My dog Cooper has taught me many things since that snowy day two years ago when he became part of my family. My son first saw Cooper – curled in a cage – looking forlorn and so sad. His big brown eyes cautiously looked our way, but he did not rise to come to the side of the cage as some of the other cats and dogs had. Cooper stayed coiled in a donut shaped mass of fur and eyed us somewhat suspiciously. We asked to meet him, the staff corralled us to a room, and Cooper was brought to us. Cooper timidly came over, sniffing our outstretched fingers and then reared up on his hind legs as if to say “nice to meet you.” It was close to closing time and we knew we had to leave. My husband, typically cautious and never quick to make an important decision, walked up to the front desk and said, “We’ll take him!”
We hustled Cooper to the car and made a stop at Petsmart to load up on doggy supplies. What fun we had picking out a new toy, a new bed and special tasty morsels. Cooper (formerly Shorty – an insulting name even though he was vertically challenged), pranced along with us in the store as if to say – “hey look, I won the family lottery” to the other dogs in the store.
After many medical treatments and countless teeth cleanings and pulling, Cooper has become an inseparable member of the family. Each event and moment with him provides inspiration daily for new perspectives on life. I sometimes use stories about Cooper in sessions with clients and the stories sometimes illustrate what is sacred in life, ways to cope and surmount difficult situations.
Cooper has helped me to see that a simple expression of care or concern can often be the catalyst for change or growth. Cooper will come over and lie by my feet – a comforting expression that alerts me to the need for connection. He lays his head on my foot and nestles in for a nap. I feel relaxed and seen, no longer invisible. Cooper has valiantly suffered through tests and illness, reminding me that we need to be courageous in times of pain or sorrow. I see Cooper’s excitement when visitors come to the door; it reminds me how wonderful it is to have people in my life that want to visit. His unabated joy of running and chasing squirrels – even though he will never catch one – reminds me to have fun. His vigilant bark when he feels threatened by a new smell or sound – reminds me to be sensibly cautious in life. His occasional days of simply sleeping and stretching remind me that it is okay to waste a day to rejuvenate.
Cooper’s approach to life can be inspiration to scale back, slow down, and simplify. Clients laugh when I share a story about him, alone a good result, and sometimes they will tell me the following week that they took my dogs advice and had a lazy day. They say this with a bit of chagrin; as if it is an awful thing to spend time taking care of themselves. Guilt surfaces and the unchecked items on a list become evidence of slacking at life, fodder for low self-esteem and feelings of failure. I push a little further, and ask them how is it that a day of rest constitutes failure at life? They think for a few moments, and they say it is not: no failures - just enjoying the dog days of summer.
What does your pet remind you to do?
Kathy Renfree is a counselor in a community mental health setting, teaches in a graduate counseling program as needed, and is looking forward to building a private practice.