The Zen of Dogs: On Mindfulness, Compassion, and Connection

“Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.” ~Karl Barth

We were lying in bed. I said, “We can’t do it.” She said, “I don’t see what else we can do.” We lay there in silence, trying to figure it out.

It was the third big decision of our relationship. The first was when I asked Nicole to marry me. The second was when she said yes. And the third—the one we couldn’t figure out—was what to do about Ralph.

She’d had Ralph—a female German Shepherd—for a little over a year. Nicole had been waiting for years to get a dog, and now she’d found one, and it all felt so right—the timing, everything.

What she didn’t expect was meeting me.

And that I’d be allergic to dogs.

Nicole was heartbroken, but decided that the only way we could live together would be to find a new home for Ralph. So we did—a nice, older couple who’d lost a dog years earlier who looked just like Ralph. We went to their house, and Ralph loved it there.

But something in us just wasn’t ready to let Ralph go.

So we lay in bed and tried to come up with a solution. We were getting nowhere.

Then I surprised both of us by saying, “We’re not giving Ralph away. We’re just not.” We didn’t know what the solution would be, but we went on faith.

I ended up trying new allergy medicines, and here we are ten years later. Ralph, hard to believe, is almost eleven. Our decision to keep her turned out to be one of the best we made—not just because we love her (and dogs in general), but because Ralph has been such a spiritual teacher.

The first thing Ralph taught us is that you can’t predict the specifics of your life. You just can’t. You can envision the future, but life often turns out to be not quite what we were planning.

And this is a good thing.

So often we strive for control, certainty, predictability, but imagine how dull life would be, how much less wondrous, if we knew the specifics of our lives—the challenges as well as the joys—before they happened.

I never could have predicted that I’d fall in love with a dog and that she’d become one of my best friends and teachers.

One of the most important lessons Ralph teaches me is to live in the moment. She’s a creature of the present, and this inspires me to be more mindful.

Whenever I’m having one of those days when there never seems to be enough time and I’m multi-tasking and rushing through everything, Ralph grounds me.

She cries for me to walk her, and I may grumble at first—I may even try to rush her—but eventually I look at her, content sniffing a tree, and remember that there really is no rush and that this moment is the only one that matters.

Ralph has also taught me about forgiveness. For her, it’s natural, automatic. She holds no grudges.

Several years ago, by accident, I slammed a car door on Ralph’s tail. She was bleeding. I had to take her to the pet emergency room.

But what I remember most about that moment is that as soon as I slammed the door on her tail, she cried and came running to me for comfort—the one who’d just hurt her! She does this all the time. Whenever she gets hurt—when someone steps on her tail by accident, for example—she cries and runs straight to the person who hurt her.

She retains no memory of anyone having hurt her. There’s no need for retaliation.

Ralph also has a natural capacity for compassion. She’s deeply affected by someone else’s pain.

I remember a pretty bad fight between Nicole and me. We’d said some hurtful things to each other, and Nicole was crying. I knew that the right thing to do, no matter what we’d been fighting about, was to comfort her, but my ego got in the way, and I remained angry, unable to access my compassion.

But as soon as Ralph heard Nicole crying, she ran over to lick Nicole’s face. Perhaps some dog experts would tell me that Ralph wasn’t really feeling compassion, and that’s fine, but her actions still taught me a lesson: when someone is in pain and needs compassion, you do your best to put your ego aside and be loving in the moment. That’s a lesson I’m still in the process of learning.

One of the greatest joys of having a dog is that Ralph is always ecstatic to see us—when we wake in the morning, when we come home, when we walk into the room.

When anyone comes into our home, she’s the same way—thrilled to see whoever it is. When we’re walking her and approach a stranger, her tail goes crazy, and she just wants to connect with that person.

Again, dog experts may try to explain that there’s something evolutionarily self-serving in this behavior, but even if there is, it still teaches me important lessons.

I see how happy Ralph is to greet each day, and it inspires me to be just as excited about my day, and to be thrilled to be alive.

When I’m too busy and find myself rushing through my day, a happy greeting from Ralph—always with something in her mouth to present to me—reminds me to slow down and to be just as happy to see her.

Ralph also reminds me—especially useful on days when I’m busy—that all of us, dogs and humans, are meant to play.

It’s so easy to get stuck in a pattern of working all the time—every free moment—but one trip to the park with Ralph breaks that pattern.

As soon as she gets out of the car she bounds through the grass. All she wants to do is run and chase balls and sticks—she’s practically bursting. Nothing else matters, and this inspires me to forget about my work and worries for the time being.

Because she’s a German Shepherd, Ralph is hard-wired to herd. She needs to keep her pack together.

Her pack includes me and my wife, and now our son. In fact, we call ourselves a pack almost as often as we call ourselves a family.

Years ago, when Ralph was younger, we’d use her herding instinct to exercise her. When we took her to the park, Nicole would run in one direction, I’d run in the opposite direction, and Ralph would run back and forth, desperate to keep us connected.

You can see the metaphor I’m going for: Ralph reminds me how important it is to stay connected with my pack—my family.

Whenever I’m feeling disconnected from my family—usually through my own fault—I try to think of Ralph running back and forth, from one side of the park to the other, just to make sure we’re not getting too far from each other.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one more obvious thing. No matter what I’m feeling—busy, stressed, anxious, angry—just putting my hands on Ralph’s fur and listening to her breathe is all it takes to feel better.

Petting a dog can be one of the most mindful, peaceful, and spiritual moments you can have.

Photo by Andrew Morell Photography

About Nicholas Montemarano

Nicholas Montemarano is the author of two novels, "The Book of Why" (2013) and "A Fine Place" (2002), and a short story collection, "If the Sky Falls" (2005). Visit him on Facebook and on Twitter.

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