One of the books I read when I adopted my first puppy in 1996 was, How To Be Your Dog’s Best Friend by The Monks of New Skete. There was a line in there that resonated so deeply with me that I wrote it down on an index card and still keep it in my desk.
“Learning the value of silence is learning to listen to, instead of screaming at, reality: opening your mind enough to find what the end of someone else’s sentence sounds like, or listening to a dog until you discover what is needed instead of imposing yourself in the name of training.”
I was twenty-two years old and struggling with major depression. I remember thinking that this was what I wanted in my life: for people to listen, not impose their own ideas about what I needed. I wanted people to sit with me. I would talk if I wanted to talk. I most certainly did not want people to tell me what they thought I needed to do to get better.
Among the things that saved me in that difficult time was getting quiet with my puppy, Bunker. With him, I instinctively slowed down. I watched. I allowed silence. I let him meander as he walked, leash free. I let him smell every blade of grass. I noticed that he lingered at the edge of the kitchen about thirty minutes before dinnertime, so I moved his dinnertime thirty minutes up.
I noticed a slight dip in his ears and a widening of his eyes when I corrected him with the leash—this helped me see that he got the correction, and that he was sensitive. If I pushed the training too hard, I knew he would shut down and pull away from me.
And in turn, what happened was one of the biggest miracles of my life. He became so acutely connected to me, that he knew when I was struggling emotionally. He would somehow sense my distress, from rooms over, and come to me and lean on me. He’d put his chin on my leg, or sit on my feet. People who train PTSD therapy dogs call this a “visitation.” There are no words. Only a gentle visit. When a person is suffering, a dog knows. Dogs are exquisitely sensitive to our shifts in moods and feelings. Pay attention to what your dog does the next time emotions are running high. Pay close, slow, careful attention. You’ll see what I mean.
When Bunker attended to me during my distress, it snapped me out of my racing thoughts and brought me back to the slow, quiet, loving pace that we set when we were both so very young. Bunker will forever be one of the biggest healing forces in my life, which is why I’ve written a book about us.
He died in 2007, and I still see signs of him everywhere. I like to believe he’s still watching, and I work hard and slow to remember all that we learned.