A couple of weeks ago, I adopted a dog from the animal shelter. His name is Finnegan, and he is the best ever: he is snoring belly-up beside me as I write this.
I wanted a dog partly because my life is crazy: I write, teach, perform poetry, offer workshops, and manage a yoga studio and all of its teachers and their workshops. Every week is different, and sticking to a routine feels a bit like trying to catch a cloud. I’m in front of people all the time, and I needed a reason to come home and take care of myself and another being.
So far, it’s working. My mom keeps insisting I’m in the “honeymoon period,” and soon I’ll stop enjoying late evening walks to clear my head, picking up poop, and shoving my finger into Finnegan’s throat to pull out whatever it was he picked up off the ground to chew on. I don’t believe her.
I made the decision to adopt Finnegan a bit backwards. I’d been obsessing about wanting a dog for months, but not doing any real preparation about it because I wasn’t sure I was ready. I deliberately did not write down “get a dog” in my New Year’s Intentions for that same reason. I just went to the shelter one day and got him. Now that he is in my house, I have to figure out all kinds of things, like what to feed him and how to walk him and how to try to convince him that I’m the alpha dog.
A few years ago, a Chinese astrologer advised me that because there is so much Metal and Air in my chart, which involves a lot of thinking and worrying, I should try to spend more time around dogs, whose element is generally Earth. I was not expecting the "Dog Whisperer" himself, Cesar Millan, to confirm this advice for me. Dogs are simple, he says. They live in the moment. They do not obsess about the past or worry about the future the way I do. A dog does not wonder why he loves his ball so much, or worry if his ball addiction is affecting his relationships and career aspirations. He just loves his ball. When the ball is not there, he loves his bone or his bed or the person who wants to snuggle with him. Simple.
Dogs, like people, require appropriate boundaries, consistency, and compassion—the same qualities required of, say, a yoga teacher and studio owner. Pack leaders must project, in Millan’s words, “calm, assertive energy.” Whatever is projected by the leaders will be manifested by those being led, and not only in dog society. The Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese philosophy text, has the following lines on leadership:
Like water, the sage abides in a humble place;
in meditation, without desire;
in thoughtfulness, he is profound,
and in his dealings, kind.
In speech, sincerity guides the man of Tao,
and as a leader, he is just.
In management, competence is his aim,
and he ensures the pacing is correct.
Because he does not act for his own ends,
nor cause unnecessary conflict,
he is held to be correct
in his actions towards his fellow man.
Dogs don’t speak English, so they are adept at understanding the kind of energy and body language I am often too busy or impatient to notice. Listening to your dog is a lot like listening to your body; there are cues there that your mind is not acknowledging. “If you want to know how you feel,” Millan offers, “look at your dog.” This morning I was in a bad mood, and Finnegan was uncharacteristically barking at everything. It was exactly what I felt like doing.
He also barks when he can feel that something is wrong, even when he can’t see it. He wants to meet everyone in the park and say hello, so I admonished him when he started barking at a figure coming closer when we were out after dark. This man was cradling a glass of whiskey, stumbling drunk, menacing. As we walked away, it occurred to me that there are times to trust my dog rather than try to constantly bend him to my own will. Except, of course, for the time he barked, terrified, at a garbage bag. I’m pretty sure that was just a garbage bag.
Finnegan is teaching me about my “No” as well as my “Yes.” He’s showing me all the ways I will continue to be humbled by my mistakes, to be more patient, listen more, and become a better teacher and leader. Two weeks in, and I already feel that Finnegan is the best yoga teacher I have ever found. Now I just have to train him to get off my yoga mat.