The Healing Power of Dogs

Discover the astonishing lessons rescue dogs can teach us about life, love, and ourselves.

Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring—it was peace.  —Milan Kundera

 

In the fall of 2012, after he’d been with us nearly four months, our rescue dog Albie and I walked the pine needle covered trails of what was fast becoming our special place: Elm Bank along the Charles River, a forested preserve outside of Boston. The October air smelled of earth and woody decay, the light was brilliant and sharp, and leaves of red and gold floated gently downward on imperceptible air currents until they came to rest softly on the ground.

It was Albie’s first New England fall. He was, the vet surmised, about two or three years old and he was one very lucky dog. Picked up as a stray in Deville, Louisiana the previous February, he had languished for five months in a “high kill” shelter where nine of every ten dogs that enter never leave. Albie was an underdog in every sense; a death row dog with slim chances of survival. But thanks to a shelter volunteer who took a shine to him he defied those odds and came north to us in early July.

Knowing he’d been in a concrete and chain-link enclosure for nearly five months, but not knowing how he’d come to be wandering alone, malnourished and frightened, from the moment he landed in our arms we vowed to do everything humanly possible to give him a wonderful life, free from fear and hunger and want. We knew nothing of his previous life – whether he’d been abandoned, neglected or abused, or was simply lost – but it was, in part, the mystery of his life before that bound us so tightly to him. We couldn’t know what wrongs and misfortunes had befallen him. But we were determined to right them anyway.
 

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Albie is a yellow Lab and golden retriever mix, at least that’s everyone’s best guess because you can’t really tell a dog’s entire genetic heritage based on looks alone. By the time of our walk in the woods that golden October day Albie had gained some weight, he was up to about 75 pounds from 65, and I was able to trust him off leash. He’d spy something, or smell something, race off into the woods with astonishing agility, leaping over fallen trees and bounding through the underbrush and seemed very much in his element.

After he’d been gone, sometimes for several minutes, he’d reappear on the trail, perhaps a hundred yards ahead, then come racing towards me, smiling and, it seemed, proud of himself. One of Albie’s most endearing physical traits is a nose that at certain times of the year turns the color of a pencil eraser. (It’s called “snow nose” because the color tends to lighten as winter approaches.) He’d stare up at me with those deep brown pools he has for eyes, his eraser nose twitching, hoping for a treat, and all I could think was that this was the most earnest dog I’d ever met. We were buddies.

On our autumn walks through those woods, which we made almost daily, I often felt an intense sense of well-being. Albie exuded the energy of a puppy. He was, after all, still young. I, on the other hand, was about to turn 59. Not so young anymore. And it struck me: over the years to come Albie would start gaining on me because dogs age faster than humans. (The canard that one human year equals seven dogs years isn’t quite true, but it suffices here.) By the time I would be undeniably on the brink of old age, so, too, would Albie. We were going to grow old together.

 

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I’ve learned a lot from living with Albie these past five years, and two other rescue dogs that have since joined us. These are a few of the lessons I’ve learned:

1. To take a dog that has been abused, abandoned, unwanted or unloved and give him a home where he is loved and cared for gives meaning and purpose to life. Our children are grown, but the joy of nurturing continues.

2. Whether it happens sooner or later, a rescue dog will give you a signal that he truly knows he’s home. With Albie it was the night, after weeks of sleeping under the coffee table in the living room, I came upstairs to find him in our bed. When I agreed with my wife to get a dog after twenty years of refusal, I vowed that the dog would not sleep in our bed. But one look into those soulful eyes and he was there to stay. I was not prepared for how deeply I would love this boy.

3. Living with a dog, rescue or not, is not one continuous Hallmark moment. Albie has on occasion (a) rolled in scat, (b) bounded into the house with paws dripping with mud, (c) had infected anal glands and (d) preyed on small critters. But he still makes my heart leap.

4. You have to let a dog be a dog. Unrealistic expectations and rigid demands can squeeze the spirit out of a dog. Embrace their doggy-ness. No, you don’t have to let them take the Thanksgiving turkey off the table, but forgive them for doing what comes naturally. If you can’t do that, get a stuffed animal instead!

5. When life’s problems pile up, take a good, hard look at that dog who once was lost but now is found and is perfectly content because he has a stick or a tennis ball and, most of all because he has you.

 

 

 

 

Adapted with permission from Rescued: What Second-Chance Dogs Teach Us About Living with Purpose, Loving with Abandon, and Finding Joy in the Little Things by Peter Zheutlin. © 2017 by Peter Zheutlin. TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

 

Photo Credit: Nevena1987/iStock

 


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