Originally published elsewhere, October 2, 2007
My dog Lois is teaching me to be a better, stronger, more at peace person. For years I have been looking for a guru, someone to show me what it is I’m doing wrong, why I am always stressed out and worry too much, why my stomach is always tight, and I’ve found my Buddhist teacher in my dog’s eyes and in her smile.
You see, dogs pick up on every emotion we feel. If we feel stressed, so do they. If we worry, the worry emerges in their eyes and they are worried too. There’s no other way to explain it. When we first got Lois, she was, and still is, terribly afraid of thunderstorms. At the first rumble of thunder, she will begin pacing the house, running up and down the stairs, then hide for a while in the shower stall before ripping up our bedsheets, our mattress, and our couch.
The first time this happened, I was in such a panic, I didn’t know what to do. I chased her around the house, my heart racing, not because she was tearing up the house, but because I thought she might hurt herself. Even on anti-anxiety medication, Lois acted as if the world were coming to an end. My eyes were wild with worry, and so were hers. It was a stressful couple of hours.
Then, my dog sitter, who has high-functioning autism, meaning she has autism but still functions reasonably well in normal circumstances, suggested that my husband and I just sit quietly during the thunderstorm and act as if nothing was happening. We tried it, not really convinced. During the first thunderstorm, Lois still paced, but didn’t tear up anything. During the second, the same. Then something changed. This was during a week when there were thunderstorms, literally, every day. I was going nuts, thinking I would never get through this, but I kept trying, kept breathing through it.
During the third thunderstorm, Lois paced for a while, then went to hide in “her spot” at the top of the back stairwell. She was quiet and stayed there until the coast was clear. The fourth time, it was during the middle of the night. She jumped on the bed, shaking, but after five minutes, she settled down, and eventually jumped off the bed to hide in her spot. I couldn’t believe it. And it made me wonder about autism, and if this is what Dena does when she’s faced with a fearful situation – where it feels as if everything is coming at you at once.
By being quiet and relaxed during a thunderstorm (even though much of the time I was faking it), we created a quietness and sense of relaxation in her.
Lois is teaching me to be at peace. Every time I feel stressed or freaked out, especially when we go for walks, she immediately picks up on it and acts out. But if I’m confident, strong, my stomach isn’t tight with stress, and I’m remembering to just breathe, I look at her face, she smiles at me, and all is well. I just pretend I’m a YaYa, strong and fearless, and eventually I believe it, and it happens. I am YaYa.
It’s a challenging process, but one I really want to succeed in. Not because I don’t want her to rip up the house, but because it feels so much better. In the past, I used to force myself to peace because I felt it was the right thing to do, but now with Lois, I kind of have to be at peace whether I want to be or not – if I’m not, it’s a difficult day for both of us. If I am, we both do well. By her forcing me into this state, I’m learning to go there myself all the time, and damn does that feel incredible.
She’s teaching me to be fearless, something I’ve never been able to do without faking it. What’s that saying? Fake it ’til you make it? There’s something to that. Thank you Lois, for being my mirror, and my guru. I love you.