I have to confess, I’m crazy about dogs. Some might say I’m a fanatic, that I confuse dog-nature with Buddhanature. That’s not quite it, but over the years, my life with dogs has helped me understand a lot about my own mind. So it was for me a happy coincidence that my sixtieth birthday this last January 29 fell on the first day of the Chinese Year of the Dog. According to lore, those born in a dog year (such as my birth year, 1946) are said to be protectors of the weak and exemplars of loyalty and watchfulness. And in Tibetan iconology, this is a fire dog year, with fire symbolizing joy. While I don’t exactly excel in any of the above qualities, I do try.
Our pup Roxie is a rescue dog. She came into our life soon after that insane afternoon when I felt like jumping out the window. Coinciding fights with my eighty-five-year-old mum and sixteen-year-old daughter had left me in what felt like an impossible squeeze. And I’d found myself driven to do and say things I couldn’t even recognize.
The next day my mother, daughter and I all went to the animal shelter together. Past the two-storied pens of kittens were the pens of dogs, mostly puppies. Roxie (then “Betty”) shared a pen with two other pups. She tussled sweetly with the border collie, then cleaned the ears of the tiny lab. With silky ears and soulful eyes and a face like our last dog, Cleo, Roxie snagged me. She leapt at the side of the pen, wriggling and wagging, and licked me all over my face, wet now with tears. That was it. I was had.
When we brought Roxie home, she peed or shat next to, or on, every bed in the house, then, with ceremonious flair, on my meditation mat. Some might have been angry, packed her up and brought her right back to the shelter. But we couldn’t stop laughing—which was something we’d been doing all too rarely. In recent months, as my daughter seemed suddenly an all-out teenager, we’d all been taking ourselves, and our conflicts, very seriously. In a series of miscommunications, both with my daughter and my mum, no matter what happened, I’d taken it personally—felt blamed by them or had blamed myself.
At our local dog park, there’s a lot of laughing. The dogs play with abandon—chase, sniff, wrestle, nip and tumble—while their humans chat, watch and laugh. Roxie runs around ragged and muddy, neck fur sticky with dirt, grass and slobber. And I am unaccountably satisfied.
In the early-morning crowd, I meet an Indian couple with a little pug puppy, Mahi (“companion” in Hindi). Roxie adores Mahi. The two circle, leap and roll, darting in and out between the wife’s legs. “Oh, don’t you wish you were a puppy?” I exclaim. With his cadenced Hindi intonation, the husband comments, “Many people would like to be reincarnated as a dog.” The story draws a wry response when I tell it to my husband, Patrick: “Not in India . . . maybe in France.”
On our regular walking trail, I often see a boxer trotting ahead of two women. I call out, “Do you hike this trail every day?” The older one replies, “I do,” continuing at her brisk pace. And I, “How many years?” “Two dogs, then this one,” she shouts back. T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock measured his life in coffee spoons, but others do it in dogs.
Or it could be in rescue dogs. For the past year I’ve been writing about the rescue and transformation of the discarded—garbage of all kinds—garbage art, garbage mind. I’ve coined the term “garbage dogs” for dogs that have been thrown out, abandoned. And I’ve become fascinated with dog rescue. This past year at Berkeley Animal Control, of the 780 live dogs turned in, 344 were returned to owners, 220 adopted by individuals, 144 rescued by rescue groups, and 72 euthanized.
At the dog park, I’ve met people who dedicate their lives to rescuing dogs. Some rescue the blind, deaf or three-legged. Others rescue dogs drowning in the bay or purposely starved and weakened to become “pit bait” (thrown into the pit in training pit bulls to fight). Some only rescue pit bulls, known for recent attacks in the Bay Area, where I live, and the most at-risk to be thrown out and euthanized. The dogs and their rescuers move me, touch off my imagination, tap into my dreams and my nightmares.
The rescuer who moves me the most is Pali Boucher. Raised on the street, she suffered from addiction, HIV and homelessness. As a child, she took care of pigeons, feral cats and junkyard dogs. As an adult, in and out of jail, she lost track of her rescued hound Charlie. He had bitten somebody, been taken to Animal Control and put to sleep. “It was the first time in my life I realized that I wasn’t just affecting myself by going out and getting loaded, that I was directly responsible for the pain of somebody else.” Later, Pali fell in love with another rescued hound, this one a howler, Leadbelly. After another stint in jail, she checked herself in to a detox program so she could tend to him. “He helped me learn to take care of myself by taking care of him.” She ended up founding Rocket Dog Rescue, which saves dogs scheduled for euthanasia throughout California. So Pali and Leadbelly saved each other, then opened out to all sentient beings—or at least the kind with four legs and wagging tails.
On the hiking trail, with my own rescue pup, I’m trying to do some basic training. I cajole her with treats as I repeat commands: “Heel, heel, heel, Roxie. Stop, Roxie. Heel.” I need to stay focused or we lose our connection. After each lapse, I revive my efforts. “Come, Roxie. Sit, Roxie. Look at me.” She cocks her head, ears alert, eyes vulnerable. In one such moment, I think of St. Exupery’s fox, who beseeches the little prince, “S’il te plaît, apprivoise-moi” (Please tame me).
Forty-five years ago, in high school French class, I first read that story and even memorized favorite parts. “What does it mean, to tame?” the little prince asks. The fox replies, “Créer des liens” (To create ties).
As I hike and try to keep my attention on Roxie, my thoughts amble this way and that. To create ties: isn’t this what I’m doing with the pup? What one might do with any dog, particularly a rescue—a throwaway—whose ties with others have been cut?
In training Roxie, I’m finding ways to strengthen those ties. She learns the timbre of my voice, my most subtle gestures, and how these reveal what pleases me (not necessarily her first priority!). I in turn learn the gradations of her yelps and whines, her gait, the cock of her ears, the tension in her hackles. The fox tells the little prince, “One truly knows only what one has tamed.”
As I “tame” Roxie, I begin to know her ways. When I let her into the yard and close the door, she wants back in. When she joins me in the bathroom and I close the door, she wants out. Bam! She plunges against that door, scratching, yelping. Let me out! In. Out. I’ll never know what she once went through—perhaps shaming, punishment, abandonment, being locked in or shut out. But as I find ways to develop what feels like a fragile trust—to be watchful, steadfast, kind—my own unremembered counterparts to her history seem to heal. And dreaming of those rescued pit bulls, I heal as well. I contact something restless and untamed in myself, that could leap suddenly, teeth bared, and I rescue that too.
The analogy between training a pup and training the mind has become irresistible. So many of the same principles apply. St. Exupery’s fox insists you have to be patient, to take small steps in building trust, to tame through “rites”—coming home at the same time, for instance, each day. The fox’s instructions sound like what one might hear from the teachers on a meditation retreat.
Most compelling to me is the fox’s conclusion: “You become responsible forever for what you have tamed.” Once we know one another and recognize our ties, we are responsible each to each and can never abandon one another. When I read The Little Prince as a teenager, that part always brought tears. Now too. I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it’s because it suggests a covenant so often broken. I think of Pali Boucher, how such a commitment inspired her to grow, how she took drastic steps to get sober so she could live out her responsibility to Leadbelly.
No matter how long one trains the mind, its tendency is to break free. Likewise, it seems, with an energetic young dog. One day on the trail, Roxie bolts into the woods, ignoring my calls. I call and call. But no return. In a panic, I start shouting and running every which way, my thoughts full of catastrophe, anger, self-blame. Finally, I sit down right on the ground and cry. Later, Roxie comes charging out of the woods, exuberant, having had quite a lark. I leash her up. How could she?
Now I walk with Roxie on a long leash, attempting to train her to come when called. Other dogs lope by, sniffing up the deer paths and down toward the creeks. Sometimes I try to explain the leash to the humans. I tell the tale—the romp/the woods/the shouts/the tears. In one such exchange, I say, “Mine ran away from me.” The fellow mumbles something I can barely hear. All I catch is, “Probably to, not from.” It’s not until several days later that I think I get what he meant. Not from me, but to adventure—to potent smells of fox, raccoon or deer; to streaming grasses and the shade of pines; to the excitement of the unknown. When I take a good look at how I framed it, I see that I thought it all revolved around me, who, after all, had rescued her, fed her, kept her warm, walked her for miles. . . . I see the shadow side of rescue, how attached I am to the role of rescuer.
One day, a dog trainer friend comments to me on this danger: “For some who devote their lives to rescuing animals, suffering is precious. The suffering of the creatures they rescue has no meaning without reference to themselves.” A fair warning. Pride in the self is blindness. I start noticing this increasingly in all of my relationships. The sages say it’s the toughest of the defilements of mind to uproot in the path toward buddhahood.
Despite many blindnesses, lapses and reversals, something has changed in our family. I comment on this to my daughter, on how we all seem more harmonious. She says, without detail, “It has to do with Roxie, don’t you think?”
I do. A little more watchfulness, more joy and less self does a lot for family relations.
Isn’t that the way? A bodhisattva on the dog path sets out to rescue others and is surprised to be rescued too. There’s a feeling of completion because what was missing is now back in the fold. The pup is reclaimed and the human is reclaimed. They reclaim each other, re-creating a whole.
Thanks to Sally Stephens for her article in The Woofer Times, January 2006, on Pali Boucher, and to Paul Klein, dog (and human) trainer par excellence.
Barbara Gates is happy to live in Berkeley, California, where, according to city ordinance, she is described not as a dog “owner” but an “owner/guardian.”