LESSONS MY DOG HAS TAUGHT ME
LESSON #2: The Pack is Everything
Let’s face it, all animals, even the human animal, are pack animals. We cling to our groups, clans, tribes, cults, gangs, and, the tightest pack of all, families just as much as any other creature on earth. Perhaps this comes out of some predetermined, ingrained, and hardwired desire to belong to a collective unit that shares common values with us. Life is not a solitary endeavour. Instead, it is an interdependent web of relationships that inevitably winds up with a person becoming part of a group.
Dogs can teach us a lot about pack/group formation. To a canine, the pack is everything. Here are a few things my dog Reilly has taught me about being in his pack:
HONOUR YOUR CLOSEST PACK MEMBERS
Whether it’s the guy who walks and feeds you or someone who you just like to sit beside on the couch, Reilly is quick to show warmth and kinship for the people he lives with. When I get home from work, I can count on Reilly to give me a warm reception. He excitedly lets me know that he’s glad I’m home and that, pretty soon, I will be taking him for a walk. He gives similar welcomes to my wife Sharon and my sons Adam and Liam. He shows us that we are his immediate human family and that he counts on us to keep him in the lifestyle to which he has grown accustomed.
Reilly and Sharon have developed a strong bond over the past few years. Occasionally she will join us for one of our walks – particularly when we are up at our place in Thornbury. When Reilly is sure that Sharon is coming with us, he places himself right by her side as if to say, “Great, you’re coming. I am just making sure you stay close.” If I put the leash on him, he actually corals her, walking around her and pulling her toward the door with the leash. And, the coolest part of it all, the next walk after Sharon has joined us, he lovingly stares her down with an “aren’t you coming with us?” look that sometimes melts her resistance and brings her out for another stroll. This is how Reilly shows Sharon that she is a key piece in the pack puzzle.
Reilly and Liam
BE OPEN TO WELCOMING NEWCOMERS INTO THE PACK
When someone arrives at our house for a visit, Reilly immediately seeks to bring them into the pack. He does this by running around the person and jumping up on them (which we haven’t been able to train him not to do!). His ears stay down in submission and he gently chews on their hands to let you know (a) he is not vicious and (b) he wants them to be part of his pack.
Visitors also get the lion’s share of the attention when they come to our house. Reilly is quite reluctant to listen to me (I like to think of myself as the pack leader) because he is too busy trying to ensure that the visitor has officially joined the pack (meanwhile most people become Reilly’s ally as soon as they meet him – he just can’t see it, perhaps because he is a dog).
This openness also extends to our forays into the community. When Reilly and I are on a walk, he is quick to try to bond with most people he meets – particularly kids. Case in point: We have a large hill along a greenbelt by our house. It’s a popular sledding spot in winter for local kids looking for a slide. As Reilly and I walk past the hill, he’ll tug and tug to try to get out there and play with the kids. In fact, on one occasion, when Reilly was just over a year old, he took off from our house, across a fairly busy street, over to the hill. We were unloading groceries from the car at the time and didn’t notice he was gone. By the time we realized Reilly was missing, and figured out he must have gone to the hill, he had probably visited almost every kid with a toboggan. When my wife and I arrived and cast our gaze across the winter landscape, we eventually spotted Reilly with two paws on a little girl’s shoulders as she sat on her toboggan at the bottom of the hill. He was licking her frozen face with great zeal. She was thrilled and so was Reilly because, in his mind, he had just brought a newcomer into his pack.
TRUST YOUR GUT
While Reilly might be open to letting just about any human into his pack, he is much more cautious with other dogs. Ever since he had a run in with a psychotic 80-pound Boxer, Reilly has been a little more timid when it comes to fraternizing with other canines. In a sense, Reilly goes with a gut feeling with fellow dogs before he gets too close and nine times out of ten he’s right. The dogs he approaches tend to be friendly and the dogs he shies away from tend to be overly aggressive jerks (if a dog can be a jerk).
Overall, I have learned a lot from my dog about the value of pack life. I try not to take those closest to me for granted and I try to give them the respect that is their due. I try to express an openness that allows others to be a part of my life – whether that entails a friendly exchange with a clerk at a store (or a fellow dog walker when I’m out with Reilly) or something deeper, like the kind of meaning of life revelations that one might share with a family member or friend. Reilly’s openness has taught me to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. However, he has also taught me to trust my gut and, when the alarm bells ring in my belly, to be extra cautious with some people. This is just sensible.
This is not to say that I wouldn’t have figured these things out if it weren’t for Reilly. It’s just a lot more fun figuring things out with him in my life.