A few months ago, our family decided to submit an application to a local dog rescue organization. Soon afterward, we were approved to meet a seven-month old puppy living with a foster family and found ourselves driving home with a new four-legged friend. There is no shortage of things to love about this young pup: from his friendly, eager-to-please expression, to his tendency to lick our faces every chance he gets, to his pure, unbridled joy at meeting new dogs and people. After five days, we officially adopted our new canine companion.
Like many other times in life, this has been a journey with mixed emotions. Only six months ago we made the difficult decision to say goodbye to our elderly dog, and I still struggle with this sadness. Sometimes, I notice guilt as I allow myself to form a bond with a new pet. I’ll even admit to having a hard time letting go of the everyday conveniences that are not conducive to life with a puppy, from simply sleeping in later, to hiding our pillows every morning to protect them from being chewed into pieces. Despite the occasional pillow sacrifice, after a few short weeks, our new family member has earned a special place among us, and we have already forgotten what life was like before him. It reminds me of all that we can learn by setting aside overly cautious thoughts in order to open our hearts to wonderful new experiences.
Our new pup has one favorite activity he would choose above all others: playing with other dogs at the dog park. He is off and running as soon as he charges through the gates, rushing to play with dogs of all sizes, breeds, and ages. As the dogs chase, romp, and wrestle, the dog owners talk. We never broach topics such as religion or politics, and we rarely have any idea about each other’s education, work or family background. What I do know, though, is that people are not cautious to engage with each other. Common barriers to conversation are broken down by the dogs’ antics, and people are open to communicating, regardless of shyness or differences between them. Just the other day, I stood near a modestly dressed middle-aged woman chatting with a young man with tattered jeans, long hair and several tattoos. As I listened to them compare the best chew toys for their mischievous puppies, I remembered that we will always have something in common with someone else, if we only take the time to look for it. In a current society sometimes intent on polarizing people by highlighting differences, it reminds us that shedding this caution, and being open to engaging in real conversation with someone else, allows us to experience the humanity of others, no matter how different we may seem to be.
Relationships with pets often feature something most of us search our entire lives for: unconditional love. When my husband and I recently dropped our son off for a pre-college standardized test, I jokingly remarked to him that we would buy him his favorite lunch “if he got a good score.” While I quickly followed that up with a heartfelt reminder that we only ask him to do his best, in everyday life, we encounter plenty of situations where conditions are placed on love and acceptance. Parents may ask a child to choose a certain career path or play a particular sport as a condition of gaining their support; friends may ask us to join in certain activities as a condition of gaining their approval. If we are fortunate, we will find people in our lives who, other than asking us to treat them with kindness and respect, will give us the freedom to follow our own paths in life. Giving this, as well as receiving it, is important. While it can be challenging and nerve-wracking, opening ourselves up to love others unconditionally enables us to experience some of the most incredible relationships. When our son left for the test that morning, our new dog followed him to the door and whimpered as he closed it behind him. When our son returned that afternoon, our dog greeted him with the excitement that typically comes after spending years apart. I know for certain that our dog was not aware of or concerned about any test scores as he wagged his tail and followed my son around the house, and it reminds me of what an absolute gift it is to give another person unconditional love.
Our experience with adopting our new dog also reminds me to worry less about waiting for the “perfect time” to take action. As we started to peruse pictures of dogs needing homes, we also listed reasons why we should wait: one family member was travelling a lot for work, we would need pet sitting services for an upcoming family vacation, and the scheduled home improvement work would be more inconvenient with a new dog underfoot. Luckily, the pictures and stories on the rescue website spoke louder than our hesitant voices, and we opted to meet one of the available puppies. So many times in life we find reasons to procrastinate, despite knowing all the positives of certain choices. It may be incorporating regular workouts into our schedule, writing a letter to a friend we’ve lost touch with, or even putting ourselves out there for a new relationship or job opportunity. “The perfect time” exists only in our imagination, but a step forward on a new journey is available in reality every day.
When we set aside overly cautious thoughts, we challenge ourselves to experience something new and wonderful. When I take our puppy for walks, I am amazed at one particular habit he engages in frequently: he finds a shady patch of grass, usually on someone’s freshly cut lawn, and promptly plops down for a short rest. With his tongue lolling out and his legs fully stretched behind him, he is the picture of contentment. My first inclination is to pull him forward and “get going” again on our walk, often thinking about the next thing I need to do after we finish, and hesitant to take a break. Lately, though, I find myself sitting down next to him and taking a few minutes to appreciate the beauty of a warm summer day. Deep down, I know the value of these restful breaks, but thanks to saying yes to our new member of the family, I am reminded to actually take them. Sometimes, there is value in enjoying the experience of the present and leaving caution to the wind.
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 as an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.