“You know, you and Baxter are a lot alike.”
Looking back, I probably should have been offended when Melissa suggested that our bichon frise, Baxter, and I shared more than her affections. Instead, her offhand comment pointed me toward some important spiritual lessons.
As dogs go, Baxter has always been a bit of a mess. But he’s our mess and we love him. He was eight weeks old when we brought him home, an energetic ball of white fur with an adorable black nose and a slightly neurotic outlook on life. Cars, people, leaves, squirrels, car rides, grooming visits, the mailman (especially the mailman) — everything Baxter saw, heard or smelled sent him into a fit of spinning and jumping that rivaled the most agile Olympic gymnasts.
At some point we decided to accept Baxter’s eccentric behavior as a fact of life. Although we still corrected him when he misbehaved, even he knew our efforts were half-hearted and we resigned ourselves to the idea that our fuzzy little lapdog was just wired a little too tightly.
. . . which was exactly the way people used to describe me. Wired a little too tightly.
No, I didn’t bark at squirrels or chase the mailman. But like Baxter, I had a tendency to sweat the small stuff. And the big stuff. And most of the stuff in between.
So, when Melissa casually painted Baxter and I with the same dysfunctional brush, I had a pet epiphany — it was like a bell went off in my mind, alerting me to an uncomfortable question that would ultimately change my life for the better:
Was it possible that my dog was really just a slightly furrier version of me?
How Can a Dog Teach You Spiritual Lessons?
For better or worse, kids usually reflect at least some of their parents’ personalities and character traits. For example, in my family my oldest daughter is kind of introverted (like me) and my youngest daughter is a flurry of activity (like her mom).
Yet for some reason, transferring that concept to a dog is out of the question. Granted, you and your dog share no genetic connections. But not all personality traits are inherited. A large percentage of personal characteristics are actually learned behaviors.
Take shyness. Psychologists believe that although shyness may have a genetic component, it is primarily a learned behavior. So, even though it’s possible that a timid personality may be genetic, it’s more likely that shyness is acquired. We learn to be shy by watching others.
Animals – and dogs in particular – are shaped by learned behaviors, too. Like kids, they are highly intuitive creatures with a unique ability to pick up on their “parents” personalities, character traits, even moods. If you don’t believe me pay attention to your dog the next time you’re running late and frantically tearing your house apart looking for your car keys. There is a good chance your dog will be just as excited as you are, simply because he’s mirroring your energy level.
The growing possibility that Baxter was just reflecting some of my own character and personality traits was more than a little humbling. For the first time I was forced to face personal flaws that I had worked hard to ignore most of life.
Spiritual Lessons You Can Learn from Your Dog
The recognition that Baxter and I shared certain flaws opened the door to the discovery of several spiritual lessons — some of which came from the lessons we use to help our dogs lead more productive lives.
1. Your life needs structure.
Dogs thrive when they have structure. Without it, they can become neurotic or even aggressive. Whether we want to admit it or not, you and I require structure, too. Although too much structure can be a bad thing, we need regular and consistent spiritual routines to stay centered, balanced and connected to God.
2. Respect for others is lesson number one.
One of the first things puppies learn is the importance of respecting human beings as well as other dogs. Unfortunately, that’s a lesson many of us haven’t mastered. But by respecting other people — regardless of whether or not we agree with them — we learn how to live peacefully in a world filled with divisions and animosity. We also learn how to love and respect God by respecting his other children.
3. Obedience and service bring balance.
Dogs want to follow a leader. In fact, they need to follow a leader to feel balanced and secure. Ironically, canines have a far more advanced concept of obedience than human beings — they realize that obedience isn’t a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength and a resource for their own well being. Let’s me be clear: Blind obedience is dangerous. But by learning how to obey God and serve other people, we become more balanced and better equipped to lead others.
4. You’re happiest when you have a purpose.
Every dog has a purpose. From basset hounds to retrievers to poodles, every breed has been genetically designed to excel at certain things. And individual dogs do best when they are serving a purpose, even if it’s an imaginary one like guarding the front lawn from an invasion of squirrels. You and I have a purpose, too. God created us with talents, interests and passions — and we’re happiest when we’re using those gifts to identify and fulfill our purpose in life.
These days, Baxter doesn’t move nearly as quickly as he used to. He’s almost completely blind and if he’s awake for more than three or four hours in a 24-hour time period, it’s a big day.
The simple truth is that he’s getting old and when I look in the mirror, the strands of gray in my beard remind me that he and I still share a few similarities. Maybe he has a few more spiritual lessons to teach me in his — and our — old age.