As any of my friends can attest, I am a lover of dogs. I love my dog, of course, but I also have a huge soft spot for all dogs. Okay, I’m pretty enthusiastic about all animals truly, but dogs! Dogs. I love dogs.
I have a friend, Tia, who has several big dogs, who she takes for big pack walks nearly every day, in fact she loves her dogs so much that she has made an entire business out of taking care of, and giving a loving home to, dogs.
Two members of her pack are former street dogs, strays who before coming into her life survived by their own instincts and the kindness of strangers. They were fearful of humans and she worked very hard to earn their trust and to support them in their socialization to humans.
I imagine that for a stray dog, coming to live with Tia is a bit like being adopted into the royal family. Suddenly there is a warm, soft place to sleep, gentle humans attending to you at almost all times, a sweet pack of other (royal) dogs, huge walks, tasty food at regular intervals, and the other members of the pack are very entitled to all the love and treats they get. Every morning all the dogs jump on her bed and get all the rubs and love they can get, while at night she invites them all up on her massive couch while she does her admin work. And yes, she bought this massive couch specifically so that they could all fit on it at the same time.
The most recent of these dogs is named Mirimar, and was particularly fearful at first, but can now accept rubs from visitors, and asks for food from pretty much anyone in her home who happens to be eating something tasty. It has taken a long time, and is an incredible testament to Tia’s patience and understanding that she has come this far. For months, everyone who came in the house was given strict instructions to not approach her or to try and touch her, even if she was coming close. Tia was fiercely protective of Mirimar’s space and safety, and as a result she has gone from a dog who cowered for days upon coming in the house, to almost a normal pet. However, she still flinches at sudden movements, shrinks when someone raises a hand to pet her too quickly or from the wrong angle, and runs away when people walk too fast or with too much purpose. As I sat next to her on the couch the other day, enjoying her warmth and softness, I got up quickly to grab something from the kitchen. And this sweet little dog, not trusting me entirely, jumped off the couch and skirted away. Sure, logically she probably knew I wasn’t going to hurt her, but her instincts are strong, and they kicked in with lightning speed. She quickly realized that she didn’t need to hide, however, stopped suddenly, then climbed slowly back on to the couch, head lowered.
Literally every person who comes into Tia’s home wants to give this dog love and affection, but she still has a hard time accepting it – though she gets better all the time.
It made me think about how similar we are to our canine friends, and how hard it can be to trust and to accept love. To know that we have a right to exist, to take up space, and to be welcome in our wholeness. If we have endured certain kinds of hardship in our lives, suffered abuse, or simply been told we are “too much”, then it can feel safer to do without than to allow ourselves to be relaxed, soft and vulnerable, even when we are presented with love and nourishment. It can be scary to be held tenderly, to let go of control in our relationships, and we can find ourselves triggered at the most innocuous moments. And that’s in the best of circumstances! Mirimar has the best situation any of us could ever hope for – Tia is her fierce protector and I doubt she will ever be harmed again. In reality, we still need to be assessing whether we are safe or not, while also practicing opening up to people who are trustworthy. (note: here is a practical resource if this is something you are working on right now)
What I want to say to you is that’s okay. Healing takes time. Be gentle with yourself. It’s a practice, and I believe in you.
I sometimes wonder if Mirimar ever feels discouraged as she sees her packmates jump up into Tia’s arms, while she gingerly climbs up, as if checking to see if she is really welcome. As I watched her take a few cautious steps back towards me, I was suddenly struck by the memory of fear I’ve felt many times in my own life – as people have reached out to me with kindness or offers of friendship, and my subsequent frustration as I have struggled to let people in, and the crushing disappointment when I do and find myself let down. To be confronting fear all the time is exhausting, and when you throw a dose of self-judgement and re-traumatization in there, it can be everything to keep from giving up.
Mirimar reminds us to be kind to ourselves when fear arises, and to take gentle steps in the direction of our own pleasure. She reminds us to be patient, and to check in with ourselves and our surroundings each step of the way to ensure that we are in fact safe. And while there are moments where it might be too scary to climb on that comfy couch, we can also take our time, stay present in our senses, and then take the steps when we are ready. Ultimately healing is a process that allows us to let in more nourishment – more love, more connection, and it is worth it. Perhaps Mirimar will inspire you to continue or to begin taking steps in the direction you long for as well.