My dog was a gift. Roxy was offered to me a year ago by friends who couldn’t keep her any longer, and she’s been the strangest, most unwieldy and challenging boon I’ve ever been given. Subsequently, she is not mine, I’m hers. I feel as if she chose my family for this stage in her life – and she came to us fully intact, with her name already in place, her individual foibles and crazy brilliance.
I could argue that any pet doesn’t really belong to us. They are sentient beings, with mind and heart and agency, so to think of them as belongings, like a new car or computer, is to flirt with a slavery mentality. Roxy is equal to me in her capacity to love, in her needs and desires. I’m her custodian but not her owner. Like having a child, I’m briefly blessed with the responsibility of caring and devotion. In 30,000 years of human and canine cohabitation, the bond we’ve forged with dogs is more than a marriage of convenience. When Roxy looks at me, long and unblinking from her almond-shaped eyes, I see intelligence and wisdom, simultaneously deeper yet more innocent than my own.
Roxy is a white Samoyed, a breed emerging from the nomadic Sami tribe in Siberia and Sweden. The dogs were originally bred to herd reindeer, pull sleds, and look after sleeping babies. Roxy is not a guard dog; she’s too trusting for that. She’ll bark and even growl at other dogs or people in the distance, warning me they’re approaching, and if people don’t get any closer they assume she’s vicious and that she’s male. But as soon as they come near she smiles that quintessential Samoyed smile, wags her tail and offers her paw to shake.
Roxy is my guru. She’s taught me to take pure delight in the little things; a good meal, a short stroll, soft sand, wet grass, cool water – as she does. To be happy for no reason whatsoever. She lies completely still in the early morning, waiting for my daughter to wake. As soon as the whole family is up, she throws her head back and howls like a wolf in jubilation. She guzzles coconut oil from my fingers. She loves a bull’s penis – commonly called ‘bully chews’ – when she can get one, and often leaves them in pride of place on my pillow if I’ve gone out.
When I practice yoga, she comes and lays her head on my outstretched arms, tickling my face with her whiskers, panting her doggy breath, or rests her paw on my chest when I’m upside down with my legs up over my head. She licks any creature smaller than her, including humans. When I mention or even spell out the magic word ‘walk’, she’s suddenly alert, pointy ears forward, head cocked to one side. At night, when the candles are lit in my bedroom and the rest of the house is dark, she settles with a heavy sigh at the end of the bed, collapsing her body in a heap. And she snores, louder than my husband.
Through watching Roxy and sitting in silence alongside her, I’ve learned important lessons. I’ve learned that unconditional love and acceptance is available to me whatever is happening externally in my day or my life. The mere act of patting Roxy boosts my oxytocin levels, the ‘love’ hormone activated during breastfeeding and making love. This tenderness I can now contact with ease colours all aspects of my life: my relationships with family, friends and even the strangers I encounter. Even more profound is our symbiosis; when a dog looks into our eyes, the same surge in identical hormones occurs.
Roxy exists in a space that is often unavailable to me, wedded as I am to ambition, busy-ness, control and perfectionism. Yet the mere fact of her being there, resting under my desk as I write, softens my perception. I don’t claim to understand what goes on in a dog’s brain (though canine researchers are beginning to have an inkling) yet for me Roxy’s experience of this world operates beyond thought. She is in flow with being, without the handicap of my incessant stream of observations and judgments chopping up reality into cause and effect, like and dislike, good or bad. For her, it all just is.
I’ve learned spontaneous fun with Roxy. Most of us in adulthood don’t often take the time to play without attachment to outcome. We jog or go to the gym, play sport or paint a picture. But we don’t often indulge in the sort of directionless play that is possible with a dog. Roxy has taught me to frolic, to be endlessly curious, open to anything, to cultivate ‘beginner’s mind.’ She leaps in the air, dances, but doesn’t bother to run. She disdains balls or sticks. She wants to play with birds, cats and rabbits, avidly wagging her tail. Needless to say, the feeling is not mutual. So she bounds off, taking her attention elsewhere. She shows me not to take life so seriously.
Roxy exists beyond time. She doesn’t dwell on the past with guilt or regret, nor is she anxious about the future. She doesn’t make up stories in her head that she believes, like I do. She’s more at peace than a Zen monk. She has taught me both surrender and the freedom of interconnection. When the house is quiet, she simply rests her head on one paw and closes her eyes. If I didn’t know better I’d think she was meditating. She’s at one with the ebb and flow of life, transcending the pain/pleasure, loss/gain, fame/disgrace cycles Buddhists call samsara. She can encompass it all. And when the time comes for another walk, she’s ready in a shot, whatever is going on. She just smiles her beatific smile.