DOG, The Family Therapist

May 25, 2014Image

 Amidst the uncertainties of life we can count on few things to remain the same. However, our greeting from the family dog when we return home from forays into the world is one of life’s cheerful consistencies. The tail wagging welcome, the unconditional affection, and the affirmation of one’s importance is good stuff.

When our children are young, we receive superlative welcomes on our returns to home. They rush to us and fling themselves into our embrace, twining their sweet arms around our necks and nuzzling under our chins with soft tangled locks or sweaty, small boy aroma. Then they pull back and gaze on our faces with such sparkling-eyed devotion and we can feel ourselves empowered to be the kings and queens we truly are to them in their little worlds.

Alas, it does not last. All too soon the children march into prickly individuality with frequent declarations of independence. We are then no less dispensable to their well being as we were in the earlier years, but the greetings are no longer predictable. Yet faithful family dog will always there for us with eager pants and yips of joy. Our value in the scheme of things is daily reaffirmed and sealed with a devoted lick.

How I blessed our shepherd/ yellow lab mix, especially with our sixth child, a rambunctious, fast moving two-year-old. The dog entertained him for hours with their “game”, he flinging handfuls of pebbles aloft and she catching them while I was allowed some chunks of time to actually “get something done.” Yet it is when the family approaches the adolescent years that the dog ‘therapist’ truly earns his biscuits. This is when I urge parents to consider such a family helper. One melancholic ten-year-old boy going through the end of childhood and painful new self awareness, was convinced, for a solid year, that no one in all the world loved him, except (bless that canine) the family dog.

My son-in-law, Bob, striving to maintain uprightness (and a full time job) amidst a small herd of adolescents, was not receptive when I suggested that he get a dog for the family. He had not been raised with one and in his view they were an expensive and smelly nuisance. But I was championing my grandson’s cause and kept up my pushy insistence that the twelve–year-old needed a dog, now, and would be infinitely aided by bonding with the animal before launching off the cliff of adolescent angst.

Amenable fellow that he is, Bob finally acquiesced, sending the family off to an animal Faire with orders to get a small, tractable house dog. They returned that night, apologetic, and a bit shame faced, with a large, untidy shepherd with a great lolling tongue and soulful brown eyes. Rallying from his initial irritation, Bob soon found he now had a generous and admiring colleague, who gave him constant support, in contrast to the unpredictable ricochets of admiration or condemnation the rest of the clan generated. Furthermore, Dog provided the most excellent of excuses to leave the house regularly alone for long, bracing, companionable walks and a chance to re-focus before entering the fray. The bonding and therapeutic effect was immediate.

As for grandson, his brow alternately light-filled or dark with impending storm as he cycled through the new experience of the kaleidoscoping moods of adolescence, he could push his face into Dog’s furry shoulder and take him to bed at night. There the dog ministered, warm and solid beside him as he slept those years away, gangly arms akimbo over Dog’s soft, stable presence as the boy traversed the shoals of puberty and re-found himself.

I similarly urged a father, who was in a position to do so, to get horses for his daughters. At seventeen, the eldest vacillated between the extremes of elbowing ferociously through the family into life, and tentatively touching a melancholic toe into the waters of the future. She wrote me “ I don’t know what I would do without my horses.” It was true.

One father and his wife with a houseful of adolescents spoke of the experience as being “under siege,” an apt description. As parents try to maintain equilibrium in a ship tossed on high seas, the barrages come like a cannon balls lobbed over the deck, or a battering ram to the solar plexus…. over “Curfews, Parties, Overnights, Movies, Grades, Car, Money, Clothes,all delivered with the exquisitely applied pressure the teenager can muster along with a seemingly endless supply of energy. Here Dog once again proffers his gifts. As the family sits at table, tensions, tempers and voices rising, he moves from lap to lap, pushing muzzle under hands that, unbidden, begin stroking his head and he pleads to each one with irresistible eyes to ‘lighten up’. Energy shifts. Dog lies on the floor and looks droll and funny, humbly and ever so willingly drawing them in till things hopefully dissolve into laughter.

Please do not imagine I feel down on adolescents. I do love them They are beautiful, fascinating to watch, zany, raucous, and down right fun. Ever irresistible in their exuberant verve, with hopes and ideals fresh from the fountains and fields of dreams, and splashing the effervescent holy water of life over the aging of the species, they are an experience not to be missed. Even though it be a quick glance and smile they bestow as they parade it is worth it all. But today, awash with a hard core. in-your-face media bath that passes for culture, they inevitably spill the sass over on parents and it is exhausting. Here hiring Dog makes a lot of sense, to absorb and deflect the astrality and to mellow things out wherever possible. Furthermore, for the parents to have some living, breathing, soul-endowed creature in the home that thinks you are really wonderful all the time has a lot to be said for it!

To be sure there is a trade off. Dogs need to eat-every day. They shed and tear up lawns. But their devotion to unite themselves to the family is infinite, even to shape themselves to family members, witness the often comical resemblance of owners and pets. But while we have splendid and isolating individuality, they have something we do not, a built in connectedness to the great scheme of things and they urge us on to remember that we do too. Creatively united with the great spirit archetype of dogdom they operate from peerless wisdom, and instinct. In our free choice, they would beg us to choose for Wholeness and Joy in life and ply all their furry being to that end.

To those who may feel I endow dogs with unwarranted nobility, I say watch the dynamic. When family and world are in harmony that’s the best tail-wagging happiness they know. As family therapist they serve with endless devotion every day to reassure us that life is good, and if we can all love each other, it will be the very best kind of a world.





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