I know very little about dogs. If you had asked me 10 years ago if I was a pet person, I would have answered “not really.” I came to own my dog, Oreo, around four years ago by sheer circumstance, and everything I’ve learned about dogs has been through her. Oreo came into my life quite unexpectedly. In 2011, as my life was shattering around me with an impending divorce awash in heavy emotional trauma, I took my kids to our neighborhood pet shop, and obliged my younger daughter by staying longer than I normally would have tolerated.
In one of the puppy pens, we spotted an adorable black-and-white Cavapoo (which is a mix of a King Charles Cavalier and a poodle)—the size of a small banana bread–the kind you would slice and serve with tea. Again, I appeased my daughters by asking the store owner if we could take the puppy out and play with her for a while in a wire enclosure. My girls excitedly kept wanting to put her down “to test out” who she would choose to go to. Each time (much to my girls’ chagrin), the puppy chose my lap. At a time in my life when I felt grossly unloved and unappreciated, the simplicity of the message touched me profoundly. Even now, people don’t believe me when I tell them that Oreo sold herself…
There is so much written about dogs nowadays. Much of it expounds on the traditional view of a dog as the quintessential man’s (or woman’s) best friend, regaling great adventures of loyalty, bravery, and unconditional love. It seems like people describe dogs today as a direct reflection of how they view themselves, exceeding what most would consider a healthy dose of anthropomorphism. Who would have thought dogs were so invested in our happiness? Indeed, my girls have compelled me to showcase the popular bumper sticker “Who Rescued Who?” in the shape of a paw print, on the back of my minivan.
My entree into the world of dogs—via Oreo—has led me to some very different sorts of conclusions. And the surprising thing is that my keenest observations on dogs to date offer amazing insights for my own life. What I am referring to is the degree to which this 10 pound living being unabashedly goes about trying to get her needs met. I am in constant awe of how Oreo consistently seeks out love, attention, and physical closeness from anyone willing to give it to her, without apologies and without fear of judgment with which these needs are generally met in the human world. And though her veterinarian assures me she is well past the puppy stage of chewing, when given the option, Oreo would spend 80% of her waking hours in the comfort of chewing a bone while settled on a soft, cushioned surface that smells like her owners (i.e. a coat or pillow), preferably in the sun.
This aspect of dogs, I realize, is in stark contrast to the culture we live in that clearly exalts independence and self-sufficiency, and scorns dependency and neediness. Am I the only one who hears this basic message in nearly all major arenas of life, ranging from child-rearing to romance? When my kids were small, I struggled with why a baby needs to give up the comfort of a bottle at 1 years old (I let my kids drink them much longer, but would never have dreamed of coming clean with their pediatrician), feed on a schedule rather than on demand to ward off potential spoiling, and cry herself to sleep alone (and independent). When did it become a near parenting crime if one’s 2-year-old is not enrolled in school in order to learn independence and social skills? And, why has the pervading dating advice of the last two decades warned women first and foremost never to act needy or dependent, nor reveal her desire for love and closeness too soon, lest the man get turned off and leave her for another woman who keeps the focus on herself, coolly independent?
As a result, I’ve spent most of my dating life denying who I really am, feeling shamed for my unabashed yearning for intimacy and closeness. Even today, as I generally shun the dating advice in favor of unfiltered authenticity, I would be rich if I received $1 every time I’m offered the unsolicited advice to the tune of “Your happiness is something that should come from within and should not be dependent on a man (or a relationship).” Most advise-givers even carry that one step farther by admonishing that unless I can engender that kind of happiness within me independently, I will not even be able to attract a healthy love relationship into my life.
I find all of this a bit stranger still, given that cutting-edge biological research in human emotion/behavior confirm that we—as humans—are undeniably hard-wired for connection and belonging. In fact, brain-imaging technology shows that once we become attached to someone, the two of us form a sort of single physiological unit. Our partner regulates our heart rate, blood pressure, and even blood hormone levels. It would seem, then, that the touted benefits of ‘differentiation’ in our culture’s view of adult relationships doesn’t add up from a biology perspective. Dependency is a fact rather than a personal choice or preference.
So in the end, much of what I’ve learned from Oreo translates into some pretty thought-provoking lessons for my life and possibly yours. Using Oreo as our guide, perhaps we humans could all learn to be more embracing of our indelible need for love and closeness, and the ultimate feelings of vulnerability that surface as a result. As I said, I know very little about dogs.