I didn’t go see the movie this weekend not only because of the controversy surrounding the behind the scenes video of a German Shepherd being mistreated (in my opinion) during the filming, but also because I don’t need to see a movie to know the answer to the rhetorical question in the movie’s title. Thus, this is not meant as a commentary on the movie.
A dog’s purpose, as it relates to us, is to make us better humans. That’s not the dog’s job, it’s ours, and it’s one too many fail at.
History, experience and countless studies tell us that caring for anything (children, the elderly, the impoverished, animals, a down-and-out friend and everything in between) makes us better people. It improves our sense of self-worth, makes us happier, and builds our connections with the world around us. Not to say that all of us are cut out to care for everything, of course. I have no desire to care for a child or elderly person mainly because I don’t like people, but give me a dog in need and I become the canine version a Visiting Angel and won’t stop until I help that dog become the happiest dog it was meant to be.
One of the greatest dog-related quotes I ever heard was from the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Milan, who has said countless times “you don’t get the dog you want, you get the dog you need.” So many of us screw that truth up by missing the lessons our animals, and specific to this column, our dogs, teach us.
Not a day passes that I don’t learn something from my German Shepherds, Nellie (11 years old) and Maestro (10 months old). It is through their behavior that I am reminded of my faults, failings, best intentions, and truly great qualities. When I spend session after session with Maestro teaching him and finally see him get whatever it is I’m trying to teach him, I am reminded that I am a natural mentor and that patience and focus guides me in such moments. Conversely, within those sessions, my desire to kill him reminds me that I have a version of rage that bubbles within me that must always be paid attention to, checked in with and contained. While there is nothing greater than seeing your dog “get it,” there is little more frustrating than wanting to scream “why are you not learning this,” when in the middle of the process.
Both Nellie and Maestro remind me of my sweet side, a side few get to see. Few days go by which don’t include time on the floor with each or both of them just wrestling, hugging, loving and playing.
Both Nellie and Maestro also remind me daily that while I try to practice patience, it will be a lifelong battle for me to do so. When it’s 3AM, freezing cold out and they want to take their time going to the bathroom, I feel myself wondering why they aren’t as cold as me, why they’re so dumb and why I am freezing myself into a cryogenic state.
When I come home or finally retire/relax after a long day which often includes Nellie and Maestro being left to each other to be entertained, I am reminded that I must be doing something right when they both rest their big giant donkey-like heads on my leg and seemingly say “we still love you, even if the world doesn’t today.”
When Nellie rolls over when she sees me and no one else, she reminds me that I’m lovable. When Maestro nips at my hand, he reminds me I have to always demand respect, it is never given, only earned. When Nellie barks at nothing, I am reminded that I created her sense of security and I can’t tell her to not bark if she feels threatened by a bird because, hey, what if a burglar in a bird suit shows up one day?
When Maestro abandons me in the morning and hangs out with the Producers I am reminded that I have done a good job of raising a social, independent dog. I am also reminded that I’m insignificant to the world. And then, a few minutes later, I look through the window separating the studios and see Maestro sitting there, staring at me, and reminding me that in his world, I hung the moon.
That’s a dog’s purpose. It is the most perfectly designed animal companion for a human if we allow it to be. Dogs teach you about who you are, what you are, what’s wrong with you, and what’s amazing about you. Relish it, embrace it, and enjoy the ride.