t involved. This is why humans have always been coming back to dogs, I suppose (or how dogs became dogs in the first place): Dogs, perhaps more than any other animal, are drawn to people. And vice versa; we are an easily flattered species.

Weird dog
Pyrrha Louise.

I have never doubted Pyrrha’s love for me. She bonded intensely with me just a few weeks after we adopted her, this shy, terrified mess of a dog (and as a consequence, she has not really bonded with Guion at all; she still exhibits fear of him in certain moments). Pyrrha hid from me in corners of the house when we first brought her home, but gradually, she started to depend on me and then, to seek affection from me.

It is a special thing, to have a relationship with an animal who lights up when you enter the room. Some dogs (most golden retrievers I’ve ever met, for instance) do this with any person who is present, and so everyone feels good about themselves. But it is a different thing when you have a dog who only lights up for you, no one else. Generally speaking, Pyrrha’s attachment to me is a great weakness of hers; in my absence, she is never truly at ease (so say my husband and everyone who has ever watched her when I’m gone). But emotionally speaking, how can I not lap up this unconditional affection? How could I not reciprocate it?

Pyrrha is so gentle and sensitive; when she looks at me, I can’t help but assign more human emotions and thoughts to her. (Let’s be real, even the science-loving among us can’t resist the temptation to do this with our own dogs — at least to a degree.) I can just make eye contact with her from across the room and her tail wags. This doesn’t happen with anyone else. She likes to come up to me and bury her head in my chest and just stand there, immobile, soaking up the pets.

Portrait of a lady. #pyrrhagram

If we get a quiet moment on the sofa, Pyrrha will come sit next to me and put her head in my lap. This may not sound like a big deal to those of you with cuddly dogs, but this was HUGE when Pyrrha first did this. She does not enjoy being touched by people, and the day she first voluntarily put her head in my lap, I almost cried for joy.

In many ways, Pyrrha is a dog-shaped mirror of my own complicated, anxious self, and she’ll always be my first girl.

Baby girl
Eden Loretta!

And then we have Eden. Eden is more of a universalist with her love, which is one of the main reasons we adopted her. We wanted a puppy who thought everyone was a friend and ally, and we have that in Eden in spades. (She distinguishes herself as a shepherd, however, in that her family comes first, and she doesn’t think every single human being is her instant BFF).

We’ve had her for a little over a month, so I’m not sure if she’s necessarily bonded to us yet, but I feel like she does like us. She likes to hurtle her body at you when you walk in the door (something that we’re working on), and when she does manage to sit, her body is trembling in anticipation of human affection. When Eden is over-excited about greeting us in the morning, she likes to nip at our hair and clothes, which is not my favorite expression of love, and so we’re working on that too.

Guess she's allowed on the chairs. #ediebaby #germanshepherd

Eden isn’t much into tail wagging, at least for me. I think she might like Guion more, which is OK with me, because I already have 100% of the other dog’s affection. Guion gets ample tail wags when he comes home. Eden’s method of showing me that she cares are the quieter moments in the morning, when I’m getting ready for work, and she saunters into the bathroom and then leans up against my legs, or lays down and puts her sweet little head on my feet. How can you not pause and think, Surely, makeup can wait. Surely, this is why we keep these crazy animals around.

Happy Valentine’s Day, readers! How do your dogs seek affection from you? How do you think they show you love?

A story: Dogs as therapy

Brando indoors
Guion and Brando, our first foster.

A few months ago, I was walking with my husband on my way to a volunteering event with the SPCA. Local charities and non-profits were setting up booths around the pedestrian mall to promote causes and garner support. The SPCA had a few tables up, and some adoptable dogs, kittens, and even two adoptable rats. I volunteered to stand there and talk to people about the SPCA and walk some of the adoptable hounds around to greet people.

While we were walking over there, my husband told me that one of our mutual friends had told him that he thought it was silly that I volunteered my time at the SPCA. This person believed that pets were a waste of time and money and that I was similarly wasting my time by volunteering at the animal shelter. Shouldn’t I be doing something more important, like working at a soup kitchen or tutoring neglected kids how to read?

I began to feel guilty as I walked down there. Was it frivolous of me to care so much about animals? To spend weekends at the SPCA, walking dogs? Wouldn’t it be more valuable to my community if I spent my little free time caring for humans instead? These thoughts began to plague me throughout my afternoon on the mall. My pastor and his wife saw me down there, holding a kitten in my arms, with my SPCA volunteer shirt on. They came to talk to me and seemed delighted that I was an SPCA volunteer, but I felt almost embarrassed to be seen there. Are they judging me for not volunteering elsewhere? I thought. For not giving my time to the homeless ministry?

But these feelings of guilt began to dissipate as the afternoon wore on. The pedestrian mall is often filled with homeless people and others who are sick, disabled, and mentally ill, who beg on street corners and hold up cardboard signs. They are often ignored and everyone else does their best not to make eye contact with them. As I stood there at our booth, though, I began to notice an interesting phenomenon.

These homeless or mentally ill people would go from booth to booth, but the organizers behind the tables would never look at them or speak to them. It was evident that these people were in no state to contribute financially to these organizations; it was questionable if they could even carry on an intelligible conversation. They were plainly ignored. Volunteers looked straight through them, as if they weren’t even there.

I watched this happen again and again. But then I realized that all of the homeless and mentally ill were at our booth. Why? Because the dogs greeted them and kissed their hands like they were anybody else, like they were “normal.” The dogs didn’t discriminate against their housing status or their mental health. For once, they were shown mercy and acceptance. And it was coming from the dogs.

I particularly recall a mentally ill woman who stayed at our table for almost an hour. The dogs patiently submitted to her hugging their necks, to her persistent petting. I couldn’t understand much of what she was saying, but she had a huge grin on her face the entire time. She looked up at me and said, over and over, “See, he likes me. See, he likes me. See, he likes me.”

As I reflected on this day on my way home, I was nearly brought to tears. These animals did something for the most marginalized in society that no people could do for them. These homeless dogs were extending unconditional love to these homeless people. That is a gift well worth sharing, an extension of compassion that no human could faithfully replicate.

And that’s why I volunteer at the SPCA and why I don’t feel guilty about it anymore.

The unconditional love of dogs

Elizabeth

On Friday, I volunteered for the Charlottesville SPCA during an adoption promotion event on the downtown pedestrian mall. It was the 35th anniversary of the mall’s creation and the streets were packed with people. I was helping walk dogs (including Elizabeth, featured above), handle kittens, and talk to people about adoption.

When I got there, I was feeling kind of uneasy about my role as a volunteer. My husband walked me over there and as we walked, he mentioned that one of our mutual friends harbors some disdain toward me for my dog obsession (OK, that’s fine; it is a bit out of control) and for being a volunteer at the SPCA. This person thinks that pets are frivolous and unnecessary and that people should never own domesticated animals. Accordingly, this person believes that it is silly and wasteful for me to give my time to dogs at the SPCA.

Naturally, I disagree, but I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty as I went over there. Should I be volunteering at the homeless shelter instead? Serving food at the soup kitchen? I do believe that people are more valuable than animals, but I’ve never felt called to work with the homeless. I don’t think I’m gifted in that kind of ministry. Thankfully, there are many people around here who are capable and motivated to work with the many homeless people in our community. I’m just not one of them.

Somewhat troubled in spirit, I arrived at the SPCA’s table and was handed the leash of a large, placid lab/hound named Thurgood (not pictured, because I think he was adopted this weekend!). Our area was mobbed with people, especially parents with children. Animals act like magnets to most kids. The cat pen was packed with little kids who were squeezing kittens and the three dogs that we handled were constantly being hugged, petted, and ambushed. Thankfully, the shelter staff made a good choice by bringing Thurgood and Elizabeth. Elizabeth is a senior hound who is extremely patient and slow-moving; she’s friendly to everyone, especially those who smell like food. Thurgood is a youngish, steady lab/hound mix and I worked primarily with him for a few hours. He was stubborn, but very gentle and submitted to the attentions of every type of person who rushed up to him.

The dogs were showing signs of exhaustion and stress–especially the third dog, Benny, who was unable to cope with the crowds and had to be walked away from everything–but they never showed signs of irritation or aggression. This alone taught me a lot about patience. I think I would have snapped at someone if I had armies of squealing children sticking their fingers in my eyes and mouth. But the dogs took it all in stride.

One of the biggest lessons the dogs taught me that day was about unconditional love. As I’ve already mentioned, our table was very popular with all of the children on the mall that day. But I also noticed that we drew a steady crowd of homeless and mentally handicapped adults. These people were more or less ignored by the other booths. It was assumed that they weren’t capable of supporting any of the neighboring causes or even carrying on a rational conversation about a business or a fundraising campaign. Other people would just look right past them when they approached, as if they weren’t there at all. No one paid them any attention. Except for the dogs.

The dogs treated them like everybody else. These socially marginalized people found attention, respect, and love from these animals, who did not discriminate against them based on their appearance, mental ability, or class. I will particularly remember a mentally handicapped woman who stayed at our table for almost half an hour. She kept stroking Thurgood’s head over and over, bending down to hug his neck, and kept excitedly saying to me, “Look, he likes me! Look how much he likes me!” I reassured her that he did like her. Because dogs don’t lie.

If I ever had to give an answer as to why I love dogs, I’d tell this story. The unconditional love of dogs is one of the primary reasons why they matter. It’s the motivating reason why I think we should do everything in our power to give these homeless dogs the best life possible. They have done so much for us and we have done so little for them. Just watch a dog lavish love on a complete stranger. I think that should be proof enough that dogs are valuable.