What Can Animals Teach Us about Having
Healthier, Happier Relationships?
By Allen and Linda Anderson
The human-animal connection is a complex one. We know
this for a fact because we share our home with five animals and have learned
that the animal kingdom definitely operates by its own set of rules. Animals,
we've observed, view life from an entirely different perspective than we do. Yet
most cultures of the world have chosen to make many types of animals into pets.
In other words, even though we don't speak the same language and can't figure
out what animals are thinking most of the time, we've asked to have a
relationship with them. Sometimes we're surprised and amazed at how those
relationships grow and develop.
In reading the stories we've collected from around the
world about a wide variety of animals and insects, we've realized that Animals R
NOT Us. They're individual sparks of the Divine, expressing their uniqueness
while finding ways to accommodate our needs and desires. Their spiritual
natures, not their instinct or trained behavior, cause animals to display the
spiritual qualities of unconditional love and compassion. Animals offer
spiritual lessons that only furry, feathery, flowing, and flying creatures could
The Dog Who Wouldn't Help
One evening we had the pleasure of addressing
volunteers from an organization called Helping Paws of Minnesota. These
wonderful people adopt donated and animal shelter dogs and train them to help
the disabled. The dogs do things for disabled people that they couldn't do for
themselves--turning on light switches, retrieving objects, standing still to
steady a person who needs physical support. And of course, service dogs become
friends who are there for people emotionally as they deal with the trials and
challenges of their lives.
Before our presentation that evening, we met one of the
dog trainers. She told us about an interesting relationship she'd had with an
animal who she'd volunteered to prepare for service work. The dog, we'll call
him Sammy, hadn't been able to pass any of the tests that were required to place
him in a home where he'd assist a disabled person. Yet this trainer sensed that
Sammy knew how to do all the tasks. It was a mystery to her why he didn't
perform for the tests.
One day the trainer took Sammy on a field trip to visit
with a disabled woman who needed a service dog. To the trainer's surprise, Sammy
immediately went into service dog mode and performed tasks for the
woman--perfectly. He did things for her that he'd previously never done well
during testing. The trainer was gratified to have confirmation that her
intuition had been correct. Sammy really would make a superb service dog.
When the trainer left the woman's house, she decided to
test Sammy one more time by dropping her keys on the sidewalk. A well-trained
service dog would pick up the keys and give them back to the person. Not Sammy.
He looked at the trainer with eyes that seemed to say, "You don't need for me to
pick up those keys. Why did you drop them?"
The trainer chuckled at the lesson about relationships
that Sammy had taught her. She realized Sammy had shown her the importance of
treating him with respect and not taking advantage of his help when she didn't
need it. She'd learned from a dog that relationships are built on trust. When
someone is truly in need, a good friend will come to the rescue. Yet Sammy had
shown the spiritual virtue of right discrimination. This dog knew the difference
between real need and the pretend kind. And he'd let his trainer know he
Sammy was placed in the disabled woman's home without
ever having passed the formal training tests. He became an excellent service dog
for her and a warm, wonderful, true friend.
Giving Without Expecting a Return
Animals show how to build relationships because they
bring their unique spark of divinity to almost any situation. The Courage Center
in Minneapolis offers services to disabled people to meet the challenges of
recovering from accidents, strokes, or lifelong disabilities and to develop
skills that will help them have more satisfying lives. As part of the animal
humane society's pet facilitated therapy program, Linda takes puppies, kittens,
or rabbits from the animal shelter and brings them to visit people who come to
the Courage Center's dayroom for classes and to socialize with one another.
It's a gratifying way to help people who usually can no
longer care for animals or who live in places that don't allow them. One man, a
newcomer to the center's programs, burst into tears when he saw Linda arrive
with a seven-week-old Labrador-chow puppy who had come to the shelter from an
unwanted litter. As the man held this puppy in his arms, he said, "I never
thought I'd see an animal here!" He'd been thinking of not returning to the
program, but the animal's presence caused him to view the center in a new light.
The puppy had put the face of unconditional love on what may have at first
appeared to be an impersonal, institutional setting.
As Linda carries a baby animal from client to client,
they eagerly await their turns. From visit to visit, she listens to the clients
repeat their stories of animals who have meant so much to them before whatever
circumstance of life caused them to become disabled. Memories flood the room as
the animal works his magic and reminds the clients of happier days.
A blind woman smiles as she strokes the soft fur of a
kitten; a man's shriveled, stiff hands pet the rabbit Linda places on his lap; a
puppy crawls up the chest of a stroke victim and licks the woman's chin with his
soft pink tongue. One completely paralyzed man blinks his right eye, the only
moving part on his body, to let the attendant know that he wants Linda to place
the puppy on his lap. As the puppy crawls up the man's chest and rests his head
against the paralyzed man's heart, the attendant asks him, "Are you enjoying
this?" He blinks his right eye, "Yes." Only his body is paralyzed; not his
emotions, mind, or spirit. The puppy has touched all of these aspects of his
nature as no one else could have.
In this ward, where people gather to learn and support
each other, a new relationship is born. An animal offers the gift of
unconditional love without caring that the person spends his days in a
wheelchair and will never play ball or run with him. An animal gives service to
life without expecting even a morsel of food. An animal teaches the spiritual
lesson that relationships, formed from the fabric of love and service, are the
deepest and truest kind.
What has an "angel animal" taught you about having
healthier, happier, more meaningful relationships?