“Two things I like about dogs are their endless capacity to stay in the now
and their endless capacity to be amused by things that would bore a wall.
I have much to learn from dogs!” —Cat Saunders
By Cat Saunders
With a first name like mine, you can imagine that dogs are not usually my favorite animals. I try to keep my prejudice to myself, because it’s not politically correct to be an animal bigot. My only defense is that I truly love wolves, and they are, admittedly, canines. Perhaps there is hope for me yet.
On the other side of the coin is my partner, John, who adores dogs. Since he and I first got together in 1987, one of my worst fears is that I might have to choose between John and a dog—or no John at all. Fortunately, it’s unlikely that John himself would force such a decision. Since I adore John, however, I’ve been working on my dog prejudice, in hopes that someday I might be able to share my life with John, cats, and—oh my god—a dog.
Working on my prejudice means working on my “shadow” side. I’ve long since recognized that dogs play out many of the shadow characteristics that I most deplore. I won’t tell you what those characteristics are, because if I did, all you dog lovers out there would probably hang me from the nearest hydrant.
On the up side, I’ve noticed that dogs have many qualities that I actually admire. This is one of the bonuses of shadow work: discovering that the “monster” that repels me also holds some of the qualities I need.
Two things I like about dogs are their endless capacity for staying in the now, and their endless capacity to be amused by things that would bore a wall. I have much to learn from dogs! Perhaps this is why dogs always seem to like me and seek me out—because they know I need help learning what they already know.
Unlike me, John has never had to cultivate a liking for canines. To give you an idea about how John is with dogs, let me tell you about his longtime favorite, Zeke. Zeke is about 100 pounds of Rottweiler, German shepherd, and Doberman. He actually lives with John’s mom, Sally Giovine-Kerr, but everyone-including Sally—knows that Zeke is completely devoted to John.
Much to Sally’s consternation, Zeke totally ignores her commands whenever John gets within 10 feet of Sally’s ‘house. Seeing John and Zeke together is like watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance: you wouldn’t think of cutting in.
Over the past several years, I’ve been closely observing John and Zeke, trying to understand John’s attraction for the canine species. It’s a bit humbling, but I’ve noticed that there are quite a few similarities between the way John treats Zeke and the way he treats me.
When I was thinking about how to describe what I like about John’s style with dogs—and with me—I kept hearing the words of Aretha Franklin’s old song. You know the one: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me!” I decided to let each of those letters represent a different aspect of John’s style of loving.
“R” is for Responsibility. In any relationship, you can usually discern the basic level of respect by noticing how the issue of responsibility is handled. Let me give you an example from John and Zeke. When both of them want to roughhouse, there is an interesting power imbalance that brings up issues of responsibility.
Obviously, Zeke is a big dog, and he could go for John’s throat. However, if Zeke gets carried away and chomps down too hard on John, a simple “Zeke, be nice!” will stop Zeke dead in his tracks. IN other words, Zeke’s physical capabilities are counterbalanced by his sense of responsibility, which is born of his love and respect for John.
On the other side, because John knows Zeke is totally devoted and vulnerable to John’s every nuance of feeling and command, John has power over Zeke. Thus, John is responsibility for playing fair by setting clear boundaries and not abusing his position of power.
This delicate balance of power and responsibility holds true in John’s relationship with me, too. Though I have a fierce survival instinct, it’s obvious that John could overpower me in a second. However, he respects my power (he will stop if I say stop) and he loves me completely. Therefore I can trust him to roughhouse with me in a responsible way—whether it’s physical (in play) or verbal (in conflict).
After “R” for Responsibility comes “E” for Encouragement. It is delightful to see how John encourages Zeke to be Zeke. Recently, John came home and announced that Zeke was blue that day, for no apparent reason. John didn’t try to cheer him up; he simply let Zeke be. In the same way, John encourages me to feel whatever I’m feeling. Even when I’m blue, he still likes to be around me. In my family of origin, dark moods were grounds for banishment, so it is very healing for me to be loved and wanted, no matter what.
After “E” for Encouragement comes “S” for Safety. One of the first things I did when I started dating John was to watch him with animals. My favorite thing was to watch how he stroked cats—my fantasies had a heyday!
Aside from that, I noticed that no matter what kind of animals John approached, they all felt safe with him. This has become one of my standards for discerning a core level “safety rating” for people. Generally speaking, if animals stay away from someone, I will, too.
Following “S” for Safety, there is “P” for Patience. I think John is the most patient man I know. In regard to Zeke, it’s apparent that there is nothing Zeke could do to alienate John. In fact, his patience does not seem like effort; it’s more like an outgrowth of genuine compassion for Zeke’s way of being.
John extends the same kind of patience to me. Believe me, I can be a royal pain in the butt I can be sometimes. Since I’m aware of this, I am all the more appreciative of John’s ability to be patient with me.
Sometimes John even invents creative ways to trick me out of my patterns. One of my favorite tricks is when he sweeps me up in his arms and dances me around the kitchen until I drop the bullshit. This kind of patient “back door” response makes it easier to drop a pattern, knowing I won’t be shamed for it.
After “P” for Patience comes “E” for Enjoyment. In this regard, John doesn’t just treat me like a dog; he acts like one. He seems to find me endlessly amusing, even when I’m doing things that would bore a wall.
Sometimes he likes to watch me—just for kicks—when I wash my face or make a snack. Occasionally, if he crowds my space, I growl at him. In fact, he’s the one who taught me to use animal sounds for simple human communications. Animal sounds are blatantly clear, effective, and fun—and they’re easier than words not to take personally.
Most of the time when John comes after me, I don’t growl at all. I purr, because I relish his lavish attention. He expresses his love for me as freely as he breathes. And he has brought me flowers nearly every week throughout our many years together, just because he enjoys doing it. Eat your heart out, Zeke!
“E” for Enjoyment is followed by “C” for Commitment. In John’s relationship with Zeke, John is not committed “to” Zeke. Rather, he is committed to being fully himself, and he is committed to encouraging Zeke to be fully himself. This may sound obvious. However, in my practice as a counselor, I’ve noticed that many people believe commitment means committing to another person.
To me, that’s akin to selling your soul. For John and me, commitment is about committing to a process. It’s about committing to the process of discovering how to be more fully ourselves as individuals within the context of our relationship.
Last of all, after Responsibility, Encouragement, Safety, Patience, Enjoyment, and Commitment, there’s “T” for Trust. I used to think that trust meant being able to count on people to do what I thought they should do. It took me a long time to realize that kind of trust had more to do with fear and control than with respect.
What I notice about John and Zeke is that John’s trust in Zeke includes allowances for times when Zeke acts in unpredictable or conflictive ways. In the previous example about their roughhousing, I mentioned that Zeke sometimes draws blood instead of laughter from John. This doesn’t make John stop trusting Zeke.
Instead, John realizes that trusting Zeke means trusting Zeke to be himself—including Zeke reverting to behaviors that are more in keeping with is wild animal ancestry. We all have wild animal ancestry, and sometimes the qualities of our Neanderthal ancestors pop up at the most inopportune times.
When I think about John’s ‘style of relating to me—or to Zeke—it is apparent that respect is at the heart of his way of loving. Obviously, John extends love to me in many ways that he does not extend to Zeke. Being a Cat does have its privileges! All things considered, it’s a good life, being treated like a dog. Woof woof!
This article was originally published by The New Times in September 1994 and updated in June 2017.
Surrounded by family and friends in the midst of love and tears, Zeke died peacefully on July 6, 2001. He was 13. To read the story of Zeke’s final day, please see “A Warrior Dog’s Last Dance: Facing Death with Dignity and Grace.”
Surrounded by family and friends in the midst of love and tears, Sally died peacefully on April 11, 2006. She was 82. To read the story of Sally’s final day, please see “A Wild Woman Dies Well: My ‘Mother-in-Spirit’ Shows the Way.”
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).