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It’s a Dog’s Life: What Training Our Dog Taught Us about the Spiritual Life

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Teaching our new puppy to submit to us as his “pack leader” is surprisingly similar to the spiritual life: Whether you’re a puppy or a person, you’re always happier knowing who is really in charge.

by Becky Arganbright

About three weeks ago, we surprised the kids with an early Christmas present: their very own dog. After years of their pestering and pleading, we finally decided that though dogs are a lot of work, they are also therapeutic—and a lot of fun. So without telling them, Dennis and I began to research good family dogs and look into shelters.

CONFESSINGWe fell in love with a slightly shy and humble puppy that was 11 weeks old. He allowed us to hold him and pet him and licked us in return without overdoing it. Of course, after holding him and playing with him for ten minutes, I knew there was no way we could return him back to his cage. Despite our firm resolve of “just looking,” we came down with a serious case of puppy love. So we brought him home and surprised the kids with the puppy, whom they unanimously named Joey.

What have we done?

It wasn’t until Joey had established himself in the family that I realized what a difficult breed we had chosen. The shelter had told us that he was part Shepherd, but they had no information as to what the other half of his breed was. However, everyone who met Joey told us that he looked very much like a Jack Russel Terrier.

Courtesy of oddlovescompay
Courtesy of oddlovescompay

Though we had done a lot of research on dogs, I had never heard of the Jack Russel Terrier. A little nervously, I Googled it and the very first thing I saw was a dog that looked a lot like Joey, midair, catching a Frisbee. Known as “The Frisbee Dog,” the article went onto describe the breed as “highly intelligent,” “prone to stubbornness,” and “very high energy.” It was also recommended that this type of breed should be trained right away due to their high intelligence.

I looked at our puppy sleeping peacefully on his newly claimed spot on the couch, and thought to myself, “What have we done???”

Down, but not out!

I felt like we were in over our heads. But the dog was already here, I didn’t want to disappoint the kids, and it didn’t seem fair to the dog to return him to the shelter. So I did the only thing I could do: I became a dog fanatic overnight.

I read possibly every article out there on dog training and Jack Russel Terriers. I watched YouTube tutorials on dog training, dog documentaries, and especially The Dog Whisperer. All I could think and speak of was dog. I even dreamed of dogs. I wore Dennis out with all my latest dog information.

But my latest passion was not fueled by my love for the kids or even the dog. It stemmed from the discovery that humans and dogs have a lot in common: We both look for a leader to follow.

Becoming a pack leader

Before I taught Joey any command, I read and re-read the importance of becoming a pack leader for your dog. In the American culture that tends to baby their dogs, many “behaviors” develop because of a lack of discipline and leadership, which leads to dominant and sometimes even aggressive behaviors. In my own childhood, I had seen firsthand what happens to a dog who does not respect you as their leader. I had witnessed my dog getting run over by a car because he failed to respond to my command. A few years later, our new dog became aggressive because we allowed him to become dominant. I got bitten on the lip, resulting in six stitches.

Both of these incidents came to mind frequently as I learned about dog behavior. This time, I wanted to get it right.

And so I taught my kids to be Joey’s pack leaders. I taught them how a dog needs leadership in order to follow. Without a leader to lead them, the dog would become unruly, undisciplined, and take over the household. It was very important that the kids understood they were to be the dog’s leader, not his follower.

Dogs need balance in this order: discipline, exercise and affection. If a dog receives only affection with no exercise, he becomes a hyper and bored dog. If he receives exercise and affection with no discipline, he becomes an arrogant dog. A dog needs to know where his place is in the pack. Though we love Joey dearly, his place is as it should be: at the bottom of the pack.

Without discipline, exercise and affection, dogs become disordered. They need to be submissive. The word “submissive” means “open.” In order to learn from their pack leader, they need to be open first. They need to be submissive and humble—not arrogant, or hyper, or ever fearful. They need balance, and they find this balance in the security of a leader and knowing their place in the pack.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

—Genesis 1:26

So what does this have to do with God?

Every time Joey demonstrated a sign of dominance, I reinforced being his pack leader, trying to give him security in the pack and assuring him that I would lead him. I worked hard on keeping him a balanced dog and giving him his “authentic dog life” so that he would always understand what his role as “dog” was. When the time came to teach him commands, I needed to make sure he was submissive, because I needed him to be open to learning. In this way, Joey has found happiness in his new role in our life, his sense of purpose, and the security and assurance of being led.

And so it was in my own life. In the midst of an incredibly busy week with Christmas preparations, rosary orders. school break, and now a new puppy, there were times that I found myself slipping in my own prayer life, as I tried to control what I could not control. Yet, every time I molded and shaped Joey, I found that God was molding and shaping me.

Like Joey, I need to know my own place. I need a Pack Leader. I need the assurance and security of knowing that I do not need to lead, but to trust that God will lead me if I let Him.

To be the “authentic Catholic” God is calling me to be, I need to have balance in my life. I need to have my own priorities of prayer, work, and play. If my life is all play and no work, I lose my own sense of purpose and what God wants me to do. And if I work and play but never pray, I forget who my Pack Leader is and become lost and confused in my own arrogance.

In order to learn what God is asking of me, I need to be submissive and open to His will. If I am not submissive, I am not open. If I’m not open, I’m not listening.

And so it was through a dog’s life that I learned so much about my own life, and how God works with all His creatures. Though God has made us “to rule over every creature,” we are much like them. If we pay close attention to the happiness of a well-balanced dog, we can learn the secret of happiness in our own lives.

God certainly does work in the strangest ways. He certainly uses all His resources. Who would have known I would have found so much of my own life…through the training of a dog.

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Follow Becky Arganbright:

Stay at home mom, clay artist on Etsy

I am a Catholic wife and stay-at-home mom with five children, trying hard to live as an example of our faith to my family while still being a work-in-process to God. Life is never boring being a Catholic! God always has something for you to do!

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One Response

  1. mt4c8841@gmail.com'
    Snowy
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    I am dreading the day that I lose my husband. He is quite a bit older than I (that do1;2&#8ne7st necessaily mean that he will pass before me, but the chance is greater). He is very strong willed and stubborn, full of inner strength like your mother. I pray that I will have the courage and strength to deal with his passing the way that you have dealt with the loss of your mother. It doesn’t matter if they are sick or not, we always want them to be with us physically, much less spiritually. I will continually hold you in my thoughts and prayers, that you will continue to be strengthened in your time of sorrow. All the best.

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