Our canine companions, as we all know, have far too brief lifespans. But if we are observant and fully enjoy the various life passages that our dogs pass through, we can have the benefit of learning a multitude of lessons in addition to just enjoying them as individuals. These lessons may not be specifically "dog care" related. Many of the lessons from our dogs enable us to grow and develop as individuals.
I invite you to explore the various life stages of our dogs with me. The reflections that I’ll be talking about have developed by living with a wonderful group of dogs – many from their first to their last breaths. I will mainly speak of generalities as many lessons and observations are common to dogs in the various stages.
This short period extends from the puppy’s first breath to leaving the dam and littermates as a weaned puppy. During this sweet magical time, the neonates demonstrate the will to survive in their quest for nourishment and comfort. The determination and strength in some of the neonates is remarkable such as climbing the sides of their momma with only scent and hearing sensory faculties and rudimentary movement skills. From ten days onward, the eyes and ears begin to open and the first "puppy kisses" appear. As their legs and balance improve along with their sensory faculties, the awareness of other beings in their environment – chiefly Momma and then the littermates grows. Rudimentary puppy play begins. Exploring their environment is a delight to watch – and a clear reminder to us to remember the wonder in the smallest of things.
Puppies – two to five months
If handlers are interested in working with their pups and establishing solid foundations for future work of all kinds, this is the most important time in the pup’s life. The pup’s learning curve at this time is incredibly steep; they are sponges soaking up lessons, behaviors, and new experiences very quickly. Future behaviors and lessons will be affected (positively or negatively) by behaviors learned at this time.
In this period, we learn new skills such as the puppy shuffle – that fancy stepping motion when the little one gets underfoot and we try not to tromp on tiny paws. If we have the puppy tethered to our belts as we move around the house (one method of confinement/strict supervision during the house training time), we learn how to step over leads and do pirouettes to keep from being tied up in the lead.
In this period, pups are meeting new people, different dogs, and expanding their experiences. Puppy kindergarten (after their second vaccination) is a marvelous experience for the pup to see a variety of different pups as well as the handler to see how the pup interacts with others and under mild stress. In puppyhood, we are reminded of the innocence of our own youth and the wonder of seeing and learning new things.
This stage is from age four to five months until the pup has reached sexual maturity. Their physical growth is rapid; their hormones are beginning to awaken – not unlike what we experienced in our own pre-teenaged years! The pups hopefully gain more confidence as individuals and the lessons learned as a younger pup are strengthened. This is often the time of a testing period as the pup is trying to figure out where he fits in the pack’s hierarchy. He tries out adult behaviors as he mimics older dogs. His play in the pack is no longer on the fringes but is right in the middle of the action.
This stage can be a reminder of our own passage from childhood to being a young adult. Patience is very important to be used at this stage while still providing a safe framework and boundaries of what is and is not acceptable in the home/pack.
Ah, the tumultuous hormones and how they affected all of us as teenagers! Our dogs are no different. The bitches can have varied reactions to their first season. Some bitches may show uncertainty at what is happening (and may well have some uterine cramping) while other bitches immediately turn into little hussies!
The males’ behaviors certainly change as mounting (anything!) increases and "marking territory" happens. It seems like the first time this happens, it is a reflex action without any thought; the male sidles up to a wall, potted plant, chair or whatever and lifts his leg. I have observed that this first leg raising in the house "just happens" as it doesn’t appear that they were thinking about what they were doing. When this happens, I make sure that the male knows this was completely unacceptable. I must stress that while I am never delighted with the transgression of house manners, my own behavior is mostly acting. One time in particular, a young male was just entering puberty and lifted his leg against the wall and let loose a few drops of urine. I happened to be right behind him. I immediately hollered at him as I caught him, and then marched him down the hall to crate him. Somehow I tripped as I was putting him in the crate (none too gently I will admit) and slammed my knee on a sharp edge. The crate door got slammed shut and I ended up rolling on the floor in pain (and feeling sorry for myself). The whole scenario made such a strong impression that this male has never even thought about lifting his leg inside since! That was a drastic (and painful) negative reinforcement, but effective!
I consider the adolescence period as starting from puberty and lasting until the dog is mature. This can easily last for a couple or more years. Generally, most bitches are mature at two to four years of age and the males are slower maturing at three to five years (depending upon their family genetics). Not only do the bodies change and mature but the minds and emotions change. I’ve certainly found that during this period, their minds are very scattered, unfocussed at times, and the dogs have inconsistent behaviors. Testing behaviors can occur more often during this time.
It is in the adolescent period that our dogs really help us to maintain a sense of humor, become excellent actors (as in the marking scenario described earlier), develop patience, and to keep thinking positively. Adolescence is impermanent – it will not last forever!
All the trials, tribulations, joys, and frustrations experienced as the young dog developed are now worth it as the adult emerges. If the handler has raised the puppy with consistency, education (of both pup and handler), and high expectations as to the kind of behaviors expected from an adult, then a magnificent companion evolves from the promise of the cute fuzzy puppy. This time is the prime of life of our dogs; they can enjoy many activities with their human companions. Now is the time to really savor and appreciate living with another sentient being who shares the same emotions but sees the world in a different way than humans.
I refer to my dogs as "furry buddhas" – individuals who are truly "awake" (which is the meaning of a buddha). Our dogs teach us the two most important lessons for humans to learn – to live in the present moment and to love unconditionally.
To "live in the moment" – to truly be present physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually – how many of us can say we can do that – even for brief moments? Yet our dogs show us daily how to do that. Witness the absorption as they chew a favorite chew toy, go for a walk in the woods experiencing and noticing everything around them, enjoy a snow bath… the list goes on and on.
The second lesson, to "love unconditionally," is another exceeding challenging lesson for humans to learn. To learn how to live "from the heart" developing strong compassion and altruism is taught by enlightened teachers of all traditions. Yet our dogs do it naturally. The kindness, forgiveness, caring, and just simple delight to be in our presence is humbling. Our dogs still love us if we’re grumpy or happy; they’re there to comfort if we’re sad, and are quietly supportive when we’re ill. They have no agenda – their compassion and love is genuine.
Adult dogs also teach us about using our intuition and show us how by example. They are sensitive to people with underlying falsehoods and/or those who could be dangerous. Many of us have stories about how a dog, who is normally wonderful with people, showed suspicion/mistrust of a person. To the dog’s owner, this individual appeared fine, but later the dog’s owner learned of negative traits of the person their dog mistrusted. I, personally, trust my dogs’ judgments – particularly the dogs who are highly intuitive and intelligent.
Our adults can also help us learn how to communicate in nonverbal ways. I’m not referring to hand signals either! By observing our dogs’ behaviors, we can also learn how to "speak canine". Turid Rugass, an excellent Norwegian trainer, teaches about the various calming signals that dogs use amongst themselves. She attributes her teaching to learning from one of her talented dogs.
Our adult dogs are also very honest in their relationships. Again, no hidden agendas. This is definitely another valuable lesson by example that our dogs teach us.
Sadly, our beloved companions become old – just as we will. This is a special time – a time of remembrance, love, and care. The elderly dog may have health issues, may be incontinent, but at my home, that is just an inconvenience. The elderly dog may need extra "protection" from the younger dogs in the pack – again, just an inconvenience. These wonderful individuals that I have lived with have given me so much over the years; dealing with the inconveniences of old age/poor health is just one way that I can repay them for the joy, comfort, and lessons they have brought me.
Our elderly dogs teach us by showing us how to age gracefully with acceptance and dignity. There is a special serenity and beauty that shines through. Their special walks with their owners may be slower and shorter, but they are still enjoyed in the same "present moment way" that they demonstrated as a younger dog. The elders bring a special wisdom, peace, and communion on a deeper level while we once again re-visit the patience aspect of our personalities. And when it is time for them to die, they show us how to do that with grace, acceptance, and dignity.
May all owners of beloved canine companions be as blessed……….