If we could stand in the cold vastness of the Cosmos and see our lives from the height of stars and nebulae, would we see the web of threads running this way and that, crossing, tangling, binding and pulling all our lives together on this little planet? I try to do this in my mind’s eye sometimes, to step back and visualize connections, intersections—to force my self to mentally travel down different paths if for no other reason than to remember that other realities exist outside my own. We tend to get very wrapped up in our own side of the story, the one that only exists from our own perspective. We are deafened by our internal monologues, blinded by judgement, opinion, and self-interest. And we forget that all around us, in every moment, other stories are being played out, and they are just as important (to someone) as our own.
Of course, these stories don’t just belong to people. They belong to every thing in existence. It is possible to open our awareness, to cut the chatter just long enough to see the connectedness of ourselves to everything around us, to glimpse the world from another’s eyes. My dog taught me this.
His name is Ronin, our name for him. We know only fragments of his life before. He was a rescue—taken by the Humane Society from a life of neglect and hunger in a raid at a dangerously over-populated, seriously under-funded no kill facility in a small town in Missouri. I didn’t go to the Humane Society looking for a dog that day, had no intention of adopting another one since we were in the midst of heartache with our mastiff dying from bone cancer. But Ronin and I found each other in one of those heart-stopping, breath-catching moments where the world stands still for a second and your path becomes clear. We stared at each other hard for a few minutes, and that was it. Well, there was more to it, but the point is that when you find a soul dog, you are honor-bound to give him a home. And belly scratches.
The first months with Ronin were difficult as we all adjusted to this new situation. Neither one of us was able to let down our guard much. In that first month, I lost Knowledge, who was the happiest, most secure and loving dog in the world. It was hard living with this new dog who jumped every time someone moved (Knowledge was used to us stepping over him as he slept in the middle of everything), who jumped the fence and ran away at every opportunity (Knowledge wouldn’t leave the house or yard for anything), who expected to be hit or not to be fed (Knowledge always expected to be fed and never knew an unkind hand). Little by little, we got the hang of things. We took frequent walks, and he responded so well to them that this became our first medium of true communication. He learned commands in reverse, me praising him and rewarding him when he, on his own, figured out what needed to be done. This was all done without words, because words didn’t make sense yet. Sometimes they just made things worse. Our walks stabilized Ronin’s life and allowed us to become more confident in one another. I taught him to sit while out on walks—every time he’d walk out in front of me, I’d stop and stand still. He’d walk around me and sniff things and wonder why we weren’t moving, but eventually, he sat down. I immediately gave him a pat and started walking again. We did this over and over. Three days later, he sat every time I stopped. A month later, he sat by my side and looked up at me. Eventually, I put it with a hand signal, and then finally with a word. This is how we learned to communicate. This is how we became friends. Slowly, slowly.
I don’t want to give the impression that Ronin was a shy dog. That was never the case. He would be better described, even still, as reserved. That first day when I asked to see him at the Humane Society, I could tell that despite his uncertainty, he was curious. He wanted interaction, he just wasn’t sure what the outcome would be. He was an interesting mix of cautious and hesitant, and yet interested and intelligent. He is still very much that way today. Ronin is a gentleman. A little rough around the edges, but naturally well-behaved and even-tempered. He has never shown any signs of aggression whether from dominance or fear, but at the same time, he is steady and sure of his abilities, especially around other dogs. He is able to command respect and hold his own without being assertive or bullyish. He takes up his space. He is sure of himself in this world. Just not of anyone else.
It was this quiet yet definite sense of self that made me notice him in the first place, even though at the time I couldn’t put my finger on it. Later, it was this quality that forced me over and over again to remember not to just see him as the family pet, but as a dog with a soul and personality and thoughts of his own. With Knowledge, this came easily. He’d been with us from his birth, really. We knew him, and he knew us. It was harder with Ronin. It took a conscious effort. It took constant reminding. It took knowing that every time he looked at me, he was asking for patience, for consistency, for kindness. He was also thanking me by doing his best to fit in, trying to do what was asked of him. This made me work even harder to understand his world, his life, from his point of view.
It is a choice one makes, to look behind and beyond what is apparent on the surface, to dig deeper and find connections. When you make the choice, you become responsible for it, because once you become aware you cannot become unaware again. It’s hard enough to do this with people, but to learn this lesson from a dog, well, that was unexpected. I am very thankful that my life intersected with Ronin’s. I think our stories are better for it.