One of the things I love most about animals is that every single one of them has the capacity to teach us something. Take our sweet dog, Elle, for example. Elle, a 4-year-old Lhasa Apso mix, is one of those dogs that always has a bounce in her step, a twinkle in her eye, and a smile in her heart. Most dogs I know are happy, but Elle takes it to another level. She has an incredible knack for finding the fun in any situation, and the look on her face when she’s inviting you to play always elicits a smile in return. Elle is a born peacekeeper, and she is highly intuitive when it comes to sensing when someone—dog or human—is feeling a bit down. She always seems to know when a game will cheer someone up, or when quiet companionship is needed. She’s not what I would call a lap dog, but she has a tender way of being that at once comforts and soothes.
My boyfriend, Adam, got Elle from a local shelter when she was 3 months old. He started taking her to the dog park, letting her explore and learn how to relate to dogs of all sizes, ages, and dispositions. She is one of the best socialized dogs I’ve ever seen, and many is the time that I’ve seen Elle at the dog park, leading a game of chase with so many dogs involved that it’s a blur. She in inclusive, and seems to know instinctively how to draw dogs out of their shells. She hasn’t quite managed to figure out how to get our cat, Gryphon, to play, but I am confident that she’ll crack the code someday.
Elle leads by example, and that’s how she taught me valuable lessons. Two different situations will illustrate what I mean.
After my dog Guenivere (Gwinnie) passed away a few years ago, I was broken-hearted. Gwinnie was one of the most loving dogs I’ve ever known, and her loss left me reeling. One afternoon, several weeks after she was gone, I was sitting on the bed, feeling absolutely bereft. Gwinnie was the one who had always comforted me when I was feeling lonely or sad, and now Gwinnie was gone, and her loss, along with the thought that I wouldn’t know that gentle, unconditional, loving companionship in quite that way again, was so hard to bear. Suddenly, I felt a gentle pressure against my leg. I looked down, and saw Elle leaning against my leg. She was, quite literally, leaning—she would have fallen over if I had moved my leg. She was gazing up at me, and wagging her tail in a slow, steady rhythm. I put my hand down, and she nuzzled her face into my hand. And she stayed there until I moved, her weight against my leg a tangible symbol that she would be by my side, supporting me, for as long as I needed. She was only a year and half or so at the time, and generally very high energy, but she knew instinctively that what I needed was a gentle love, not a game, and she offered me that unconditionally. The gift she gave me that day was incredible.
I was able to witness firsthand how she offered the gift of unconditional love to another creature that needed it, with finesse and insight. When we first adopted Motley, he was suspicious of other dogs and, it was clear, had never learned how to play. He would growl and snap if another dog came close, and if one touched him, he would erupt. The other dogs gave him a wide berth, for the most part, but Elle took it on herself to teach him that he could have friendships with other dogs. It started slowly—she would come up to him and then lay down so that he didn’t feel vulnerable (he’s shorter and lighter than she is). She got closer and closer, and would sometimes come up and play bow and then dash away. At first, he just stood there and growled, but eventually, he started to run after her. She would let him chase her, moving slower than her usual speed because at that point, he couldn’t keep up with her. When he caught her, she would fall down on the ground and roll over, tail wagging, with a big smile on her face. Once he got used to the concept of play chasing, she started to wrestle with him a bit, always being mindful of his limits. She refused to be put off by his posturing, but she never pushed him to the point where he actually felt cornered. Eventually, after a few months, the two of them were playing together daily, and Motley was able to start learning how to transfer those skills to other dogs. When he and Barkley started playing together, Elle would stay close by, watching. If it got rough, she would bounce in between the two of them in a playful way, defusing the situation, and then step back when they were calmer and let them play again. It was skillful and amazing to witness, but it was no surprise. She’s an amazing dog.
So what is the lesson for me in all of this? Elle taught me that tuning in to what another being is feeling, and understanding where they’re at, is absolutely imperative if you are going to reach them. She also taught me the value of paying attention to what others need. This sounds simple, but it’s so profound. How many of us do things for others because they’re things we want, or because we’ve been told that’s what we’re supposed to do? Gary Chapman wrote a book called The Five Love Languages, and it touches on this. We all have a “love language” (and often more than one), and we tend to try to show our love to those around us using our own primary love language. If, for example, our primary love language is gifts, we feel we’ve received love from another when they give us gifts. If the person we’re expressing love to, though, has a primary love language of words of affirmation, giving them gifts doesn’t have the same impact for them as it would for us. So many of us, though, default to showing our love based on our own love language, and then we are confused when it isn’t received in the depth or way we intend. Elle, though, doesn’t do that. She observes what the dog, or person, needs and wants, and then moves to give it to them. She was able to show Motley love, friendship, and inclusion in a pack through play in a way that he could receive. She was able to give me comfort in exactly the way that I needed it most. If she weren’t aware of that, she probably would have approached me much differently—perhaps with an invitation to play a game, which is her favorite thing. But she sensed that wasn’t what I needed, and she was able to selflessly give me what I needed. Same with Motley. She restrained her own normal way of playing until he was able to understand that she was a friend and could accept full play. I’ve seen her do this countless times with other dogs and people…watching them, gauging what they need, and then providing that to the best of her ability.
Elle has taught me, and continues to show me, how to be better. She embodies a way to really touch those around us in a way that’s more about them than ourselves. She has an empathy that is rare and wonderful, and I am inspired each day by her. She is at my feet right now as I write this, quietly sleeping. I know that if I needed her and woke her up, she would immediately assess the situation and move to give me whatever she thought I needed. She epitomizes selflessness and unconditional love. I treasure her, and each day, I strive to be that much more like her.